Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Fieldwork Nightmare

What happened to me last week is a nightmare to all anthropologists in the field. Nothing like this had happened to me before, and I never suspected that it would. I found myself in a situation where things beyond my control managed to (almost) destroy my relationships with my informants. You better believe I’ve been crying and having one panic attack the other. Things are being resolved, slowly, but I’ve never had such a scare.

This is what happened: I was interviewed by a journalist about my work with the women for a newspaper called, “Las Ultimas Noticias.” (The Latest News)—Not quite the equivalent of the New York Times, let’s say it’s more along the lines of the New York Post. Certainly not a tabloid paper, it is respected but its audience is more working class than that of another paper, El Comercio, whose target audience is the elite intellectuals of Quito. Anyway, a journalist wanted to talk to me for a story he was doing about domestic violence, so I agreed to an interview. We talked for hours about my work and all the different dangers the women confront on the streets. I discussed how one of the biggest “dangers” was the stigma and discrimination they face as sex workers and how general society doesn’t understand that they are simply mothers trying to provide for their children. That was my big plug. The journalist’s focus, however, was on the violence these women may face. In response to his questions, I conceded that yes, many of the women are vulnerable to falling into relationships with abusive partners. When the journalist asked me why they don’t report these abuses, I answered that quite frankly, that they don’t see them as crimes—it is a typical occurrence within the relationship and therefore, are used to such treatment. (And furthermore, unfortunately, some of these women have long histories of abuse, stemming from childhood). We also discussed the use of drugs among some of the women and that those women are particularly vulnerable to having sex without condoms. I also stately plainly how much they earn with each client, for full sexual services ($5).

You can imagine my surprise when I arrived on the streets a couple days after this interview was published. First of all, I had no idea that the story was actually on me—that it was the interview with me that would be published. The journalist told me that he wanted to use my citations for a story he was working on. He also took my photo and when I asked why he said it was simply for the newspaper’s “archives.” Okay, I thought. Strange. As it turns out, my photo takes up more than half the page of the “article.” Anyway, I arrive to the streets and no one greets me. I wonder, what the heck is going on here…I call out to N., one of my closest friends on the streets, and she flings a string of profanities at me. I look about from woman to woman and I’m greeted with death stares all around. My eyes start to water and I’m getting really freaked out. I approach another friend C. and ask what this is all about. She says, “Anita, the women don’t want to see or talk to you—what did you say in that article???” I hadn’t even seen the article yet, so now I was truly freaking out. What on earth had he put in the article????

I approached M., one of the unofficial leaders on the streets, and demanded to speak to her. She refused at first. I said, “M., come here, I need to speak with you right now.” RIGHT NOW, I said, with all my force. She approached me and I asked her what all this was all about. She said one of the women had randomly bought the newspaper and all of them saw the interview—they read it as a group and passed it around the streets—and they were not happy. At this point, not having even seen the article, I was desperate. I started to cry. I pleaded with M.—“please, please M., tell me what it said.” She described the interview where I supposedly said the majority of the women are in abusive relationships, use drugs and don’t use condoms. Oh no, I thought. M. said, “Anita, the girls don’t want anything to do with you.” I wiped away tears and pleaded with M. I told her that I kept telling the reporter that I wanted the public to know that the sex workers are just like any other single mother, providing for their children—that they are good women, with good values. Apparently, none of that had made it into the article. M. came around and started to console me. She said, “You really had us scared, Anita—I said, that’s not Anita!” referring to the article. She conceded that perhaps the journalist had pulled my words out of context (which he did) and that he published the most sensational pieces of the interview (which he did).

I asked M. what I should do, as she was the first one I had made amends with—the other women were staring at us and I knew I had a difficult (maybe impossible) task ahead. She said, “Listen, you’re going to have to talk to each of them one by one and explain what happened—that your words were taken out of context, etc.” I suddenly felt exhausted. It would be a long day ahead because I knew that just trying to convince each woman to listen to me would be a challenge in itself. M. said to me, “Anita, wipe away your tears—you start talking and I’ll start spreading the word too, by the end of the day we’ll have this cleaned up.” I hugged M., I held her so hard, she finally pulled away, laughing. “God Anita, calm down, it’s not a tragedy, it was just a mistake.”

