GenderGender roles vary around the world and it is important to understand how your gender identity may relate to your study abroad experience. Researching your host country can help you learn about gender behavioral expectations, dating, relationships, etc. You may find the cultural expectations make you uncomfortable or challenge your personal values. Knowing that in advance gives you time to prepare.
Chat with returnees, international students from the host country, or others familiar with it to better understand gender roles. There may be implicit messages to certain behaviors in the local context. For example, in some cultures a female purchasing a drink for, or accepting a drink from, a male may indicate sexual interest or openness. This can lead to uncomfortable or even dangerous situations. Asking local students can help clear up unwanted confusion.
This content is important for ALL gender identities to review as you will be with other international students who may need your advocacy.
U.S. women may experience more gender-specific challenges than they face at home. People around the world are often introduced to U.S. women in Hollywood films or magazines, meaning they may have stereotypes about the sexual availability of U.S. women. What you consider "being nice" in Eau Claire could be perceived as flirting or sexual interest in some other cultures. It is important to understand the context for relationships between men and women in your host country.
Every culture has written or unwritten rules about how women should present themselves. What may be okay to do/wear in the U.S. may not be okay in your host country. Smiling at strangers, making eye contact, wearing certain clothes, ignoring host country gender roles, how you walk, etc. could illicit unwanted attention or questions from local people.
In some cultures, men are still viewed as superior and there is a "machismo" attitude toward women. Women may encounter unwanted catcalls, gawking, etc. As a short-term visitor in the culture, challenging men and this behavior could escalate the situation from uncomfortable to unsafe.
Sexual harassment may be hard to identify in your host country because cultural norms may be different than what you're used to. Don't feel the need to be overly polite if you are bothered by someone. While it may seem rude to be unfriendly to a stranger or just-made acquaintance, creating boundaries to protect yourself is important. Your safety is far more important than upsetting a local due to cultural sensitivity. Being a victim of a crime is never the victim's fault and we encourage you to review the Sexual Violence resources on our Health & Safety page.
A few tips to help prepare yourself:
- Ask returnees what they noticed
- Observe the local women and how they dress, act, etc. Ask questions to women who work at your host university or roommates.
- Firmly say "no" to any invitation you don't want. Back up the words with your facial expression and body language. Be persistent!
- Travel in groups
- Trust your gut
- Walk with confidence
- Don't engage with catcallers
- Avoid eye contact with/smiling at strangers (as Mid-westerners, this can be HARD!)
- Avoid over consumption of alcohol
As a man abroad, you may notice female students on your program receiving unwanted attention from local men. This can be unsettling and leave you with conflicted feelings. It is important to research your host country to learn what the gender norms are and how women are treated. Some cultures have a machismo culture meaning that men are superior to women and get away with making unwanted advances at women, usually in the form of catcalls and constant gawking. Again, this can be hard to witness but it is important to not escalate the situation.
Men in some cultures are more physically affectionate with their male friends than is common in the U.S. Heterosexual male friends may hold hands or greet each other with a kiss on the cheek. This display of affection can make U.S. men uncomfortable. If you are okay with adapting this cultural norm, you are welcome to, but never feel forced into following suit.
Being a U.S. man may have negative connotation in certain countries. For example, U.S. men (specifically White U.S. men), who travel to Thailand may experience unwanted stares or assumptions that they are there for sex. Unfortunately, Thailand has a history of many U.S. men (mostly older) traveling to the country for sex. While that isn't your intention, it is an assumption local people may have of you. Be firm and persistent in saying "no", and inform people that you're there to study.
When men return from studying abroad, they sometimes comment that their female friends asked the men to go everywhere with them. Having a male friend present can often reduce unwanted attention. But you may sometimes want time to yourself, or you may want to just hang out with the guys. Open conversations can help keep everyone safe and comfortable.
Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming
There can be obstacles for students who are transgender or gender non-conforming, when it comes to traveling and studying abroad. Obtaining a passport or navigating the airport security can be difficult and overwhelming. It can also be hard to uproot yourself from your support network. It is important to research these questions in the planning process so you know what resources are available to you.
- How will I be perceived in my host country?
- Will I experience discrimination?
- Are there certain places I shouldn't go due to threat to my wellbeing?
- Are there resources and people I can talk with?
- Are gender neutral bathrooms available? If not, could I get in trouble using one or the other?
- Does my gender on my passport match my physical appearance?
- Am I able to use my preferred name at the host university?
- National Center for Transgender Equality Travel Resources: TSA tips and how to discreetly disclose any medical/health concern to a TSA agent.
- National Center for Transgender Equality Passport Guidance: info on exactly what your physician must include when applying for a passport
Thank you to The University of California - Santa Cruz and Northwestern University for resources and information.