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Sexual Assault and Study Abroad

December 19, 2012

A new study finds that female undergraduates experience a significantly increased risk of rape and other forms of sexual assault while studying abroad in non-English-speaking countries.

The study, published in the journal Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, is based on a survey of 218 female undergraduate students at a single institution. The students reported incidents of sexual assault that occurred on campus and while studying abroad. Although researchers caution that their study is preliminary and their results might not be representative, they are dramatic nonetheless. Sixty of the respondents (27.5 percent) reported at least one experience of unwanted touching while abroad, 13 (6 percent) reported an attempted sexual assault (anal, oral or vaginal), and 10 (4.6 percent) reported rape.

The researchers also calculated the “semester risk” -- defined as the percentage of the sample that, on average, was likely to have an unwanted sexual experience during a given semester. The risk of rape was found to be five times higher during a semester abroad compared to a semester on campus, and the risk of attempted sexual assault 3.2 times higher. The risk of unwanted touching abroad was 4.3 times higher relative to on-campus rates.

Matthew Kimble, an associate professor of psychology at Middlebury College and the study’s lead author, said that he and his co-author, William F. Flack Jr., of Bucknell University, theorized that many of the factors that lead to increased vulnerability to sexual assault during the initial transition to college are also salient during a study abroad experience. As Kimble explained, “It’s a very typical pattern in the undergraduate domestic experience for women to have relatively high sexual assault rates as they first arrive on campus, which tend to decline as they get older. There’s some data that indicate the reasons for that, including increased access to alcohol and lack of familiarity with the culture. Authors have speculated that young women may actually be targeted by certain individuals who see them as vulnerable.”

“Bill Flack and I speculated that those same risk factors that are present when they’re first on campus may be present when they go abroad: legal access to alcohol, lack of familiarity with the culture, maybe weaknesses in the language, and potentially even being seen as somewhat vulnerable within the country,” Kimble said.

The study finds that all regions other than English-speaking Europe and Australia/New Zealand are associated with an increased risk of sexual assault relative to on-campus rates. Among other findings, the study did not find a link between self-reported language fluency and incidents of assault. The perpetrators of sexual assault were most commonly non-student local residents.

The 218 students in the sample were juniors or seniors at a selective Northeastern college who had studied abroad in the past two years. The response rate for the survey was high – 57.1 percent – but the sample differs from the overall American undergraduate study abroad population in some important ways. Only 11 percent of the study sample traveled to English-speaking Europe or Australia/New Zealand, whereas nationally that figure is about 19 percent. In addition, 99 percent of students in the sample studied abroad for a semester or longer; by comparison, more than half of American students who study abroad participate on short-term programs of eight weeks or fewer.

The article notes that it is difficult to predict whether those students who were sexually assaulted abroad would be more or less likely to complete a survey on the subject – and therefore be over- or underrepresented in the sample.

“Despite the limitations, there is evidence to suggest that, in this sample, studying abroad in certain regions puts female students at risk for unwanted sexual experiences,” the authors write. “Student Affairs offices and Study Abroad programs might consider assessing the risk for their students in their programs as there may be important differences attributable to local norms and student populations. If data from other schools are consistent with the findings in this sample, warning females going abroad, particularly to non-English-speaking countries, would be appropriate. Reminding those students of precautions around separation from friends, heavy alcohol use, and entering unknown environments is likely to pay the same dividends abroad as they do on campus. Reminders regarding safe walking, safe dating, and safe partying could be provided by Student Affairs offices before students go abroad.”

“Just as important, however, is the need to be able to respond to a sexual assault appropriately when it occurs outside the country.”

Brian Whalen, president and CEO of the Forum on Education Abroad, said it is a well-established practice in study abroad to have response protocols in place and to conduct pre-departure and orientation sessions covering health and safety topics. The Forum released a report in 2010 that found much lower rates of sexual assault and harassment among study abroad students. Twenty-nine institutions participating in the Forum’s “Incident Database Pilot Project” reported a total of 311 health and safety-related incidents over a 5.5-month period. Of those 311, only four incidents of sexual assault, and five of sexual harassment, were reported.

"This is an extremely important topic and we need more research to understand the risks and factors involved in sexual assault abroad," Whalen said. "As the authors note, this study has several limitations, including the fact that it looks at students who studied abroad on only one institution’s programs."

Stephen Ferst, the director of the Center for International Studies at Kean University, has presented on sexual assault prevention in study abroad and spearheaded the creation of a commonly used film and companion guide, Lost in Translation: Helping Study Abroad Students Understand Sexual Violence. Ferst said he was surprised by the magnitude of the Middlebury/Bucknell researchers' findings, but added it is not surprising that rates of sexual assault on study abroad programs would be as high or higher than the rates on campus.

“If these numbers, which I think have to be looked at again, perhaps in a larger study, do prove to be accurate, we have a lot of work to do," Ferst said. "It's not an acceptable response to say these things just happen in greater frequencies overseas.”

“It certainly doesn’t mean or imply that we should pull back on sending our students abroad," Ferst continued. "That's not the lesson to be learned here, but the lesson is that we need to figure out a better way to educate and prevent students from being victims of sexual assault during study abroad.”

 

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