Students Abroad Face Assault Risk

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Research conducted by Associate Professor of Psychology Matthew Kimble found that female undergraduates who study abroad are significantly more likely to experience rape and other types of sexual assault than women who remain on campus. Specifically, Kimble’s study found that women abroad are over four times more likely to experience nonconsensual sexual contact, such as groping, over three times more likely to experience attempted sexual assault and are five times more likely to experience completed sexual assault, or rape.

The study, conducted in 2009, consisted of a survey filled out by 218 junior and senior females at the College who had studied abroad within the previous two academic years. Of the 218 women, 83 reported having some sort of an unwanted sexual experience while abroad, 60 reported at least one incident of unwanted touching, 13 reported an attempted sexual assault — either oral, anal or vaginal — and 10 women reported completed sexual assault.

Additionally, Kimble’s study found that the majority of any type of sexual assault was done not by students, but by non-student local residents, who accounted for 86.8 percent of nonconsensual sexual contact. The remainder was done by either fellow students from the study abroad program or local resident students. Similar percentages were found for attempted sexual assault (77.8 percent) and completed sexual assault (67.7 percent).

The initial research only surveyed female students, as women are statistically more likely to experience sexual assault than men, but Kimble said the samples at Middlebury and Bucknell now include men and have been expanded to include other types of trauma, such as accidents or natural disasters.

Kimble’s research, first published in Oct. 2012 in the journal Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice and Policy, began in 2009 when Professor of Psychology at Bucknell University William Flack approached him about collaborating on research analyzing sexual assault on students while they studied abroad. Flack conducted a tandem study at Bucknell, which found results comparable to Kimble’s.

Kimble and Flack’s study was printed at a critical moment; sexual assault has become increasingly relevant as a topic of discussion on campuses across America, particularly in the aftermath of a controversial publication this past fall in which an Amherst student recounted her experience with sexual assault on campus and the way in which the situation was handled by her college’s administration.

Kimble said that he believes this research is part of a much larger discussion addressing the issue of sexual assault on college campuses and abroad.

“This work falls within the broader context of the body of work over the years that has emphasized the prevalence of sexual assault on women and the extent to which the rates are typically higher than what people would guess, largely because it is crime that tends to go unreported,” wrote Kimble in an email.

Vice President of Language Schools, Schools Abroad and Graduate Programs and Professor of German Michael Geisler is currently grappling with this exact issue of unreported incidents. While Kimble’s study found that 10 women reported cases of rape, Geisler cited that only one official report of sexual assault has been made to the College in the last three or four years, perhaps even longer.

“This study has actually been very helpful in telling us that there is this gap between what students have reported and what they have experienced,” said Geisler.

Currently, the College’s study abroad office dedicates a section of its handbook — available online and distributed in hard copy to all students going abroad — to sexual assault and harassment. Directors on campus also speak with students about sexual assault during a pre-orientation meeting, and directors of the programs abroad speak with students about sexual assault again during an orientation once students arrive in their respective countries.

According to Associate Dean for Judicial Affairs and Student Life Karen Guttentag, Kimble first shared his preliminary research with her and the study abroad staff last summer. Since then, Geisler said the College has been working on various ways to address the issue of sexual assault abroad and minimize the discrepancy between reported cases and students’ actual experiences.

Some options that Geisler said the study abroad office has been considering and will most likely implement in the near future aim to put tighter regulations on attending the pre-orientation meeting. While the meeting is currently mandatory, Geisler said many students still do not attend it due to other commitments. In the future, students may not be allowed to go abroad until they attend the pre-orientation meeting. Another plan is to bring in local students to in-country orientations to give abroad students a more authentic sense of how to conduct themselves in certain scenarios that could get them into trouble. Lastly, Geisler said that the study abroad office is thinking of revamping their general warning on sexual harassment and sexual assault in their handbook to become a country-specific warning, in order to address varying cultural cues and customs that students should be aware of more clearly.

Guttentag, who is also the head of the Sexual Assault Oversight Committee (SAOC) at the College, deals with similar difficulties in getting students to report cases of sexual harassment or sexual assault. She said that while there are many reasons that students may pause before reporting cases while on campus, these are probably compounded by other factors when students experience sexual assault abroad.

“There are certainly many factors that play into a student’s decision to report sexual assault in general, including fear of backlash, stigma, self-blame, an attempt to cope by minimizing the significance of the assault and an inability at the time of the incident to recognize it as an assault,” wrote Guttentag in an email. “When we consider an assault that occurs during a study abroad program, I can imagine that several additional factors might come into play.”

While the study abroad office is trying to work to encourage students to feel comfortable reporting cases of sexual assault despite these factors, Kimble and Flack are now working to identify the elements that may lend themselves to the increase in cases of sexual assault while abroad.

Kimble said that at the start of their research, he and Flack “hypothesized that the risk might be higher while abroad because of factors such as the lack of familiarity with the culture, limited fluency in the language and legal access to alcohol for the first time.”

Kimble admitted that the goal of the initial study was not to identify the risk factors, but he said that there were some noticeable trends in the information he received. The first was that fluency did not seem to have an effect on whether or not students did or did not experience sexual assault. Kimble used a self-rated measure of fluency on his survey and found that it did not differ among students that experienced any type of sexual assault. Kimble wrote in his study that he would need a larger sample size in order to confidently state that fluency plays no role in the risk of sexual assault.

One factor that does appear to play a large role in the risk of sexual assault is based on the region students visited. Kimble’s study was too small to assess country-specific risk, but he did find that all regions except for English-speaking Europe and Australia posed additional risk for sexual assault. In addition, the Americas and Africa had the most significant increases in the more severe forms of sexual assault. Risk for completed sexual assault was higher in the Americas than any other region.

Finally, Kimble stated that factors that often play into higher risk for new college first-years while on campus may also result in higher risk while abroad: “lack of familiarity with local culture, legal access to alcohol and being targeted by perpetrators who see new students as vulnerable.”

Kimble said that he and Flack “hope the work leads to better prevention strategies, in part by increasing awareness of the possibility of these types of experiences while studying abroad.”

Geisler has been using the research for just that purpose, and his goal now is to get more students to report incidents of sexual assault.

“The more we know about the kinds of situations where this happens, the more we can anticipate and warn other students about it,” said Geisler. “That’s why we need that data, and so if students could help us by reporting this in whatever way they see fit, that would be really wonderful. The directors are trained in dealing with these kinds of situations, the counseling center is standing by to help out, but we need to know what’s going on.”