Sexual harassment and assault can happen anywhere, but another layer of complexity is added onto an already difficult situation when students are confronted with these issues while studying off-campus. We hope that thinking through the topics described below will help you to make safe and informed decisions while abroad. It is important to recognize, however, that even if you follow every recommendation, sexual harassment and assault can occur.
What Others Perceive
One challenge students may encounter abroad is how others perceive them. Our nationality, gender, sexual orientation and other aspects of who we are may lead others in the host culture to make assumptions or misread our desires.
Before you leave, talk with others about what local beliefs and stereotypes may apply to you in the host country. Some helpful resources include past program participants and faculty with regional experience. Upon arrival, continue the conversation with program staff, local peers, etc. Understanding how others interpret your presence and your actions will help you communicate more effectively in the host culture.
What We Perceive
Studying abroad requires learning new ways of communicating. Non--verbal communication – the way we dress, where we choose to spend time, the ways in which we move our body – is important to keep in mind. Observe your local peers to understand what messages you may be communicating to others intentionally or unintentionally.
In the United States, people generally speak frankly and openly. This is not necessarily the case elsewhere. In other parts of the world, people may communicate based on societal expectations, even if the message does not reflect their actual opinion. Because of this, misunderstandings may occur with potential sexual partners. In many societies, it is unacceptable to show interest in a sexual relationship, particularly for women. Because potential partners will often say “no” to sexual advances, even when interested, prospective partners often disregard what is said. Saying “no” does not ensure that the other person understands “no.” Talk about this with people you trust – local peers, friends, home stay family members, program staff, etc. If necessary, devise a plan to communicate “no” when the word itself is not enough.
What We Can Do
Here are some specific things we can do to promote clear communication and personal safety:
Acknowledge what factors put us at risk:
- New to the host country and may not speak the local language well
- Traveling to new places, usually by public transportation, and meeting new people
- Curiosity about the host culture
- High visibility in the host culture
- Lack of knowledge about danger cues and how to effectively communicate our desires
- Learn about behavior of local peers. How do our peers interact with potential partners, dress, etc.?
- Are there places we should avoid? Does this depend on the time of day?
- What is considered “normal” behavior between men and women our age?
Reduce our risk
- Establish relationships with hosts, neighbors and program staff
- Notify program staff of travel plans
- Travel with a friend and restrict night travel
- Project certainty of route i.e. look like you know where you’re going instead of looking like you’re lost
- Carry only sufficient amounts of cash in a safe place (money belt)
- Be aware of surroundings. Demonstrate vigilance or “street smarts”
- Moderate alcohol consumption Choose taxis and drivers carefully
Specific Ways to Avoid Unwanted Sexual Interactions
Many students experience some form of unwanted sexual attention while abroad. Some may encounter sexual harassment; others may be raped or sexually assaulted. Despite our best efforts, these unfortunate events may occur. This is true whether we are at home, on Macalester’s campus, or studying abroad. Here a few tips to keep in mind:
Avoid eye contact and/or smiling – Many interpret eye contact or smiling as an invitation to interact.
Avoid engaging in conversation when necessary – Sometimes ignoring a person or pretending you don’t understand what they’re saying are the simplest ways to get someone to leave you alone. Even saying, “I’m not interested,” is a form of interaction.
Mimic your peers – Observing how your local peers interact will help you to understand what is “normal” in the host culture.
Buddy system – It may sound trite, but being with a friend can help deter unwanted advances and situations. This may be particularly true when walking in public places or when alcohol enters the picture (e.g. night clubs, parties, etc.).
Listen to your instincts – We may try to second guess our instincts and tell ourselves, “This doesn’t seem right to me, but maybe it’s normal here.” While we should try to adapt to local cultures, we should not do so at the expense of our own well--being and safety. If you feel that you’re in an unsafe situation, get yourself out of there.
Please keep in mind that even if you follow every piece of advice exactly, sexual assault can occur. If you are a victim of sexual assault or harassment while abroad, we encourage you to share your experience with someone. For many people, the first step in the healing process is to talk about it.
From our experience, most students have extremely positive interactions while abroad. Keep yourself as safe as you can while making the most out of your semester.
Even while you are abroad, you remain an important member of the Macalester community. You can always contact one of the people or offices listed in the Resources section below to help guide you in your decisions or support if you should experience sexual assault or harassment.
Title IX Coordinator & Director of Equity
Karla Benson Rutten 651-696-6258
Ask questions or make a report
Macalester Phone Numbers and Emails:
- Office of Student Affairs:
- Health and Wellness Center:
- International Center:
Macalester Health and Wellness Center
Both individual counseling and support groups are available to students.
Macalester Sexual Assault Support Team
Volunteer members of the staff and faculty who are committed to sexual violence prevention and who can offer support, guidance, and referrals.