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What every parent should teach their teen about sexual assault

January 29, 2015

As a counselor with the Teen Xpress program, a part of The Howard Phillips Center for Children & Families, I provide therapy for middle and high school students at select schools in Orange County. Each year, conversations with the older high school students turn to the future - college, careers, and choices. We talk about their goals, plans and dreams. We talk about the fun stuff, like majors or classes they are planning to take and the not-so-fun stuff, like safety, personal responsibility and accountability.

For the students that are moving away from home and going to college, the safety part is particularly important. One part of this talk that often seems to get missed is the topic of sexual safety. Most high school seniors, whether they are sexually active or not, have at least a working knowledge of safe sex and ways to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and pregnancy. So when I talk about sexual safety, what I really mean is safety and prevention of unwanted sexual activity, assault, and rape.

A well-known statistic states that about 20% of women will be sexually assaulted while they are in college. That percentage translates to about 1 in 5 women. Furthermore, females are not the only victims. The reported numbers for males seem to be lower (between 1 in 10 and 1 in 30), but sexual assault can happen to males, too.

I don’t want to scare these kids. Moving on to college is scary enough for most people, but awareness and prevention go hand in hand. And while no one knows exactly what the future holds, there are things they can do that will decrease the likelihood of something like this happening to them. Here are the top lessons I try to impart to them:

Educate yourself, Educate others

Often when sexual assault prevention is discussed, it focuses on all of the things the potential victim could or should do to avoid the assault. This is valuable advice, but there is another issue here: What about the attackers? How does someone become a person who sexually assaults others? How can that be avoided? How can that be changed?

Some college campuses are switching their focus from putting the responsibility on the victim to avoid the assault, to educating people on what rape and assault are. The more we all know about this problem, the more we are able to share with others. The more sharing that goes on, the more likely people will learn and (hopefully) abide by appropriate, respectful boundaries when it comes to relationships with others. Many college campuses have student-run organizations like MARS (Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault) as a way for students to learn more and advocate for healthy social change.

That being said, we still live in a world where victim blaming is common. “She was asking for it” is still not unusual to hear when yet another report on a rape makes it to the news or social media. Since there are still many people that share that mindset, it is important to arm our children with common sense safety tips. Being mindful and aware of one’s environment is key to staying as safe as possible.

I encourage the teens I work with to follow these strategies:

Safety in numbers

Find a buddy (or even better- a group of buddies) and stick with them. Do not go out for the night without a group that will stick together and look out for each other. Make sure that you choose friends that will keep an eye on you, and make sure that you do the right thing and look out for them as well.

Pay attention to the company you keep

Things would be much easier if we could look at someone who assaults others and know that about them immediately. Unfortunately, they look just like everyone else. However, there can be subtle nuances or cues in their behavior that could give a little insight as to whether this is someone you want to spend time with. How does he or she (let’s be honest, it’s not just males that assault others) treat others? What is their attitude towards women (or men)? Are they engaging in drinking alcohol or substance use? Trust your gut, if things don’t seem okay, then they probably aren’t.

Stay aware, Stay alert

There are many opportunities to socialize in college, and the reality is that many of those opportunities are parties or get-togethers where alcohol and other substances may be available to whomever is interested. I emphasize to students, “If you choose to drink, do so as safely as possible. Do not accept an open drink from someone; there is no way to know for sure what is in it.” Alcohol use will lower inhibitions for both an attacker and a victim. Alcohol contributes to sexual assault through multiple pathways, often escalating existing risk factors (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism). I encourage students to know their limits and to not exceed them.

Use your phone

Sexual assaults don’t just happen at the stereotypical college party where co-eds guzzle beer from red plastic cups. An assault could happen in any number of places: a friend’s apartment, a dorm room, a car, etc. Alcohol may not be involved in any way. Thanks to our cell phones, we are easily connected to others at any time, nearly anywhere. Keep your phone with you at all times. Put trusted friends in your contact list. Set up a predetermined code word that your can text each other, if needed. I encourage students to check out apps like Circle of 6 and Lifeline Response, if they haven’t already. As always, I tell students to not be afraid to call 911.

See something, Say something

For the safety and wellbeing of others and yourself, speak up! Gone are the days of seeing a couple fighting or a scuffle between two people and muttering, “It’s none of my business.” It IS your business. Advocating for the respect and safety of others is the right thing to do. That doesn’t mean you need to try to jump in and break up a fistfight, but if you see something that doesn’t seem right, contact the authorities and report it. You may save a life, and if it were you in that situation you’d want someone to step in and help you.

Know where to go

It’s a good idea to know where the local or campus Police Department is and what local helplines are available for those that have experienced a sexual assault. Many campuses have assault prevention advocacy groups that you can be a part of or reach out to for information. National websites like is a great tool to learn about assault prevention and healthy relationships.

For young adults, moving out of the home, whether it is for a career or to pursue higher education, is a big step with lots of changes. It is normal for everyone, including parents, to be excited, nervous or sad. Worrying about things like acts of violence may take some of the fun out of the experience, so many simply choose not to think about these things and tell themselves, “It won’t happen to me.” Hopefully, that is true. Any kind of assault is a traumatizing and frightening experience, the type of thing that no one would ever want to see happen to anyone. Unfortunately, the truth is, these things do happen.

Let’s work together to educate and empower our young adults to be mindful of safety risks, to trust themselves, and their real friends, and to be respectful of themselves and others.

Perhaps then, we will see more and more young people prepared to keep themselves and others safer and respected.