Texas Tech University
Scholarly Messenger
Sexual Assault - The Undiscussed Safety Issue
by Marianne Evola


In a recent publication, Clancy et al. (2014) examined the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault during academic field research. I’ve decided to spend this month’s Scholarly Messenger article addressing this critical issue to raise student and faculty awareness to this major safety concern. Honestly, it took me a while to decide whether I wanted to address this issue. I was hesitant for a couple of reasons, but primarily I was concerned whether my writing has the appropriate tone to effectively address such a serious topic. I generally work to keep the tone of my articles light and a bit amusing; however, there is nothing light or amusing about sexual assault.

A couple weekends ago, a colleague emailed me an article from the New York Times. In that article, in response to the Clancy et al. (2014) publication, Dr. A. Hope Jahren bravely described her own sexual assault, which occurred while she was conducting field research as a junior scientist. Dr. Jahren described how that experience altered her subsequent career decisions when she was forced to accept that she no longer felt safe conducting field research. After reading her story, I immediately accessed the referenced publication and read the disturbing data addressing the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault that can occur during field research. I decided it was important to discuss this information with the TTU community.

Now, I don’t think that our community, or any community, is oblivious to the issues of sexual harassment or assault. Quite the contrary, in fact, sexual harassment training is mandatory for all personnel, stories of sexual assault on university campuses have been national news lately, and in the last couple of weeks, for a completely unrelated reason, I have spent several hours learning a great deal about the Title IX requirements for addressing sexual harassment and assault on university campuses. However, both the NY Times article by Dr. Jahren and the Clancy et al. (2014) publication caught my attention because of the reported statistics regarding the sources of sexual harassment and assault. Dr. Jahren’s story involved a stranger from the community and asserted that it was commonly accepted that the human dangers faced by field researchers came from unfamiliar people and communities encountered in the field. However, Clancy et al. (2014) provided evidence that the majority of sexual harassment and assault perpetrators are, in fact, members of the field research team with whom women (and men) were traveling and working.

Like all research studies, there are limitations to the study that may have impacted the results, and I encourage readers to review the study and its limitations. However, independent of the limitations, the alarming results indicate that there are considerable concerns for the safety of academics in the field. Sexual harassment was reported by women and men at rates of 71 percent and 41 percent respectively, while sexual assault was also reported by both women and men at rates of 26 percent and 6 percent respectively. Of the population that reported sexual harassment and assault during field research, the perpetrators of sexual harassment were identified as members of the research team by 80 percent of women and 89 percent of men. Likewise, the perpetrators of sexual assault were also reported to predominantly be members of the research team, 73 percent for women and 88 percent for men. As such, awareness of these issues needs to be raised regardless of the discomfort associated with discussing sexual assault.

In the last few years, our campus has worked diligently to raise community awareness to the many safety hazards that exist on a productive academic campus. We don’t want students walking blindly into a hazardous environment that could cause injury due to ignorance of dangerous chemicals, radiation, biohazards or physical hazards. We have encouraged students and faculty to familiarize themselves with the standardized hazard identification signs so that they are aware of hazards present in their immediate vicinity or the labs and studios of their colleagues, collaborators or even friends. Although it has been difficult to protect our community from the large variety of hazards on campus, most these are predictable hazards for which a sign can be posted and for which personnel can be taught to safely maneuver or avoid. However, there is no way for us to place “hazard” signs on dangerous or abusive people that would harm students and colleagues.

Having spent my career in research laboratories and animal facilities, I know little about safety concerns in field research and recently, I was politely “schooled” by a colleague on the wide variety of research-related hazards that are faced by researchers in the field. Prior to that conversation, my vague awareness to hazards in field research stemmed from many intriguing hours watching wildlife research documentaries. However, watching a documentary separates the viewer from the hazards, and we can be awed and yet still ignorant. Similarly, with regard to safety issues related to sexual assault, it is too easy to separate ourselves from these reports—an effective defense mechanism that enables us to walk freely down the street and proceed with our daily activities and responsibilities. However, too much separation enables us to ignore the danger and fail our research teams by not teaching them that they are vulnerable to potential dangers in unfamiliar communities, vulnerable to potential danger and abuse from colleagues, and answerable to allegations of harassment or abuse if they fail to maintain appropriate professional behavior as defined by student and faculty codes of conduct when working and living with colleagues in the field.

