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Are You A Woman Studying Abroad? You Will Be Sexually Harassed

Ponte vecchio, Italy

This is kind of embarrassing to admit now, but if you had asked me before I studied abroad, I probably wouldn’t have described myself as a feminist. This has a lot to do with how our culture tends to make “feminist” into a negative word and less to do with how I actually feel about important things like equal wages and political representation and body image and stifling visibility of women of color and all those other factors that tie into the reality of feminism. But still -- it took me until I was almost 21 years old to think of myself as a feminist.

Experiencing Harassment While Studying Abroad

So what changed? Well, I moved to Argentina to study, and I suddenly learned exactly how much I valued the right -- and it is a right, not a privilege -- to walk down a street without some creepy stranger telling me how great my [choose your body part] looks.

It’s not that Buenos Aires itself is some sort of particular gauntlet for all female-bodied individuals, but as those of you who have lived in Latin America (or really any openly machista culture) undoubtedly know, there’s a very different social understanding of catcalling and what Spanish speakers call piropos (compliments), as well as the extent to which it is acceptable to comment openly on a woman’s body or appearance.

I remember my host father telling me it was just a harmless “game” ... and I remember thinking that sexual harassment – because let’s call it what it is – is about the farthest thing from a game I can imagine.

Call me naïve, but this type of interaction was a real shock for me. Sure, it was something I might expect from, say, the occasional construction worker at home, but not from Every. Single. Man I passed on the street. I remember my host father telling me it was just a harmless “game,” that porteña women expected, and that they even enjoyed the attention. And I remember thinking that sexual harassment – because let’s call it what it is – is about the farthest thing from a game I can imagine.

This experience is not unique to me, or to Argentina. I know a fair number of women who also returned from study abroad with much stronger ideas about what feminism meant to them and their identity – and yes, it is embarrassing that it took some of us so long, but let’s be forgiving of youth here. More distressing is the fact that almost every woman I know who studied abroad experienced some type of sexual harassment during her time in another country.

Unfortunately, it often seems that this is the norm, rather than the exception, and it’s something every future study abroad student (even the boys!) should at least be aware of before departing.

I’m not suggesting that anyone get off the plane terrified that every man is a potential Schrodinger’s Rapist, or that you need to karate chop some nice dude who offers to walk you home from a party so you don’t have to walk alone in an unfamiliar city. Most of us take normal precautions, whatever they may be, in our daily lives to make ourselves feel safer, and there’s no reason to change your routine or be overly paranoid.

Still, there are a few factors that can make study abroad a particularly risky environment, and they’re worth knowing about so you know when to save your energy and when to actually use those karate chops (note: this is not an endorsement of any particular violent behavior, regardless of your martial arts skill level).

The Facts on Sexual Harassment and Study Abroad

solo travel, female

A 2012 Inside Higher Ed study found that women face a significantly higher risk of sexual harassment and assault when studying abroad than they do when on their home campus. Though it was a small study and merits further analysis, these results indicate there is still plenty of work to do to ensure that female study abroad students are in a safe environment and that they are educated appropriately before departure.

The study’s co-authors suggest that the risk factors behind these high rates of sexual assault are the same ones that create high risk during a woman’s first semesters on campus. These include greater access to alcohol, unfamiliarity with the culture (whether it’s a foreign country or a fraternity), language barriers, and a perception that certain individuals may be “easy targets” based on external characteristics. Lets take a look in to some of these so we can better understand the situation.

Cultural Differences

Let’s get that elephant out of the corner right away. There are many places in the world with different ideas of what are “appropriate” or acceptable ways to speak to and/or interact with women than may be the norm where you’re from.

This can take many forms, from segregating genders in public spaces and limiting male-female interaction completely, to social acceptance of public catcalls or grabbing female passersby on streets or in clubs.

Cultural relativism is a popular term, and it’s an important concept in some contexts, but “it’s just another culture” should never be used to excuse a situation in which you feel unsafe. Before you depart, try to learn about gender relations in your destination country, so you’re prepared for what may await you, but above all always trust your instincts, and never let anyone try to make you feel guilty for leaving a situation you feel uncomfortable or unsafe in.

