The dark side of college and the path toward healing

Published 6:53 am Tuesday, September 11, 2018


Rigorous studies of American campus life indicate that between 3 percent and 8 percent of college women will report being raped by the time they graduate and nearly a quarter will experience some type of sexual assault. Almost 700,000 college students — male and female — will be assaulted by someone who has been drinking. About 100,000 will be sexually assaulted or raped while someone is abusing alcohol.

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With statistics like these making national headlines, tens of thousands of parents will spend the first several weeks after they drop their children off at college praying they won’t get “the call” — the one from a college dean, friend, hospital, or police station informing them of a tragic event that just injured their child or put their life on indeterminate hold due to trauma.

What’s a parent to do?

As colleges and universities ramp up their programming to help students cope with such tragedies, parents are virtually ignored in the discussion. Yet parents should be considered part of the first line of help when tragedy strikes. Indeed, students often desperately want and need their parents’ emotional support as they cope with these life-changing events.

Sadly, too many young people are afraid to approach their parents because they dread a negative reaction, indifference to their plight, or getting blamed for becoming a victim.

This fear doesn’t have to be reality.

The first step is for parents to become more informed about modern campus life, especially its rocky sexual terrain.

Few books on the subject are as accessible and insightful as “American Hook-Up: The New Culture of Sex on Campus” by sociologist Lisa Wade. Published last year, Wade’s analysis is deeply informed by recent academic research on social and individual relationships as well as illuminating interviews with students.

Most parents will be shocked to learn how different the world their children are stepping into is from their own experiences at the same age. The hyper-sexualization of campus life, for example, has relegated emotional intimacy to a post-sex thought. The side effect has been to further marginalize women in college culture. Wade doesn’t pull punches as she non-judgmentally deconstructs modern college life, courting rituals, ethical dilemmas and other quandaries faced by students as they navigate a dynamic, complex social environment that few ever really figure out.

Another sobering but powerful book is “We Believe You: Survivors of Campus Sexual Assault Speak Out” by Annie E. Clark and Andrea L. Pino. These brave women, sexual assault survivors themselves, have compiled compelling personal stories that provide an insider’s look at the trauma and tragedy of a social system gone awry. Few books offer as many firsthand perspectives on the emotional and psychological traumas suffered by those who fall victim to bad behavior in the dark corners of college campus life. The breadth of the experiences can empower parents and others providing emotional support by widening our understanding of how and when these tragedies occur.

Another resource for parents that’s grounded in the real experiences of college students is my own book, “Unsafe On Any Campus? College Sexual Assault and What We Can Do About It.” As the author, I was reluctant to mention it here until I re-read this comments from an anonymous reader: “As a college-aged woman who has experienced these things, and this culture, I was so pleased to be able to read all of my same thoughts laid out neatly. Thank you for this.”

What motivated me to research a book on such a stressful topic? Personal knowledge of students falling victim to this culture was certainly one powerful force.

But as the father of a college-age son and daughter at the time, I also feared my children would not come to me if they experienced such trauma. I wanted to know how best to help if I ever received “the call.”

In the course of writing the book, I came to learn more deeply why sexual assault is different from other abuses, why college sexual assault is different, and why a pro-active and comprehensive approach to addressing the problem is crucial.

Unfortunately, some parents will receive “the call.” If this happens, they will be better able to help if they have an idea of what to expect, based on the travails of those who have walked this troubled road. Others who have done their homework can better help their children cope with the traumas and tragedies that befall their friends — secondhand trauma that is painfully under addressed.

The first step for parents to help their children navigate the dark side of modern college life is to become better informed. The second step is to show unqualified compassion and empathy. The third step is to help guide our children onto a path toward healing and recovery. Together these steps can build emotional connection and offer buoyancy to young lives otherwise at significant risk of being lost at sea.

Sam Staley is a research fellow at the Independent Institute and on the full-time faculty of the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University in Tallahassee. He wrote this for