Amid the flurry of family dinners and trips to Bed, Bath, and Beyond, as parents help their kids get ready to head off to college, I worry that many are leaving out the most important “to-do” preparation. Families need to be having conversations about “the red zone.” The red zone refers to the period of time between arrival on campus in August and Thanksgiving break in November during which, according to research, perpetrators (men especially) are most likely to sexually assault freshman students (women especially). More than 50% of campus sexual assaults happen during this period of time, mostly between midnight and 6am on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Most campus sexual assault does not take the form of a stranger lurking in the bushes. According to the Department of Justice, for 90% of victims of sexual assault, the perpetrator is a friend or an acquaintance. Further, research indicates that alcohol typically has been consumed by the perpetrator, the victim, the perpetrator, or both. In other words, campus sexual assault frequently occurs in the context of partying.
A number of factors put college students at risk during this period of time:
- Students are away from home, maybe for the time.
- They may cope with the anxiety of starting this new chapter by using alcohol and/or drugs.
- They may be inexperienced with using alcohol responsibly and moderately.
- They may lack a cohesive and reliable group of friends who are committed to looking out for each other.
The context is ripe for perpetrators to sexually assault college freshmen, women especially.
Ending campus sexual assault is incredibly complicated and requires commitments and changes at many levels. True transformation will occur only when our culture commits to addressing underlying currents that relate to the messages that men and women are given about sex, privilege, power, and gender. Complicated and hard stuff to talk about! I am in the process of writing a book for young women about the psychology of sex, and, trust me, I am frequently overwhelmed by the complexity of this topic.
We are long-overdue for new conversation around preventing sexual assault. We warn young women not to put themselves in risky spots, telling them not to get blackout drunk at parties with men who don’t have their best interests at heart. But it is problematic to limit the conversation to a focus on helping women not get raped. We must also talk with young men about how to embody their sexuality in a way that is respectful, attuned, and connected. And we must talk to all young people about being an upstander (the opposite of being a bystander), stepping into situations where people are too drunk or high to engage in sexual behavior that is healthy, smart, and, of course, legal. Even when intervening feels “awkward.”
Many college campuses are doing their part by including sexual assault prevention education during freshman orientation and by promoting a healthier social and sexual atmosphere on campus. But as a professor who teaches a course about love, sex, and intimate relationships and as a marriage and family therapist, I want families to be talking about this as well. What parents say matters. A lot. These conversations form the backbone for helping teens and young adults develop the self-awareness and courage to make good decisions on their own. And I hope this article will provide your family with a place to begin this vital discussion.
Here’s the bottom line: a conversation about preventing being a victim of sexual assault or a perpetrator of sexual assault must be tied to a conversation about healthy sexuality, pleasure, consent, and love.
Year after year, I am blown away by how much my otherwise brilliant college students are missing when it comes to understanding their sexual selves. Sex education in our country is quite inconsistent—recent research found that only half of high schools covered the 16 topics that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have deemed essential! And families often limit their conversations to one line— “Don’t” or “Be safe.” And I get it! As the mother of two teens who roll their eyes whenever we initiate a conversation about love or sex, I understand the awkwardness. Feel free to share this article with them as your opening move—I’m always more than happy to be the target of that kind of blame!
If I could wave a magic wand, based on my experiences with my students, here’s what I’d like all parents to say to their college students before sending them back to campus:
#1: Sex can be a wonderful part of life—pleasurable, exciting, and enhancing.
One of my students said to me recently, “This conversation we are having about sex right now is the first time I have ever talked about sex without talking about disease and danger.” Talking about sex as a positive part of life is not tantamount to encouraging reckless sexual behavior.
#2: Being curious about sex is totally normal.
Most of us carry a little or a lot of shame about sex. When we feel good, whole, and worthy as we are, we tend to make better choices for ourselves and the people around us.
#3. The sex you see in porn is about a million miles away from real life sex. And that’s ok!
Real life sex– good and worthwhile sex– requires conversation, negotiation, trial and error, and a healthy dose of humor and play.
#4. “No means no,” while accurate, is very problematic. True consent is sexy as hell.
The model of consent as “no means no” is finally evolving! Typically, when young people are taught about consent, they are taught that if your partner says no, you need to stop. But this model is based on, and reinforces, the played-out script that the guy’s role is to keep putting moves on girls, and girl’s role is to regulate the boundary—a sexual script that is heteronormative and really limited. True consent is and affirmative and ongoing dance of two people who come together to create a sexual experience that feels good and safe to both of them. True consent is a dynamic process of giving and receiving feedback (verbal and nonverbal) that what’s happening is wonderful and wanted.
#5. Drunk sex is awful sex.
Alcohol and drugs limit your ability to give and receive feedback with your sexual partner, and alcohol and drugs reduce your ability to experience the sensory pleasures of sex. Don’t do drunk what you wouldn’t do sober (either because you don’t want to and/or aren’t ready to).
#6. Falling in love with someone is an awesome part of life. Yes, your education and your career are vital, but your intimate partnership is what’s going to make your adult life worth living!
Even if, as a parent, you feel pessimistic about the possibilities of romantic love, I hope you will find ways to encourage your college student to be hopeful and curious about relationships. And, while we’re talking about this, as your kids enter this next chapter of their lives, I also hope you’ll do what it takes to restore your own faith in the power of love!
#7. Sexual pleasure matters.
To young men, especially those who have sex with women: When you focus on her pleasure, it makes it so much more fun for both of you!
To young women, especially those who have sex with men: You deserve nothing less than sex that feels good, safe, and centered on your pleasure.
For parents of college students, there’s so much to feel apprehensive about. Bringing your awareness to the red zone can feel like adding yet another worry to the pile. But I believe with all of my heart that this next generation is ready, willing, and able to rise to the challenges in front of them, including transforming the campus sexual climate to be one that is healthy and safe for all. And I believe with all of my heart that parents have a vital role to play. Showing your daughters and sons that you care about their well-being in these ways not only opens up the possibility for new and important conversations, it strengthens their resilience and self-awareness, and therefore, their ability to make good decisions as they transition into adulthood.