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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Talking to Your Children About Rape and Alcohol

In an effort to reduce “the high risk of the rapid consumption of hard alcohol,” Stanford University on Monday announced a ban on liquors 40 proof or higher from undergrad parties on campus, while also prohibiting undergrads from having hard-alcohol containers that are 750 milliliters or larger in student residences. One reader suspects that Stanford is just trying to cover its own tail:

This new policy will accomplish virtually nothing. It’s merely a liability reduction program for Stanford. Kids will continue to get shit-faced and young women will continue to be raped, but merely off campus, where Stanford has no jurisdiction, responsibility, or liability.

Another reader agrees, calling the policy “stupid and unenforceable”—and he speaks from experience:

My college banned hard liquor entirely on campus, and it never really stopped anyone. That was at a very small school (1,800-2,000 students) where the chance of enforcement was much higher. [Stanford has about 7,000 undergrads.] Sure, every now and then they’d confiscate some things after searching the dorms, but not enough to make any difference I ever noticed.

This next reader, on the other hand, applauds the move from Stanford:

On a dispassionate examination of the variety of factors related to sexual assaults on campus, the primacy of alcohol as a contributing factor cannot be overstated. If this policy is indeed a response to the sexual assault situation (and there are numerous other benefits to reducing the prevalence of consumption of hard liquor on campus), then it should be praised for being a bloody obvious thing to do.

Another reader broaches the context that many believe drove this decision:

I doubt whether this Stanford policy will be very effective at curbing binge drinking among students, but I suppose it probably won’t hurt too much to try. I am looking at it as a general attempt to reduce dangerous binge drinking, rather than as a direct, or particular, response to Brock Turner’s crime. Otherwise it does, indeed, begin to stink of an attempt to cast alcohol as a substance that inspires heinous criminal behavior in and of itself.

All that aside, I understand that “sexual assault” is sometimes a useful euphemism, especially in this age of safe spaces and trigger warnings, but I don’t think we should mince words in this case: Brock Turner raped an unconscious woman. He raped her. It was rape. I believe it’s wrong to neuter the language we use to talk about horrible things like this. It’s important to use plain, unpalatable, uncomfortable terms when discussing the bad things people do, or we risk finding ourselves in a quagmire of waffling equivocations down the line.

Brock Turner, as you probably recall, is the Stanford swimmer who was convicted in June of sexual assault (and using that term isn’t equivocating here; he was specifically convicted of “assault with intent to rape an intoxicated woman, sexually penetrating an intoxicated person with a foreign object, and sexually penetrating an unconscious person with a foreign object,” since prosecutors had dropped the “rape” charges months earlier.) Those foul crimes resulted in just a six-month jail term that effectively ends on September 2—his expected release date—despite a powerful letter read by the rape victim during his sentencing hearing. Turner’s light sentencing set off a firestorm of controversy, including a campaign to recall the judge in the case.

Instead of debating the case, we convened a reader discussion about how parents can talk to their children—from a very young age to their teen years—about rape and sexual assault. To continue that thread, here’s Renie, a long-time reader and mother of two daughters:

I think that most of your readers’ comments about teaching children about their bodies and their right to keep their bodies safe from unwanted behaviors from others are fine for younger children. I think that most of us have been doing a good job with younger children.

But when it comes to teens and young adults, I think we are still tiptoeing around the elephant in the room: booze.

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.