It won’t help to tell her not to go to parties, not to drink alcohol. If there is one rule you can offer, it’s probably ‘pay attention to your gut.’
It’s the call every parent dreads. It usually begins with “Mom, there’s something I need to tell you.” What follows is an often-disjointed account of sexual assault. What many parents need to know: Victims can find telling them as traumatic as the assault itself. I’ve spent a lifetime working with college students and studying violence against women.
5 ways to help a college student avoid, or recover from, campus sexual assault
1. First, get your head out of the sand.
The odds of a girl being sexually assaulted while at college can be higher than the odds of getting into the school in the first place. The most common time is between freshman orientation and Thanksgiving. Girls (I call them that because that’s what they call themselves), as well as transgender, nonbinary, and gender questioning students, are the primary victims.
A 2019 survey of 181,752 students at 33 leading universities across the country found that 25.9% of undergraduate girls had experienced “nonconsensual penetration, attempted penetration, sexual touching by force, or inability to consent” since they enrolled. One-in-four odds are too big to ignore.
Post-COVID anxiety will be intense
2. Second, the pandemic matters.
In 2021, there will be essentially two classes of first-year students on campus: true freshman and those starting their second year after months of virtual instruction. The eagerness and anxiety that accompany going to college are sure to be more intense post-pandemic. Plus, after so much physical distancing, we all experience pent up longing for touch and intimacy.
What can be done? Changing the attitudes and behaviors of men and boys is what will reduce sexual assault. Easier said than done. So I shifted my focus on prevention and spoke with victims, their mothers and fathers and wrote a book, After Campus Sexual Assault: A Guide for Parents. Their stories were heart rending.
Which brings us to point three:
3. Amid gathering bug spray and laundry soap, take time to talk about sexual assault.
If this conversation makes you uncomfortable now, imagine what it would be like to talk to her after a sexual assault. Bring it up today, even if you blush and bumble. Cite the risks of assault. Tell her you want to know if she were hurt. Commit to hanging in there with her no matter what. Ask what she thinks someone might want from a parent in that situation. The conversation, even if unsettling, will help her anticipate her own needs.
4. Fourth, forget rules.
It won’t help to tell her not to go to parties, not to drink alcohol, to wear fingernail polish that changes color if her drink has been spiked. Save your breath. Most kids are so excited and relieved to finally be at college, they cut loose their first year. If she is assaulted after breaking one of your rules, she may experience shame and be reluctant to turn to you for help. Instead, try this: “If something happens to you, I don’t care if you broke a rule or did something that in hindsight seems stupid, I want to know.”
If there is one rule you can offer, it’s probably “pay attention to your gut.” Encourage her that if she feels uneasy in a situation, figure out a way to get help and get out, even if it means being rude, loud or forceful. Most campus sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows; it’s the boy next to her in physics, not a stranger who breaks into her dorm. We do such a good job training our girls to be polite that many victims worry about hurting the perpetrator’s feelings or creating a scene and override their accurate sense that they are in danger.
‘I’m here for you’ is best response
5. Fifth, if you do get that call: Listen, listen, listen.
Parents typically ask questions trying to make sense of the shock. “A fraternity party? Were you drinking? You just met him? You went to his room alone?” To someone recently assaulted, this can feel judgmental and blaming. Another common, counterproductive response is to succumb to your understandable emotionality. Tears, anger and vows of revenge can overburden a victim when she needs all resources for herself.
Remember: You were not the one assaulted. That first conversation is likely to be a bit of a mess, and families figure out how to move on, but the process can be painful in unexpected ways. Victims report that the most helpful response is sympathy and calm reassurance: “I’m here for you.”
Getting help is important. Local and national resources such as RAINN and the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline can assist victims and parents. Campus staff and faculty who have been advocating for victims for years can be useful allies, and most colleges offer a wide range of free resources, from the chaplain’s office to counseling and psychological services to cultural centers.
Think beyond traditional resources. Yoga and working out are among the activities that can help her to stay connected to her body.
More than 750,000 undergraduate girls who are enrolled full-time are projected to be sexually assaulted this year. At parent orientation, ask what the school is doing to address sexual assault. And, if you’re among the parents who are told, don’t struggle in isolation. Find a safe place or person (not your child) for support and guidance. Take solace that seemingly fragile individuals and families can be remarkably strong. You all will grow.
If you need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained provider in your area.
This post was previously published on USA Today.
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