Care, Don’t Scare: 13 Tips for Parents about Sexual Assault Prevention
Tuesday, March 7, 2023
It will soon be two years—and more than 200 public events—since our book Sexual Citizens: Sex, Power and Assault on Campus was published. As we speak with journalists, academic leaders, and educators, we are struck time and again by how they respond: as parents, concerned about their own children. At almost every event we hear from parents who find conversations about campus sexual assault terrifying. They’ve read that a quarter of college women experience assault and worry that it will happen to their child. Or maybe their kid will assault someone? Or be falsely accused? They want to know: What should I do? How should I keep my kid safe?
First, the good news: there is a lot that parents can do to prepare their children for the transition to adulthood—which for almost all adults includes having sex—to help them be safe, healthy, and prepared to experience satisfying intimate relationships. But also, some bad news: those relationships involve interacting with other people, and so a focus only on one’s own children is insufficient. To move us all towards a world with less sexual violence, parents need to take care of business at home but must also flex their collective might in social and political arenas.
Our society makes some parts of growing up easy. Your kid wants to learn to drive? There are driving schools offering lessons, engineers making safer cars, maintenance crews keeping stop signs visible, and state agencies providing training manuals and licenses. But when it comes to sex, parents are pretty much on their own. They may be lucky enough to have a local school that provides sex ed. But even that is mostly a lesson in fear—about getting an STI, or pregnant, or all the bad things that come with sex. Kids are told a lot about what they shouldn’t do, and very little about what they should.
That’s a problem. Because by the time they finish high school, around 60 percent of students have had sex. Telling your kid to “just say no” isn’t always effective; regardless of their own intentions and values, a lot of what they do will be shaped by the surrounding context, including peer pressure. Our big message to you is “care, don’t scare.” Lean into your power to shape the values of the children in your life by talking about the kind of person you want them to be—as a friend, as a family member, and in their intimate lives. Remember that your overall hope is that they find someone to love who loves them back. Sex will almost certainly be a part of that relationship. A message that sex is a dirty, rotten, nasty, dangerous thing that they should only do with someone they love after they get married is not likely to set your child on the path to happiness.
“Care, don’t scare” is a good mantra, but not a concrete action. So here is a baker’s dozen of tips for parents who want to help a child grow up to have a safer, healthier, and happier intimate life.
Start early. From the earliest diaper changes, don’t shame children about their bodies. Teach them to care for their whole bodies, to respect all kinds of bodies, and to see other people’s bodies as deserving of respect. You’ve likely already done some of this: “Don’t grab. Use your words” is a sexual assault prevention message. If you need some help with these conversations, there is a growing shelf of books about body positivity and body autonomy for young children—even board books.
Recognize that you are raising a “sexual citizen.” When they are young, send messages about body autonomy, conveying that they can choose who touches their bodies. These kinds of lessons are protective against child sexual abuse. They also lay the groundwork for later conversations about consent—they have the right to say yes to sex, as well as the right to say no, and everyone else has those same rights. Waiting until your children are teenagers to talk about consent is like teaching calculus without first teaching addition.
Have a little humility. Remember your failed efforts to get them to floss? The fights over taking too long to shower, or not showering enough? Your child tells you in all kinds of ways that they want to be in charge of their own body and that they will make their own decisions—you won’t always agree with those decisions. Teaching sexual citizenship requires acknowledging that our job as parents is to raise humans who can move safely through the world without harming themselves or others, and then to let them go. You can’t choose the kinds of sex they’ll have, or their partners, but there is no one better positioned to instill the values that will guide those choices, or to model how they treat others or insist upon being treated by others.
Dads: no more free riding. Our research showed how important it was for kids to have adults they could talk to—even about hard things like assault. Yet every single story we heard about parent support—either for healthy sexuality or after an assault—featured a mom. Not every family features a father—but every father must take talking with their kids about sex, consent, and assault as a necessary part of being a dad. Silence from dads conveys a powerful negative message that men can’t talk about sex and intimacy.