Cultural Assumptions

This is a nasty subject to tackle, but it’s unfortunately true and can occasionally affect your interactions with other people. Blame it on movies, music, TV, pop culture or whatever other bogeyman you like, but there is a fairly strong assumption in some places that Western, and in particular American, women are “easy” or generally more promiscuous.

Always trust your instincts, and never let anyone try to make you feel guilty for leaving a situation you feel uncomfortable or unsafe in.

Obviously this is far from the truth, and each individual woman has a completely different attitude about her body and her sexual choices, but it is important to know that, just by telling people where you’re from, they may already be making certain assumptions about you.

You are well within your right to shoot those assumptions down on the spot if you wish, and knowing that they exist can help you spot the jerks that are just looking to confirm their own idea of what you are instead of actually finding out who you are.

Drinking
girls, drinking

This is not victim-blaming, nor a PSA against drinking. To paraphrase a well-known cliché: Alcohol doesn’t harass people; people harass people. Still, as we all know, alcohol is often a factor in cases of sexual harassment and assault, so it’s impossible to pretend it isn’t relevant.

Just as you would at home, be aware of where you and your friends are going, who you’re with and, above all, who makes (and touches) your drinks, especially if you’re in a country where drugging drinks is common (this is true for both men and women).

Additionally, it’s wise to find out if your host country has any particular restrictions or beliefs about alcohol, and be aware of how your drinking choices may be perceived, depending on those beliefs. For example, are the local bars suspiciously absent of women? There may be a chance that drinking and/or going out is seen as a "male only" activity, and even your mere presence at a bar -- regardless of how much you consume -- could inspire some false assumptions.

Sexual Orientation and Gender Presentation

Depending on the country, studying abroad can be an extra-challenging experience for queer students due to laws, prejudices, societal assumptions or stereotypes about sexual orientation and gender. This issue in particular is definitely not restricted to women -- gay, bisexual and transgender men abroad often face the same risks as gay, bisexual and trans women, particularly when it comes to violence. Many cultures have very strict policing of normative gender presentation and it can be difficult for individuals who don’t fall within those expectations.

Again, you should never have to change or hide your identity, but make sure you’re aware of your country’s laws and norms, so you’re as prepared as possible for any negative reactions that may come your way and can better gauge which spaces are safe.

How to Deal

So, sexual harassment is terrible. How do we bring down the patriarchy?

Pick Your Battles

I know, I know, this is a terrible phrase, but it’s not meant in a condescending way. This is about preserving your own sanity. You, as one human being, no matter how awesome you are, cannot singlehandedly change an entire culture’s system of gender relations. It is statistically impossible and you will just end up exhausted.

If you feel you're in a position to really positively change someone's assumptions, by all means go for it, but be strategic about it so you don't end up frustrated or totally resentful of everyone.

This doesn’t mean you have to “just let things slide,” especially if you’re in a situation where you truly feel unsafe, but it does mean it’s worthwhile to assess whether you really want to devote all your time studying in Rome trying to explain to every man on the bus why it’s not okay to make kissing noises at you when you’re just trying to get by.

If you feel you’re in a position to really positively change someone’s assumptions, by all means go for it, but be strategic about it so you don’t end up frustrated or totally resentful of everyone. As a coping mechanism, I started listening to music whenever I had to walk anywhere in Buenos Aires.

Was this a great victory for feminist power? Probably not, but it made me personally feel safer inside my own musical bubble, and that helped me see all the other positive things about the city without getting dragged down by stupid comments every day.

Find the Good Ones
girls, boys, friends, beach

No matter how it may seem, not every dude in your new country is part of this system. Remember, stereotyping goes both ways, and it is unfair to assume every person with XY chromosomes is going to harass you. Whether it’s your host brother, classmate, neighbor, or the guy selling fruit in front of your building, there are men with whom you’ll develop great, healthy friendships and relationships.

Even if your country’s treatment of women makes you cringe, societal norms don't define every individual. It would be terrible to return from a semester abroad convinced all men in your host country are scumbags, so even if society seems to encourage general scumbag behavior, try not to forget about the ones who don’t buy into all of that nonsense. Do your best to make sure it doesn’t define all of your interactions while you’re there.

