“Oooh my God, how amaaaaazing was abroad?!” “Was it just sooo amazing?!” “Ah I bet you had such adventures!” “I’m soooo jealous!” “Oh my God, was it life-changing!?”
If you’re anything like me or many current juniors and seniors, you’ve both experienced and overheard these questions thousands of times. If you were abroad yourself, I’m guessing you uttered the following responses a similarly outrageous number of times: “Oh my God, it was SO incredible. School was way easier, going out was SO different and the food was amaaaazing! I miss it SO much!”
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve become great at compartmentalizing my abroad experience. After all, I did have some truly amazing highlights, see many breathtaking sights and greatly improve my language-speaking abilities. I am in no way discouraging girls from studying abroad, but the honest truth is my abroad experience was nothing like I’d hoped it would be. For one, my host family was wretched, my program was not stimulating and my closest friendship came crumbling down around me. More significantly, I got raped. And unfortunately, I’m not the only one hiding this experience behind the “Oh my God, I miss it SO much” response.
If you’re anything like my best friend Jenny your exclamation of “It was amazing!” is covering your memory of that cool, local “friend” who pushed himself on you when you were too drunk to stop him. If you are my sister, it is a front for the humiliation of being treated like a prostitute in the emergency room following the rape and the months you spent having to interact with your rapist—a close friend of your host mom. The response is a cover up for, simmering just below the surface, anger over the fact that you are now living with the STD he gave you or over your host mom’s denial and insistence that you should be “flattered” by his affections. If you are like me, you are hiding six, agonizing months waiting to learn if you’ve been infected with HIV after a very high-risk exposure. Six months of having to hold your expression steady every time someone mentions “AIDS work in Africa,” or their class on “AIDS and Emerging Diseases.”
You see, this was never supposed to happen to me. After all, I take women’s studies classes and am considered “a huge ball buster” back at Duke. I’ve never had issues articulating “NO” when hooking up. I have never had casual sex, and I’m known by most of my Duke friends as confident and empowered. While I’ve had several close calls at Duke after drinking more than planned or ending up with someone for whom consent is grossly one sided, I’ve always been so clear about my “No! Stop!” that date rape or “accidental sex,” as some jokingly call it, is something I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid. More than all that, however, this wasn’t supposed to happen to me because my older sister was raped studying abroad, sending her and my entire family into a dark, painful period of trauma and grief. When my sister returned from abroad, she was not the same girl who left, having lost the sense of self-worth, personal security and powerful spirit that I had never before seen her without. At the time, I was a freshman in college, and it killed me to see my fiery, sassy older sister breaking down and degraded to such an extent. I vowed to never let something like that happen to a friend, and of course, to never let something like that happen to me.
I could go on about what happened to me, and why it wasn’t fair, but I think we all understand that rape sucks. I’m certainly disturbed by the messed up gender dynamics of our culture that enable so many of us to deal with this total shit situation, and I do NOT mean to blame victims, but I would like to offer some practical advice. The following are some very pragmatic reminders for girls studying abroad that may save them from suffering what I and so many other girls have suffered. I strongly advise anyone reading this list to take it personally. It’s easy to dissociate oneself from foreign scenarios like this, but what I now know, and wish I’d realized before, is that no one is “supposed” to get raped. They just do.
Rule One: Beware of the YOLO mentality.
I know studying abroad is all about adventure and spontaneity, and I don’t mean to discourage this approach, but sometimes being too carefree is a problem for girls. By all means, try that mysterious food, ride that camel and be open to all types of people. But when it comes to going home with him, getting separated from friends at night or drinking heavily, carefree can easily be what leads to rape. For me, I was at the beach with an American friend and two local guys we’d known in the city. They were good guys, one the boyfriend of my American friend, and the other his cousin. Because I was not interested in the cousin, when the couple focused on one another, I would wander around, talking to random guys, dancing and thinking, “You know what? YOLO!” Our second night at the beach a handsome, local man began pursuing me aggressively at a club. Coincidentally, the bartender gave me a free drink. I will never know what was in that drink, but I felt I was in another world, with no concern for reality. I felt listless and disconnected from myself. I didn’t want to bother my friend and her man, so when he asked me to take a walk on the beach I thought, “Oh why not make out with a local hottie? YOLO!” Needless to say, the aggression he demonstrated on the dance floor presented itself elsewhere, and my YOLO spontaneity meant months of trauma and possible exposure to HIV. My sister warned especially against the YOLO mentality. After a couple too many drinks at a party, she wanted to leave, and her host mother insisted that a family friend drive her. The family friend escorted her to her apartment, and she said, “Goodnight,” and went to bed. Next thing she knew, the family “friend,” a man twice her age, was forcing himself on her.
Rule Two: Don’t drink like you’re at Duke.
Obviously rape is a huge issue at Duke, where it is often associated with alcohol consumption. However, there’s something particularly dangerous about combining intoxication with a total lack of familiarity with your environment. In the case of my sister, were she back at college she’d never have allowed someone she did not know personally to drive her home. She knows better. Unsure of her surroundings, she had no choice but to trust her host mother and her “friend.” In my case, I don’t typically take boys back to my room or go to theirs after drinking at Duke. But in an unfamiliar setting, agreeing to go on a walk landed me in a secluded area. Being drunk almost always makes girls more vulnerable to rape, and being drunk in an unfamiliar setting increases that vulnerability enormously.
Rule Three: Hold yourself to the same logic you use in the United States.
As highlighted in the two previous rules, it’s easy when abroad to adopt a different logic. This can lead to tragic consequences. If you wouldn’t leave a club in Durham with a random man, then don’t think that following a hot Spaniard, Italian, French or any other man is any different. You don’t know his turf, and you can’t possibly trust someone you just met. If you wouldn’t trust a random acquaintance to take you home in the U.S., then don’t trust him in a different country either. Call your friends, find a safe place to ask for a taxi, talk to a policeman or go somewhere safe to collect your thoughts. Finally, if you get a creepy feeling from a guy, trust your instincts; don’t write it off as “cultural” just because you’re in a different country. It’s always better to potentially offend someone than to risk being sexually assaulted. Better safe than sorry.
Rule Four: Have a buddy system.
We all know it’s a huge pain to be the sober friend taking care of everyone, especially in a foreign country. It’s an annoying job, but it’s also the safest way to protect yourself. Buddy systems are key. I suggest having one or two people in any group take on this duty each time you go out. You should alternate to be fair, but make sure there is clear and consistent communication between people in the group, so that no member gets left behind. I think having a partner may be the simplest approach. This is not Durham, so chances of getting lost and becoming vulnerable are much higher. If my sister had been with a friend who was keeping tabs on her, someone would have noticed her leaving with a stranger and seen that she was in no state to be taken anywhere. In my case, though my friend couldn’t do anything once I wandered off, she spent hours looking for me afterward and was ready to take action if I didn’t show up soon. I know going out is supposed to be carefree and adventurous but make SURE you have these adventures with friends who have your back and will look out for you. Simply put, if you don’t have friends like this, don’t drink. It’s just not worth it.
The author of this piece has chosen to remain anonymous.