As kids get older, reinforce that sexual citizenship at the doctor’s office. As they hit middle school, their doctor should be offering them private time during which they can talk about sexuality and sexual behavior. Many parents feel underprepared to talk about sex with their children—all the more reason to make sure that they have private time with a clinician during their annual checkup. You can also facilitate access to sexual and reproductive health services, including birth control and the HPV vaccine; this normalizes the fact that they will eventually have sex, and you care that they do it safely. Or buy them a stash of condoms to acknowledge their likely transition to sexually active young adulthood.
Recognize that your kid might not be heterosexual. Queer kids experience some of the highest rates of assault. Part of the reason why is that schools and families often deny their identities and experiences. Good parents see and support their children, no matter who they are. Make sure your kids have gender-affirming health care and fight tirelessly for inclusive environments.
Have conversations; don’t give speeches. Talk with your kid, not at them. Listen, and see them as the whole person they are. If you don’t respect them, don’t be surprised if they don’t respect the lessons you are trying to convey.
Talk with your kids about alcohol. Alcohol is widely understood to be a risk factor for being assaulted. But it’s also a risk factor for assaulting someone. Talk to your kids about how people act in ways they wouldn’t otherwise when under the influence, including that they may be less able to pick up on or respond appropriately to cues from others. The alcohol talk needs to be as much about how they could harm someone as it is that they could be harmed.
Talk with your kids about power and privilege. Yes, it’s important to talk about alcohol, but more than 40 percent of assaults don’t involve incapacitation. There are lots of reasons assaults happen—but undergirding many of them is power and privilege. Being advantaged by multiple forms of social power—whiteness, wealth, heterosexuality, able-bodiedness, etc.—does not make one a bad person, but it’s like walking around with size 13 feet: you take up more room than others and are more likely to inadvertently hurt someone by stepping on their toes. The majority of assaults are committed by heterosexual men; if your child is, or is likely to one day grow to be, one of these men, that needs to be part of your conversation. This means helping your kids—especially your boys—see the ways they have and use power, and how that might lead them to harm others.
Talk with your kids about porn. Sure, you might prefer that your children not watch porn and have looked for ways to block it at home—but if you sometimes need their help to figure out which remote turns on the TV, do you really think that you can outsmart them? Rather than silently hoping they don’t encounter the worst that the internet has to offer, remember that the best “parental control” is conversation. Convey that most people’s bodies do not look like porn stars’, and that the people they see are paid actors who are doing their job to look like they’re loving what they might not find that pleasurable. You probably can’t keep them from seeing porn, but you definitely can help them put it in perspective. That means providing a counterweight to porn’s messages about sex as achievement by sharing your own values about what sex should be for.
Support the sleepover. There’s no better way to drive home the message that you hope that they have sex in the context of a caring, committed relationship than to let them do it—at home. If you don’t want them having sex in dark corners with virtual strangers, then encourage them to do it in a setting that feels safe, with someone they love. This means letting them know that if their partner comes for dinner, they can stay for breakfast. Sure, it’s the most awkward cup of coffee you’ll ever make—but it’s a powerful recognition of their sexual citizenship. Young people vary widely in terms of when they feel ready for—or are even interested in—sex and relationships, and parents also vary in their feelings about this. Seventeen may feel very young to you, but about half of 17-year-olds have had sex. And remember, this is not a decision you can make for them; all you can do is share your values, show them love, and create a context where they feel supported.
Tell them you support them no matter what. For so many parents, this is obvious when it comes to alcohol but feels impossible for sex. Sure, you don’t want them to drink—but you make sure to tell them that if they are ever in trouble, or at a party or a bar and need to come home, they should call and you will come get them, no matter what. Do the same regarding sex: make sure that they know that if they get hurt, they can always count on you for support. If they think all you’re going to say is that you are so disappointed that they were having sex, they’re not going to turn to you if they are assaulted. Or even for consolation about a broken heart.
Advocate for age-appropriate, comprehensive sex ed. Remember the “bad news”? When your children have sex, it will be with other people’s children—whose values you haven’t shaped, and who may not have had the chance to talk with anyone at home about respect or body autonomy. You might do a wonderful job with your child, but their sexual lives are going to involve other people, and the education those others get will impact your own children. Research we were a part of, led by John Santelli, showed that college women who received sex ed that included practicing saying no to sex that they didn’t want to have were half as likely to be raped in college. And sex ed may also be effective at teaching people not to assault others.
