Sexual harassment and assault can happen anywhere, but another layer of complexity is added onto an already difficult situation when it happens in an unfamiliar environment. Sexual violence is always the fault of the perpetrator, and there is nothing you could do to deserve, “ask for,” or make an experience of sexual violence your fault. When you are in a new environment or situation, however, there are some things you can do to empower yourself and enhance your safety. One of these things is to learn to recognize potential risk factors.
What Others Perceive
One challenge students may encounter when studying and living in a new environment is how others perceive them. An individual’s nationality, gender, sexual orientation, race, and other aspects of their identity (such as simply being an American college student studying abroad) may lead others in the host culture to make assumptions or to misread our desires or intentions.
Before you leave for your study away experience, it can help to speak with others about what local beliefs and stereotypes may apply to you in your host country. Maybe this means speaking to past program participants, study away coordinators, or faculty with regional experience. Upon arrival in your host area, continue the conversation with program staff, local peers, your host family, etc. Understanding how others interpret your presence and actions will help you communicate more effectively in the host culture and “read” situations that may be dangerous or not.
What You can do
Studying abroad requires learning new ways of communicating. Non-verbal communication (i.e. the way we dress, our social behaviors, how we choose to spend our time, the ways in which we move our body, etc.) are important to keep in mind. Observe your local peers to understand what messages you may be communicating to others intentionally or unintentionally. Here are some other specific things you can do to promote clear communication and personal safety:
Acknowledge the factors that may put you at higher risk
- New to country and may not speak the local language well
- Traveling to new places and meeting new people
- Using public transportation or accepting rides or accommodation from strangers
- Curiosity about the host culture in a way that makes it clear you are a foreigner
- High visibility in the host culture (different race, language, accent, dress, etc.)
- Lack of knowledge about danger cues and how to effectively communicate our desires
Inform yourself about local norms
- Learn about behavior of local peers. How do your peers interact with potential partners, etc.?
- Are there places to avoid? Does this depend on the time of day?
- What is considered “normal” behavior between people of different genders of our age?
Take steps to reduce your risk
- Establish relationships with hosts, neighbors, local peers, and program staff
- Notify program staff of any 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, such as a money belt
- Be aware of surroundings and demonstrate vigilance or “street smarts”
- Moderate your alcohol and substance consumption
- Choose taxis and drivers carefully
Avoiding Unwanted Sexual Attention
Nothing a person does or says makes an experience of sexual violence their fault; violence is always the responsibility of the perpetrator. There are certain things that can help you avoid potentially dangerous situations, however, and help you to be more aware of common risk factors in studying away. Here a few ideas to keep in mind:
Avoid eye contact and/or smiling at strangers – Some cultures interpret direct eye contact or smiling as an invitation to interact or a suggestion of sexual interest.
If necessary, avoid engaging at all – Sometimes ignoring a person or pretending you don’t understand what they’re saying is the simplest way to get someone to leave you alone.
Mimic your peers – Observe how your local peers interact, as this will help you to understand what is “normal” in the host culture.
Use the buddy system – 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 wellbeing and safety. If you feel that you’re in an unsafe situation, get yourself out of there.
Despite best efforts at personal safety and risk prevention, sexual violence still can and does occur. If you do experience sexual violence while abroad, we encourage you to share your experience with someone: program staff, a local official, a trusted friend or family member, or someone on Macalester’s campus.
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 of this website to help guide you in your decisions or support if you should experience sexual assault or harassment.
Interim Title IX Coordinator, Tara Adams 651-696-6258
Sexual Violence Prevention Program Coordinator & Deputy Title IX Coordinator, Laura Linder-Scholer 651-696-6807
Office of Student Affairs 651-696-6220
International Student Programs 651-696-6078
Health & Wellness Center Counseling 651-696-6275 Individual counseling and support groups are available to students both before studying away and after returning.
Health & Wellness Center Medical Services 651-696-6275 Information on study away preparation and tips for travel, plus medical services are available to students before and after travel.
Sexual Assault & Harassment Support Team (SAST) Trained members of the staff and faculty who are committed to sexual violence prevention and can offer support, guidance, and referrals.