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Add Consent to Your Teen’s College Checklist

Father talks to son about consent

When we think about preparing our teens for college, many parents anticipate attending parent orientation day, searching for the perfect dorm decor, and purchasing textbooks. However, something that is typically left off of the “college checklist” is talking with our teens about building healthy relationships and the nuances of consent and sex. These conversations may feel overwhelming and uncomfortable, but they are critical to helping your teen have a healthy and safe college experience. Here’s why:

What is “the Red Zone”?

It’s no secret that sexual assault is a pervasive issue on college campuses. We know that 20-25% of college women and 15% of college men are raped during their time in college and that one in four transgender or gender non-conforming undergraduate students experience sexual assault.

What is less known is that college freshmen are at the greatest risk for experiencing sexual violence. Specifically, the first three months of freshmen year are considered the most dangerous. This is referred to as the “red zone.”

One of the factors that makes this an especially vulnerable time for students is the often stark shift in social norms/expectations from high school to college. Students may suddenly find themselves being pressured to binge drink alcohol or to participate in “hookup culture” without understanding healthy ways to engage in these behaviors (e.g having two beers rather than six, or making sure they’re asking their partner, “What are you comfortable doing?” before hooking up). Upperclassmen may recognize and exploit these vulnerabilities and assault those who are new to campus. 

At this time, colleges and universities are not required to provide comprehensive education to incoming students related to sexual or relationship violence. This is why it’s crucial for parents to discuss topics like consent, drugs and alcohol, and how to recognize the signs of unhealthy relationships. Check out our suggestions for starting a conversation around this issue below, which includes how to start the conversation and topics to include in the discussion.

Starting the Conversation

  • “I want you to have fun in college, but I also want you to be safe and respect others.”
  • “Sexual violence is going to be a topic that you encounter in college, whether it be in a class you take or a training, and you’re going to have friends and peers who are survivors, whether they share that with you or not.”
  • “You know the #MeToo movement? A lot of folks are beginning to listen to survivors and are starting to understand how prevalent sexual violence is. I’d like to talk to you about how this may show up during your time at college.”

Things to Highlight

Consent: Consent is needed before any type of sexual activity: kissing, touching, and of course, sex. Consent can’t be given if the person is mentally or physically incapacitated or impaired due to alcohol or other drugs. Consent can be withdrawn at any time and has to be given freely - you should never pressure someone to do something that makes them uncomfortable.

  • “Consent is AWESOME! Checking in with your partner(s) is a great way of making sure everyone is comfortable and happy.”
  • “If you ask for consent and they say ‘no,’ stay silent, or seem unsure/scared, stop immediately. You should only continue if your partner communicates an enthusiastic ‘YES!’”

Healthy Relationships: Most likely your teen will start a new relationship in college, and they should know what they and their partner can do to maintain healthy boundaries.

  • “You deserve to be with someone who respects and loves you in ways that feel good. You should feel safe in your relationship and ensure your partner feels safe, too.”
  • “When you do start a new romantic relationship, make sure you and your partner are on the same page, especially once things get sexual. Ask what the other person’s into, what they’re looking for, and what they don’t want. These open conversations will help everyone feel more comfortable.”
  • “Name-calling, being overly controlling and physically hurting a partner are all forms of abusive behavior and are examples of an unhealthy relationship. If your partner doesn’t make you feel safe or hurts you, you can seek out support.”

How Your Teen Can Foster a “Culture of Respect”: We all play a role in creating an environment that is free of violence. Remind your teen that they have the power to create a cultural shift.

  • “If you see someone being harassed or in a potentially dangerous situation, try to get them out. You can ask someone else for help, try to distract the person who is causing harm, or you can directly tell them to stop and/or physically intervene - only if you feel it is safe to do so.”
  • “Always ask people for hugs instead of assuming that it’s ok; respecting boundaries is so important.”
  • “Remember, sexual assault is never a victim’s fault.”

Support: We are still a ways from ending sexual violence, and so when someone is assaulted, it’s important they feel supported. Be sure to let your teen know that you will be there to support them and that they should be there for the survivors in their lives, too.

  • “I want you to know that I am always here for you. If something happens or you just need someone to talk to, I’m only a phone call away”
  • “If something happens and you don’t feel comfortable coming to me, you can reach out to community organizations or resources on campus. There are counselors and victim advocates who are there to help you if you need/want it.”
  • “If someone you know experiences sexual assault, listen to them, believe them, and offer to help them find support either on campus or through a community organization.”

What You Can Do

  • Learn more about sexual violence and share this information with your teen. (Here are some suggestions on where to start: About Sexual Assault, The Impact of Sexual Violence, What is Campus Sexual Violence?, Embrace Your Voice)
  • Contact your teen’s college and ask what resources they have for students who have been assaulted and if they offer any workshops for students on preventing sexual violence.
  • Familiarize yourself with resources near your teen’s college. This could include local rape crisis centers, domestic violence agencies and related organizations.
  • Continue to facilitate open, thoughtful dialogue with your teen and leave room for them to ask questions. If you don’t know the answer, you can work together to try to find it.

Things to Remember

Young men need to have this conversation too. Women, transgender and gender non-conforming individuals experience disproportionate rates of sexual violence. This leads many folks to believe that it is only these populations who should receive education about sexual violence. At the same time, it is men who disproportionately perpetrate sexual violence. A 2010 study revealed that 98% of female and 93% of male rape survivors had male perpetrators. If we are to be successful in reducing campus assault rates, we need to involve men in these discussions.

If your teen does experience sexual violence, it is no one’s fault except the perpetrator.

Though we try our best to protect our teens from harm, unfortunately, we cannot guarantee their safety. This is not your fault as a parent nor is it your teen’s fault. However, while we may not have control over what happens to them, we do have control over how we respond. We do have the power to tell them that we love them, that we are here for them whenever they need us, that we will help them find resources, and that we will listen to them and believe them.

Additional Resources

NSVRC Tip Sheet - Going to College: What Families Need to Know About Sexual Assault and Safety on Campus