The Daily Tar Heel
Printing news. Raising hell. Since 1893.
Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023 Newsletters Latest print issue

We keep you informed.

Help us keep going. Donate Today.
The Daily Tar Heel

The underreported trend of sexual assault during study abroad programs


DTH Photo Illustration. A woman sits in an alley, alone, while a man on his phone walks by paying no attention to her.

Editor's note: This story contains mentions of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised. 




Studying abroad is a dream for many UNC students. But for those who have experienced a sexual assault overseas, a seeming lack of resources and feeling of isolation can turn that dream into a nightmare.

“Just the thought of him and what happened made me ill,” said UNC senior Tara Smith. She was sexually assaulted by a local when she did a direct exchange in Oviedo, Spain in the 2018-19 academic year. 

UNC offers more than 400 study abroad programs in 70 countries, and in the 2016-17 school year, 36 percent of UNC students studied abroad before graduating. These programs vary from a couple weeks with a UNC professor to a year direct exchange.

In recent years, campus sexual assault has come into the spotlight due to various movements for reform, including “The Hunting Ground,” a documentary partly set at UNC. Yet without robust research on the topic, sexual assault during study abroad programs remains uncharted territory.

Dealing with assault abroad

“There’s this whole image around studying abroad,” Smith said. “There was a lot of consensual sex happening around me.”

Hook-up culture is often seen as a part of the American study abroad experience, she said, but being an American studying abroad can mean dealing with new cultural expectations and rules for all aspects of life, including sex and relationships. 

An analysis by the Council on International Educational Exchange, an organization that runs study abroad programs, found that 73 percent of sexual assaults reported during its programs were perpetrated by strangers or someone the survivor had met that day.

Smith said she still doesn’t know the name or age of the Spanish local who assaulted her the night she met him at a bar.

After her assault, she searched for resources available at her host university, but she could not find anything on the university’s website. Discouraged by the language barrier she would face if she went to the police, Smith decided not to report it.

However, even without a language barrier, reporting a sexual assault in a foreign country can be traumatizing and fruitless.

Another UNC student, Jane, whose name has been changed to preserve anonymity, wanted to report her assault. Jane was assaulted by an Irish man she met on a dating app while on a three-week summer study abroad program in Galway, Ireland.

With the help of the UNC professor who headed her program and an Irish adviser at the university at which she studied, Jane explained her situation to the Irish police. They told her if she wanted to file an official report, she would have to come back to Ireland to go to court, which could be up to two years from the time of her assault.

Jane said she decided not to pursue it. 

“If it was in Chapel Hill, then maybe I would have gone through the whole filing a police report, going to court and stuff,” Jane said. “Because it was in Ireland, and traveling all the way there and somehow explaining to my friends and family why I was going to Ireland — it just made everything a lot more complicated and more scary.”

To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.

Still, she underwent a physical exam by the station’s sexual assault unit and helped the police gather evidence to keep on file were her assailant accused of sexual assault again. 

She had to recount the story of her assault in detail a total of three times to various units throughout this process, even though she expects she will probably never get justice.

Resources at home

University-sponsored study abroad programs are specifically included in Title IX protections, so UNC is required to respond the same way to a sexual assault on a study abroad program as it would to an assault on campus, said Adrienne Allison, director of Title IX Compliance at UNC’s Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office.

Allison said the University’s EOC does not have any statistics on the rate of sexual assault of UNC students on study abroad programs.

The degree to which UNC can act is limited if the perpetrator is not a UNC student, and even more limited if they are not a student at all, Allison said. However, she said she encourages students who experience an assault to reach out, as they still have access to campus resources that will do their best to help them. 

“We can try to reach a student however we can, using whatever technology we can to be able to communicate with a student so that they do feel connected to UNC and connected to the resources here on campus, as well as connected to resources that we might be able to help them identify in-country,” Allison said.

UNC Study Abroad partners with the EOC and the Carolina Women’s Center’s Gender Violence Services in a pre-departure training for students preparing to study abroad, she said. It provides them with information about safety and how and where to report a sexual assault, even if that is the last thing on their minds. 

Uncharted territory

A 2013 study by researchers from Bucknell University and Middlebury College suggested that there could be an increased risk of sexual assault for some students who studied abroad.

Bill Flack, a professor of psychology at Bucknell, was one of the study’s lead researchers. He said studying abroad is a risk that has not yet been adequately examined. Flack decided to look into incidences of sexual assault on study abroad programs after students told him they had been harassed while abroad.

The results of the study indicated that the risk of an unwanted sexual experience — which included nonconsensual sexual contact, attempted sexual assault and completed sexual assault — was “3-5 times greater” on a study abroad program than on campus.

This study was just one case, and it certainly is not as comprehensive as a national dive into sexual assault on study abroad programs, but it is an indication that serious research should be done on the topic, Flack said.

Flack said that when most students are looking forward to studying abroad, “They’re not thinking, ‘Jeez I’m going to be assaulted,’ or, ‘I might be assaulted,’ or ‘I need to know what the risk is of being assaulted.’”

The Council on International Educational Exchange keeps track of self-reported sexual assaults on its programs and releases a yearly report about the health and safety of students studying abroad. In 2018, CIEE reported 0.3 percent of its students experienced sex offenses.

“When we look at our numbers of sexual assault reportings, frankly, I think we still are underreporting,” said Bill Bull, the vice president of risk management at the CIEE. “When you compare our data to campuses, you see that the on-campus rates are one-in-five, one-in-four depending on what you read. We’re nowhere near that, so one would anticipate we would be closer to that than we are.”