Simone Sannelli’s oldest son, Dominick, gets texts like this from her a lot. He calls them “mom sermons” and generally texts back the equivalent of an eye-roll—albeit a loving one. Dominick just started his freshman year at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, Pa., and while Sannelli knows he’s going to go to parties and make questionable decisions like many college kids do—at least when it comes to drinking too much and skipping class every so often—she says the issue of sexual assault is a particularly worrying one.
“With my ‘mom sermons,’ I’m not saying don’t go to parties, don’t experience life,” says Sannelli. “I think of them as little reminders, so that my scrappy voice is in Dominick’s head at 2 a.m. when he’s at a party and needs to think about the consequences of his actions.”
Sannelli is a mom of three boys—Dominick, 20, Dante, 16, and Rocco, 13—and says she’s always talked to them about the seriousness of sexual assault. These days, it’s tough not to have the conversation come up with kids, oftentimes even sooner than you might like to have “the talk.” Recent high-profile sexual assault cases have been all over the news, from the alleged (and questionably reported) gang rape of a University of Virginia freshman in Rolling Stone magazine to the recent rape trial at a prestigious New Hampshire prep school.
Sadly, these incidents are part of an entrenched and growing problem. According to a Washington Post analysis of federal campus crime data, reports of forcible sex offenses on college campuses nationwide were up 50 percent from 2009. A recent Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll also found that 20 percent of women who attended college during the past 4 years say they were sexually assaulted, and 25 percent of women and 7 percent of men reported suffering unwanted sexual incidents.
These frightening statistics prompted the White House to pressure universities to give victims better support, and last year launched the It’s On Us initiative, a sexual assault awareness campaign that asks men and women to step off the sidelines and be part of the solution to end sexual assault on campus.
Ruth Ann Koenick, director of the Office for Violence Prevention and Victim Assistance at Rutgers University, says the importance of seeing sexual assault as a community issue cannot be overstated. “It’s not about men or women—all of us have a responsibility to not tolerate sexual violence and to understand all the things that contribute to it.” Koenick has been working in the field for 45 years, 25 of which have been at Rutgers. She founded what’s now credited as the first rape crisis call center on a college campus back when she was working as a resident’s assistant as an undergrad at the University of Maryland—after one of her students was abducted, raped, and in her opinion, mistreated afterward. These days, Koenick and her colleagues focus much of their work on prevention, in addition to supporting victims of sexual assault.
So, how do schools go about preventing sexual assault instead of just reacting to them after the fact? New research published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that taking a preventive approach might be one of the more effective ways to make a dent in the problem. The study compared the effects of attending a four-session course about how to resist sexual assault to simply providing brochures on the topic. The college women who got 12 hours of training—during which participants learned and practiced how to assess the risk of assault by acquaintances and overcome emotional barriers in acknowledging danger and engage in effective verbal and physical self-defense—were 46 percent less likely to be raped. Not only that, but the program also reduced the risk of attempted rape by an impressive 63 percent. The clear message: There’s a lot both universities and parents can do to help educate our young adults about the issue, says Susan E. Stahley, MSW, prevention education coordinator of the Alcohol/Drug & Sexual Assault Prevention program at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J.
“My best advice for parents of both boys and girls is to start talking to your kids about consent and the importance of not being a bystander, which means actually trying to do something if you see something that looks suspicious,” says Stahley. Koenick agrees, adding that the old advice to “watch your drink” and “don’t walk home alone at night” isn’t enough. “When I ask students what their parents have told them about sexual assault, the responses are so sad,” says Koenick. “From what I can tell, many parents are giving their kids advice about how to avoid stranger rape, but most rape on campus happens between people who know each other. So parents really need to get informed themselves, and then have conversations with their kids.”
How to Have “The Talk”
As a mom of sons, Sannelli says she’s sensitive to the issues facing men—particularly when it comes to consent—which is why she always stressed the “no means no” message with Dominick as his college years approached. Awkward? Sure, at times. Sannelli says she saw plenty of eye-rolls and squirming in the back seat when she’d bring up these conversations on car rides. But that didn’t stop her. “My husband is an amazing role model, and my boys are all respectful, gentle people,” she says. “Yet I still feel like it’s important for them to know that there will be temptations, and situations where they think they may have a green light but that a woman might change her mind at the last second. I always wanted to be sure Dominick understands that you can’t pressure someone in an intimate situation.”
Stahley says Sannelli is right on with this advice. In fact, teaching kids about consent is her first tip for parents who don’t necessarily know where to start when having “the talk” about sexual assault. “If it’s not your body part, don’t touch it if you don’t have consent,” says Stahley. “It’s as simple as that. For everything you want to do, you’ve got to ask.” It’s also crucial to talk to kids about the dangers of blaming the victim, she says. “We’ve got to make sure young people know that it doesn’t matter what you wear or how much you drink, these things do not invite assault.”
Then, have a conversation with your kids about doing something if they witness something concerning or suspect sexual assault could take place. “I think it’s important to give young adults specific examples of what they can do,” says Stahley. “We tell our students that they can go up to a girl and say something like, ‘Hey, here’s your tampon’ or maybe even mention that your dad’s a police officer.” You might even practice role-playing, she says. “Otherwise, it’s like telling kids, ‘Just say no to drugs.’ You can’t just say, ‘Don’t let this happen to you.’ Kids need to know what, exactly, they should do.”
Of course, you don’t want to terrify a young person about to embark on an exciting time, so finding the sweet spot between trusting your kid will do the right thing and warning him or her about all of the dangers can be a challenge. Yet it’s one that’s worth the effort, says Sannelli.
“It’s my job as a parent to teach my kids how to be good people with open hearts and minds,” she says. “I’m not saying my sons are perfect and won’t make mistakes. But I know that I’ve had the tough conversations—the ones that have made the boys squirm and say ‘Really, Mom? Do we have to talk about this?’ But I’m pretty confident my ‘mom sermons’ have sunk in.”