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Pipe cleaners twisted into sculptural shapes. Photography by Katherine Cambareri.
Pipe cleaners—offered as an outlet for tension and discomfort—left behind by students and parents interviewed for After Campus Sexual Assault.

Learning from campus sexual assault victims and their parents.

By Susan B. Sorenson

Given the ubiquity of campus sexual assault, a lot of students and many parents have to deal with assault and its aftermath. And few know how. Colleges and universities that receive federal dollars are required to provide sexual assault prevention programming. Sexual assault is a standard topic at freshman orientations across the nation. Special services are in place for victims at student health and campus counseling. But for parents? That’s another story.

After a friend confided to me that her daughter had been raped while on a study abroad program, I came to realize that little or nothing had been written for parents faced with the sexual assault of their child—in most cases daughter—at college. Drawing on my own background as a public health researcher and clinician and extensive interviews with students who had been assaulted at four Philadelphia colleges and universities, their mothers and fathers, and campus service providers, I decided to write a book with the hope of helping young women as they decide whether and how to tell their parents and of helping parents understand.

Telling someone else about having been sexually assaulted is a choice. When I sought college girls (their term, which I adopt) who were willing to talk about their decisions, I sought those who had made what I called “for now” decisions. This name recognized two things: first, that there was a choice to be made, and second, that other choices might be made in the future.

How a family deals with the crisis varies widely, and both when and how a daughter discloses her assault shapes the crisis. How she tells is typically linked to when she tells. If she calls right after she’s been assaulted, it’s her crisis, her parents’ crisis, and their crisis together. She might express confusion, even disorientation, and if not yet having a label for her experience use phrases such as “something bad happened.” She needs help, and she and her parents must figure out what that could be. If on the other hand she waits to tell her parents, she has had time to think about the incident, experience a range of emotions, and actively decide to tell them. When she tells, the parent might be stunned by the news and the emotional impact of the information might reverberate through the family, but the immediate crisis has passed.

A sexual assault is stressful. And stress affects every part of our being. Discussions about stress usually include talk of “resilience,” a term that has been used in multiple fields and means to bounce back, to return to original shape. Your daughter will not bounce back to her original form. What has happened cannot be undone. It is unrealistic to think that she will return to how and who she was before being sexually assaulted. She will change and grow. But how will she change? What will happen?

No matter how good your parenting skills might be, in the weeks and months ahead, you will probably need to expand your repertoire. One mother relayed a conversation with her daughter’s longtime therapist; the therapist advised the mother to tell the daughter what she (the mother) wanted. The mother’s response? “I’m not really that kind of parent  … There are parents that are very, very controlling, and they would literally say, ‘I don’t want you to do that,’ but I just didn’t ever want to be the parent who told my kids how to live their life.”

My sense is that the therapist was trying to get the mother to step up, to offer her opinion, to throw her daughter a lifeline. The mother demurred, seeming to confuse being up front with being authoritarian. She may have been so terrified of saying or doing the wrong thing that she simply hung back even when someone who knew her daughter well told her that the girl needed something different, something more. The daughter likely felt very alone when her mother didn’t respond. It won’t be easy at times, but you have parented your daughter for nearly two decades; helping her deal with having been sexually assaulted means that you need to be willing to get out of your comfort zone and try something new if that’s what she needs from you.

At the same time your daughter will find solace in ordinary family activities: watching a movie together, having phone calls about mundane topics, just hanging out, and sharing favorite foods. Talking can be good, sitting together in silence is good at other times, and, as one mom said, “Sometimes she just wanted the dog; she would hold the dog and cry.”

In the weeks after the assault, the miles between you at home and your daughter at college may feel like too many. Communicating via phone can bridge the gap. Video interaction is even better because it provides an additional channel of communication. As one mother told me, “Watching their face and their body language becomes very important … it was telling me what she wasn’t telling me. It was telling me how angry she was, how traumatized she was. When I saw the catatonic look on her face, she was numb; it was so bad that she couldn’t allow herself to feel it.”

Sometimes it’s important to be in the same physical space, if possible, and to have time for a conversation that can meander and loop back on itself. Such talks can result in greater understanding and closer connection.

Mutually agreed-upon visits can be useful for all. Visits that aren’t agreed upon can be dreadful. And yet some mothers take the risk: “Me showing up was like, ‘If you don’t do something, I’m going to harass the crap out of you until you do—in a nice way, but I am your mother … Just like I don’t get to tell you [how to react], you don’t get to tell me how to react as a mom,’” one recalled. “She sent me packing, but she did get help when I got back.”

And when travel isn’t possible, consider making a request: “I miss you extra these days and wish we could be together. I don’t have much of a sense of what your life is like right now. Could you text me each day for a while? You don’t need to say anything if you don’t want to—just send a picture of something you’re doing. I’ll do the same if you want.” Keep the connection alive.

Your daughter’s goal is to become a survivor. You need to help her call upon her strength and move forward from the victimization as best she can. “Recover” is a word that is sometimes used to describe the process, but it is generally avoided given its connotation of sexual assault being something to “get over” and return to “normal.” The experience of being sexually assaulted changes a person. It’s a journey that she—and you—must now take.

As you embark on this journey, in addition to having a good sense of your daughter as a person, it will help if you are aware of your beliefs about sexual assault victims and victimization in the abstract. Many of us knowingly or unknowingly subscribe to a “just world” perspective in which we expect that good things will happen to good people, and that if bad things happen, the person must have done something to bring it upon themselves. If when your daughter told you about the assault you focused on her behavior far more than his, you will be wise to pay attention to how your belief system affects how you interact with her.

It will also be useful to pay attention to your general expectations about how someone who has been victimized “should” behave as she tries to come to terms with having been sexually assaulted. If you give priority to your assumptions about victims, you may well miss the girl you want most to help.

After listening to daughters, mothers, fathers, and university staff, if I was challenged to put everything into three or four words it might be “Listen and love” or maybe “Take the long view,” a perspective that keeps immediate needs and ongoing issues in the larger frame of past and future life together. Regardless of a family’s dynamics and the specific situation they face, being receptive to one another and having hope are likely to lead to a better outcome for everyone.

The parental task is to be close but not too close and far but not too far. And to have the sensitivity to know when closeness is needed, when distance is needed, and the flexibility to move back and forth. You will likely spend a tremendous amount of energy thinking about what’s going to help your daughter. You don’t have to be perfect. What you need to be is good enough.

Susan B. Sorenson, a professor in Penn’s School of Social Policy and Practice, is a public health researcher and clinical psychologist and the author of After Campus Sexual Assault: A Guide for Parents (Rowman & Littlefield), from which this essay is adapted.

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