Risk Factors for Sexual Assault While Studying Abroad

Authored by:
Bill Bull

Bill Bull

At CIEE, we conduct an annual review of all sexual assault cases. Our goal is to learn what we can from commonalities, so we might improve our practices in prevention of these horrific events and better equip our staff to provide the best possible support. 

I am going to share with you some of our analysis of incident data. Please forgive any sense of oversimplification of these highly complex and painful experiences and accept this as an earnest attempt to improve our collective understanding and capacity to support all students.

This is the third year for which we had uniformly collected data on Health, Safety, and Security incidents so we were able to run something of a longitudinal analysis and compare our data with the findings generated from the 2011-2013 report published by United Educators about sexual assaults on campus. While our findings are not directly comparable to those of United Educators there are some similarities and dissimilarities worthy of note that will inform all our pre-departure briefings.

Campus vs. Study Abroad Environments
United Educators in their report examining 305 claims from 104 schools, noted that “90% of Victims Knew the Perpetrator, 78% of Sexual Assaults Involved Alcohol, [and] 60% of Sexual Assaults Occurred on Campus.” 

CIEE’s analysis from 2016-2018 derives its data from 109 reports throughout all our study centers worldwide. Our data revealed that unlike on campus, in the study abroad environment, 73% of the perpetrators were either strangers (59%) or someone they met that day (14%).  Further the role of alcohol was similarly inverted, as unlike the 78% percent on campus, alcohol was cited as a known contributing factor in only 17% of reports.  

We have also looked at when in the semester, both by time on program and by day of week, that there was increased reporting of a sexual assault. Perhaps not unsurprisingly our data did show that there was an increased likelihood on weekend nights, with the fewest reports coming in on Tuesday nights.

We also noted that it is in the 6th-8th week of every semester that we receive the most reports of sexual violence. 

April, on the other hand, has the fewest reports of any month and it is also the month that we publish sexual assault awareness reminders to all students.  As nice as it might be to believe that there is a direct relationship between our enhanced messaging and a reduction in reported cases, we don’t necessarily believe that this is the true, as it could simply be a function of reporting.  That said, we intend to add another mid-semester set of reminders at the start of every October for fall semester students.

Support for CIEE Students
CIEE uses local sexual assault data we have collected as part of our orientation and briefings to students at the start of the semester in order help the students understand when and where previous students much like themselves have experienced these events. 

We embed this material into our annual Risk Assessments and design and devise preventative and supportive strategies whenever we see a trend, spike, or anomaly. 

As many of you know, we also run Bystander Intervention Trainings at the start of every semester to bring these issues front and center and teach students how to help each other. 

Additionally, CIEE brings in experts with both Peace Corps and U.S. military backgrounds to train our staff how to sensitively support students who have experienced sexual assaults. Each year we update our location-specific sexual assault guidelines that are based on local law and forensic requirements. These are designed to help students understand the process of reporting an assault in a specific country and minimize any re-traumatization.

How You Can Encourage Student Safety
We have seen a modest diminishment in annual reports on sexual assaults, down this year from the previous year but any report is one too many. Collectively, we can and should work together to highlight this issue for students and support them in any way we can. Here are some things you can do to help students maintain their own safety:

  • Work with your students to understand even more just how different the study abroad environment is from on campus realities.
    • On campus risk factors that are communicated to students are very different than what we are seeing in the overseas environment.
  • Promote attendance to the on-arrival orientations and Bystander Intervention Trainings (BIT). 
    • Some students like to say “Oh, I know BIT, we do it on campus”, but remind them that on campus BIT and overseas BIT trainings are similar but not at all the same. Our trainings are geared directly to their new local realities. 
  • Help students understand that we see an increases in assault reports after the six weeks in country mark, as students get more acclimatized to their new environments and perhaps let their guards slip.

Thanks for your time and engagement with this critical issue!

P.S. We share the following with all students in multiple formats throughout each semester:

For our Participants:

If you, or someone you know, have/has been the victim of a sexual assault while on CIEE’s program

CIEE takes the report of any sexual assault extremely seriously, and on-site staff are there to assist you, or someone you know, regardless of your/their physical or assigned program location.  If you or someone you know has been assaulted, please report this immediately to CIEE on-site staff.  CIEE Staff members have on-site sexual assault response protocols to assist survivors of sexual assault whether the survivor wishes to report the incident to local authorities or not.  While we cannot guarantee complete privacy once the report is made to CIEE Staff, we can promise CIEE students that we will handle the matter in extreme confidence and only inform those with a “need-to-know” in order to best support the participants impacted. 

If you, or someone you know, feels uncomfortable reporting an assault to on-site CIEE Staff; you or they can always contact the CIEE Health, Safety, & Security Team in Portland, Maine directly at hss@ciee.org.

Confidential Resource: To report anonymously/confidentially and independent of CIEE (i.e. it will not be known to CIEE):

  • RAINN: Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network: Hotline-800.656.HOPE (4673)
  • Pathways to Safety International / SASHAA: 833-SAFE-833


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