In the wake of movements hashtagged and referred to as (in that order, I’d contend) “Me Too,” “Ni Una Menos,” and “Time’s Up,” I find myself asking a long-standing question in a new context: What is my commitment to anthropological interlocutors who have treated me with what I consider to be less than the respect I deserve?
I am surely not alone in this question (see examples one, two, three, and four). Most women, and plenty of men that I know who have done ethnographic fieldwork for extended periods of time have been treated, in one way or another, on the spectrum of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Especially doing fieldwork that involved spending time with several men, and even touching them on a regular basis—sometimes placing hands in places that would be entirely inappropriate outside of wrestling—I thought a lot about how to keep myself safe and how to negotiate the issues of trust that are essential to engaging in lucha libre. I carefully considered my trainer. He was younger than I, an enthusiastic and respectful person. He could be demanding. He would yell when I didn’t move my leg in quite the right way to hook it around my opponent’s neck. And he could be jealous. He once told me that I should never accept an invitation to wrestle with a particular other group, because they would be hard on me. They wouldn’t respect and protect me like he did. I took this warning with a grain of salt, but it was one of those negotiations that all anthropologists encounter. The people we gain close rapport with in the field often begin to feel a bit of ownership over us, and don’t like it when we run off to hang out with their rivals. This may be compounded by gender dynamics, but certainly exists beyond issues of gender, as well. The little things aside, I trusted my trainer to take care of me as a wrestler, and as a human being. During my time training and performing, I never had reason to question this trust.
I also count myself fortunate that none the other wrestlers I’d consider my “official interlocutors” (those whose pseudonyms and quotations appear in my writing) placed me in situations in which I feared for my safety. That, unfortunately is is a designation reserved for my “friends of friends” in the field. None of the wrestlers touched me inappropriately, unlike the dozens of men and the two women who touched my ass or crotch while walking down the streets of La Paz. However, some of the men with whom I worked managed to make me uncomfortable.
Most of this discomfort was intangible, or at least difficult to explicitly demonstrate. This discomfort stemmed from strange invitations to dinner or weekend trips to a festival in another city, pet names to which I did not consent, or proclamations about my physical attractiveness. It happened in 2011-2012 when I was in the field for 18 months and spending time with wrestlers every day, as well as through social media after I left. There were moments I felt as though I owed it to my interlocutors to respond to “Hola nena.” I had after all, relied on their generosity to get a Ph.D. And as time went on, I developed strategies. Wait a full week before responding. Only respond to direct questions, and never return the question-even if it’s an innocent “como estás?” Never use emojis. Use as few words as possible. When will you be back? “No sé.”
This worked (and continues to work) well enough, but things changed about a year ago. A particular wrestler, who I met a few times but never worked closely with, sent me a Facebook message. I'll call him "Rey"* here. I was flattered, as he is one of the “greats” of Bolivian wrestling (if such a thing can be said to exist). A second generation wrestler, son of the man who is likely the best known and most skilled Bolivian wrestler of all time (with “all time” meaning a tradition of 50-60 years). He asked if I was still training, and if I’d be back to wrestle in Bolivia. This time my “no sé” was honest. I hadn’t planned to wrestle more, but with the right sort of invitation, I might consider it. I had gone back once after a year out of training to participate in an event to raise money for children with cancer. If this wrestler, now more a trainer than participant in matches, invited me to something enticing, I just might say “sí.”
Instead he responded asking if I was married to the older or younger Pantera*-a father and son who had both wrestled under the same gimmick. I responded clearly, I don’t have a husband. “El pequeño no es tu amigo con derechos?” [roughly friend with benefits] “That’s what they told me.” I responded by questioning why he was interested in my private life, and that I didn’t feel comfortable discussing my relationships with him. In retrospect I now contemplate if a better approach would have been flat out telling him that the “Little” Pantera was my trainer, nothing more. This was the absolute truth. The only time we had ever been alone together was once when he walked me to my apartment after a late night event, and I only allowed him to go as far as the corner. I didn’t feel I owed any details to Rey, who I had only ever met on a few occasions. I knew his wife, also a wrestler, well. But I wondered what his motives were.
I ended the conversation quickly after this exchange, half lying in the way that many women feel such mixed feelings about—I told him I was living in Iquique [that part was true] and engaged to a Chilean man [not true]. I sent him a picture of myself, a male Chilean friend, and his cat. “Ésta es mi familia ahora.” He responded, “Perdón, saludos.” That was November 2014. I haven’t heard from him since.
At first I was offended by Rey's question. Why would he ask this, or perhaps, why would he make this assumption. In many ways, the question or assumption reflected what I had written about the dynamics of gender in Bolivian wrestling. Women are seen as a gimmick (for good or for bad). They are assumed to have some sort of male relative involved in wrestling. They get involved in wrestling either in order to, or as a consequence of a relationship to a man. This didn’t excuse his questions, but it explained them.
But I also thought about my trainer. Maybe he really had been telling people he and I had a relationship. I wanted to confront him. But I took a breath and waited. What would the result be? He could admit it. But if he did, would he appologize or laugh it off? Either way, an admission didn’t seem likely. And even if he did admit this, what would I accomplish? The trust we shared was broken.
More likely he would deny it. If he had actually said such things, and then denied it, my question would accomplish little. I’d get no closure or satisfaction, and again, our trust was already broken. The best case scenario was that he hadn’t actually said these things. But if I asked, I knew he would take offense. If I asked, no matter what his answer, or what the truth was, I would breaking the trust we shared by even considering that it might be true. Shouldn’t I trust him enough to know that he wouldn’t say this about me?
So, I didn’t confront El Pequeño Pantera. I complained to my friends in Chile and the U.S. and when he wrote to me a few weeks later, I answered cordially. We now exchange a few words once or twice a year, always cordial, always superficial. I still have no idea if he directly mentioned a relationship when speaking to the older wrestler, if he might have indirectly implied it, or if the relationship was entirely of the older man’s conjuring. At this point, I’d like to assume the latter, but I don’t really care. I do care that all of this created a situation in which I felt I had to extract myself from communication (and certainly from continued longer-term direct research) with the group as a whole. I care that being a woman has placed me in a position in which I have to balance things like personal safety and reputation with disciplinary concerns related to long term research and the researcher’s commitment to their interlocutors. These are never easy questions. But the gendered dynamics of my research, along with it's position somewhere between “studying up” and a “preferential option for the poor” have made these particularly difficult dynamics to negotiate. In the end, I see no option but to privilege my own well-being. But I can’t help but wonder if others will interpret that choice as lacking in anthropological commitment to social justice.
*Names have been changed