As a researcher who studies campus sexual assault, I am mostly commonly asked some variant of the question “My daughter is starting college soon, and I’m so concerned about sexual violence. What do I do as a parent?”
It’s encouraging that so many parents of adolescent girls have questions about what to do. Sexual assault survivors for years reported that their parents merely instructed them to be careful about what they wear, “never walk outside alone at night,” and watch their drinks (or maybe even to not drink at all). Colleges, too, expected women to shoulder this burden. In 2015, Westminster College professor Kristjane Nordmeyer and I conducted a study on the sexual assault prevention tips colleges provided. We randomly selected 40 schools and scoured their websites for sexual assault prevention tips. Eighty percent of the ones we found were directed at women—things like “avoid secluded areas” and “lock your doors.” Most of these tips focused on stranger rape, which is far less prevalent than sexual violence perpetrated by an acquaintance. They were also contradictory and impossible to execute: Women were supposed to trust no one but also to never be alone. Women were advised to avoid so many potentially dangerous places that there were no safe places left.
In contrast, men’s tips made up a mere 5 percent of those offered. Most schools only gave one recommendation for combatting the campus sexual assault epidemic: “No means no.”
This approach didn’t make any significant impact on the rate of sexual assault on campus, which has held steady for more than 50 years. And it came at a severe cost to young women. These kinds of tips make sexual assault survivors feel at fault for the violence they experience, a self-blame connected to more severe traumatic symptoms following an assault, such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, and suicidal ideation. They’re linked to a reduced likelihood of seeking help from both informal sources (like parents and friends) and from professional service providers (like therapists and police officers). If survivors did seek help, they often faced blame from skeptics who internalized the belief that smart women could avoid sexual assault.
Parents are starting to understand, in the wake of the #MeToo movement and years of activism by student survivors, that we need a better approach. That’s why so many reach out to me for advice about how to do better. But what is that better approach?
The reality is that nothing parents can do will guarantee that their daughters will not experience sexual violence in college. There are no magic words to tell them, no behaviors to avoid. Victims don’t “cause” rape, which means they can’t necessarily prevent it either. The real heavy lifting needs to be done with men and boys. Still, parents can make a difference in women’s experiences of college sexual assault—it just takes a different form than you might imagine.
The very best thing you can do is make it easy for your daughter to disclose a sexual assault to you, before she ever leaves for college. This is the most important support you can offer her. This is because a lot of crucial support can rest on a parent’s knowledge of the violence that occurred, like the ability to use a parent’s insurance to access follow-up medical or psychological care, or help with tuition payments for an extra year of school after failing a class. Without a parent’s help, college survivors struggle to get access to the resources they need. Survivors also tend to thrive with a strong network of emotional support, and parents are uniquely equipped to provide that.
To show how to invite your children to share their experiences with you, I’ll let survivors speak for themselves. In one study, researchers Sharon Smith and Sarah Cook found that discomfort around discussing sex with a parent was one of the greatest barriers to college women’s sexual assault disclosure—a crucial step to recovery. Anna (a pseudonym) couldn’t imagine telling her parents about her sexual assault because “going back to my family and upbringing, sex is just not something you talk about at all.” She later elaborated:
I mean it’s just not stuff that should happen, so you don’t talk about it because it shouldn’t be happening. In a Catholic family, I mean really you shouldn’t be having those problems, you shouldn’t be having sex. You should wait ’til you’re married, so why are you having those problems?
Like Anna, daughters who worry that their sexual choices will become the focus of the conversation are uncomfortable disclosing sexual assault to their parents. It can also be overwhelming to broach the topic of sex with a parent for the first time in a discussion about your own experience of sexual violence and trauma. In contrast, the same study found it was easier for college survivors to disclose to families more open to nonjudgmental sexual discussions. Amanda (a pseudonym), a participant, explained:
I think maybe since my parents—since we did talk about everything—I probably told more than I should’ve to friends and whatnot because I was just used to that, being able to talk about anything. So I think that if anything, it made me talk more, and possibly more than I should have, ’cause I was used to being able to do that in my home.
