Reporter's Notebook

How Should Parents Talk to Their Kids About Rape?
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Spurred by the Brock Turner case and Juleyka’s note about “reading the Stanford victim’s statement as a mother of boys,” readers share their own experiences discussing the difficult topics of consent and sexual assault. To join the discussion, drop us a note at hello@theatlantic.com.

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Being Honest About Male Hormones

Yesterday we heard from a mother of two daughters who worries about the role that alcohol often plays in sexual assaults on campus. A father writes:

I did indeed just drop my daughter off at college last week and had this conversation with her. She didn’t have much exposure to guys or alcohol in high school, and I wanted to give her my opinions on both.

When I was in high school, I said, people focused on the moral dimensions of drinking, as if alcohol was a sinful thing unto itself. It felt great to drink, especially because I was thumbing my nose at the Bible thumpers.

I told my daughter that the issue with drinking isn’t the act; it’s what come next. People treat it as a license for all kinds of bad decisions. The moral rebellion I felt then is now a rebellion of human decency and norms.

On assault, I told her that sex is something she should do 1000% on her terms and no one else’s. Also, sometimes, women are assaulted on campus and then try to hide it because they are afraid of telling their parents that they were drinking or in bed with a boy. I said, no matter what, we’ll support you. Regardless of the circumstances, if she feels assaulted, that’s all that matters to us.

Tough conversation to have, but critical in this day.

His remarks about drinking being a rebellious act made me think of a reader email sent a few months ago by Jack. He essentially argues that there’s a risk in being too alarmist about college drinking and sex—that some young men will blindly rebel against overheated rhetoric and throw sensibility out with the bathwater:

As a kid, I was taught a lot about alcohol, drugs, and sex—insistently and repeatedly—and didn’t listen to much of it. I think it’s worth looking at why.

A reader pushes back on the comments from a mother of two daughters, who said in part:

I’m about as politically correct a person as you can imagine, but I refuse to pretend that there is nothing a woman can do to make rape less likely. Staying in control of one’s faculties may not prevent all attacks, but it will make them less likely to happen. Rapists choose their victims for their vulnerability, and a woman fully aware of her own surroundings is safer than one who is drunk—not absolutely safe, but certainly safer.

The latest reader writes:

My stomach turned when I read that. That kind of thinking is based on the idea that “rapists gonna rape,” as if assault is an unstoppable constant and our only hope is to rape-proof ourselves and our daughters in the hope that someone else ends up being selected as a victim.

I graduated from undergrad in 2011. In my last year at university, I had a textbook removed from my kinesiology course that told its female readers that they could avoid being sexually assaulted if they didn’t touch men on the arm or accept an invitation into a man’s home, because, presumably, doing either of these actions triggers that unstoppable rape compulsion that men are incapable of shutting off.

I followed every rule that I was told when I was younger: don’t drink, don’t go out alone, don’t dress “provocatively.” The last time I was sexually assaulted, I was wearing a pair of jeans and my father’s windbreaker, taking a cab back to my sister’s house. I was not intoxicated. I did not touch the cab driver’s arm. I did not follow him. I was a young woman and I got in a cab. When the police arrived to take my statement, they told me that the reason that I had been assaulted was because I told the driver I was from out of town (when he asked me how to get to the address I had given him).

The point of me sharing this story is this: We can and will always find an excuse to explain why assaults happen until we decide that rape and assault are not inevitable constant forces. I’m tired of hearing excuses for why men assault women. Let’s stop excusing away assault and actually hold perpetrators accountable rather than accepting a scenario where we encourage young women to police themselves in the hope that some other woman will end up being the rape victim.

If you’d like to respond, or have an experience to share, send us a note and we’ll post.