Cross-Cultural Relationships: Sex and Dating Abroad

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When preparing for your study abroad, you have everything ready; what you may not be able to prepare for is how your love life could change

The runway

Photo: Passen Law Group

Time for an adventure.

When I studied abroad in Argentina, I really liked eating the kinotos (kumquats) fruit preservatives. Our program had advised us, make conversation with Argentines! Just strike up a conversation! So in attempts of adding to the conversation with a group of classmates about food, I said, “Me encanta comer las frutas en preservativos,” and without realizing it, I had just announced that I loved eating fruits in condoms (In Argentina, condoms are referred to as “preservativos,” and I had assumed that meant preservatives). The reaction was a mix of laughter, confused faces, and pitying explanations of my error.

If confusions arise daily when in a foreign country, imagine adding a dating or hook-up relationship to the already shaky waters.  Around 270,000 U.S. students go abroad each year, and where I study, Indiana University, around 3,000 go abroad each year. This makes room for a lot of possibilities of cross-cultural relationships of all types. If you are a U.S. student going abroad, you may have questions on what to expect in terms of relationships in a different culture. Similar to exploring the cultural manners and politeness in public or at the dinner table, there are different expectations for relationship norms. What may be acceptable and expected in the U.S. is frowned upon or avoided in another context, and just as there is no one answer to how to be in a relationship or how to live your sexuality in the U.S., there is certainly no one answer in other countries. As Robin Goralka points out in her post 9 Major Life Lessons I learned Studying Abroad as an LGBT  says, “a culture change causes major gaydar interference,” and mentions that several of her friends were not perceived as gay in the new culture.

How you can prepare

The five following resources are meant to serve as a guide to help you start looking for information. Country by country information about what to expect may be too stereotypical, false, or simplistic (Check out a fun Valentine’s Day-themed look at worldwide dating customs here). The goal is to give you a starting point to come to your own conclusions and discover cultural norms once you have settled in the country.

The following resources may not give you all the answers, but they can give you a place to start looking. (Note: Indiana University Students have free access to resources that might require subscription. All resources can be accessed through IUB Libraries through the tab “resource gateway” >resources by subject> international studies).

1. Find out about the country’s basic data and information

Indiana University librarians suggest CIA World Facebook  or Europa World Plus  to familiarize yourself with the raw data of the country.

You may also want to do some investigative work by looking at the UN’s Demographic Yearbook  under the category “Household Characteristics”. Not only do they have information about family formation, families, household makeup, violence against women, and advancement of gender statistics, the historical perspectives that the yearly statistics show help give a comparison to how data has changed over time.

2. Look for information about sexuality and gender in other cultures (By country)

Search for academic sexuality and gender studies articles searching for your specific topic in the Gender Studies Database , or the Culture, Health & Sexuality Journal .

Check out the Indiana University Overseas Study Office’s GLBT Resources  for book suggestions, and The Kinsey Institute  offers access to The Continuum Complete International Encyclopedia of Sexuality  where you can find analysis of sex, sexuality, and gender by country.

3. What does the media say?

Aside from looking at the country’s newspapers online, utilize the LexisNexis  database to help you find newspaper articles, magazines, blogs, radio and television broadcasts by topic, country, and/or language. Learning about current topics in the media can help you get a sense of what is the focus of public debate and discourse.

By investigating Gallup polls and Polling the Nation you can gage what general public opinion is on different topics, such as dating or homophobic behavior.

4. What does social media say about the topic? What are people talking about?

Using the resource Technorati search for topic and country to find blog posts or blogs dedicated to the topic of your choice. Utilize Twitter to look for trending topics in the country. Investigate CouchSurfing to see what types of social events people are promoting (you can check by country or city).

5. Talk to people who have experienced it

Talking to people who are from or that have studied, lived, or worked in the country is a great resource to hear their anecdotes. Their personal stories may offer you a real glimpse into what you may experience.

Don’t know anyone who knows the country? If you are a student can in touch with your school’s study abroad office. Students at Indiana University can ask theIndiana University Overseas Study Office  to set you up with a previous study abroad participant.

How to utilize the resources using your investigative skills

When using the five sources listed above, take the information you read to the next level. You may be reading an article that gives you statistics on sexual behavior in casual dating. For example, in her article “Global Sex: Sexuality and Global Sexual Practices around the World,” Judith Mackay reports “In the UK 80% of teenage girls under 20 have had sex on dates (UNAIDS, 1999; Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1998: 19, Table 3a).” From this statistic alone, you may be able to hypothesize that 1) many young girls may be engaging in sexual activity, 2) It may be common to talk about sex, 3) it may be expected to have sex on a date, and 4) It may be socially accepted. From these hypotheses you may question society further: If 80% of girls under 20 have had sex on dates, where do they do it? Are there designated locations, such as “Transitory hotels” known as Telos that are common in Buenos Aires? Is there a wider access to birth control?

Some of your questions might include things such as the following: Are public displays of affection condemned or condoned? Do young people cohabitate before marriage? How does society view premarital sex? Does a “hook-up culture” exist like it does in the U.S.? What are dates like in other countries? Are gender expectations different and/or strict? What should I expect people to talk about? What are some things I should keep in mind? What are signs/signals I should look for? How “accepting” of LGBT communities is the country? For more prompting questions, Brandeis University’s study abroad website gives suggestions.

These types of questions can guide your search as well as give you insight into current events, public opinion, and demographic makeups. They will also help you prepare you for what to expect when you arrive in the country and chose to participate in the dating culture of the country.

Still have more questions or want more detailed country information? Indiana University students can feel free to contact Michael Courtney, librarian for International Studies, at micourtn@indiana.edu to help assist you in your search before going abroad.

Allison Yates

Allison received a B.A. from Indiana University in International Studies. She is the current Fund Development Coordinator for Middle Way House, a national model program serving survivors of domestic violence and a sexual assault crisis center in south central Indiana.
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