You need to make three phone calls: to your school, to your state legislators, and to your congressperson.
When you call the school principal, don’t just ask if they’re teaching sex ed. Make sure that it reflects the national standards for what should be taught at every age, beginning in kindergarten.
When you call your state representatives, keep in mind that as your child grows up, they are likely to encounter young people from other schools. For years, New York State has failed to pass legislation that would guarantee all children access to medically accurate, comprehensive sex ed. Keeping your child safe in high school means calling your state representatives to pass that legislation, so all young people in New York have access to the same age-appropriate, medically accurate sex education offered in some of the state’s best independent schools.
When you call your congressperson, remember this is not just a New York issue. In college, your child will be mixing with people from across the country. Over the past decades, the federal government has spent more than $2 billion on ineffective fear-based sex education that discriminates against LGBTQ young people. At minimum, it’s time to stop wasting federal funds on discrimination, but ideally the federal government would adopt the evidence-based national standards and provide support for local communities to implement them.
Yes, this baker’s dozen goes a little beyond that one talk about the birds and bees that you might (or might not) have had with your own parents. But the concrete steps that we’ve laid out mirror best practices in public health, layering together messaging, interpersonal interactions, and environmental changes.
There is enormous evidence that those one-off, hourlong sessions on consent provided to most incoming college students don’t prevent sexual assault. Parents who want to do all they can to protect their children from sexual violence—which means raising them not to commit it, as well as to be less likely to experience it—need to start early and engage often. The first and most fundamental steps: understanding that a parent’s role in sexual assault prevention begins with acknowledging that sex is a normal part of a healthy life, and that your most effective tool as a parent is to make sure that you care, don’t scare.
Fox, Ashley M., et al. “Funding for Abstinence-Only Education and Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention: Does State Ideology Affect Outcomes?” Am J Public Health., vol. 109, no. 3, Mar. 2019, pp. 497–504, https://doi.org/https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6366514/.
Santelli, John S., et al. “Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage: An Updated Review of U.S. Policies and Programs and Their Impact.” Journal of Adolescent Health, vol. 61, no. 3, 2017.
Santelli, John S., et al. “Does Sex Education before College Protect Students from Sexual Assault in College?” PLOS ONE, vol. 13, no. 11, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0205951.
Schneider, Madeline, and Jennifer S. Hirsch. “Comprehensive Sexuality Education as a Primary Prevention Strategy for Sexual Violence Perpetration.” Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, vol. 21, no. 3, 2018, pp. 439–455, https://doi.org/10.1177/1524838018772855.
Hirsch, Jennifer S. “Put Some Condoms In That College-Bound Care Package.” HuffPost, 6 Oct. 2016, huffpost.com/entry/put-some-condoms-in-that-college-bound-care-package_b_57f64460e4b087a29a548769.
Krisch, Joshua A. “What Percentage of Teens Are Having Sex in High School?” Fatherly, 28 Jul. 2021, fatherly.com/health-science/percentage-high-school-kids-have-had-sex/.
Mellins, Claude A., et al. “Sexual assault incidents among college undergraduates: Prevalence and factors associated with risk.” Plos One, 8 Nov. 2017, journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0186471.
Madison, Megan and Jessica Ralli. Yes! No!: A First Conversation About Consent. New York, Penguin Random House, 2022.
Jennifer S. Hirsch is a professor and Deputy Chair for doctoral studies in the Department of Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University, and Co-director of the Columbia Population Research Center. She writes on public health and social inequality, and is co-author of Sexual Citizens: Sex, Power, and Assault on Campus. Follow her on Twitter @JenniferSHirsch.
Shamus Khan is a professor of sociology and American studies at Princeton University. He writes on culture, inequality, gender, and elites, and is co-author of Sexual Citizens: Sex, Power, and Assault on Campus. Follow him on Twitter @ShamusKhan.
Learn more at sexualcitizens.com.
This article first appeared in the 2022 issue of the Parents League Review. Get the current issue of the Review free with a family membership. Or purchase it separately.