By Sonya Rhodes, PhD, author of The Alpha Woman Meets Her Match: How Today's Strong Women Can Find Love and Happiness Without Settling.
To my daughters,
You will be going away from home to college in the fall, where you will be having new experiences and meeting all different kinds of people. The world will open up to you and present you with many new challenges. Before you go off, I need to have a conversation with you. This is not an easy conversation because I don't want to scare you, but I do want to prepare you for some of these challenges so that you will be able to meet them head-on.
There will be plenty of opportunities for sexual experiences on campus. The hook-up culture is seductive, but don't let wanting to be cool influence your decisions about sex. Having sex should be enjoyable and you should feel good when it is over. You will have to decide for yourself whether casual sex works for you or whether you enjoy sex more in a committed relationship. There is no right or wrong; this is a very personal decision. You know what feels good. Keep that in mind.
Drinking on campus is more than a pastime. It is deeply ingrained in the campus culture of partying, hanging out, hooking-up and dating. Almost everyone on campus drinks, some to excess, some more or less frequently, and I assume you will be exposed to binge drinking and drunken friends. How you handle this exposure will be challenging. Here, you are in dangerous territory. I will put it very simply: Drinking to excess is dangerous because when you are drunk you have lost control and you are putting yourself in a vulnerable position. There is no upside to overindulging: Alcohol can easily lead to toxic levels in women (who metabolize alcohol differently than men); being out of control means that you may not be able to control what happens to you. No one is watching out for you. You have to watch out for yourself.
Now comes the hard part of our conversation.
You will meet some wonderful young men as friends and lovers in the next four years. But not all of the young men you meet will be respectful and put your needs ahead of theirs, especially when it comes to sex. You may be fooling around and, at some point, don't want to continue. "No" is always "No," no matter how involved, how drunk you are or whom you are with. Once you say "NO" or "STOP," continued sexual activity is sexual assault. Sexual assault, unwanted fondling and rape are crimes. Crimes must be reported.
Many young women who have experienced sexual assault and/or rape on campus do not come forward to report their experience because they feel guilty or are afraid of being ostracized by their friends. Sometimes, they doubt their experience of being assaulted because they are embarrassed or feel that they misjudged someone they thought they knew. Sometimes they want to protect their sexual partner because they don't want to be the one to get him into trouble. While all of these feelings are understandable, they get in the way of making the right decision to report a crime.
Shame plays a huge part in covering up sexual assault. Shame is an internal feeling of having done something bad or wrong that people find out about. Shame is a very primitive emotion that comes from our childhood experiences of being caught doing something wrong. Shaming women for sexual behavior is a fairly common way of putting them down: slut, whore and ho are words used to punish women for normal sexual behavior. Please do not let shame get in the way of your reporting a sexual crime. If you are a victim of sexual assault, you have nothing to be ashamed about. It is not your fault.
Unfortunately, on many campuses there is a permissive attitude to sexual assault and rape. Universities depend on raising money from wealthy donors and do not want to tarnish their reputations. This attitude may influence their policies toward offenders who, if outed, will expose some of the unseemly behavior on campus. You cannot always depend on the university or college to act in your best interest because it has another agenda. Keeping a positive public image may take priority over seeking justice. Therefore, the police need to be involved.
If you know about or are the victim of sexual assault, I want you to let me know (or talk to another adult you trust) and together we will go to report it to the police because it is a crime. If necessary, we will get outside counsel or a public defender to advise you or your friend. The law will protect you and provide a way to seek justice for the crime that has been committed against you.
Finding your voice and challenging the forces that keep you silent is an important part of growing up. This is as much a part of the college experience as getting a degree.
PS: Moms, if it will help, use this letter to help you jump-start a difficult conversation. Daughters, feel free to share and discuss this letter with your mother and your friends.