This was truly the scariest field work moment of my life. One by one I approached the women, ignoring their cold stares, pulling them aside and saying, “I MUST talk to you, NOW.” I had to use such force in my voice for them to pay attention. Most of them, the ones I was able to talk with on this particular day, were receptive, once I explained that I felt the reporter had tricked me and reported only the most sensational things. I pleaded with them and explained that I shared all the wonderful things about them too--which apparently didn't make it into the interview. I am so thankful because everyone gave me lots of hugs and slowly took my side. They became furious with the reporter, that he didn’t focus on the positive things I wanted to convey about the women, that he was obsessed with knowing all the negative—about domestic violence and drug abuse. I didn’t tell the women that I didn’t say those things. I just kept telling them that my emphasis, and what I asked him to publish, were the things society doesn’t know about sex workers—that most are like any other mother, etc.

Of course I should have known better. Obviously, journalists publish as they please. It was my first interview with the press about my work and I was incredibly na├»ve about the whole thing. Wow, did I learn my lesson. Next time, I’ll keep my mouth shut and remain very guarded about what I say, and I will always assume that the sex workers might be my audience. Anything that I wouldn’t want them to see or hear, I won’t ever say.

I’m lucky that this happened almost two years into my fieldwork and not during my second month. If it had happened then, my relationships on the streets would have been destroyed forever. In this scenario, the women were furious, but they trust me as a friend. As such, they were able to forgive me once I explained that I also felt cheated. They defended me and said that they should call this reporter and give him a piece of their mind! One of my most cherished friends came up to me and said, “Anita, you don’t need to explain yourself to me, I know you better than that.” She gave me a tight hug and whispered, “I love you” into my ear. I said the same back. You can’t imagine the TERROR I felt when I first arrived on the streets and felt such a cold, angry vibe being directed at me. It was as if I was in a dream, in an alternate reality. It was so strange, and so scary.

N. the woman who yelled profanities at me when I first arrived finally came around. She was the hardest to convince. I had talked to most of the other women and N. was still standing afar, scowling at me. I had had enough. I marched up to her and said, “N. you have to listen to what I have to say. At least give me that. We’ve been friends for a long time. Give me 5 minutes.” While she shook her head, I dragged her to the step where we all hang out. I said, “N. you listen to me. Don’t insult me.” Then we talked for a long time and in the end it was fine. We went to lunch and laughed over how stupid reporters can be.

Interestingly, one of the women pulled me aside and said, “Anita, you know, nothing in that article was untrue. Not one word was false.” I responded, “But it’s not the message I wanted to send.” She said, “Well, the women don’t like the fact that you told the truth—that many of them are in abusive relationships…” I said, “Well, according to them, I make it sound like all of them are.” This woman replied, “It’s not about that. It’s just that they don’t want other people to know.” Another woman said to me, “Anita, I don’t care what you said. My husband hits me and I still love him, nothing will change that.” It was a lot to process. On the one hand the women were angry at me because I portrayed them as drug consumers who are all trapped in abusive relationships. On the other, it’s not that what I said that was wrong, it’s that I exposed their truths to the world. I wounded their pride and honor. What woman in the world would want their supposed anthropologist friend to tell the world about their intimate lives, in all its dark glory?