Amanda’s ease with discussing sex made it easier for her to disclose her sexual assault to everyone, including people outside of her family. For daughters to feel comfortable talking about sex (and violence), they need to practice at home before they ever leave for college.
And in those conversations, drop the lectures on risk-reduction techniques. In every study I have conducted with survivors, the participants whose parents told them “not to drink too much” or “not to use Tinder” were the ones who were the least willing to tell their parents about their assaults—and the tips did nothing to keep them safe anyway. Survivors need to know that their parents will accept any decisions they made leading up to their sexual assault. They need their choices not to come under scrutiny.
After acknowledging the possibility of sexual violence, there are still some things parents can do to help their daughters resist sexual assault. There are still no guarantees, but the new approaches to women’s sexual assault prevention look more promising than the old ones. The focus of these programs isn’t risk reduction tips but feminist empowerment.
The University of Windsor’s Charlene Senn and her colleagues have created a sexual assault prevention program for young women that has successfully reduced the rate of sexual victimization among participants. Programs like these are unlikely to eradicate sexual assault—changes in the behaviors of men and boys are required to end sexual violence—but the results are still promising. In an initiative called Flip the Script, researchers invited college women to participate in four classes on sexual assault prevention that focused on recognizing and responding to sexual threats. The program provided traditional physical self-defense but also strategies for resisting coercion and a broader unit on sex education that allowed the participants to explore their own sexual desires. The risk of rape, attempted rape, attempted coercion, and nonconsensual sexual contact was reduced among participants in the program versus a control group.
The innovation in this approach I find most compelling—and the one most relevant to parents at this stage—is the component on coercion. While the program did not significantly decrease the risk of (completed) sexual coercion, thinking about gender roles in our less overtly violent interactions matters. It makes sexual violence and other types of sexist mistreatment easier to identify and easier to combat. Something as simple as “You don’t have to continue a conversation you aren’t enjoying just to be a polite” combats the gendered expectations that make women feel obligated to endure violence as it happens. To bring the spirit of these lessons into a child’s home, parents can focus on building a relationship with their daughter that teaches her that she is equal to men and has the right to set her own boundaries and see them respected. For dads, a simple thing to try is letting your daughter brush you off sometimes. Let her question your authority, talk back, and leave the room in the middle of an argument. These changes could be especially important if the greatest risk to your daughter comes from an authority figure, but they will apply to her peers too.
Another of the most compelling findings from Senn’s work is that even when participants in her program were sexually assaulted, they were less likely to blame themselves. They knew they should have been treated better. They knew they didn’t deserve what happened to them. That made it easier for them to seek help and heal.
One last way to be proactive? Hold your daughter’s college accountable. Colleges can prevent sexual violence and protect your daughter in ways you will never be able to. When you’re selecting a college and going on campus visits, ask about sexual assault prevention and response on campus. Ask how fraternities are regulated. Ask what kind of prevention training the football team gets. Ask about the expulsion rate in Title IX cases (and express disappointment if it’s low). Ask what resources are available for survivors. Ask how they are funded and if there are plans to expand them. Ask about the training professors receive on supporting survivors in their classes. Ask to see the victim advocacy office (and suggest they need more space). Make these questions a part of your campus visit. Make clear that you are worried about the protection of survivors.
Most of all, remember that talking about sexual violence with your daughter is important. Make room for discussing the realities of sexual assault in parent-child relationships, and take the burden of managing the violence that takes place off of your daughter’s shoulders.
As a final and important note, your daughter may already be a survivor. Sexual violence does not begin at age 18. Before you start this conversation, be prepared for the possibility of a disclosure, as well as the possibility that the perpetrator is someone you know and care for, like a family member or the boy who lives down the street. In that case, you might not get to be the expert on sexual violence. Your daughter might be the one teaching you.