International students: we need to talk about sex

As the #metoo era shines a spotlight on sexual consent, it’s easy to forget that many young people around the world are raised with different cultural norms about sexual relationships. Yet there is an alarming lack of research into the impact of sexual consent education and support for international students.

When I was 17, I spent a semester studying abroad in Japan. My orientation program, which consisted of ‘no dating, no drinking, no driving, no drugs’, failed to prepare me for my first experience on a typically packed train, where it was apparently culturally acceptable for a man to grope a woman.

Suddenly everything I was raised to believe was not appropriate seemed perfectly acceptable – I didn’t know how to operate in this new context.

As a result, I have profound empathy with the students who come here to study in Canada, and how confusing many aspects of our cultural norms must seem.

This personal interest led to the establishment of Fraser International College’s first ‘healthy relationships and your body’ transition program in 2008. Since then, we’ve further developed and extended the required semester-long program to cover everything international students need to know to get used to their new lives in Vancouver – including consent and healthy communication, sexual health and gender identity, and the cultural and societal norms around sex.

Our alumni tell us it’s the most useful thing they learn in their first semester. To complete the transition program, students must write a reflection essay on which part of the course was most meaningful. On average, around 85% tell us it is the sexual health component.


International students are uniquely vulnerable

According to a survey of 81 Canadian campuses, 29% of female students were sexually abused over a 12 month period. Other vulnerable populations identified in the data had sexual assault rates as high as 45%. We also know international students are statistically less likely to access counselling services.

Many international students arrive on campus having never talked openly about sex before. They may not have been permitted to converse with members of the opposite sex – and now they are often expected to share a bathroom with them.

Similarly, in Australia a recent investigation revealed many international students arrive with a significant lack of basic sex education compared with their Australian-born classmates – and this can complicate their study abroad experience. They could come from countries where harassment is not a crime, or where rape victims can be charged with adultery. These factors may prevent disclosure.

We also see the impact of popular culture such as movies amongst male students from some parts of the world. Their only experience of sexual norms in western culture may be movies like American Pie and Van Wilder – yet if they copy that behaviour, they’re more likely to be expelled than become ‘the big man on campus’.  Students can be completely unprepared for the difference between media and reality.

Language is an obvious barrier. EAL classes don’t tend to cover the words for intimate body parts or euphemisms for sex. Fear and shame means so much goes unsaid. Cultural context adds another layer of complexity – the tools we use to educate domestic students on consent simply don’t translate. For example, a popular video comparing sexual consent to forcing someone to drink tea misses the point that in some cultures, forcing tea is seen as good manners.

No wonder international students are confused. At best, it leads to awkward situations. At worst, these misunderstandings can make international students vulnerable to victimisation or assault. I’ve seen first-hand how this can make campus a place they no longer want to be, even as we run internal investigations and put restrictions in place. Inevitably, they return home – and put their dreams of an international education on hold.

Start with the foundation

In Canada government involvement is prompting institutions to improve their approach to managing sexual violence on campus. So, they’ve put together support services, policies, and support and investigation processes, and run programs on sexual consent.

But consent is a very narrow topic, and we can’t take foundational knowledge for granted. Some international students do not know how you can fall pregnant or pass on STIs, let alone the various types of sexual violence that can occur.

At FIC, we believe the only way to build the bridge to a very difficult conversation like sexual violence and assault is by first making sure everyone is comfortable discussing the basics including problems like ‘my boyfriend never listens to me.’ So we enlist regular teachers – people they will become familiar with – to run our transition program. We want our students to realise this is an everyday conversation we have in Canada.

It’s just as important to prepare for the emotional toll this can have on staff once disclosures do become an everyday conversation. We run the risk of compassion fatigue – potentially leading to secondary traumatic stress and burnout.

Rethinking our approach, backed by research

According to our own literature review, international students and sexual health is a poorly researched area, and we need robust qualitative and quantitative research to inform successful program development.

Beyond the much-needed support for victims, this also needs to consider the multiple perspectives and cultural definitions of concepts like masculinity. It’s also important to reframe the conversation away from our ‘western’ point of view. Eventually, students will return home to the cultural norms they grew up with. Our way is not the only way, as I learned in Japan, so our goal is to help students understand how things work here, and how they can successfully navigate a new cultural context with an open mind.

When we consider how important international students are to our institutions internationalization strategies and finances, I believe it’s a small ask to ensure they have the knowledge and support that prepares them for the best (and worst) of what their experience may bring.

About The Author

Sharla Reid is the College Director and Principal of Fraser International College at Simon Fraser University. Since joining Navitas Sharla has built a robust student leadership community that has both award winning student support programming and community leaders. She has worked with the partner institution to create targeted faculty specific support programming for students to ensure students succeed in North America. Over the course of her career, she has had the opportunity to work in all areas of International Student Affairs and present on emerging issues at conferences including NAFSA, CACUSS, FYE and CBIE. Sharla has been working in International Education since 2000 and was awarded the Rising Star in International Education award from the British Columbia Council for International Education in 2014. Sharla holds a Master of Arts in Industrial and Organizational Psychology (Adler University) and a Bachelor of Arts (University of British Columbia).

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