Discrimination is everywhere, including the United States, but some countries are much less tolerant than others. Before you travel abroad, consider the prejudice you could potentially face in your host country. Is it safe? Is it welcoming? Some students decide to maintain their travel plans anyway. Others reevaluate their itineraries. The decision is totally yours, so never feel pressured to travel anywhere you’d feel unsafe.
Travel Alerts and Advisories
To help you prepare, the U.S. Department of State maintains a current list of travel advisories, rated from Level 1 to Level 4:
- Level 1: Exercise normal precautions
- Level 2: Exercise increased caution
- Level 3: Reconsider travel
- Level 4: Do not travel
The Department of State issues upper level travel advisories for many reasons. Some are natural and temporary, like medical epidemics or natural disasters. Others are not. These warnings inform travelers about countries in which terrorism, political corruption, kidnapping, and violence pose serious threats. Take them seriously. They consider a country’s historical, political, and cultural context, so they are often more complicated than they seem. These issues affect the safety and well-being of everyone, locals included, even if they target specific groups.
You can also check your destination on the Department of State website to determine if the U.S. embassy or consulate in a particular country has issued an alert. Alerts inform travelers of short-term events that may affect their plans, like protests, outbreaks of disease, or elections. Travel advisories are always more serious than alerts and are given when a country is in the midst of civil war, is ruled by an unstable government, or is home to frequent terrorist attacks. In these cases, the Department of State urges travelers to reconsider their destinations.
The U.S. foreign policy record is nowhere near squeaky clean. Some of the government’s decisions have strained our relations with other governments. Their people may distrust or resent the United States—and its citizens by extension. Therefore, because of a general anti-American sentiment, U.S. travelers are sometimes the targets of crime. This violence is particularly scary because it is not personal, so preventing it is difficult. The Department of State identifies the countries that have repeatedly hosted this kind of terrorism. Avoid them as best you can.
Despite efforts to blend in, students of color will attract attention—often unwanted—in certain countries. Depending on the demographics of your host country, locals may regard your physical appearance as a novelty. They may touch your hair, stare at you, or ask you pointed questions. Other parts of the world are outright prejudiced against certain groups, usually nonwhite. These experiences are frustrating at best, threatening or dangerous at worst. Of course, racial prejudice happens everywhere, including on U.S. soil, but some countries may have much higher rates of unprovoked racial insults, harassment, and attacks than others.
Your race should never interfere with your application or acceptance to a U.S.-sponsored study abroad program; that is unlawful discrimination. On a personal level, however, you might decide to consider how each country’s attitudes toward you will affect your well-being. Will your host country welcome you or ostracize you as a person of color? Will you feel safe physically and emotionally?
Before you commit to a destination, you might be interested in reading about other students’ experiences as black, Asian, or Latinx travelers in the host country you are considering. Sites like Diversity Abroad, Brown Girls Fly, and Travel Noire may be helpful as you choose a study abroad destination. Brown University has also compiled information and quotes by students regarding diversity issues on study abroad trips. Upperclassmen who have traveled abroad are also great resources. Your study abroad office can often put you in touch.
Sadly, the world is not free of Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and other xenophobia. While some travelers may feel safe enough to openly practice their religions in their study abroad destinations, others may not. If you are concerned, research your prospective destination. Is it welcoming to students of your faith? What about students of your ethnicity? Is there a place of worship that you can attend? If you have specific dietary needs (halal or kosher food, for example), is it available? You might decide to consult your religious leader, parents, or study abroad program directly if you have questions.
Different cultures have different general perceptions of the LGBT+ community. In countries such as South Africa and Norway, same-sex marriages are recognized and celebrated; LGBT+-friendly spaces are common. Not all of the world is as welcoming. Homosexuality is punishable by death in Nigeria and parts of the Middle East and criminalized in as many as 73 other countries. Indonesia, Kenya, and Jamaica are among them.
Human sexuality is easier to conceal than race or gender, but many LGBT+ students who are out in the United States want to live openly while abroad. The Department of State recommends that LGBT+ travelers research their destinations in advance to avoid criminalization. The annual Human Rights Report is a good starting point. It provides country-specific statistics about violence, discrimination, and other abuses that affect the LGBT+ community.
