Preventing Sexual Assault at College
How parents can help keep their college student stay safe from predators
College campuses are supposed to be idyllic places, safe havens designed to encourage the exchange of ideas and foster independence. But today’s headlines suggest a different landscape.
Experts say sexual assault on college campuses has reached epidemic proportions. Large, prominent universities as well as small private colleges — and everything in between — have received reports of sexual offenses taking place on their grounds. The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault reported in April 2014 that one in five college students will experience sexual assault during their college career.
Two out of three sexual assaults are committed by an attacker known to the victim according to the Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network (RAINN), the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. Freshman — new to college, away from home for the first time and often eager to fit in — are the primary targets, according to a new study by United Educators, an insurance company owned by more than 1,200 member colleges and universities.
Alcohol is often involved in cases of acquaintance rape, according to Frederick Shaw, Jr., a sexual crime expert and former deputy sheriff in Los Angeles. Overuse impairs judgment and increases vulnerability. Consuming large quantities in a short time, also known as binge drinking, is especially problematic as it can lead to blackouts and unconsciousness.
Here’s what parents can do to educate and empower their college student.
Talk about it
Increasingly, new students at colleges across the country are being required to participate in alcohol awareness programs that outline the risks involved with drinking (which include being a target for sexual assault). But experts say that shouldn’t be a substitute for a one-on-one conversation with your college student.
“Speaking to your children is still the best way to inform them about the risk sexual assault on college campuses,” says Shaw, the father of three grown-ups, who acknowledges that discussions about sex can be difficult to initiate. “Open the dialogue casually. Bring up a related news report or simply ask what they know about the topic.”
Young women should know how to navigate uncomfortable social situations and intervene if necessary to keep their friends safe.
Get clear on intimacy rules
College can be a time to explore sexual relationships. Inexperienced college students may lack the ability to recognize signs of troubling behavior. Advise your child to steer clear of jealous or overly possessive men or women, says Shaw. Angry texts and demeaning insults are also warning signs of controlling behavior that is unacceptable, he adds.
It’s also important that your child understand how to prevent unwanted sexual behavior. Experts recommend using the word “stop” because it’s difficult to misinterpret. Shaw says your daughter should also know:
- Forced sex has nothing to do with love.
- She should be asked for consent and her answer should be respected.
- She has the right to say “no” even if her first answer was “yes” but she changes her mind, and even she was previously intimate with the person.
- It’s never okay to have sex with a person who did not give verbal permission.
- Clothing considered provocative doesn’t give permission for sex.
- Having regret the next day isn’t sexual assault or rape if there was mutual consent.
Encourage basic safety smarts
Some experts suggest enrolling your student in a self-defense course. Whether or not you do, here are some basic safety tips your child should follow when heading out for the evening:
- Always carry a fully charged cell phone and enough money to pay for a ride home if necessary.
- Walk in a group and avoid dark or poorly lit places on campus. “If you end up alone and feel scared, head in a different direction or talk loudly on your phone — even if you are pretending,” advises Shaw. “Bad guys won’t usually go after someone willing to draw attention to herself.”
- Trust your feelings. If a person or place makes you feel uncomfortable, that’s reason enough to get out. Tell your college student that it’s better to make up an excuse for why she needs to leave than remain in a situation she doesn’t like.
- Be a good friend. Encourage your child to stick with her girlfriends and to look out for each other. If she sees a friend who is intoxicated, tell her she should intervene on her friend’s behalf. “Turn on the lights, turn off the music, suggest she go outside with you…do whatever it takes to interrupt a bad situation and keep her safe,” Shaw says.
Fill her in on party smarts
Alcohol is the drug most commonly associated with sexual perpetrators, and 50 percent of victims of sexual assault report drinking as well, according to a summary of research published by Antonia Abbey, PhD, of Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. “Make sure your kid knows how to drink responsibly, which for most of us means putting the brakes on after a few drinks,” Shaw explains. Emphasize that getting intoxicated to the point where your child can’t defend herself makes her an easy target for sexual assault.
For more information on drinking responsibly, direct your child to these tips from the National Institute of Health’s Rethink Drinking campaign.
So-called “date rape” drugs such as rohypnol are also sometimes used in connection with sexual attacks. These drugs are odorless, colorless and can be easily slipped into a beverage. When mixed with alcohol they are especially dangerous. They can cause dizziness, disorientation, loss of inhibition and loss of consciousness. They can also cloud the memory and cause a victim to be unclear about what, if any, crime was committed.
Be sure your daughter is familiar with the substances and their street names:
GHB is also known as cherry meth or energy drink gook
Rohypnol is sometimes called a roofie
Ketmaine can be referred to as special K, kit kat and super acid
Your child can reduce her chances of being drugged at a party by:
- Getting her own beverage and guarding her cup. Instruct her not to put it down —even for a minute — and to take it with her to the bathroom (or throw it out and get a new one afterward).
- Never drinking from a punch bowl or other communal source of alcohol.
- If she drinks alcohol, bringing her own mixer to a party and making sure the cap stays on.
Teach her what to do if she’s assaulted
Be sure your daughter is familiar with campus resources and support systems like health and wellness centers and knows where to go for medical care and how to report a crime. Both RAINN and the Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault offer this info on their websites.
Following a sexual assault, your child should know she can call 911. Or if she’s physically able, she should head to the campus infirmary or local hospital as soon as possible. Health care professionals can collect evidence, treat injuries, administer Plan B medication to guard against an unwanted pregnancy and test for sexually transmitted diseases.
Other options: The National Sexual Assault Hotline (NSAH) 800-656-HOPE can guide a student following a sexual assault and also put her in touch with a trained crisis counselor who specializes in treatment. Or the student can go to the NSAH website to find out what steps to take following an attack.
Be informed about sexual assault on your child’s campus
The Clery Act is a federal law that requires colleges and universities to disclose information about campus crime. Contact your child’s school and research the number of reported incidents of sexual abuse. Learn about the school’s security measures and how the school responds to accusations of sexual misconduct.