Raped While Abroad: It Happened to Lots of Us

This was what my abroad semester was for, I thought determinedly: to try to run at every wall and see if I could climb it before the skin on my palms gave way and I fell to the ground.
Publish date:
December 18, 2012
rape, sexual assault, going abroad, another country

(This piece discusses themes of rape and sexual assault and may be triggering for some people.)

My second weekend in Brisbane, Australia, I woke up naked in my own bed with blood all over my pillow and a few used condoms on the floor.

“Great,” I thought, probing lightly at the damp, matted hair on the back of my head until I found the goose egg, sickly warm beneath my fingers.

When I was coming back from the laundry room, sheets bundled in my arms, I ran into my housemate. He looked rough, stubble patchy and eyes hooded. He nodded at me as I smiled at him with no teeth, called, “See ya,” after me as I walked downstairs to my basement room and shut the door.

“Well, that’s awkward,” I said aloud to the empty room, laughing a little on the exhale like I was practicing. “Right? Oops.”

“Hey, are you okay?” my one friend in the city asked a week later. She was older, intimidatingly beautiful, with a lovely, wide laugh and long blonde hair. I don’t actually remember how I met her -- probably in that same way I meet most people, by making eye contact on trains or at bookstores and leaving 45 minutes later overflowing with that extrovert-high of having connected with a new person in a new place. Just that morning I’d seen a massive iguana perched in my window and thought, I’m here, this is it. “You kind of fell down the stairs the other night.”

“Oh, that explains it,” I said, memory twanging a little now that she’d mentioned it. “I guess I was drunker than I thought.”

“Well, I’m glad you made it home okay,” she said, warm, long fingers wrapped companionably around my wrist.

“Yeah, it’s kind of funny,” I said, half-laughing. “I ended up having sex with my housemate? I mean, he drove us home, and I kind of -- whoops!”

She stared at me, mouth twisting. “That’s -- not great.”

“Oh, well,” I said, flapping a hand. “You know. It happens.”

“Kate,” she said. “It really doesn’t.”

“Well,” I said, trying for light. “It did!”

I was OK. I really was, for the most part and for a while. Chad was an asshole, but he wasn’t my only housemate. The rest of us would gather in the kitchen, drinking tea, and roll our eyes at him as he walked by wearing skintight tank tops, on his way out to the electronica clubs downtown.

He’d offered me ecstasy once, when I’d first moved in and before we’d gone anywhere together, and like an overeager asshole I’d said sure, maybe sometime. This was what my abroad semester was for, I thought determinedly: to run at every wall and see if I could climb it before the skin on my palms gave way and I fell to the ground.

Eventually, though, it started to get to me. After hearing Chad claim that no one he knew had AIDS, that AIDS was an “Abo” disease, I waited sick with nerves for months before going to the free clinic in Brisbane’s city centre to get tested. I wrote weird, bloody short stories about possums eating their own babies. At night, I’d listen to Chad as he staggered around the kitchen, stoned and stealing people’s food, my food, and I’d curl my hands into fists and think Just come in here, I dare you, I dare you, even though I knew the door was locked.

Once, he shot a crow with a crossbow in our backyard. He’d grown up in the rural Northern Territory, up by Darwin, and he had fine aim. He’d gotten annoyed with the way they cawed on the porch outside his room in the morning, so he’d shot one in the chest.

“That’s awful,” I said, when he told me triumphantly how the rest of the flock had gathered and stared down at him, silent, as he yanked the arrow out of their dead.

He’d shrugged, mouth a hard line. “They’re just crows.”

The worst, though, was when he’d bring girls home. He was a good-looking guy, I guess -- not the kind I usually go for, too gym-cut and swaggery for my taste. I’d hear him stumbling into the wall, their giggles and the clacking of heels on the floor, and I’d wait, breathing into the dark, trying to determine how far gone they were. None of them ever seemed incoherent, but then, maybe neither had I.

“Dude, don’t be jealous,” one of my other housemates said once as I watched Chad lead a pretty girl back to his room down the hall. He was a sweet-faced jock boy, John, into water polo and 900-page fantasy books, and up until that very moment I’d thought of him as my ally. “I heard you guys that one night.”

