How to Talk to Your College-Bound Kid About Sexual Violence

Aug 29, 2018 at 8:00 a.m. ET
Two students walking on a college campus, one with a bicycle
Image: Hero Images/Getty Images. Design: Ashley Britton/SheKnows.

The week I arrived at college to start my freshman year, there was a lot to take in and process. Getting used to living in a tiny room with a total stranger was one thing, as were starting new classes and getting to know the people who would be my classmates for the next four years. 

Part of orientation included attending an assembly on sexual assault entitled "No Means No." I don't remember much of it, but at the end, all the women in attendance were issued our very own rape whistles to put on our key chains to toot if we were in danger. 

Not surprisingly, the Catholic education I received before college didn't really address sexual violence, and was largely limited to telling the women not to get pregnant and not to dress in a way that would "promote occasions of sin" for the boys. (This included wearing spaghetti-strap tank tops and open-toed shoes, because if we did and a male student violated us in any way, it would be our fault for provoking them with our clothing.)

Setting aside how messed up that is (a topic for another day), I began my college career thinking that if any sort of sexual violence happened to me, it was likely in some way my fault. Of course, it didn't help that society operated under this mentality as well: Putting the onus on women not to get attacked.

Now that college students are moving back onto campuses, it's the ideal time to talk to your university-bound kid (or niece, nephew, neighbor, friend's kid, etc.) about the realities of sexual violence on campus, as well as issues surrounding consent, rape culture and victim-blaming.

What to know

Campus sexual violence is extremely pervasive. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, 11.2 percent of all undergraduate and graduate students (regardless of gender) experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence or incapacitation. Focusing just on undergraduate students, the numbers are even more staggering, with 23.1 percent of female-identifying students and 5.4 percent of male-identifying students experiencing rape or sexual assault, RAINN reports

And the beginning of the academic year tends to be the worst for sexual violence: According to RAINN, 50 percent of college sexual assaults occur in August, September, October or November.

How to approach the subject

Talking about things like sexual violence and rape culture is never easy, but thanks to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements being so prominent over the past year, for better or worse, it's now a topic that we're far more accustomed to hearing about on a regular basis. 

To start with, make sure they're aware of the issue in general, Dr. Mayra Mendez, a licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John's Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California, tells SheKnows.

"Awareness is the first step to prevention of sexual violence; understanding and having an action plan and resources is the second step that provides the power driving the voice that halts sexual violence," she says.

More: Our Narrow View of Sexual Assault Is Letting People Get Away With It

One way to do this is by sharing accurate and reliable data on campus sexual violence, like the statistics mentioned earlier from RAINN as well as those from the Centers for Disease Control and the American College Health Association. While these numbers are likely far lower than the actual incidences of sexual violence (thanks to these crimes being severely underreported), it's nonetheless an important component of raising awareness of the crimes.

"The purpose of talking to college-bound students by putting forth a foundation of public data is to depersonalize the conversation and legitimize the topic from a public-awareness perspective," Mendez explains. "When concerns and information are presented from a public-awareness foundation, the young adult is more likely to hear and take in the information openly rather than believing that the parent is being overreactive and unrealistic about the concerns." 

Tools & empowerment

Once you've identified campus sexual violence as a serious concern, Mendez says that the information you pass along to a college-bound student should identify self-care needs and principles, interpersonal skills and boundary setting as well as having discussions pertaining to bystander responsibilities and accountability. This can also involve providing real-life examples of how to handle specific situations.

"Parents need to support the young adult with options to manage undesirable and compromising situations," Mendez says. "Support the young adult to develop a list of resources with names and contact information of trusted people, organizations, counseling and social services."

Mendez also recommends that parents emphasize a message of empowerment when talking to their college-bound kids.

"Reinforce the importance of the young adult’s power to use their voice to set limits, communicate concerns to others who may be helpful allies and act against sexual violence by reporting concerns to authorities," she says. "Parents should encourage and give their young adult authority to speak up and use their voice to provide consent or not, to speak out against stereotypes or gender biases and to activate their social responsibilities as bystanders by acting rather than taking a passive, dismissive attitude about inappropriate interactions." 

More: What the Aziz Ansari Allegations Teach Us About Our Limited Concept of Consent

Resources for parents & mentors

If you're still unsure of where to start, there are a few helpful resources out there that parents may find useful. One is the #TalkingIsPower campaign from Power to Decide. A Champion's Guide as well as other information is available through the organization's website.

"The purpose of the Talking is Power effort is to spark meaningful conversations between young people and the parents and champions in their lives who care about them," Power to Decide media relations director Paloma Zuleta tells SheKnows. "Specifically, the #TalkingIsPower campaign provides resources that champions such as parents, guardians, teachers, mentors and other family members can use to spark conversations with young people in their lives about sex, love and relationships."

Additionally, there are several resources that focus on campus sexual violence that can be helpful for parents and students alike, including NotAlone.gov (a government website dedicated to educating students and schools about Title IX and sexual assault), Know Your IX (which provides information for students about their Title IX rights in regard to ending sexual violence on campus) and End Rape on Campus (an advocacy organization dedicated to assisting students in filing Title IX complaints).

As easy and tempting as it might be just to ignore the subject before sending someone off to college, don't. These incredibly important conversations may be uncomfortable but may also make a significant difference in someone's life.

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