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  • Dr. Shane Owens

Your son, 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 sons of any age about respect, consent, and healthy behavior. If your son is in college, please talk with him about sex and his role in it. Start the conversation with these tips:

There are simple things that your son can do to keep himself safe.

You might remember that, in the days before GPS, there were hackneyed jokes about men getting lost and not asking for directions. All kidding aside, it is important for you son to have a clear idea of his physical location at all times. He always should know the relationship between his current location and places that ensure safety, and should always know a quick route between the two. Anytime your son moves from one place to another, he should make someone he trusts aware of his intended destination and of how he can be reached.

In addition, encourage your son to listen to other students, faculty, and staff when they tell him what parts of campus and the surrounding areas are unsafe.

Before he sets foot on campus for orientation, make sure that your son has the numbers of campus and local police and other emergency services saved in his smartphone. That phone should always be fully charged and in his pocket.

Drinking causes bad decisions and bad sex.

Alcohol will be seemingly ubiquitous in college. Much of your son’s behavior with regard to drinking will have been shaped by your modeling and by the values you have instilled at home.

As a college student, your son needs to understand and cope with his new freedom and responsibility. Remind your son that alcohol interferes with his ability to make decisions. Alcohol will impair his ability to hear either “yes” or “no” from any potential sex partner. Alcohol will impair his ability to stop if that partner changes her or his mind.

In addition, while it may seem that buying his date drinks is polite and is helping him to seal the deal, the opposite is true: increased alcohol consumption is making his potential lover less able to commit to any sort of meaningful or appropriate sexual encounter.

He should also know that alcohol can interfere with his ability to perform and to enjoy sex.

Your son’s best bet is to abstain from sexual activity when either he, his partner, or both of them have been drinking.

Despite what he may have heard, there are real differences between men and women.

Help your son understand that men and women vary dramatically in the ways in which they send and interpret verbal and nonverbal signals, especially when it comes to sex and intimacy. These differences are the product of biology and of learning. He should know that not every woman wearing something revealing or tight is inviting him to gawk or to engage in any sort of touching. He is better off assuming that those things are not welcome.

Make sure that your son knows that a woman (or man) accompanying him to his dorm room is not necessarily going there for sex. Yes, there is a bed there and, yes, those are sometimes used for sex, but a person going there with him might be planning to use the bed just to hang out and watch YouTube.

He might be wrong about what is expected of him.

Make your son aware that there are a small percentage of guys who ruin it for the rest of us by focusing on sex as conquest. A piece by psychologist Andrew Smiler on The Good Men Project talks about these kinds of guys. These guys hold disrespectful attitudes about women and are almost constantly competing with other men. Your son should know not to be one of those guys. No one of any consequence expects that of him. No one of any consequence will be with him if he behaves like that.

The best way for your son to make himself attractive is to demonstrate sincere respect for all women, and for other men.

He can be a good wingman.

Encourage your son to look out for his friends. This is especially useful in the presence of drugs or alcohol.

Granted, this is vastly different from what “wingman” used to mean in this context, but our roles are changing at a break-neck pace. In this case, the wingman is there to keep his friends out of trouble. He is there to abstain from drugs or alcohol in order to better assist his brothers in making appropriate, healthy choices and to turn them around when things are getting dangerous.

Tell your son to listen to his wingmen if they see danger looming and tell him to back off.

It’s a simple biological fact that women are inherently less safe than men. Men are almost always stronger and faster. Therefore, in addition to being a good wingman to other man, he should always be there to protect his female friends from harm.

He should talk about sex with his partner, and get [give] permission for everything that happens.

As I considered what is now being expected of students in CA and NY, I began imagining 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!”

The spirit of this rather clumsy attempt to keep students safe is good. Your son should never engage in any sexual activity for which he does not have clear permission. It is not enough to move full-steam ahead until he hears, “No.” He must get a clear sign that what he’s doing—and what he’s about to do—is acceptable to his partner. This is for everyone’s safety and is the foundation for any healthy relationship.

Of course, he must stop immediately when he hears, “No.” This rule is absolute.

Your son should also make his boundaries known to anyone with whom he is intimate. It is a widely-held misconception that anything goes for guys. He should know that telling his partner about his needs and desires is healthy and should be welcomed.

Getting and giving permission does not have to be as awkward or as difficult as it may sound. In fact, your son’s partner may find this approach refreshing or even a turn-on. Even if things become weird because he asks and waits, it is easier to move past things that did not happen than it is to overcome unwelcome things that did.

He can talk frankly and openly with you about anything.

You are your son’s most reliable resource, even when you are there only to listen to things that are difficult to hear.

Your son’s willingness to be open and honest with you will be dependent on the relationship you had prior to college. He needs to know that you can handle anything he has to say.

He might need quite a bit of encouragement to talk about these things. It will be difficult for him to talk to you about most things at this age, but sex and intimacy probably will be especially difficult. In other words, do not wait for him to bring it up. Ask lots of questions, especially the difficult ones.

He should be prepared to take responsibility for what is right.

One of the hardest things that he may be asked to do is to hold another guy responsible for what that guy has done. The issue of underreporting alleged sexual assaults on campus is very real. And it is understandable that he might place high value on looking out for his friends.

Your son must understand that no one wins—and no one can expect to be safe or healthy—if he does not take responsibility for himself and if he does not expect the same of others.

Preparing your son for healthy and appropriate sex will go a long way to stemming the tide of sexual assault.

Of course, your son is only part of the solution. Here are some tips to help your daughter to stay safe on campus.

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