“John,” I said, feeling urgent and cotton-headed. “That -- I was really drunk. I don’t remember anything."

“Well, you seemed like you were into it,” he said, flipping a page in his Pratchett book.

I think this is what kept me from calling what happened “rape” for so long. I was 19, I’d only had sex with two other cis dudes, and maybe there was some part of me that kind of figured that this was how these things went. You got drunk sometimes, you made mistakes, you woke up naked in bed the next morning and laughed it off. I’m sure some of you will say it wasn’t rape, that I must have consented somewhere between the two drinks he poured me and him pressing me into my mattress. I wouldn’t know. I can’t remember.

No jury in the world would convict him, I know that much. And I’m sure he’d say it wasn’t assault, that I’d pressed myself against him in that way drunk American girls like me do and mouthed at his neck until he just had to drive me home.

I just know that as far as I’m concerned, consent means enthusiastic and informed, and saying “yes” when I was blind drunk and bleeding from the head probably came easily but not very consciously.

Not even I called it “rape” for a long, long time. Rape always sounded so heavy, so final. An assault sounded like a battle; rape sounded like a murder, like there was never any coming back from it. I know now that's not the case, but it took me a while to get there.

According to a study from Middlebury College in Vermont, women who study abroad are four times as likely to be sexually assaulted as their non-study-abroad peers. The reasons cited all sound awfully familiar: weak social connections, cultural differences, easy access to alcohol.

A lot of students, I think, view studying abroad as a brief chance to live outside themselves for a little while. No one wants to be the prudish American who whines and wilts because they can’t find a Chipotle or because they’re afraid of huntsman spiders. No one wants to miss out on the authentic Brisbane-Prague-Sevilla experience because they don’t want to venture out of their comfort zone.

In Ithaca, I probably wouldn’t have taken drinks from a dude I barely knew. I wouldn’t have gotten falling-down drunk at another almost-stranger’s house party, in a neighborhood so far from my own that it required a car to get there. Most of all, I would’ve confronted Chad the next morning, or the following week, or sometime in the next six months, because I’d have been supported by my friends.

I made friends while abroad, of course, but there’s a big difference between, “Will you go to the Aussie Rules match with me?” and, “Will you help me make my housemate understand that wasted consent isn’t consent?”

In retrospect, I probably could have asked Laura, who’d gotten so hard-eyed about her party over lunch, or my classmate Cloud or my British bro Jeremy. But when you’re new to a place or people or both, it’s hard to admit when you’re overwhelmed, or unsure or need help. And the idea of taking that on alone scared me.

When my little brother and I took a trip to Croatia this summer, we got toe-curlingly drunk on homemade cherry moonshine and stayed up for hours with our cousins and their friends, howling at the moon and playing bocce ball. One night, as we all lay around smoking cigarettes and trading half-translated stories, I realized that Mikes wasn’t with us anymore.

“Where’s my brother?” I asked, worried, because I always am. My cousins laughed.

“He’s with Nika,” one of them said. “She is his girlfriend for the night.”

“She’s drunk,” one of the others said. “She has never drunk before.”

I stood up, so quickly that my chair tipped over. “Where are they?”

“She’s a virgin,” they assured me, laughing. “She’s religious, she’s a virgin, nothing will happen.”

“I’ll be back,” I said, and took off into the woods.

My brother is the best person I know, and he’s gentle and wonderful and cried when I came out to him when he was 16. But he was also drunk, and horny, and I knew better but I couldn’t help but think that maybe he’d think that this was a chance to live outside himself. As I crashed through the underbrush, for some reason I kept chanting in my head, Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be rapists, over and over like a prayer.

Like maybe all of our talks about consent and awareness couldn’t undo what being 18 and abroad had taught him about being invincible.

I never found them. In the end, I just stood and hollered, voice cracking, into the silent trees, “Mikes! She’s a virgin! And she’s never been drunk before!” Pause. “Just -- just keep that in mind.”

Eventually, they came back, leaves in their hair and smiling shyly. “We just made out,” Mikes told me, flicking me on the ear. “Jesus, obviously.”

“Sorry,” I said, sheepish. I’d known better, knowing him. “I just. Had to make sure.” New country, new rules.

Kate is on Twitter at @katchatters.