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  • Dr. Shane Owens

Your daughter, college, sex and violence

Updated: Oct 25, 2023

The newest seemingly endless news cycle, which focuses on politics and due process, is overshadowing important lessons about sex and safety. It's important to remember that this and the #metoo movement punctuate a conversation we've been having for several years about rules for appropriate sexual behavior, especially on college campuses. It's vital that you talk to your daughters of any age about respect, consent, and healthy behavior. If your daughter is in college, please talk with her about sex and her role in it. Start the conversation with these tips: Be aware of your surroundings. Your daughter should always know where she is and where that location is in relation to safe places. Your daughter should always have an out. Specifically, she should have an escape route and a way to quickly contact emergency services. She should have her fully charged phone with her at all times and 911 and the number for local and campus police should be programmed into it before she sets foot on campus for orientation Your daughter should always listen to staff and students who are more familiar with the campus and surrounding areas when they tell her to avoid certain places. Some campuses border high crime areas and some are beset by dangerous terrain. As attractive as danger might be, it does not make for healthy college living. Drink responsibly—if at all. Your daughter is going to be around alcohol—whether she looks for it or not. Much of her behavior with regard to drinking will have already been shaped by your modeling and by the values you have instilled at home. As a college student, she needs to understand what happens at the intersection of new-found freedom—and new-found responsibility—and drinking. Remind your daughter that alcohol interferes with her ability to make decisions, including the decision to have another drink and—worst case—run like hell. She should also understand that informed judgments about whether or not to engage in sexual activity rarely occur when she is impaired by alcohol. Have a wing-person. While this advice applies specifically to situations in which alcohol or other substances are present, it is always advisable to have someone trustworthy close by. It is important that your daughter have someone to watch her drink if she becomes distracted or if she leaves to use the bathroom. This person can also be there in case things take an ugly turn. This “wing-person” can be any gender, but it must be someone she trusts implicitly and who agrees to abstain from alcohol or drugs. Whenever your daughter is on campus, someone should have some knowledge of her intended destination and how to contact her. Your daughter should be encouraged to be available to return the favor. Understand the realities of gender differences. Your daughter should know that women at any age are not as strong as their same-aged male counterparts. The achievement of brag-worthy SAT scores doesn't make her impervious to physical theat. This is a simple biological fact. She should also understand that women and men vary dramatically in the ways that they send and interpret verbal and nonverbal signals regarding sex and intimacy. What she wears and how she behaves may be received in a vastly different way than she intends. If she wears tight or revealing clothing, that might be interpreted as an invitation for a man to gawk or to make unwarranted assumptions about her willingness to have sex. If your daughter goes back to another student’s dorm room—essentially a bedroom that may sometimes be used for studying—that man (or woman) may assume that the bed is going to be used for something other than a comfy place to sit. As one fellow psychologist and expert in sexual assault response put it to me: “It would be nice if she could go wherever she wanted wearing whatever she wanted without having to worry about someone doing something awful to her, but that’s not the world in which we live.” Give and get permission. As I considered the passage of the California law and the new SUNY initiative, I began to imagine what it might look like in practice. The most outlandish scene I imagined was one in which, as the young woman takes her shoes off and reclines on her potential partner’s bed, the guy goes running up and down the hall in the dorm looking for someone to witness her signature on a triplicate form. He is frantically saying to anyone who will listen, “Dude! I need a witness! We’re gonna do it!” Ridiculous, right? No one says “dude” anymore. Nor does anyone say, “Do it!” Though the policy might be unwieldy in practice, the spirit of it is a really good one. Your daughter should make her boundaries clear, and she should expect her partner to respect those boundaries. This requires forethought and – at a minimum – some mental rehearsal. Encourage your daughter to think about what she will say and do so that her boundaries are clearly communicated. You daughter should also know to encourage her partner to set boundaries and to respect them as they are communicated. This does not have to be as awkward as it may sound. But if the choice is between awkward and crossing a line, the discomfort from clumsily putting a stop to things can be dealt with more easily than letting things go too far. Talk frankly and openly. You are your daughter’s most reliable resource in all situations, even when you are there only to listen to things that are difficult to hear. One of the most pervasive problems that colleges, and the students they serve, face is the unwillingness on the part of many college women (and men—for all kinds of reasons) to talk about sex or victimization. Your daughter’s willingness to be open and honest with you will be dependent on the relationship you had prior to college. It is important for you to let her know that she can tell you anything—you can handle hearing it. Emphasize that any time she feels victimized, she must immediately report it to the appropriate authorities and seek medical and mental health treatment. No woman has the power to insure that she will never be victimized, but every woman can take reasonable measures to decrease her chances of falling victim to sexual violence. As we promote this kind of behavior in our own children, and as our children begin to understand their ability (and responsibility) to respect and to help each other, we may affect the sea change that proponents of the California law and the SUNY measures hope to achieve. Of course, men bear responsibility for their actions. Here is advice for your college-bound son. Contact Dr. Owens. In addition, Dr. Owens encourages comments in the space below.

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