It's around this time each summer that I always get a handful of calls from concerned parents, asking the same thing. These parents have by now read the Baylor headlines, they've heard about the Stanford rape survivor, and they've seen the statistic that one in four women are sexually assaulted while in college. These parents want to know how they can keep their daughter safe. They want to know what they should tell their daughter to do, or not do, so she won't become a statistic.
But, the truth is, these parents are asking the wrong question. Asking what tips to give your daughter implies that victims of sexual assault are somehow responsible for keeping themselves safe. And that's not only untrue, but it's sexist. No one is responsible for rape except the rapist.
As someone working on a campus to prevent sexual assault, I do have a few tips - for the parents of sons. (Because the statistics tell us that 99 percent of perpetrators are men.) Here are the top three conversations you need to have with your student this summer, before he heads off to college.
1. Your student is never entitled to sex from anyone, anytime.
Our students have grown up in a media-dominant culture where men are often socially valued for being sexual aggressors and women are valued for being sexy. It's part of rape culture, and it can feel difficult to defy the influence of these social norms when you are delving into your first real experiences of adulthood, especially when it comes to sex. Students need to hear and understand that only a willing and enthusiastic partner makes for consensual sex. Talk to your student honestly - if their partner is not giving an unequivocal yes to keep moving forward with each sexual activity, then STOP. Remind your student that the comfort of their partner and communication are key to consensual sex. And consent is not a single yes before clothes come off. It is an ongoing conversation throughout sexual activity. And not only when it's someone you've just met.. In eight out of ten cases, the victim knew the person who sexually assaulted them. Clear, enthusiastic, and voluntary consent is required from each partner, each time.
2. Drinking is a big part of the college experience for so many students. It's also a big impairment to decision making. And I don't mean for the victim.
In sexual assault cases, alcohol was consumed by the perpetrator at least 50% of the time. Alcohol inhibits cognitive thinking and escalates aggressive tendencies. And most alcohol related sexual assaults tend to be between men and women who don't know each other well or at all. It's a dangerous combination. Help your student to think ahead about how they want to be involved in this part of college life, how they plan to handle alcohol, what are their hopes and expectations around alcohol, and realistic limits on consumption. Try to help them formulate a plan for fun and safety, and most of all make sure they know you have expectations of them to consume responsibly - and be explicit about what responsible drinking looks like. Lastly, make sure your student understands that drunk sex is never consensual sex.
3. Bystander Intervention isn't always a big action; more often, it's a small action that can change the course of events.
The Swedish students who ran down Brock Turner after seeing him sexually assault an unconscious woman are to be applauded. They did the right thing by getting involved. But, more often than not, bystander intervention can happen earlier in the evening and on a smaller scale - encourage your student to take responsibility, from interrupting a sexist comment by his friends, to letting a friend know that he's being too creepy with that woman on the dance floor, or just making sure his intoxicated friend goes home alone. This is men doing their part; calling other men into account and shifting the culture of misogyny that supports rape in the first place.
I do have one last tip, for parents of daughters: Make sure your student knows that sexual assault is never the fault of the victim. We need to say it out loud and often. And then find out where your student can turn in a moment of need. Are there counseling services on campus? Is there a victim advocate to help your student navigate an unhealthy relationship or the aftermath of a trauma? And if your student wants to help make a difference when it comes to sexual assault prevention on campus, help them get connected to student activism, as well. Their Women's Resource Center is likely a great place to start.
These are tough topics for conversation. But then again, heading off to college can be a tough time anyway. Now is the moment to get real and get honest with your student about sex and sexual assault.
Krista Millay earned her ThD in Philosophy, Theology, and Ethics from Boston University and is an Assistant Dean of Students for Advocacy, Prevention Education, and Gender Justice at the University of Arizona, where she oversees the Women's Resource Center and sexual assault prevention programming. She is a Tucson public voices fellow with The OpEd Project.