Two generations into co-education, college is a strange planet, and sex on this planet is complicated. It’s characterized at many colleges by female exploration and empowerment, where a woman bragging about sexual conquest over a hungover coffee at the dining hall is no more noteworthy than what’s on the breakfast menu.
But college is also a place where bastions of traditional masculinity thrive, from big-time sports and fraternities to the ubiquity of YouPorn. Here, sex can be a dehumanizing pursuit, and young men can learn questionable lessons about their emerging adulthood.
These cultures exist around the same quads, sometimes in the same dorm rooms. As the explosion of news about sexual assault on college campuses these past few years has made clear, students are having a hard time navigating this new and changing sexual landscape.
Parents, of course, are at an even greater disadvantage when it comes to understanding the social norms and pressures that dictate how and with whom their child is having sex, and this can be extremely unsettling for those concerned about their child becoming a victim of sexual assault or being accused of committing the same.
While you can never be at the party with your daughter or mixing drinks with your son at his frat, there are things you can do to help reduce the risk that your child will be involved in sexual assault at college.
Know what’s in the university’s handbook. Read, don’t speed-read, the sexual misconduct section of your child’s university handbook. Understand the reporting procedure for assault and how complaints are adjudicated. Universities can change regulations according to recommendations of their general counsel or the government, so it’s important to read this section each year in case the policies change.
Talk to your child about affirmative consent. Forget “no means no;” on today’s college campus, consent has not been given unless both parties repeatedly confirm they want to have sex. And consent is not just needed before having sex, it must be secured before each sex act. This might seem overly cumbersome and unrealistic, but active communication during sex can be a good thing. Remember: students bring vastly different levels of experience and comfort to the bedroom. Assuming a guy’s partner wants what he wants without asking is the quickest way for him to make a potentially life-changing mistake, for both of them.
Encourage your child to expand his or her cohort. In the first few weeks or months of freshmen year, there is a natural tendency to form tight cliques with hallmates or classmates from a freshmen seminar. But knowing only a few friends at a party means there are fewer people paying attention to what you’re drinking and who you go home with. Additionally, participation in academic and sports clubs raises a student’s social capital, which means that predators — men looking to hook up with someone, anyone, over the course of an evening, consensual or not — will not perceive him or her as an easy target.
Ask if they’ve thought through what their own sexual boundaries are. No 18-year-old wants to hear their parent talking about sex. But the fact of the matter is a lot of students get to college with either zero or little sexual experience, and they often haven’t thought about what they’re actually comfortable doing. Having an idea of where their own boundaries are before they get into the bedroom can help them resist pressure to cross those lines, and can make them feel more confident in speaking up and saying ‘no.’
Be informed before they go. When your child is applying to college, go online and read a handful of the schools’ annual security reports in which they are required to disclose reported crimes, including sexual assault. Don’t take high numbers of assaults at a particular school as a sign that it is more unsafe than a school with a low number. In fact, a higher number of reported incidents often indicates that awareness around sexual assault has spread through that campus, and the students feel they can report assaults without fear of being ostracized by their friends. When administrators demonstrate that they take assault seriously, students are more likely to trust the process and come forward.
Don’t tell your child not to party; teach them how to party smart. Agree with it or not, alcohol is a part of the college experience, and the easiest way for students to get themselves into trouble is to drink too much and lose control of their surroundings. Most young people already know to watch their drink to make sure they aren’t roofied, but when it comes to sexual assault, it is far more important to watch what they’re drinking to keep themselves from going overboard.
Make sure they are aware of in-network strangers. An in-network stranger is a friend-of-a-friend from a child’s dorm, a guy they met once at the library, or someone’s brother visiting for the weekend. It’s someone your child perceives as a peer because they are all on campus together, and who they feel naturally more comfortable with as a result. But in reality this figure is still a stranger, and, especially when alcohol is involved, there’s no guarantee that they have your child’s best interest at heart.
Learn more about reducing the risk of college sexual assault in Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus by Vanessa Grigoriadis.