Are people more vulnerable in the field than they are in laboratories? Well, the study did not compare prevalence of harassment and assault on academic campuses as opposed to field research sites. However, I have a few thoughts of my own.

1) We are often aware of the dangers that lurk in our home territory, and because we are aware, we are less vulnerable. When I was conducting my doctoral research, through a mistake in planning, I wound up regularly working 20+ hour days for several weeks in two buildings in urban Detroit. Due to space issues, my research was housed in a separate building from our primary laboratory. This means that I was repeatedly walking between two buildings until late in the night. And oh yeah, I was also transporting controlled substances central to our research because our drug safe and lockers were contained in our primary lab, but I needed the drug for my experiments in the separate building. Although the on-campus crime rate was low compared to the surrounding communities, I was keenly aware of the potential dangers of walking around urban Detroit alone at 3 a.m. with narcotics in my pockets. I became well acquainted with campus police, and they tended to keep an eye on me and the lab because they were aware that I was alone in the labs late into the night and of course, they already kept an eye on the lab because they were aware of the controlled substances housed in it. This is very different from being unaware of the hazards around you or worse yet, making yourself vulnerable by traveling with trusted colleagues and having that trust violated once you leave your familiar “home” work environment.

2) In the last few years, I’ve learned that field research is wrought with unpredictable hazards. Field researchers face both predictable and unpredictable hazards and mentors do their best to educate their students how to address both expected and unexpected dangers. However, again, this is very different from having the community that you trust violate you when you are vulnerable.

3) Discussing our vulnerability to sexual harassment and assault is uncomfortable and awkward. It is much easier to discuss vulnerability associated with environmental toxins or aggressive animals. Therefore, faculty may effectively ready their teams to handle aggressive animals but do not ready their team to handle abusive colleagues.

4) Furthermore, proposing that one’s immediate colleagues could attempt to harass or assault teammates could illicit offense or distrust between team members which could hinder productivity in the field. I agree that this is a concern, but failing to address the responsibility of adhering to codes of conduct in the field could contribute to the vulnerability of your team.

5) Unfortunately, when removed from their normal work environment, people can forget that they are “working” in the field and thus are responsible for the professional code of conduct defined by their institution. Anyone who has ever attended a professional meeting or conference can probably attest to amusement or surprise at some of the behavioral choices of colleagues removed from their normal work environment. In most cases, the only “fallout” for these decisions is embarrassment and possibly providing colleagues with a collection of embarrassing photographs for use at future “tributes” or awards for professional productivity. In more extreme cases, inappropriate behavior can impact professional reputation and/or job opportunities. In worst cases, people can face allegations for violating their professional code of conduct.

6) Finally, there are bad people that will simply take advantage of the vulnerability associated with the team being removed from familiar more protected professional environments. In this extreme case, contrary to what colleagues may assert, personnel are not exempt from their professional code of conduct simply because they are off-campus. The field is a professional environment and thus all personnel must adhere to their code of conduct. That being said, depending on where the field research is conducted, there may be limited legal recourse due to jurisdiction issues if one wants to file criminal charges when the team returns to campus. However, the university code of conduct applies when personnel are conducting work in the field.

Finally, at the start of this article I mentioned that I was hesitant to address the issue of sexual assault and harassment in field research for a couple of reasons. Besides my concern that my writing would fail to express the serious nature of these statistics, I was also hesitant because of a possible negative and inappropriate use of the information. Specifically, well-intended but misguided faculty and/or supervisors could interpret these statistics as justification to limit or deny women the opportunity to pursue their interests and conduct research in the field. If students or colleagues have the ability/talent to conduct field research, they should be given opportunity to pursue their interests. It is the role of their supervisor/mentor to provide them with information and training to make them aware of the dangers and provide them with the skills and equipment to manage hazards in the field. It is not the mentor’s role to make career-limiting decisions on behalf of students/colleagues because you believe that you can make better decisions for them.

Marianne Evola is senior administrator in the Responsible Research area of the Office of the Vice President for Research. She is a monthly contributor to Scholarly Messenger.