One of the most liberating and exciting experiences for a young adult is the opportunity to travel to a foreign country. College students who study abroad often do so for one or two semesters, providing ample time to enrich their lives in long-lasting and meaningful ways. Although there are many differences between studying abroad and studying in one’s own country, there are also some similarities. For women, the risk of sexual assault increases dramatically during their first few years of college. But it is unclear whether this risk persists when these young women study abroad.
Universities and colleges encourage students to explore every avenue of education, including foreign programs, despite the fact language and culture may present barriers for adjustment and security. Matthew Kimble of the Department of Psychology at Middlebury College in Vermont wanted to see if sexual assault risk was increased in women choosing to study abroad. Kimble surveyed 218 female college students and asked them about any nonconsensual sexual experiences, including touching, attempted assault, and rape. He compared the responses of the women who studied abroad to those who studied domestically and found a significant increase in risk for women in foreign education programs.
Specifically, Kimble found that the women who studied abroad were four times more likely to be victims of unwanted sexual contact than those who remained in the United States. Sexual assault attempts were more than three times higher in women studying abroad, and completed assaults were five times more likely in women who studied abroad compared to those who did not. The results also revealed that unlike assaults on domestic campuses, which are primarily perpetrated by students, the assaults and attempted assaults abroad were mostly committed by nonstudent local citizens. These findings show that young women are at significantly higher risk for sexual assault when they pursue their education abroad than they are if they stay in the U.S.
Some factors that could lead to this are cultural differences, weak social networks, and access to substances to alcohol and drugs through legal channels. Although they were not explored in this study, these factors should be examined more closely in future work. Kimble also believes that not knowing where to turn in emergencies could decrease the likelihood of getting help when and if these events occur, and increase the risk for mental health problems resulting from the trauma, such as posttraumatic stress. “For some students overseas, social support may be reduced and ongoing life stress relatively high,” Kimble said. “Women who are assaulted while abroad, therefore, may be at particular risk for subsequent impairment.” He added that these findings underscore the importance of preparing women for the risks they face before they travel abroad and ensuring that foreign educational programs are able to meet the needs of these women in crisis situations.
Kimble, M., Flack, W. F., Jr., Burbridge, E. (2012). Study abroad increases risk for sexual assault in female undergraduates: A preliminary report. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029608
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