With sex assault on the rise, how do we protect our kids?
It’s Back to School time, and for many of America’s college kids, that means moving day. Across the nation, thousands of undergraduates are halfway through the annual migration from their old rooms at Mom and Dad’s house to their cramped new digs at school. Some will be packed like sardines into musty, industrial-carpeted dorm rooms with their ubiquitous “X-tra long twin” beds and lack of privacy. The luckier ones will be holed up in apartments off campus, where they’ll enjoy shorter lines for the showers, full-sized refrigerators, and maybe even their own private bedrooms. A chosen few will move into fully-staffed Greek housing, with chefs, maids, and a jam-packed social calendar.
But no matter where a student ends up staying, a few things will always be the same: Laundry will be absurdly expensive. There will be a contagious fungal infection on the floor of the shower. Weekends will turn them basically nocturnal. And their risk of being part of a sexual assault, either as victim or perpetrator, will skyrocket.
University administrators nationwide have come to refer to the first six weeks of the school year as the “Red Zone,” because campus rapes are more likely to happen now than at any other time of year.
Freshmen and sophomore girls, as one would expect, are especially at risk of being victimized. Young, inexperienced, physically smaller than their upper-class counterparts, and (one would hope) lacking a strong tolerance to booze, they arrive on campus unsure of what’s expected of them socially, but eager to fit in. For girls like these, without well-developed and firm personal boundaries, Back to School parties – full of older boys offering drinks and the promise of social acceptance – can be dangerous places indeed.
But young coeds aren’t the only ones being raped on campus, and they’re certainly not the ones doing the raping. So in a country where nearly one-third of women report having been sexually assaulted by the end of their college years – with many more rapes likely going unreported – how do we protect our children from being abused, or becoming abusers themselves?*
(*I know, I know. Your child would never do such a thing. If that’s what you’re thinking, then think again. It may well be true that your son would never knowingly assault another person. But recent studies have found that a frightening number of boys don’t actually know what rape is. So, from one “boy mom” to another, put aside your pride for a moment and keep reading. Better safe than sorry.)
Here are three of the most important things you can do to help your college student prevent sexual assault on campus – their own, or someone else’s:
1. Teach them to drink responsibly … or even abstain from alcohol completely.
The vast majority of college sexual assaults are a direct result of inebriation on the part of the victim, the abuser, or both. It turns out that when people drink, they make poor decisions. (Who knew?) One study found that a whopping 72% of college rapes took place when the girl was completely incapacitated by booze, meaning she was either passed out or too drunk to consent or object to sexual advances. (No, this does not mean it was the girl’s fault for getting hammered – not in the eyes of any decent person, and not in the eyes of the law. But it does mean it could have been prevented.)
If you have a daughter, show her the statistics and encourage her to stay sober at parties. If she does decide to drink, urge her to do so in a safe and sane manner. That means drinking only from sealed containers that she personally unsealed herself, and never leaving her drink unattended. (Taking a swig from a red Solo cup full of mystery punch delivered by someone else, no matter how cute or friendly, is a recipe for trouble.) It also means limiting her consumption – a 120-pound girl should probably have no more than one small drink every 1-2 hours, and never more than four in one evening. (Five drinks in an evening is considered binge drinking by U.S. health officials.) Having a glass of water in between each alcoholic drink is also a good idea. If she feels woozy sooner than the guidelines say she “should,” then she should stop, regardless of whether her friends call her a lightweight.
If you have a son, hopefully he shares your standards and intends to remain chaste in college. If so, that’s great, but he needs to know that drunkenness can blur the lines between right and wrong for even the holiest among us. That means he, too, needs to watch his consumption and stay in control – especially because in the eyes of the law, he will be. Make sure he knows that in the eyes of the law, a woman cannot consent to sex when she is drunk, but a man can be guilty of rape. The right thing to do with a drunk girl is to make sure she gets home safely. The smart thing to do is make sure there’s a witness who can testify under oath that you didn’t take advantage of her on the way there.
2. Teach them to wait until marriage to have sex.
Wait, don’t I have this backward? Shouldn’t this be number one? After all, you can’t rape anyone if you’re not having sex.
Well, yes and no. It is backward, but that’s because too much alcohol screws with our thinking until the regular rules no longer seem to apply. Your kid might be the best-behaved altar boy at your parish, or the girl voted “Most Likely to Join the Convent,” but after the third or fourth beer, they might find it harder to remember why they said they’d wait for marriage.
So what’s the point, then? Is it possible the folks at Planned Parenthood were right all along? If they’re just going to get drunk and have sex anyway, is harping on abstinence pointless?
Actually, the statistics say no. According to a 1995 study, women who arrived at college with conservative, traditional beliefs about sexuality were far less likely to assault or be assaulted during their university experience. Researchers attributed this to the girls being far less likely to put themselves in vulnerable positions in the first place – in other words, the girl who makes purity a priority is probably not going to be the same girl doing keg stands at the frat party. It stands to reason that guys who value purity will be looking for girls who feel the same way, so they’re probably also likely to skip the wild parties when trying to meet women.
By encouraging abstinence, you encourage your sons and daughters alike to look for more than sexual availability in a partner … and subsequently minimize the risk of unwanted sexual contact.
3. Be a good friend.
Smart girls use the buddy system – or even better, take a whole team with them – if they go out on the town for an evening. Teach your daughters to make sure someone always has their back, and to look out for others’ safety, as well. Make sure they know the signs of intoxication, and do their part to get their drunk friends to safety.
It’s not enough to call a cab. Wait with her. Tell the men who come by to flirt that she’s not interested. Ride home with her and put her to bed with a big glass of water and a couple of ibuprofen. Game over.
Is one ruined night out too high a price to pay to protect someone from living the rest of her life as a rape victim? Wouldn’t you want someone to do it for you?
As for the guys, they should do the same. Not just for the girls, but for their male friends. A good friend knows when someone’s had enough. He hides the car keys. He calls the cab. He doesn’t let two drunks stumble into a bedroom together without trying his best to stop them, even if it makes him unpopular at the time.
There’s a name people give to people who get in the way of drunken hookups during college parties, and it’s too crude to reprint here. But in the light of day, with sober minds, those same people call them “good friends.”