Time to Talk Seriously About Sexual Violence on Campus

It's April and the beginning of a rite of passage, as college acceptances are being delivered to 'inboxes' around the country. It's a celebratory time for students and their families. But April is also Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, and more awareness is particularly important for incoming college students and for their parents.

As a parent who has sent two children to live on college campuses, and as a professional in the field of violence against women, I'm acutely aware of the complexity of sexual assault on college campuses. I'm talking here about date rape, aka acquaintance rape. The word rapist is not a word we'd ever connect to our own sons -- and yet, on a college campus, sex without consent may look different than it does in the 'real world.'

College provides a distinct environment that is drastically different from high school as well as the post-college world. A college campus is an insular and hyper-social space with masses of 18-year-olds living away from home and parental controls, in groups of peers together 24/7, often in tight quarters, and with the liberty of a lack of boundaries never before experienced. Mix in the prevalence of alcohol, binge drinking, parties, and expectations of 'hooking up,' and colleges can seem like separate worlds: spaces where the regular norms and rules around respect and consent run the risk of being discarded, and taking offense to sexual advances is seen as overreacting. Some statistics show that acquaintance rapes spike during the first semester of freshman year and that alcohol is involved about 90 percent of the time. Nationally, one in four sexual assaults take place on college campuses, and about one in five college women are assaulted. If those figures don't astound you as a parent -- or a student -- I'd be surprised.

As part of a national co-ed prevention program that Jewish Women International is developing for sorority Sigma Delta Tau (SDT) and fraternity Zeta Beta Tau (ZBT), members were surveyed about their understanding of sexual assault and dating abuse. Preliminary findings show that about 35 percent of the 300 respondents believe that sexual assault (i.e., the act of threatening, coercing or forcing someone to engage in any type of sexual activity against his or her will) at parties or social events is a problem in their college community; 14 percent have felt unsafe at fraternity parties (one percent have felt unsafe at sorority parties); 43 percent said that alcohol is a factor in their relationship and sexual decision-making; 14.5 percent said that a romantic partner has pressured them to be more physically intimate than he or she wanted to be; and 37 percent know at least one friend who has been raped. These data, and the issues they reveal, are not unique to SDT and ZBT, but reflect larger problems of sexual assault and drinking on campuses on a national scale.

There are, however, some encouraging signs that the issue of sexual assault on campuses is being addressed in new ways. At a grassroots level, sexual assault victims are speaking out and forming informal networks to pressure universities to strengthen policies and services that support victims. At a national level, Congress is taking steps by including the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act (Campus SaVE), in the newly reauthorized Violence Against Women Act. Among other initiatives, Campus SaVE requires colleges and universities to report to the federal government a full range of crimes including domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking on and around campus. Campus SaVE also requires the establishment of prevention programs on campuses that incorporate "primary prevention and awareness that include information about the definition of consent in sexual relationships."

Federal efforts are essential, but change will also come from the conversations young people have with their parents. No parent should assume that his or her child understands what consent is and isn't or that he or she is aware of the potential consequences of bad decision-making. While the concept of consent may seem straightforward at a glance, the reality is that consent (and lack of consent) can look very different in different situations; it's not often that someone explicitly says "I do not consent for sexual intercourse" in a real world situation. The gray areas -- especially around alcohol -- need to be addressed and considered before young people find themselves in confusing scenarios they do not know how to handle appropriately.

As in any parent-teen conversation, be sure to listen more than talk, be respectful, and have the conversation more than once.

Some ways to get a conversation started with your child:

• Watch a movie or TV show together -- discuss whether and how consent to have sex was demonstrated, or wasn't demonstrated. Talk about situations that can arise where your child might feel pressured to do something he or she does not want to do.

• Point out an article or news story about sexual assault, ideally an event that took place on a college campus, and ask your child what he or she thinks happened and why.

•Ask your child whether he or she thinks that consent needs to be given each time a couple has sex, or whether it can be assumed, and why. Be sure your child understands that consent should never be presumed.

•Acknowledge that your underage child will likely drink alcohol at college, and discuss this frankly with him/her. You've most likely already had the "don't drink and drive" conversation more than once; now talk about the scenario where she or he is drunk, and one of the partners wants to have sex. Talk about partying, alcohol, campus cultures, individual and institutional responsibility, and appropriate interventions.

The bottom line? Every teen and young adult needs to know that sex without consent is rape, and it's a crime. It will have life-altering consequences for both the victim and the perpetrator.

For tips on talking to your child around sexual assault and consent, visit JWI's website.