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Study Abroad and Sexual Assault Education

by on September 11, 2013

Christine Gettings
Assistant Director
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
NASPA Region II, International Education Knowledge Community Representative

Daniel Rappaport
Sexual Assault Prevention Coordinator
Wellness Center,  American University

Whenever students ask us about our favorite college experiences, without hesitation we both say, “the time that I studied abroad.” Living in a new city, making new friends, trying different foods , practicing a foreign language, and immersing oneself in another culture is on the most meaningful and exciting experiences a person could have and is a treasured memory for many college students.  Check out any Facebook photo album of a friend or the #studyabroad next time you are on Instagram and we guarantee you’ll see how spending time outside of the United States has impacted someone you love.

While we love to reflect on and share the great experiences we had with host families and that funny story about a particular hostel stay, one of the issues we rarely talk about in the context of study abroad is sexual assault. We are all (or should be) familiar with the alarming statistics that one of four college-aged women will be sexually assaulted by the time she graduates (Bonnie S. Fisher 2000), but there seems to be very little awareness about sexual assault occurring during study abroad experiences.  A study at Middlebury College in Vermont found that a college woman’s chances of being sexually assaulted increase greatly if she studies abroad—she is four times more likely to have had unwanted sexual contact, three times as likely to have experience an attempted sexual assault, and five times as likely to have been raped. (Kimble, Flack Jr. and Burbridge 2012)   Researchers in this study cited cultural differences, weak social networks, and easier access to alcohol as contributing factors.  Our students are often vulnerable when they are in a new setting and may be seen as an easy target by perpetrators.  Additionally, students may be unfamiliar with counseling and health services in another country and may not seek the resources they need after an assault.

As outraging as these statistics are, they should not stop or discourage students from studying abroad.  Instead, they should be a call to action for all of us.  As educators, we should work tirelessly to educate our students about consent from the very first moment they step foot on our campus. Our students need to know what consent looks and sounds like so that they are able to give their consent to others. This knowledge would also help our students identify any sexual situations where they did not give consent, but another individual(s) did something of sexual nature to them despite their lack of consent. Without the knowledge of what consent looks like, then students may experience sexual violence but not be able to identify what happened to them. We need to be ingraining into our students that only yes means yes, and that all everyone needs to be seeking out the consent of the other person involved if they want to be sexual with someone else. Our students are also sometimes the perpetrators and need to understand clearly that sexual contact of all kinds must be consensual. Consent does not end at the US border.

So, what can we actively do to help our students stay safe while abroad? We can better prepare our students in pre-departure meetings and trainings about healthy decision making and cultural mores. Does your University have an expert on sexual violence on campus? Could they, or an expert from the community, speak to your students regarding sexual violence? If you work in an office that coordinates travel abroad or plan Alternative Breaks, do your trainings include discussions and information on local resources available to students?  Have you discussed safety strategies with your students and cultural practices and beliefs concerning sex? All handouts and materials should clearly state your program’s policies and procedures as well as information on cultural practices and values.  Safety reminders should continue throughout the semester and it is a good idea to keep open the lines of communication with the students through frequent contact. It’s equally important that, while we teach safety strategies to our students, we make it very clear to each student that the only thing that causes rape is rapists. No matter what a student chooses to do regarding alcohol, clothing, flirting, etc. – rape and sexual assault is never  the fault of anyone but the perpetrator.

We can also familiarize ourselves and our students with our university’s protocol for responding to assaults while overseas.  The on-the-ground response may look different in each country depending on culture, but how we care for and help survivors is something that all of us can take part in doing. Are you and your students aware of how to report an incident? Are counseling and emotional support services available from your university to students studying abroad through electronic means? You could be the person that a student reaches out to after an incident because you are a person they trust. It’s a good idea to be prepared.

Even if we are not the administrator running the study abroad program, traveling with students on a short-term Alternative Break program, or have little experience with or responsibility in international education, many of us have contact with students who do spend a part of their college experience  abroad. Sexual violence abroad an unfortunate but very significant reality that all of our student’s studying abroad face.  Take the time to educate yourself on the issues around sexual violence, both on campus and abroad. Find a way to work these thoughts into the next pre-departure program or a conversation you are having with a student preparing to go abroad. With numbers like 1 in 4,  it could make a huge difference in the lives of our students.   Here’s a fantastic guide from NAFSA that can be a great resource to help guide you in that conversation.


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