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Briefing Paper for Consideration of the
Ethical Implications of Sexual Relationships between
Anthropologists and Members of a Study Population

AAA Committee on Ethics
Prepared by Joe Watkins

Preface:  In November 2000 the Committee on Ethics was asked to draft guidelines and a plan of action concerning the ethical implications regarding sexual relationships between anthropologists and members of communities or organizations with whom research is being conducted.  The end result of the implementation of this plan would be a recommendation as to whether the AAA should develop specific guidelines for its members concerning sexual relations with minors, relations between consenting adults, and the rights of those who are exposed to unwanted sexual advances, or whether existing legal and organizational guidelines are sufficient. This briefing paper is NOT addressing the issue of sexual harassment, since that issue is addressed in legal guidelines.

Official Sources of Guidelines:  The Committee on Ethics recognizes the need for the anthropological researcher to be aware of the ethical implications regarding sexual relationships between the anthropologist and members of the communities or organizations with whom research is being conducted.  As such, the Committee recommends that anthropological researchers read and become increasingly familiar with various codes of ethics as they relate to the study of human populations, particularly the Ethical Guidelines for Practitioners of the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology (http://www.aaanet.org/napa/code.htm); the National Association of Social Workers (http://www.socialworkers.org/pubs/code/code.htm), and the AAA Code of Ethics (http://www.aaanet.org/committees/ethics/ethcode.htm).  Additionally, there are various organizations which offer information and guidance on specific subsets of this question.  For example, the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights (http://www.unhchr.ch/map.htm) offers guidance in the form of Fact Sheets, Covenants and Conventions on the rights of the Child ("Fact Sheet No. 10, revision 1, the Rights of the Child") and the rights of women and the girl-child ("Fact Sheet No. 22, Discrimination against Women: the Convention and the Committee").

Background Information on the Ethical Implications of Sexual Relationships between Anthropologists and Members of a Study Population: The AAA Code of Ethics pays scant attention to this issue.  In the Preamble (Section I), it states merely that "... fieldworkers may develop close relationships with persons ... with whom they work, generating an additional level of ethical considerations."  Additionally, the Code notes that researchers have primary ethical responsibilities to those studied and "To avoid harm or wrong ..."  The topic is addressed in a more general sense under Section III,  Research, Part A(6), where the Code of Ethics notes that anthropologists "... must not exploit individuals ...".  Section IV. Teaching speaks to the responsibility of the anthropologists as teacher/mentor to students and trainees, and, in (1), encourages them to "... conduct their programs in ways that preclude discrimination on the basis of sex ...sexual orientation ... or other criteria irrelevant to academic performance."  More specifically, however, the anthropologist as teacher/mentor in (5) is reminded to "... beware of the exploitation and serious conflicts of interest which may result if they engage in sexual relations with students/trainees for whose education and professional training they are in any way responsible."  The Code of Ethics, however, is quiet concerning sexual relationships between the anthropological researcher and the population under study.  As such, the Committee on Ethics is initiating discussion regarding sexual relationships between the researcher and members of the population under study.

How should the anthropologist consider the ethical implications of sexual relationships with members of a study population?  The anthropological fieldworker must be aware of the actual or perceived difference in economic and social "power" between the researcher and the population studied.  In many field situations, the anthropologist is an exotic "other" whose presence may be disruptive to the local cultural group and who is often perceived to be from a world of wealth and power.  As such, it is imperative that the anthropological researcher understand the implications of becoming involved in a sexual relationship with members of the population under study.  Humans are sexual animals, and the possibility exists that the researcher may be placed in an ethical dilemma should a sexual relationship develop in a field situation.  It is equally important that the anthropologist be aware of the health implications of such a relationship to the researcher as well as the population under study.

Therefore, anthropological researchers should be aware of and consider the ethical implications of sexual relationships with a study population prior to undertaking a relationship, especially in relation to the fact that:

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Thank you,
Stacy Lathrop,
AN Editor

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