Dear NPR Weekend Edition Staff and the Parents of College Students You Misled:
The August 24 program “Weekend Edition” produced a story on how some universities are “tackling sexual assault before parties start”, which underscores how important it is for parents, as well as colleges and universities, to prepare students in advance, and to remind them of the risk while offering them strategies to reduce it. This broadcast featured a clip of a conversation between a father of an incoming University of New Hampshire student, who is a doctor, and his daughter, “Kelly”. When Kelly asks her father specifically for advice (“What should I know about consent and assault and rape?”), Dad offers Kelly the following advice:
- Anticipate a situation before you get into it
- Always travel with friends
- Have a planned list of activities, night and day
- Avoid isolation
- Avoid substances
Kelly feels better, and Kelly’s Dad, who is clearly educated, informed, and appropriately concerned about his daughter’s safety and well-being, has done his job. And yet, what has she been told, really? Don’t ever be alone, don’t ever drink or use drugs, and keep yourself on a preset busy schedule. In other (vague) words, avoid, curtail, limit, distract, and then hope for the best. She might as well live at home and take all her courses online.
The take-home message of that list of rape avoidance strategies — inadvertently offered, perhaps, but communicated nonetheless — is that once danger is imminent, the outcome is a given. If one’s avoidance measures fail, there is no advice provided, implying that women do not have the option of fighting back.
And yet research has shown that girls and women are capable of safely and effectively resisting rape and sexual assault. Self-defense training is one critical way to teach, and allow for the practice of, active and clear strategies for things you can say and do in a potentially dangerous situation, where someone is trying to rape or assault you. And the research tells us that these strategies make women feel safer, make them more empowered to set and assert their boundaries in a range of situations – including social and dating situations – and can effectively prevent an assault or a rape from occurring.
So NPR and parents, please have these conversations, and please include not only a guy’s legal obligation not to attack but a gal’s legal right to defend herself. Here’s our script for daughters:
If someone tries to rape or assault you, one thing you need to know is that you have the right to protect yourself – verbally or physically. You have the right to tell someone that what they are saying to you, how they are touching you, is not what you want, is not okay, is a crime; you have the right to yell and scream and call for help and make a scene to attract the attention of someone who might be able to help you. And you also have the right to physically resist – by pushing, shoving, hitting, kicking, with any part of your body that you can use – hands, elbows, hips, knees, feet – and against any part of their body – testicles, face, abdomen, arms, legs. And, you need to know these are all things you can do, and have the right to do, but that if you are in danger, we trust you to make the best decision for yourself that is going to keep you feeling as safe in the moment as possible. And that means that while we want you to know that it is okay for you to do these things, it doesn’t mean you have to or you should. You do what’s best for you, and we will love and trust and support you, no matter what.
Not that anyone asked, but here’s our script for sons:
If you want to do something physically intimate with someone, tell them and ask them. If the person you’re with has been drinking or using drugs, consider them incapable of offering meaningful consent and move on. If the person is reasonably sober and makes it explicitly clear that the desires are mutual, great. Do not assume you can pick up signals or hints. Do not ever attempt to impose yourself or your will onto another person. It’s neither sexy nor legal. Don’t treat anyone as an “easy lay.” If you don’t understand these principles, you just might get your ass kicked.
That’s the way to tackle sexual assault before the party starts.
Jill Cermele and Martha McCaughey