“Safety first,” is the universal parenting motto, but how should parents approach more sensitive topics regarding their college student’s safety, particularly in regards to measures to protect against sexual assault?
Campus sexual assault – which according to the 2015 report by the Association of American Universities still affects nearly 1 in 4 women and 1 in 16 men – can be a very intimidating topic to talk about with your teenagers. The most recent study about campus safety, completed in 2019, found that:
- The overall rate of nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force or inability to consent since the student enrolled at the school was 13 percent.
- The estimate for women undergraduates is nearly three times higher than for women graduate and professional students (25.9% vs. 9.7%).
It is essential to have this conversation with your teens before they venture to a new space, with new friends, and new social challenges.
The change from home to college life can be a huge transition. Many teenagers are on their own for the first time and there might be certain pressures to participate in “party culture,” including experimenting with drugs, alcohol and sex. While your teenager’s time at college is intended to expose them to the larger world through academics, networking and sometimes stretching outside of their ‘comfort zone,’ as a result, it is important that they are aware of the risks that commonly arise on college campuses. One of these risks is campus sexual assault.
How to Have the Discussion about Sexual Assault
Regardless of how old your teen is, you can begin to expose them to the data regarding campus sexual assault and safety in order to help them to adopt a clear perspective on the issue. Even though the statistics and stories involving sexual assault can seem scary, knowledge is truly power when it comes to preparing your teenager.
Moving from holding uncomfortable conversations with scary statistics and seemingly awkward conversations about relationships to, instead, developing tactical safety skills is essential for aiding your teen in the college transition.
You can start by helping them to develop a perspective about sexual assault: what it is and the factors often associated with it (e.g., alcohol, drugs, party culture). Then, you can help them understand the importance of clear and effective communication skills, particularly in regards to talking to their peers when it comes to interactions and relationships.
An effective way to build your teenager’s confidence and to reassure them about their individual responsibility and agency in relationships is to talk through hypothetical scenarios, events in the news (e.g., Baylor University’s football scandal and the highly publicized Stanford University perpetrator, Brock Turner), and even problematic plots of television shows.
Overall, talking through specific situations may capture the social nuances and challenges involved in campus sexual assault prevention more effectively than giving prescriptive advice. Behavior and dynamics surrounding bystander intervention and obtaining/giving consent are also particularly important to address head-on.
When it comes to campus safety, knowledge is your teenager’s first line of defense, but a close second resides in their friendships. Bystander intervention – i.e. stepping in for both friends and strangers to de-escalate high-risk situations or encounters that may lead to sexual assault – is a crucial and highly effective safety behavior. However, bystander intervention can be challenging in practice, as fear of misreading cues and social stigmas around appearing “uncool” persist.
Here is some tactical advice for broaching this topic, focusing specifically on being better bystanders for your teenager’s own friends:
• Talk through example situations, illustrating intervention can be useful even in more common instances when someone is acting inappropriately or appears to be highly intoxicated (i.e., it is not a concept that only applies in extreme situations when danger is imminent).
Discuss how to effectively intervene if your teenager sees something, using one or a combination of the following approaches :
- Disrupt: Create a distraction to remove someone from an uncomfortable situation (e.g., “Would you mind helping me out with something?”)
- Humor. When appropriate, consider using humor to diffuse a situation or distract to allow your friend to engage elsewhere. Humor can help reduce the tension of an intervention but also should be used carefully to not undermine the potential gravity of a situation
- Bring It Home. Your teen can use this powerful tactic to prevent the ‘offending party’ from distancing themselves from the impact of their actions. (e.g., “I hope no one ever talks about you like that.”)
- “I Statements”. Often you can be more direct, reminding a friend you have their best interest at heart (e.g., “I want to make sure you get home safe”). This tactic can also be used with the ‘offending’ party to try to directly convey how certain behaviors are making you feel (e.g., I feel disrespected when you do XYZ, so wish you would stop saying/doing that)
- Delegate. Consider alerting other friends who may be closer to the individual involved or ask someone else with authority if necessary (e.g., a Resident Advisor) to help.
- In order to be an active bystander, your teen needs to be paying attention. Cultivate awareness about the whereabouts and wellbeing of your teen’s friends (“Did XYZ find a safe way home last night?”) One-to-one accountability (i.e., “the buddy system”) may be more effective as responsibility is not diffused across several individuals.
• Acknowledge that phones are not a fully reliable method of intervention. Rings and vibrations can be difficult to detect in a party, and phones may be out of reach or out of battery. Furthermore, many young adults we have talked to cited phones as being too conspicuous (and therefore, “sometimes awkward” to use in sensitive situations).
As illustrated by digital health startup Fall 2016 nationwide study, students can have very different perceptions and expectations about where a private sexual encounter may lead. The implication is that in the absence of explicit, informed consent, even well-intentioned individuals are capable of misreading cues and inflicting lasting trauma.
We recommend that you impress upon your teenager that when it comes to consent, anything other than an explicit and verbal “yes,” means “no.” Non-verbal indications are simply insufficient. It is both parties’ moral and legal imperative to listen to and respect the desires of his or her sexual partner. Furthermore, it is worth reminding your teenager that either partner has the right to change his or her mind at any point, and that trying to convince a person to change his or her stance is a form of sexual coercion.
For a more in-depth how-to guide of how to talk to your teen about sexual assault, check out free, printable resource for parents.
Michele Choi is recent gradate of the Harvard Business School. Prior to HBS, Michele was a senior associate at management consulting firm McKinsey & Company and also has marketing and business development experience at a fashion/e-commerce startup Archetypes.com. She is a graduate of Duke University.
Alison Lyness is a recent graduate of the Harvard Business School. Prior to HBS, Alison was a senior associate at private equity firm Capital Dynamics, has experience in investment banking at Jefferies and interned this past summer at retail consulting firm Marvin Traub Associates. She is a graduate of Emory University.
Rachel Hanebutt is a co-founder and CEO of Confi, LLC and currently works as a researcher and designer of sexual health and sexual assault prevention platforms for colleges and universities. She holds a Master’s of Mind, Brain and Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
About Confi, LLC
Confi is a digital health startup that provides teens and young adults with important health information on sensitive topics. Confi works to promote the education of healthy relationships and sexual assault prevention on college campuses and has recently published a nationwide report on student expectations and beliefs when it comes to sexual assault, as well as a parent guide for “How To Talk to You Kid About Sexual Assault.”