Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Study Abroad Increases Risk for Sexual Assault

Last month, University of Chicago student Michaela Cross posted a harrowing account of her study abroad experience in India. "For three months I lived...in a traveler's heaven and a woman's hell," Cross wrote. As a South Asian Studies major who had previously spent time in India, she thought she was prepared. But she wasn't.

In the short account of her travels, posted on CNN's iReport, Cross described a study abroad experience that mixed wonder and fear, "half dream, half nightmare." "I was stalked, groped, masturbated at;" she wrote, "and yet I had adventures beyond my imagination." 

In one particularly terrifying moment, she remembers "lying hunched in a fetal position, holding a pair of scissors with the door bolted shut, while the staff member of the hotel who had tried to rape my roommate called me over and over...breathing into the phone."

After returning from abroad, Cross said she was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and has been unable to attend to classes.

"PTSD strikes me as a euphemism," wrote Cross, "because a syndrome implies a cure. What, may I ask, is the cure for seeing reality, of feeling for three months what its [sic] like for one's humanity to be taken away."


Students Abroad

Study abroad is an increasingly large part of undergraduate education at U.S. colleges and universities.

According to the Institute for International Education, in 2010-2011, 273,996 U.S. students studied abroad for academic credit, a slight increase from the previous year. It's likely that the numbers will continue to grow as leaders and educators tout study abroad as central to education in a global economy.

But Cross's experience and others like it illustrate that studying abroad does not come without dangers. As students plunge themselves into unfamiliar cities and cultures, they also expose themselves to new dangers.

Indeed, a recent study in the journal Psychological Trauma reports that female undergraduates are three to five times more likely to experience sexual assault while studying abroad than on a U.S. campus, where women are already at a high risk of sexual assault.

The study was the first to measure the prevalence of sexual assault in study abroad programs. Researchers asked women who had studied abroad in the past two academic years to fill out the Sexual Experiences Survey, a widely-used questionnaire for measuring the incidence of sexual assault. The results were startling:

  • 83% of women reported an unwanted sexual experience, 6% an attempted sexual assault, and 4.6% a completed sexual assault.
  • 87% of the nonconsensual sexual contact was committed by nonstudent local residents. 
  • Women studying abroad in Africa and the Americas reported more sexual assaults than those studying in Europe. There was no information on study abroad in Asia.

The researchers speculated as to why the prevalance of sexual assault is higher for students studying abroad.

Some factors might include students' lack of familiarity with the culture and greater reluctance to go to local authorities for help, both of which make foreign students easier targets for perpetrators.
Researchers also pointed to other factors, such as the large number of study abroad programs in major cities, local stereotypes about American women, and the legal access to alcohol increasing student drinking rates.

Although the study does not offer recommendations for schools running study abroad programs, the high prevalence of sexual assault during study abroad suggests that schools may want to coordinate between their study abroad program and the campus Title IX coordinator.

At the very least, schools should review and update the information they provide students before the students arrive in a host country, establish clear procedures for reporting and handling sexual assault complaints while students are abroad, and make sure students are aware of counseling and other student health services that are available abroad and after students return.

Further Resources

The U.S. State Department has a website that provides student travelers with many valuable resources.

Work Cited

Kimble, M., Flack, W.F., Burbridge, E. (2013). "Study Abroad Increases Risk for Sexual Assault in Female Undergraduates: A Preliminary Report." Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 5, 426-430.


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