Many travelers choose to avoid destinations where homosexuality, transgenderism, and/or transexuality is criminalized, and those who go to such destinations should be especially cautious. But do remember that discrimination persists everywhere. People who maintain fake profiles on dating sites, at home and abroad, intend to lure and punish members of the LGBT+ community, for example. Gay travelers out of their comfort zones make easier targets for this violence.
LGBT+ individuals can have positive experiences abroad, but they may want to peruse extra resources first. Compact.org fosters partnerships between schools and communities all over the world. NAFSA’s Rainbow Special Interest Group also has information for LGBT+ students who are interested in international travel. They feature scholarships, country guides, and firsthand advice from students.
Sexism and Machismo
Sexism can be found in developed countries, like our own, but it manifests differently outside of our borders. Each year, the World Economic Forum releases the Global Gender Gap Report. It considers women’s medical, educational, economic, and political opportunities in over 140 countries. The United States consistently ranks in the top half, along with many countries in Western Europe and a smattering of others, such as Rwanda and Nicaragua. If you choose to study abroad in a location with a lower ranking, however, women’s rights are fewer.
Women may be underrepresented in your host country’s government or in professions of influence, such as law and medicine. There may be fewer women in your classes, and locals might ask you why you are going to college instead of settling down with a family. In some more extreme examples, women do not have the right to vote (Vatican City). Women and female-presenting travelers to parts of the Middle East, for example, must dress conservatively and limit their interactions with men.
Sexism also manifests in many South American and European countries in the form of machismo. The word’s meaning, originally descended from the Latin for masculinity, encompasses male aggression —catcalling, harassment, stalking, rape—that negatively affects women. On the flip side, not all machista codes of behavior are outwardly aggressive. Men in your host country may be taught to respect women by opening doors for them and inviting them to board a bus first, for example. You might be taken aback by these actions and view them as belittling, but in the context of your host country, these actions are viewed positively.
When dealing with sexism and/or machismo, keep in mind:
- Respect the culture you’re living in, even if you don’t necessarily agree with all of its attitudes.
- Understand the line between a cultural difference and a real threat. If a situation escalates and a man tries to touch you or follow you or otherwise makes you feel uncomfortable, know that he has crossed the line. Remove yourself from all situations that turn violent or unsafe. Seek help from a security guard, police officer, or someone working for your study abroad program, if you desire. In some situations, you may choose to file a report with the local authorities, and your program and college back in the United States should support you.
- Research several destinations before settling on one, especially if you are worried that you will lose your sense of personal safety abroad. If you do not want to make any compromises in what you wear or who you can interact with, consider a destination with a higher Gender Gap Report ranking.
Attitudes about Sex
Some countries, such as Spain, the Netherlands, France, and Brazil, are more open about human sexuality than the United States. You might see more nudity on television, for example, and casual sex might not carry a stigma. Prostitution may be fully legal and advertised. Other countries, most notably in the Middle East, have much more conservative views of sex. Contact between unmarried people of the opposite sex could be limited or prohibited. Dorms may have strict visiting policies.
Research your host country’s attitudes about sex in advance. It is wise to respect them once you arrive, even if you don’t necessarily agree with them. If you do not think you can make compromises or if the attitudes about sex make you uncomfortable, consider another destination.
Consent is essentially permission, and it describes a willingness to enter into a sexual relationship with someone else. If you give your consent to someone, you are telling that person that he or she has your permission to start a sexual encounter.
With the rise of campus sexual assault, many U.S. colleges are teaching their students about consent. To avoid any gray areas between sex and rape, advocates push for a “yes means yes” policy. Did he or she give a resounding yes before the encounter? That’s what consent sounds like.
When dating abroad, keep in mind that not all countries are as progressive. In some countries, asking someone to meet you at your home is code for asking someone to hook up. Of course, agreeing to meet up or go on a date should never be taken as your consent for sex, but it is still important to be as clear as possible, especially if there is a language barrier between you and your partner. Just because it’s common for individuals to disguise their sexual consent in other cultures does not mean that you should too. Give your answer clearly.
If you did not give your consent, but someone pursued an encounter with you anyway, you may have experienced a sexual assault. If this happens to you abroad, you should feel welcome to report the incident to your program if you desire. Your program can put you in touch with police, doctors, or other authorities who can help you. There is support out there, even if you do not decide to file a report.
Page last updated: 01/2019