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Sexual Abuse

Sexual Assault on Campus

Strategies for first year students and parents.

We owe it to our sons and daughters to have honest conversations about sexual violence and dating violence. Research repeatedly demonstrates that first year women students, especially, are at the highest risk of sexual assault. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that much of this occurs within the first few weeks and months of school starting, so some young women are entering their first weeks of classes, already disoriented from violation, so soon after campus orientation.

Etienne Boulanger/ Unsplash
Source: Etienne Boulanger/ Unsplash
Ryan Kosmides/ Unsplash
Source: Ryan Kosmides/ Unsplash

Research shows that the majority of sexual assault on campus is perpetrated by a small group of predatory males who are doing this over and over to multiple women.This is not to suggest that males are never victims of sexual violence; they can be. It’s just that young women are more often victims of this, and those that come to college already having been sexually victimized in their families of origin and/or in their communities, run the greatest risk of multiple victimization.

Research shows that peer groups have a significant effect on how young people perceive, react to, and deal with sexual violation; having friends who are proactive bystanders is helpful for both men and women.

Sexual abuse encompasses assault and rape as well as coercion, pressure, threats, and sexual bargaining for things in return. New students on campus, hoping to make friends, to connect with a seemingly “in” crowd, who are unfamiliar with the campus and local geography, who are reticent to vocalize their own needs and wishes, who feel lonely, who may imagine any form of potential sexual closeness to be a path toward something desirable, are especially vulnerable.

As someone who regularly teaches about domestic and sexual violence, I empathize with the problems of relentless victim blaming and don’t want to perpetuate it. At the same time, there are things that some young college aged women do that make themselves much more vulnerable, for example, attending and leaving parties alone, drinking from cups they have not kept an eye on, cultivating a hyper sexualized appearance in person and/or on social media, and getting inebriated, such that they are too incapacitated to make wise and careful choices.

And, this does not mean that being stone sober is a complete safeguard against sexual assault. When I was a first year student at Wisconsin, I often did my work in the basement study hall of the dorm. In early fall, I got to talking to a young man and after awhile, he suggested we return to his room to make coffee to bring back to study more. I believed him, that we would make coffee, share more stories and laugh some more. I was surprised---and very scared---when he threw me on the lower bunk bed and tried to rip off my clothes. I now understand that his strategies and tactics in the study hall were predatory, preying off his perceptions of my naiveté as a new freshman. Thankfully, I managed with all the strength I had in my legs, to push him off me and to run down nine flights of stairs. But, of course, like most women, I never told anyone, not my friends and not my parents, until I started to share the experience with my students.

If your child shares such an event with you that happened to her or to her friends, try to be present with an open, non-judgmental and listening heart. Better yet, offer her the invitation to seek out professional mental health resources and counseling. If she shares this with you immediately after something happened, urge her to seek attention at the university health services and/or the local hospital to have a rape kit done. And if you can afford these various health services, offer to pay for them, without criticism or judgment as students are generally concerned about cost and often make poor decisions to save money.

Your daughter may exhibit signs that sexual abuse has occurred. These might include but are not limited to the following: disordered eating patterns, for example binging and purging, as a way to claim control of what goes in and out of her own body; other forms of self harm such as cutting; binge drinking; using alcohol and other drugs to numb out pain and trauma; perfectionism in school, athletics, the arts, etc; chronic absenteeism and a lack of interest in activities that she once participated in, etc. While the idea of the “Freshman 15” is nothing new, sometimes this weight gain and much more can also indicate a young woman creating a sense of body armor to shield her from further violation.

All colleges and universities receiving federal assistance are required to have Title IX administrators with whom your daughter can and should talk and report what happened. These people can provide your child with a range of choices and options to feel most empowered and they can also suggest local resources and support and make good referrals. A national resource that is excellent for supporting survivors of sexual violence is RAINN.

In a future blog, I will be addressing the issue of how to know you are in an abusive relationship and how to recover from it.

More from Deborah J. Cohan Ph.D.
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