Good policies deserve good updates. In 2018, a group of dedicated colleagues crafted the first iteration of the American Anthropological Association’s policy on sexual harassment and sexual assault. These guidelines have been instrumental for anthropologists and inspirational to scholars in other disciplines. Framed as an intervention rooted in feminist theory, the 2018 guidelines acknowledge that while professional associations may not be adjudicating bodies, they do have the ability to define professional misconduct. As Gabriela Torres and Dianna Shandy, two members of the collaborative team of expert authors, describe, creating clear paths for accountability can compel “long-term cultural and institutional change.”
AAA has had the opportunity to implement this impressive foundation over the past five years. The guidelines were intended to be helpful to anthropologists in diverse professional settings, including academic, practicing, fieldwork, lab work, conferences, and publishing. No policy can eradicate sexual harassment and sexual assault, but it can assist us in establishing guiding principles for enacting norms of professional behavior that support the safe and equal participation of everyone in anthropology. The original guidelines were intended to be revised after five years of implementation.
As the gender equity seats on the AAA Members’ Programmatic, Advisory, and Advocacy Committee (MPAAC), we have taken this responsibility for revision seriously. Throughout 2022, we convened a series of four listening sessions to elicit feedback on the current AAA sexual harassment and sexual assault policy and ideas for potential revisions and additional actions. The listening sessions included AAA section leaders, AAA staff, gender equity scholars and key stakeholders, and an open session at the 2022 AAA Annual Meeting. Key points raised during these sessions have helped us identify areas for progress, inspired us to convene a wonderful team of colleagues to help us generate improved guidelines for the Association to consider, and identified potential practical suggestions for ways the Association can support members.
Among those suggestions are the following four areas for improvement. Implementation of the guidelines over the past five years have revealed what ethnographers of discrimination already know well: that it never happens in a vacuum. Rather, gender and sexual discrimination often intersect with, and amplify, other forms of marginalization, including racial, ethnic, and gender identities. Our working group is committed to acknowledging and mitigating that through revising the language in the policy away from its cisgender and heteronormative assumptions. In that spirit, we recognize that professional associations are limited in their ability to create policies that apply for all members in all settings. For example, for academic anthropologists, the Association may presume that Title IX policies in place in the victim or accuser’s home institution are the primary legal context for resolving cases. But for members either outside of the United States or who work in nonacademic settings, these protections are not available. Similarly, the AAA is not, nor will it become, an adjudicating body. Rather, our working group agrees that an ideal solution will balance prevention, response, monitoring, and evaluation.
We note that institutional responses, both for employers and associations, tend to emerge in moments of crisis and therefore focus on reputational harm to the institution, rather than pursuing the longer-term institutional benefits that can come from being proactive and progressive. Such a view would reorient services away from reducing institutional or corporate liability towards the hope of creating a more comfortable and equitable environment for all members. To that end, we are researching prevention tools and transformative/restorative justice programming.
We are also researching ways to improve the Association’s ombuds program through retaining professionals trained in the arrays of ways in which harm is perpetrated. Such a shift could reduce strain on volunteers and move the conversation to the broader ways in which discrimination occurs, beyond the exclusive domain of the sexual.
Finally, our group acknowledges that one of the thornier arenas in which academic power is generated is through publication. Because the Association is home to many of the discipline’s most prestigious publications, our group is committed to finding feasible ways to encourage an ethos that reduces discriminatory conduct or the reproduction of abusive intellectual relationships. Editorial, reviewer, and section leaders are essential colleagues in modeling expectations for professional conduct.
Please be attuned to future announcements about the working group’s final recommendations. We look forward to sharing them with you at the AAA Annual Meeting in Toronto and through the coming months. We are investing in the process intentionally, carefully, and transparently with the expectation that the revised guidelines will provide increased avenues for members to trust that the Association is committed to creating a better future for the discipline.