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Sexual Assault Abroad: What to Do if It Happens to You

Elizabeth Esparza, a former special agent for the U.S. State Department and currently a senior program manager on our International Safety & Security team, shares a personal story about sexual assault while traveling abroad. She also provides advice on what you can do if you find yourself in a similar situation.

It Happened to Me

I spent my junior year of college studying in Madrid, Spain. It was easily the most rewarding experience of my undergraduate years. During that time, I traveled extensively, taking any opportunity to explore Europe and North Africa. New Year’s Eve found me in London.

Four of my friends and I decided to count down to the New Year in Trafalgar Square. With a view of Big Ben, and joined by thousands of other revelers, it started as an exhilarating evening. Or maybe that was just the feeling of being really cold in subfreezing temperatures. Sadly, the night took an unexpected turn. At some point, all five of us started getting groped, fondled, and grabbed. There were so many people that it was impossible to move or get away. We couldn't even see who they were, we could only feel their hands. We huddled close to each other, hoping to provide less opportunity as we tried to move away. We eventually made our way to London police officers.

This was London in the mid-90s. Similar events continue to make headlines in the U.S. and abroad, including the #MeToo movement, New Year’s Eve celebrations in Bangalore, India and Cologne and Hamburg, Germany, as well as the July 2016 running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. And there are more incidents just like these that never receive national or international attention.

Advice and Resources

So what can you do if you find yourself in a similar situation?

Try to get out of it, if it is safe to do so. It's hard for someone who hasn't had a similar experience to understand that protecting yourself from such an attack can be difficult. For me and my friends, it was impossible to move; there were too many bodies crammed into a contained space. It was loud and chaotic, and we couldn't draw attention to our situation.

Seek help, if you'd like to or need to. You can report the assault to law enforcement, if it is safe to do so. This could lead to finding the person(s) responsible and preventing others from experiencing assault. Or it may not; they may not be found, they may not be charged, or there may not be laws against what happened to you in your host country. In some countries, people who have experienced sexual assault may themselves be criminalized due to existing laws.

If you'd like to discuss potential security or legal concerns before making the decision to report to police, first contact International SOS, the University's 24/7 global emergency response program, by phone at +1-617-998-0000 or through the Assistance App. Case managers can provide information on local laws and the capabilities of local law enforcement, as well as advise you on whether or not it's safe to stay.

If you need medical attention or would like to speak to a mental health professional, contact International SOS. In some countries, post-exposure prophylaxis and emergency contraceptives are not legal or universally available. Case managers can provide advice and referrals to local facilities for care, or evacuation to a regional facility. International SOS can also get a mental health professional to speak with you over the phone or refer you to an in-country provider.

For confidential support, you can contact the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention & Response (OSAPR). You may also ask to be connected to OSAPR when you call International SOS.

Before You Travel

Research your destination and learn more about our resources for sexual assault and gender-based violence and LGBTQ resources. If you'd like to learn more about University policies and resources for individuals who experience sexual assault, contact your School's or unit's Title IX coordinator. OSAPR is also a good option to confidentially discuss available resources.

If you'd like assistance in researching and understanding the laws surrounding sexual assault in the country you'll be vising, email me at to schedule a consultation.

Please know that Harvard's support is global and that you have a lot of options, resources, and people that can help.