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Every time I read about a campus rape case, I flash back to the conversations I had with my daughter, Anna, before she left for her first year of college. You know, the drinking one--about the dangers of overindulging too much at parties, of keeping an eye on her red cup at all times, and never EVER setting it down. We agreed how important it was for her to get her own drink--to never say yes when an unfamiliar guy offered to get her one, no matter how nice he seemed.
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She promised to do all these things. Then I let her go and hoped for the best. After all, she’s a good kid, blessed with a lot of common sense. She doesn’t drink that much anyway, and I never even talked to her about what to wear--or not wear--to parties. She swore she'd never “dress like a skank,” as she'd say.
But why should it matter that my daughter is a good kid? Why shouldn’t she wear whatever makes her feel pretty when she goes out? The young women in the two latest campus rape cases—at Stanford and the University of Colorado--were also good kids. The woman at Stanford was even wearing a beige cardigan, one that her sister joked made her look like a librarian. Yet both these women were raped while attending parties on campus.
In the Stanford case, two people found the victim, unconscious, near a dumpster, with Brock Turner, a champion swimmer, on top of her. A jury found him guilty of sexual assault. But because he had no criminal record, the judge sentenced him to just six months in a county jail and three years probation. His father’s letter asking for leniency in the case mentioned how much he’d already suffered for his “20 minutes of action.”
At the University of Colorado, Austin James Wilkerson raped a fellow student during a St. Patrick’s Day party. In front of friends, he made a show of helping his victim—getting her water, taking her pulse. After they were left alone, he sexually assaulted her, even though she was half-conscious. A jury also found him guilty; the judge sentenced him to 20 years probation and two years of “work release,” which means he’ll be able to work or study during the day before spending the night at a county jail.
Yes, both women had too much to drink, but why should that matter? It doesn't really--except that it does. Because wrapped up in all these conversations with Anna was my unspoken message: It was HER responsibility for keeping safe. That even when she was having fun, she couldn’t let her guard down, not even for a second. That it’s not only dark streets, bad parts of town, or deserted parking lots she has to worry about. It’s parties.
That’s a pretty unfair responsibility to place on my daughter. But what choice do I have? Even when the evidence seems clear cut, as it was in both cases, the blame always falls on the woman and how she dresses, what she drank, what she did or didn’t say is fodder for defense lawyers and people who excuse the rapists.
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Still, I think the best way to prevent rape on campus--or anywhere--is to ask ALL kids to be responsible for their behavior. So here’s my plea to mothers of sons: Don’t assume your child knows better than Brock Turner or Austin James Wilkerson did. Before your boys go out in the world, have conversations like I had with Anna, if you haven’t already.
Tell them in no uncertain terms that forcing someone to have sex is never a good idea, especially if they’ve been drinking. Tell them no means no--even if it sounds ambivalent to their ears. Tell them that anyone who’s fallen down because she’s so drunk isn’t someone who can consent to having sex. Tell them they should REALLY help people who are out cold, not have sex with them. Tell them, please, to stop drinking if thinking or talking takes way too much effort--and if they start to slur their words or stumble, it's time to call it a night. And then hope for the best, the way I do every fall.