Sexual Assault: When Sex Is Not a Choice 

Because April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, here’s an excerpt from Out to Sea: A Parent’s Survival Guide to the Freshman Voyage on how to help a student who has encountered a sexual assault. 

Sexual Assault: When Sex Is Not a Choice 

Not all sex on campus is consensual sex. Sexual assault is the broad term to describe a wide range of forced and unwanted sexual activity, including nonconsensual kissing, exhibitionism, groping, and rape. Victims may be coerced into sexual acts through verbal or nonverbal threats or through the use of alcohol or drugs. 

One in six college women will experience rape or attempted rape. While sexual assault can happen to any student (of any gender, age, identity, or culture), first-year women are the most vulnerable, with most rape attempts occurring within the first six weeks of college. Approximately four out of five sexual assaults are committed by an attacker the victim knows, according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN). The majority—68 percent—of sexual assault incidents go unreported. The reasons for this are varied and complicated: social stigmas, fear of retaliation, distrust of authorities, and fear of blame. 

These are sobering statistics for parents already fearful of sending children off to experience life on a college campus. 

Consent is the key factor in any and every sexual activity. Consent isn’t sexy. Consent is necessary.

To protect themselves and the people they date, college students need to understand fundamental information about the line between consensual fun and assault. As shocking as this may sound, not everyone understands that distinction. This issue comes up regularly on campus disciplinary review boards across the nation. 

Consent is never implied and cannot be assumed. 

We understand “no means no,” but affirmative consent says the absence of no does not mean yes. For example, when a student receives sexual advances but is highly intoxicated, he or she may be unable to say either yes or no to any sexual activity. Under the “yes means yes” standard, this inability to say yes, or to consent, automatically means no. 

Affirmative consent policies are designed to help prevent wrong assumptions of consent. Unfortunately, though, sexual assaults still occur on campuses. If your child confides in you that he or she has been the victim of sexual assault, please understand it has taken a lot of courage to speak up. Try to keep your emotions (there will be many) in check. Listen. More than anything, believe your child. Your support can make a large difference in their healing. Here’s how to take care of your child’s immediate needs. 

Sexual Assault Guidelines 

  • Urge her (or him) to find a safe place and call 911. The earlier medical attention is sought, the better—for the quality of evidence collected and greater effectiveness of emergency contraception. 
  • Instruct her not to shower or bathe, douche, change clothes, or clean up. As counterintuitive as this sounds, this helps preserve evidence until a professional health care provider can examine the victim. 
  • Call or have her call someone she trusts—a friend, mentor, or counselor—to offer support and assistance. 
  • Have the trusted individual accompany your student to the emergency room and stay for the duration of the visit. Emergency rooms are staffed around-the-clock with trained professionals, including psychological counselors and nurses with expertise in sexual assault. 
  • Support your student and encourage him or her to report it to the university and authorities. 
  • Encourage the victim to get professional counseling. Most colleges have an online list of services (counseling, health, and legal) available to both parents and students. They can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline or contact RAINN for 24-7 guidance and support.
    National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-HOPE (4673)   RAINN: www.rainn.org

While not all assaults can be prevented, teach your student to protect him- or herself as much as possible. Before your child leaves for school, have a serious heart-to-heart conversation about consent, risks, prevention, and what to do if your child (or a friend) is a victim.

Unwanted sexual activity can take an immeasurable toll on the victim’s physical and mental health. The emotional and physical scars can deeply impact a student’s ability to cope with academic, social, and personal responsibilities. 

It is important for you to also understand how this incident affects you as a parent. Any feelings you may experience are normal and real. You’ll likely want to seek professional counseling as well. 

 

For more information on how you can prepare and support your student through the college years, get your copy of Out to Sea: A Parents’ Survival Guide to the Freshman Voyage. 

 

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