Find Your Happy Place

A big part of adjusting to a new environment is finding places that make you feel comfortable, and this is especially important when studying abroad, since you’re constantly bombarded with new, unfamiliar experiences.

Whether it’s your neighborhood café, a dance class, an all-women’s gym, that bar where you’re friends with the owners, or weekly poetry readings at a bookstore, there will be spaces that will give you a break from all of the machismo surrounding you. These spaces can be a vital part of maintaining your emotional health, and it’s important to recognize that and make them as much a part of your routine as you feel is necessary.

Crisis Management

If the worst happens and you do experience a sexual assault or attempted assault during your time abroad, it is vitally important that you are aware of the structures in place to help you. Unfortunately, this may not always include the local law enforcement -- many police still use archaic or invasive “tests” when it comes to assault cases, and cultural stereotypes and general sexism (“what were you wearing?” “he was just joking!”) are widespread and can affect how they treat both you and the legitimacy of your case.

The most important thing is to ensure that you are physically safe and receive appropriate medical treatment, and both of these should be absolutely non-negotiable priorities in the event of an emergency.

Still, it’s never a bad idea to know the local emergency numbers, as well as the location of local crisis resources or facilities, in case you feel that you need them. Many places do have health centers especially for women, but you have to know where to look. The most important thing is to ensure that you are physically safe and receive appropriate medical treatment, and both of these should be absolutely non-negotiable priorities in the event of an emergency.

Have a Contingency Plan
Galapagos Islands

Additionally, both your study abroad organization and your home university should have a contingency plan and support system for you -- though some are definitely better than others. If this is a major concern of yours, ask before you sign up.

Following an increase in high-profile assault cases overseas and more women sharing their stories, like the controversial and widely-discussed post from University of Chicago student Michaela Cross about her experience studying abroad in India, more universities and study abroad programs are beginning to take on the responsibility of educating study abroad participants about the realities of sexual harassment in their host countries.

It never hurts to talk to your advisor or program director before heading abroad to find out what kinds of provisions they have in place, and to make sure you have as much information as possible to allow you to make safe decisions and recognize dangerous situations.

Never Blame Yourself

Of course, despite what all those informational brochures tell you, the only real way to prevent sexual harassment is for people to stop engaging in sexual harassment (here’s a handy guide!). This is important to remember, because many of us have an instinct to blame ourselves when these situations happen, even if we know objectively that we’re not at fault.

Men: Stand Up For Your Female Peers

This tip is for the boys out there -- if you see behavior that constitutes as sexual harassment directed towards one of your female peers, say something. Even if no women are around, but one of your local friends says something offensive or derogatory towards women, a simple "hey man, that's not cool" could potentially help that one individual think differently about how they perceive and interact with women. And really, it all starts there, doesn't it?

However, as we've already said up until now, you're never going to be able to change an entire society's way of thinking in a day, but you can show your support for female study abroad students. Be one of the good ones!

Be Smart and Enjoy Your Time Abroad

It’s also not as if study abroad is the only place where sexual harassment happens, or that it’s necessarily more pervasive in other countries than on, say, a college campus. Really, this could just as easily be titled, “Are You a Woman? You Will be Sexually Harassed,” because we all know that this kind of behavior happens everywhere, to just about everyone, regardless of country, nationality, clothing or appearance.

Knowledge is power, so hopefully this will help give you the power to have the best, safest, and most positive study abroad experience possible!

This is not about scaring you off study abroad, or painting it as this strange exotic situation with men who don’t know how to behave or respect women (again, that’s pretty universal). As we all know, though, knowledge is power, so hopefully this will help give you the power to have the best, safest, and most positive study abroad experience possible!

Photo Credits: Katherine Knecht, Haley Tucker, Lancy Zhang, and Dalya Arussy.

Photo of Natalie Southwick

Natalie has made appearances in 16 different countries to date. Her favorite is definitely Colombia, where she spent 3.5 years ogling mountains on a daily basis, eating an overwhelming amount of arepas and working with human rights organizations. She's currently finishing up a master's degree in Denver, where her main activities are trying not to get in fights about Boston sports teams and attempting to convince herself that the Rocky Mountains are just as good as the Andes, even though we all know that's not true.