I’ve worked hard to develop my relationships on the streets and after seven months of fieldwork, I feel exceptionally close with several of the sex workers. I’ve been working with them daily, and at this point, feel accepted by their group. I feel like a friend or even like an adopted family member to some. I spend weekends at their homes, play with their children, accompany them on errands on their days off, spend holidays with them and know their extended families. I am the godmother of V.’s daughter (a cynical reading of this is that V. hopes that a gringa godparent will secure some “special” benefits, financial or otherwise). Regardless, I feel very close to the women with whom I work.
What does this mean in terms of my role as an anthropologist? After all, these are my “subjects,” they aren’t my friends. At least, they aren’t supposed to be my friends, even though in some ways, they’re the people I feel closest to in this country. It’s tricky because I also recognize that I gain the most anthropologically, the more intimate we become. Isn’t that when we get our best information, when people spill their inner-most secrets? I recognize the ethical dilemmas I will soon face during my process of “writing up.” Despite the fact that I always have my tape recorder and all the women have given me their approval to record everything, they’ve long since forgotten the blinking red light. As our relationships have developed, I’m now in the position of judging what should be made public information after all.
What’s an anthropologist to do? Am I fooling myself by thinking that we can be friends despite our dramatically different social positions? Am I being disrespectful of the imbalance of power that exists between us? Even though I’m inclined to call these women my friends, how do they see me? Someone who occupies a position of privilege and power, someone they might be able to take advantage of? It is deeply comforting to me that none of my closest friends have ever asked me for money. A couple women I know peripherally and a few of the more distant “ladrones” (thieves) have asked me for a few bucks. I always say no and offer to buy them food instead. Indeed, my one means of sharing my privilege is to treat the sex workers to lunch once in a while. Lunch in Ecuador is the biggest meal and most restaurants offer three courses: a soup, main dish and dessert. In the basic cafeterias where we work a hearty soup and heaping plate of fish/chicken/beef and rice cost $1.25. (These places don’t have dessert). My invitations to lunch are the only “monetary” hand-outs I give anyone. I usually take to lunch anyone who is around at the moment, about 3 people. (I try to include a rotating cast of characters, although my closest friend V. always seems to be with me). The women are always incredibly appreciative, saying thank-you and “may God bless me” (a blessing taken very seriously here).
Is this lunch routine a way to enforce a professional distance between us? Obviously, if I have the means to spend the $4.50 on lunch for a few women I’m enforcing or perhaps displaying a position of power. I’m acting as a white gringo savoir, helping my poverty stricken sex worker “friends.” Perhaps I shouldn’t offer anyone lunch. However, I decided long ago that I would provide food when my friends were hungry, despite the potential crossing of professional boundaries. Perhaps I am acting like a “white savior” but if it’s within my means to fill the stomachs of three people who are legitimately starving, I’m going to do it. As an anthropologist, I’m supposed to be a neutral observer but I can only be a passive by-stander to a certain extent. Every day I am tempted to give my friends money: medicine for their sick children, for the phone bill, groceries, school pensions, the electricity bill, rent etc. etc. Most of these hand-outs would cost under $15, something that under my present economic circumstances I can’t afford, but in my bigger world of finances is truly next to nothing. Again, no one asks me for help with their bills, but often I want to offer. Probably the most common topic of discussion among the women is their finances, so I know how much they suffer.
Although I feel helpless just standing, observing and listening, I also recognize that my “lack of action” is what makes us closer to actually being “friends.” Despite my lunch invitations, I think (I hope) my most important service to my friends on the streets is the emotional support I’m able to give. When cynics say that anthropologists don’t really do anything to help their subjects, that at the end of the day we abandon them and their problems, returning to our lives of privilege, I’d challenge them: I firmly believe that being a good listener to anyone who is deeply suffering is one of the most important gifts humans can offer one another. Perhaps “just” listening to marginalized women who are invisible to Ecuadorian society is one way I justify not giving money or taking more action, but there are certain boundaries I don’t want to cross, as a friend--not as an anthropologist. But like I just said, I feel that listening and being a supportive friend is probably the best service I can offer. Indeed, I hope my “informants” value my friendship more than any meager amount of money I could give. I certainly feel that about them, as informants or friends alike.