How to talk to your children about sexual assault

| December 13, 2017

The #metoo campaign is encouraging more and more women to come forward and tell their stories about sexual assault and harassment. Drug education expert Paul Dillon explains that this is a perfect opportunity for parents to discuss the issue of sexual assault with their children.


This year I have met, or heard from, more young women who have been sexually assaulted when they were drunk than ever before. I have written about this topic many times, often highlighting stories that young women have sent me via email or have bravely chosen to divulge after hearing me speak. Sexual assault is a crime and, as I say to all students, if I am told about a crime I cannot keep it a secret – but to be quite honest, if they’re going to approach me and tell me their story, they’re usually ready to go the next step. Sadly, however, we know most never report what has happened to them. When I have asked girls why they choose not to say anything, it’s always the same story – “But that’s what happens when you get drunk, it’s just part of the alcohol experience!”

Earlier this year I had a girl approach me and tell me that she had been assaulted when drunk. The school was well aware of what had happened and the crime had been reported, mainly due to the incident being photographed and the images subsequently circulated via social media. She was 15-years-old. I asked how she was feeling and if things were getting better and she told me that she had no memory of the night at all. It was then that I saw this beautiful young woman literally ‘melt’ in front of me – her face dropped and her whole body started shaking. She started to cry and said that she had only just found out that someone had ‘tagged’ her name on one of the photos. “My children will be able to see those photos and maybe even my grandchildren – they will never go away …” she said. Absolutely heartbreaking …

Many of the sexual assault cases I have been told about recently often also involve the sharing of videos or images of the actual assault via social media. Frighteningly, in most of these cases, it is young women who appear to be more likely to share these … When I first heard this I found it extremely hard to believe, why in heavens would girls want to do this? But at one school I visited this year it was what the principal told me about the parents response to this issue that really floored me … When the parents of the girls who had been caught sharing videos of a sexual assault were told what their children had done, instead of being shocked and expressing concern about the young woman who had been assaulted, they apparently defended their daughters’ actions, telling the principal “She was a slut, she went to the room with the boys!” and “What did she expect, she’s always getting drunk!”

It is extremely difficult to determine rates of sexual assault and most of the data we have are estimates based on police reports, national survey samples and hospital admissions. In the US, it has been estimated that 25% of women have been sexually assaulted at some time in their life and 18% have been raped. According to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics data, 18% of women and around 5% of men have ever experienced sexual violence. So where does alcohol fit into the picture? Well, as with other violent crimes, around half of all sexual assaults are committed by men who have drunk alcohol. Similarly, half of all sexual assault victims reported drinking alcohol at the time of the assault … Research shows that alcohol consumption by both the perpetrator and victim tends to co-occur (i.e., it is rarely only the victim drinking). This is not a surprise, as drinking tends to occur in social situations (e.g., parties or bars) but trying to disentangle so-called ‘drunken sex’ from sexual assault has proven to be difficult and could be another reason why many young women do not come forward and report this crime.

With the #metoo campaign continuing to encourage more and more women to come forward and tell their stories about sexual assault and harassment, it is a perfect time for parents to take this opportunity to discuss this issue with their children. Most importantly, our young people need to have a greater understanding of what ‘consent’ means (and that they can’t legally give it until they are a certain age) and the difficulties around negotiating consent when they or their partner has been drinking … If you haven’t already had this discussion and you know (or even think) your child could be drinking on a Saturday night, it’s a talk you have to have! I’m sure even thinking that your teen could be having sex must be pretty confronting, let alone having to talk about it with them but sticking your head in the sand about this isn’t going to help anyone …

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Paul Dillon

Paul Dillon has been working in the area of drug education for the past 25 years. Through his own business, Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia (DARTA) he has been contracted by many organisations to give regular updates on current drug trends. He has also worked with many school communities to ensure that they have access to good quality information and best practice drug education. His book ‘Teenagers, Alcohol and Drugs’ was released nationally in February 2009.