Do you have a few minutes? I want to talk to you about sexual assault. I've also written your brother. I know you’ve been upset about incidents at your school and disappointed in the school’s response. It’s rocked me too. I know they are developing better programs and policies for sexual assault. Still, there are some things I want you to hear from me. I also believe that you have the power to be part of the solution and that you and your friends can help make your school safer for everyone.
I’m so proud to see you blossoming into a wonderful young woman. Your father and I realize that growing up means exploring romantic relationships and developing your sexuality. Though sometimes it’s hard to think of my baby girl as a young woman, I want you to be a confident woman who is comfortable with her sexuality.
However, I worry that someone who is in a panic about his sexual experience (“her” is possible but much less likely), unable to think about anyone but himself, and insecure about his “manliness” will make you have sex or try to touch you in some other sexualized way you don’t want. Unfortunately, it’s common. In the U.S., one in four young women and one in 20 young men have been sexually victimized by age 17. I’m sorry to say it, but those cases that came to light last year are probably the tip of the iceberg. I don’t want you to become one of those statistics.
Sexual assault is never, ever the victim’s fault. It should be safe to be an adolescent and do adolescent things. Still, that doesn’t mean it’s okay to ignore risk. We lock our doors, don’t leave valuables in our cars, and don’t use debit cards online. No one is perfectly vigilant or can prevent all crime. I don’t want you to become a hermit. However, I expect you to take reasonable precautions to avoid sexual victimization.
First, be a good friend. Stick together. Never leave a friend alone to find her own way home. Check in to make sure everyone is okay when you are out. If a friend is so drunk or high that they can’t walk easily, make sure they get home and are lying on their side in bed. Call 911 if their breathing has slowed, they don’t get out of the way of their own vomit, or if you are not sure they are okay. This may “ruin” an evening, but you will have other nights.
Alcohol and drugs can leave you less able to defend yourself. Ideally, don’t drink alcohol until you are 21. If you do drink, look out for drinks that have been spiked with drugs, such as “roofies,” Adderall, or Xanax. Drug spiking has been reported by more than one in 13 college students. Only let professional bartenders make you a drink (including non-alcoholic ones), open your own bottles or pour your own drink from a keg. Don’t leave drinks unattended. Don’t binge drink. If you must know what it feels like to have five or six drinks, find out in a safe space, not a huge party.
Know, though, that sexual assault can happen just as easily in the library. Most self-defense programs focus too much on the stereotype of the bad guy jumping out of the bushes. That’s not a typical rape. It’s more important to be able to say no to a fellow student or even to a teacher. One new idea in sexual assault prevention is “know when to be rude.” Girls can be raised to be polite, but be prepared to be loud and rude. Trust your instincts. If you are not sure what to do, then imagine a friend with good judgment and ask, “What would she do?” Get louder and ruder any time someone doesn’t take no for an answer and every time you have to repeat yourself.
You can also be part of a healthy student culture about sex and gender. Talk with your friends—or even practice with them—conversations about how to ask for what you want sexually, discuss consent, and negotiate birth control. Don’t say negative things about virginity or judge people based on whether they are involved with someone. Don’t engage in slut shaming, which is too close to its evil cousin, victim blaming. Don’t criticize others with phrases like “walk of shame.” Too often, there is a razor-thin range of acceptable sexuality. It should be okay—and safe—to think about sex a lot or not very much at all. Be part of a culture of respect and a community that actively chooses and states its values about healthy, safe relationships. That includes, of course, respecting others’ boundaries yourself.
If a friend discloses a sexual victimization to you, respond by believing. I promise you that as well. Avoid “why” questions, such as, “Why did you leave with him?” Ask, “Can I do anything to help?” or “Is there someone I can call for you?” It’s also okay to share feelings such as “I’m so sorry that happened to you.”
I want you to be an honest witness. Don’t say things are fine that aren’t fine. Sometimes adults do not know how to respond to sexual assault. The response of professionals, such as teachers and police, can be so bad it’s been called “the second rape.” Slowly—too slowly—this is getting better, but it’s still not right.
If you or a friend get stupid or hurtful responses when you try to get help, don’t stop. Their stupidity is not about you. Try again. It’s not fair, but it’s the only way. There are people who can help. Even if the worst happens, it is not the end. It’s possible to have happiness even after victimization. You are stronger than you think, and I will always be proud of you.
Much love, always,
Sherry Hamby, Ph.D. is editor of Psychology of Violence, Research Professor of Psychology at the University of the South, and a clinical psychologist who studies violence and resilience. I’ve been working against sexual violence for a long time, but it wasn’t until some big cases were disclosed at my daughter’s school that I realized that there is almost nothing available to help parents talk to their teens using the most up-to-date research for guidance.