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Sexporting an image of American women

Did MTV pave the way for Amanda Knox's guilty verdict?

dancing," said a student who studied in Madrid in spring 2009, "Europeans maintain some distance from each other. Their dancing is more chaste; less sexual."

Freak dancing is defined as bumping, grinding and dry humping one's body against another's, according to the website "In Puerto Rico, it is known as 'perrero,' which comes from the Spanish word for dog." The word "freak" is a synonym for a four-letter word starting with F that GlobalPost declines to publish.

American women studying abroad defend their gender, saying little more than American friendliness and openness can result in odd social encounters with men. Some say being recognized as an American is enough to get accosted.

Touring the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Dill was harassed by strangers when they heard her accent.

“It was just very bizarre," she recalled. They said "you are Americans, we want to take you home.” She said she did not believe it was to meet their mothers.

Leah Weyers and Katie Schumacher, American students in Rennes, France said drunken Frenchmen proposed paying them in exchange for sex. They said they were touched inappropriately.

"I don't believe the Amanda Knox case has had any impact on the image of American women abroad," said Andrea Vogt, a freelance journalist based in Italy who covered the case.  "Aside from her role in the murder, there were also a number of cultural differences at play that led some to brand her as the stereotypical American college girl abroad — sexually uninhibited, naive and perhaps a bit culturally out of step.

"It should be noted, though, that thousands of American women go abroad each year who do not fit that mold. This case is definitely outside the norm."

Rachel Fein, who also studied abroad in Italy, said she thinks Italian men perceive American women as innocent and naive.

Italian men "think we don't understand their culture, and are more vulnerable or easy to manipulate," she said. "They also made me feel stupid for not being able to speak their language. At certain places, like restaraunts or stores, it was expected that you know Italian. If you did not, other Italians would look at you funny."

Based on student evaluations after their study abroad, students are often culturally shocked and surprised, said Eka Gabelia, assistant director of admissions for SIT Study Abroad.

"In some countries, women receive more male attention maybe then would be culturally appropriate in other cultures. Like it might be culturally appropriate for a man to follow a woman in one country whereas in the U.S. this would not be," she said. "Also our American students also smile a lot and that smile might be interpreted as more than just a friendly gesture."

Language, or lack of it, is a huge barrier, agreed Ali Kruvant, a junior at Oberlin College in Ohio who has studied abroad in France and will study abroad in Italy this January. Many students who go abroad don't know the native language at all, or as well as they think they do, while international students who come to the U.S. cannot get by without being at least conversational in English.

"If you don’t know the language and make no attempt to learn it while you’re living somewhere for months, I think that is just disrespectful," said Kruvant. Amanda Knox "was living with friends, smoking a lot, and didn’t know Italian, which proved to be a problem for her during the trial," she said. Knox was able to address her jury in Italian only after learning the language in prison.

"Orientation is very important, cultural realities are very, very, different depending on where they go," said SIT's Gabelia. "At orientation after arriving in the host country, we also go over safety, security and health information. It's important to have these orientations because some of the things they do might be interpreted differently."

The stereotype Italian men have of American women is wrong, said Charlotte Alter, a sophomore at Harvard University who studied abroad in Florence. However, "American girls come to Italy with an expectation of fun and romance, much like the movie 'The Roman Holiday.'"

In that 1953 classic, "a bored and sheltered princess escapes her guardians and falls in love ... in Rome," according to the popular movie website IMDB.

"These girls who come from — and I felt a part of this a lot — predictable, great, comfortable, conventional lives think that they are going to come to Italy and get swept up in a romantic adventure," she explained.

Some young women seek out exotic romances, she said. Some women are easily seduced by the soundtrack of accordions, flowers thrown from second-floor windows, a sexy foreign language whispered into the ear, and promises that will not be kept.

"It plays into the fact that girls think that they are living in a movie," she said. "It’s a perfect set up for guys who are trying to pick up girls!

"You think this is so romantic, but in reality, it’s totally not. It’s not a real thing. It’s just a pickup."

Meir, the Israeli,  defends the American women he's met in his country.

"Every American I’ve met has been smart, friendly, and not at all slutty," he said. "Unfortunately.”

This report comes from journalists in our Student Correspondent Corps, a GlobalPost project training the next generation of foreign correspondents while they study abroad. Students Ariana McLean (Tufts) and Louise Ward (Boston College), and recent graduate Sara Sorcher (Tufts) contributed to this article.