Note: The terms sexual violence, sexual harassment, and sexual assault are defined within the full eBook on this topic, but used in varying contexts between each writer’s individual experience.
So you’ve got the travel bug, wanderlust, or whatever you call it; you know that inexplicable call to explore a country different from your own. Traveling is the opportunity of a lifetime that always leaves you wanting to go back for more. You get the chance to make new friends, expand your knowledge of the world, and learn about a culture that is unfamiliar to you.
One unfortunate outcome of experiencing these new cultures is that you may find yourself at risk of sexual violence and sexual harassment abroad that will not only impact the remainder of your trip, but your life back home as well.
Many victims of sexual violence don’t report the crime or seek help for the lasting physical and mental impacts. This rings true especially while traveling, because it can be hard to know who to turn to, how to report it, and where to get help. Therefore, it is important to have tools you can use in the event that you or someone you know experience sexual assault or sexual harassment while traveling.
We’ve put together a list of the best sexual harassment resources you should utilize as a student, traveler, what have you.
How to handle sexual harassment abroad
There is no right, wrong, or normal way to respond to sexual violence abroad. You may feel the urge to pretend it didn’t happen, you may want to curl up in a ball and shut out the world, or you may feel numb and detached. Sometimes you might feel inexplicably dirty, angry, or shameful or you may feel totally fine. Don’t expect yourself to react in a specific way and allow yourself to be where you are at any given moment. It can be very helpful when you are going through this processing and array of reactions to have someone to talk to.
On the flip side, if someone you know is the victim of sexual violence abroad, try to be there for them in any way that you can. Sometimes they might want to talk about it, while others times they may simply wish to sit with you. Don’t pressure them to talk about it, question what happened to them, or blame them. Victims of sexual violence heal better when they are believed, reassured, and supported unconditionally.
1. Talk to The People Around You
Friends & Family: Near & Far. Whether they are new to your life or have been around for as long as you can remember, your friends and family are a great resource for you in your time of need. You can talk to those who are abroad with you or loved ones back home, either way you can use them for emotional support. When the people you know and love are aware of what happened to you, they can help support you, connect you to resources, or get you out of an abusive or harassing relationship.
Program Staff or Supervisor. When you’re in another country, it is really important to have someone local or familiar with the language and culture on your side. Every country has a different set of cultural and legal rules when it comes to handling sexual violence and the treatment of victims. Your program staff or supervisor can help you navigate obtaining resources and support in an unfamiliar country while also keeping you safe.
A Trusted Peer or Victim Advocate. It can sometimes be difficult to tell someone you’re close to that you’ve been sexually violated. You may be afraid of their reaction or think that they won’t be able to handle what happened to you. No matter the reason, you may not always turn to your friends and family in your time of need. However, this does not mean that you are out of options for who to talk to. You might find it easier to disclose what happened to a trusted peer or victim advocate. This neutral person can listen to what happened to you, offer to connect you with resources, and offer emotional support.
2. Report it to the Local Authorities
A seldom used yet important option for victims of sexual violence abroad is to report what happened to the local police and potentially have legal actions taken against the perpetrator. It can be difficult to navigate the local authorities and laws in a new country, especially in a foreign language. However, with the help of your program staff, supervisor, advocate, or even a friendly local, it is a viable option for getting justice.
It is important to note that it is not always safe or feasible to report what happened, as victims of sexual violence abroad are either not believed or are considered sexually promiscuous. Additionally, there is a strong stigma against believing victims, particularly male victims, in many countries. It is best to know whether or not reporting is a safe and reasonable option before doing so.
Police. If you experience sexual harassment while traveling, you can usually contact the local authorities to file a police report. This typically entails them collecting evidence, asking you a lot of in-depth questions about what happened, and ultimately investigating. A police report can lead to the discovery of the perpetrator and potentially punishing them. Every country handles crimes differently and has different sentences and punishments for sexual violence.
Lawyer. Lawyers can be a helpful tool for helping walk you through the country’s justice system, helping you understand the potential punishments for the perpetrator, and keeping you safe. They can help you file protection (restraining) orders and keep the perpetrator away from you. In a foreign country it can be beneficial to have a knowledgeable and competent person on your team advocating for your best interest.
3. Consider Your Health
Victims of sexual assault face numerous health concerns both immediately after the assault and for many years to come. Many people are familiar with the physical effects of sexual assault, but frequently forget to consider the equally devastating emotional effects. Your mental and physical well-being are incredibly important, and utilizing professional health resources will help you heal.
Not all countries have adequate health care or easy access to health care professionals for foreigners. If you can research ahead of time or ask those around you for help navigating the system, you should be seen by a doctor as soon as possible after you are assaulted. Finding immediate treatment while abroad might not always be an option, so it is important to remember to get help once you’ve returned home.
Hospital. If you are sexually assaulted, it is extremely important to get yourself immediately checked out for pregnancy, STD/STI’s, and other potential physical trauma. You can typically get access to Plan B birth control, antibiotics to treat potential infections, and any other medical assistance you may require.
Some countries may have specialized nurses who perform sexual assault exams while also collecting forensic evidence left behind by the perpetrator. You typically need to be seen by a nurse within five days (although the sooner the better) of the assault if you are looking to have DNA and other evidence collected. This can help if you choose to move forward with a police report.
Doctor. In addition to immediate medical treatment, you may require additional doctor’s appointments to ensure you are healthy. One hospital visit is not always enough to ensure you are free from STD/STI’s and other reproductive health concerns. This is an especially important step if you weren’t able to go to a hospital after your assault, you should always be checked out by a medical professional after an assault whenever possible. Doctors can help you treat any lasting physical impacts you may have from the assault and connect you with services in the outcome of a pregnancy.
Therapist/Counselor. Your mental health is equally as important as your physical health. Many victims of sexual assault experience depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other concerning symptoms. Getting connected with a therapist is an important step because they can help you process and work through the uncomfortable experiences in your mind and body.
The Importance of Sexual Harassment Resources
Sexual violence is a global health concern and is far too prevalent around the world. As with any potential danger, it is important to be prepared with tools and resources should you or someone you know be sexually violated while abroad.
Many companies, universities, and internship programs have sexual harassment resources available to their employees and students including access to a sexual assault crisis hotline, a victim advocate, or lawyer. Additionally, many countries have national or local sexual assault crisis hotlines or nonprofits that help victims of sexual violence. It is helpful to research these resources before you go or ask locals around you in case you or someone you know ever needs them.
If you feel confident in your knowledge, you can help yourself and others around you access these sexual harassment resources and begin the difficult healing process while abroad.