Of course they felt betrayed. I would too. I felt so ashamed of myself, which is why the experience was so terrifying. I can’t believe I had put my relationships with these women in jeopardy, people whom I consider my friends, whose homes I have slept in, whose tables I’ve eaten at, whose birthdays, baptisms, weddings, I’ve attended…it makes me sick to think of the damage I caused. I haven’t recovered from this, and I don’t think they have either. It will take time for all of us to heal, but at least I know they do forgive me--that it seems like the bonds we’ve established over these past almost 2 years are strong enough to carry us through. Without these relationships I would be crushed. I’m not talking about on a professional level, or about my doctorate. I’m talking about losing my closest friends in Quito. Women who have become like family to me. Without them I would be lost. I’ve learned my lesson. I’ve learned to honor these relationships and guard them with privacy and respect. (Although what WILL this mean when it comes time to publish my thesis?????) to be continued...


  1. Well, this is a compellingly written blog post and I would feel more sympathy for you if it were not for the fact that what you did, and are doing, is completely unethical, by any measure of anthropology or otherwise. If you have external funding, I urge you to review the "human subjects" portion of your research that you are supposed to commit to. Not only should you not have given this interview to the press, and obviously not with all those damning details, but the fact that you have not faced the issues surrounding confidentiality when it comes to your dissertation is simply astonishing. This goes far beyond a "naive" mistake.

  2. Actually, I have gone through the process of human subjects review successfully at NYU. And I do not have external funding. I have followed all ethical rules in terms of confidentiality. I am allowed to give interviews to the press and publish about my work, which I am doing here. I would never reveal names, or any sort of identifies in any interview.

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  4. just what ecuador doesn't need: another rich, stuck-up naive gringa voyeur here to film the brown people. then you can go back to the states, ms. wilking, and have a nice, comfy career and make money off the brown people stories. maybe you are like a missionary, here to help the nice little brown people? awww, but then they scared you? sounds like they would be better off without you but of course you never thought of that, only your nice stuck-up career. Signed, LaChota

  5. La Chota:
    Thank you so much for your comment. You point out a lot of the issues I struggle with in the field, as you will see if you read the rest of my blog. I could not agree with you more! It's hard to feel like I "should" be here or that I am "helping" anyone except myself.
    Again, thank you for your insights.
    I'm very pleased that this is an open forum where everyone expresses themselves! Every comment I receive I appreciate deeply.

  6. La Chota brings up a good point. Not the point of White people making a career off of the "brown people," but why it is such a stigma, to some like La Chota, for this to happen. In a way, I think it is selfish of Ms. Wilking to be doing work like this. But, is that really a bad thing? Other than this interview having gone bad, has it or could it harm the "women" she works with? Ms. Wilking brings her concern and passion to her work. Work that has become her life. This doesn't seem like a 9-5 thing, so it obviously seems like this stigma has a long history behind it that would need to be explored.

    On the other hand, behind La Chota's anger, her concerns might be really insightful. If you read the blog it is pretty much about a gringa's 1st hand experience with the "brown people." What other way could it be? A blog of 1st person accounts said by the "women" and posted by Ms. Wilking? Its an interesting idea to think about. My ultimate question: behind all the bitterness, what is La Chota trying to express for the "women" Ms. Wilking works with?

    I think conversations about this topic are important.

  7. "What woman in the world would want their supposed anthropologist friend to tell the world about their intimate lives, in all its dark glory?"

    What else would they expect talking to an anthropologist? Of course the intent is eventually to reveal to the world the intimate details of their lives. This must be a tough struggle trying to decide what you're going to do when you finish. Is the purpose of this research to shed light on the situation in hopes to improve the lives of your subjects; is it to simply offer an honest portrayal of these lives without making moral judgments or proposing solutions; or is it to shed light on yourself by changing your angle of reflection?

    After reading this last post, I am reminded of Borges' story, the Ethnographer. It's a quick read if you haven't read it already.

  8. La Chota:

    Do you have any specific objections to the content of Anna's blog, or to the specifics of her work? The only objection I see from your comment is to her nationality, and possibly her race. Beyond your (incorrect) assumption that Anna is making alot of money from this, as opposed to sacrificing the comforts of home to pursue her interest in and committment to the plight of sex workers in Quito, do you have any reason to object to her work?