When the room is laughing: from female researcher to researcher-prostitute

When the room is laughing: from female researcher to researcher-prostitute

April 16 2020
By An Ansoms & Irène Bahati

Translation by Mary Lou Bradley


Doing field research in conflict zones is never easy. Several blogs in the Bukavu Series have discussed the numerous ethical and emotional challenges that researchers experience throughout the research cycle. However, accounts of female researchers, while very compelling, are still relatively scarce. Nevertheless, the ethical and emotional challenges that female researchers experience in association to their gender should receive specific attention. There is a strong need for particular forms of exchange that allow for sharing stories and developing strategies to confront the myriad challenges.


Working in a conflict zone is difficult for any researcher. For female researchers, the security challenges are even more complex for several reasons. First of all, local actors do not always know how to interpret the role of a female researcher, as that role often lays outside of actors’ reference frame for female professions. Yet, it is even more difficult when the role attributed to the female researcher is that of a prostitute. We have both faced this challenge. Being portrayed as a “prostitute researcher” is sometimes done as a joke, sometimes as a threat. And it is done by a number of actors: those in the research field, politically-engaged actors who want to discredit the researcher’s analyses, and sometimes even members of the academic community. Let’s take some specific examples.

In an earlier blog, Irene Bahati analyzed how miners in the field in Mukungwe (Walungu, east DRC) welcomed female researchers with comments like “There, the écomogues are arriving”, to say “The new prostitutes are arriving.” Like Irene, several other female researchers who have worked in conflict zones in east DRC - and elsewhere - have experienced similar or worse. This type of joking and ridicule puts women in a vulnerable position because it carries an implicit threat. At the same time, the researcher can’t adopt an avoidance strategy, since the profession itself involves interacting with actors in the field. Requesting access or information while interacting with participants in the field can lead to a request for something in exchange. One day, the other author of this blog had to negotiate the integrity of her body with a soldier in the field who was demanding her “services”. “A woman researcher…well then, if you are searching for something, I’m going to help you find it.” Getting out of such situation requires a lot of rhetorical effort and strategic humor. But it may also result in lingering frustration and even trauma.

Along with difficult encounters in the field, there are other times when the ‘prostitute researcher’ image can be evoked. When the researcher’s analyses do not please certain actors in a policy discussion, portraying her as a prostitute researcher is a powerful way to delegitimize her professional qualities. One of us experienced several of these incidents during her research, especially when her analyses of official policies were considered too critical, or not critical enough. Anonymous calls or messages accused her for “the way in which you prostitute yourself to please the other side” or adopted less polite and more explicit phrasing.

Even the academic community can be implicated in reinforcing the vulnerability of female researchers by portraying the researcher as a prostitute. Sometimes, these are flagrant incidents. When a woman has a career in a field dominated by men (like the field of research in conflict zones), being portrayed as a prostitute can be used to discredit the researcher’s abilities. For example, we have had reports of incidents in which a female researcher was interrogated by her academic colleague, asking her “who she slept with to get ahead so quickly.” In other cases, colleagues were asked why they wanted a man’s profession, and if it was “to be with men all the time.” Although these types of incidents are rare, they are rather telling about the manner in which women can be viewed and treated in their research careers.

In most cases, the pressure on the female researcher is more subtle, but nevertheless tangible. Within the academic community doing research in and about conflict zones, there is very little space for the female researcher to share experiences, exchange ideas and discuss the research challenges associated with her gender. When such topic is brought up, there are often two types of reactions. First, when testifying about stories when one was pictured as a prostitute researcher, people often laugh about it and trivialize the matter. This reaction–often well-intentioned but nevertheless tactless–pushes women to instinctively relativize or play down the incident in order to not appear weak. The second reaction is to question the place of women in research in conflict zones, and the additional security challenges associated with their gender. “If it is so dangerous and difficult, maybe women should not engage in these research areas. Maybe some research domains are simply reserved for men.” Once again, such reaction puts the female researcher in a defensive position, having to justify why she thinks it is appropriate for her to be in this field. Indeed, there are many situations in the field when being a female researcher may have major advantages. Having to justify her added value takes away her right to talk about the importance of considering the security issues for female researchers in conflict zones.

Female researchers need particular forms of exchange that allow for sharing experiences and developing strategies to deal with the specific challenges women face. There is a strong need for a space where the discussion goes beyond sharing the “little anecdote of the day where I was taken for a prostitute” and giving the room a good laugh. A space in which women can explain what it means to barricade themselves in their room, or wrap themselves up in three layers of clothing to make a possible “unwrapping” as difficult as possible. A space in which women can discuss how to respond to explicit or implicit intimidation that attempts to destabilize her morale by attacking her legitimacy as a researcher. A platform where female researchers without a voice can open up, share the challenges and the burdens of research.

Finally, the mentality of the academic community working in and on conflict zones, needs to change. Explicitly discussing the vulnerability of the researcher in the field should become the norm, including the vulnerability associated with gender. The revelation of this vulnerability should not be veiled by joking and laughter. On the contrary, it must be an integral part of how we think about our profession.


An Ansoms is Professor at the Université Catholique de Louvan-la-Neuve

Irène Bahati is a teaching assistant at the Department of Commercial Sciences at ISP/Bukavu and researcher at the Research Group for Violent Conflict and Human Secutity GEC-SH.


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