Often parents and families have some kind of conversation with their student about alcohol or drug use prior to college, and we know that some skim through the conversation about sex as it can be slightly uncomfortable. Have no fear! We’ve compiled a guide to help you have meaningful conversations around alcohol and other drug consumption, relationships, and how to prevent sexual misconduct.
According to the National College Health Assessment, over 50% of college and university students have engaged in consensual sexual behaviors. A majority of survey participants indicated only having one partner within the 12 months prior to the survey administration. Nearly half of students who report engaging in vaginal sex within 30 days prior to survey administration are not using protective barriers most of the time or all the time, increasing the risk of STIs and unintended pregnancies. Talking to your student about these subjects is critical and ongoing communication is key. In this guide, we’ll cover a number of topics to help you engage in discussion with your student.
- Low- vs. High-Risk Behaviors
- Talking about Sex and Sexual Misconduct
- Resources and References
The first step in effectively talking to your student is starting the conversation. Approach is everything. For some, talking about one or all of these topics is difficult, but your willingness to talk can make your student comfortable coming to you for guidance on alcohol, other drugs, and sex. Some students show this discomfort by responding with a negative reaction. Below are some common reactions to discussion on sensitive topics and ways to respond:
Being lectured to
Often students are open to talking but want to avoid hearing a lecture about what’s right and wrong. Data shows individuals from homes where parents tend to lecture too much tend to drink more.
Response: Listen and engage in dialogue. Explore thoughts about what college will be like. Provide them with guidance and tips to stay healthy and safe.
Being seen as distrustful
Your student may interpret the request to discuss alcohol and sex as a gesture of distrust. They may feel like if you trusted them, you would trust them to make the “right” decision.
Response: Reassure them that you aren’t suspicious of them. Reinforce that you’re having these conversations with them to help and provide them with correct information.
Worries about punishment
A fear of punishment has been shown to increase the likelihood that a student will drink and experience consequences related to alcohol/drug use, due to the likelihood that they will communicate with their parent less.
Response: Appeal to a common goal of safety, assuring that conversation isn’t meant to be punishment, but to help keep them healthy as they grow older.
Already know it all
Some students believe they already know it all, so it’s not worth having a conversation. Often, they don’t actually know it all.
Response: Acknowledge that they might know some of it, but you want to make sure they are well prepared as they go off to college.
Conflict is Natural
We’re all different. Even those within the same family will have some different values and beliefs, therefore conflict is bound to happen. Use conflict as an opportunity for learning about each other rather than an argument or a debate. Avoid statements that start with “you did…” when conflict arises, as often this causes people to feel like they’re being attacked.
Know the Risks: Low- vs. High-Risk Behaviors
Best practice encourages the use of harm and risk reduction versus abstinence-only curriculum. Harm reduction is a public health strategy grounded in justice and human rights to decrease the adverse effects of different behaviors. It encourages positive change and addressing issues without bias, coercion, or discrimination. It may include education on and engagement in safer behaviors, abstinence, and meeting people “where they’re at.” Harm reduction approaches have been effective in reducing morbidity and mortality (Harm Reduction International, SAMHSA Harm Reduction, Harm Reduction.Org).
Talking About Sex and Sexual Misconduct
Most students see college as a time of exploration, and experimentation, adding pressure on them that can lead to poor decisions and potential unpleasant consequences. Be sure to discuss how sex should be safe and consensual, AND sexual dangers [i.e., sexual assault, sexually transmitted infections (STI)].
- Explain and explore the concept of consent and its nuances.
- Explain low-risk behavior and STIs.
- Discuss the intersections of sex and drug use.
- Talk about campus policies related to relationship and sexual violence.
1. What Consent is and is Not
Consent can be explained with FRIES (Planned Parenthood):
- Freely Given: A choice without pressure, manipulation, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
- Reversible: Able to be withdrawn at any time.
- Informed: Those involved have full knowledge and understanding of what the sexual activity entails.
- Enthusiastic: Excited to give consent.
- Specific: Saying yes to one thing doesn’t mean you’ve said yes to others.
Consent is not…
- Silence or noncommunication.
- Incapacitation by alcohol or drugs.
- When a person is asleep, or unconscious.
- Through threat, coercion, intimidation, or any forms of manipulation.
- An assumption of consent because of a current or prior sexual or romantic relationship.
Sexual activity without consent is sexual assault
Asking for and Giving Consent
Ask your partner(s) if they’re interested in sexual activity, but avoid repetitively asking to engage in something, as that can be coercive, and consent is not possible when someone has been coerced. Here are some examples of asking for consent:
- Can I…?
- Do you want me to…?
- What do you want?
If you received consent, have fun! Remember, this doesn’t give you unlimited access to their body. Keep checking in to make sure your partner’s okay with what’s happening. Here are some ways to check in:
- Is this okay?
- Are you comfortable?
- Does this feel good?
We encourage the use of the clearest version of consent, verbal—or the use of sign language; nodding or shaking their head, intentional blinking, hand gestures, or the use of communication devices. However, consent can be communicated through indirect body language, like reciprocating actions.
2. Low-Risk Behaviors and STIs
STIs are infections, spread from one person to another, usually during vaginal, anal, and oral sex (Planned Parenthood). Despite the fact that STIs are some of the most common infections, they’re often stigmatized, and those who’ve contracted an STI are sometimes perceived as “dirty.” While we want to destigmatize contracting an STI, we also encourage low-risk behaviors, like using protective barriers (external/internal condoms, dental dams, etc.), getting tested regularly, and getting treated—without treatment, STIs can lead to serious health problems. Reach out to the Health Center for these resources.
3. Intersections of Alcohol, Other Drugs, and Sex
Incapacitation is when a person is unable to care for themselves, possibly due to alcohol or other drugs. (*We’re not saying someone can’t have sex after a drink, as long as all parties can and are consenting.*) However, when someone’s ability to take care of themselves—identify where they are, what they doing, and control their physical movements—is impacted due to alcohol or other drugs, they are unable to give consent (UC Davis Health Education and Promotion, CARE).
4. Campus Policies
Kalamazoo College’s Policy Against Harassment includes relevant policies to relationship and sexual violence. Your student receives training on policy, reporting, and resources for those who’ve experienced relationship or sexual violence throughout their time on campus. Additionally, discussing this policy can help your student understand the importance of consent and respect in relationships and sexual activities.
If your student has any questions about the College policies or procedures when addressing situations of this violence, encourage your student to reach out to the Director of Gender Equity/Title IX Coordinator. If your student has experienced a form of gender-based, relationship, or sexual violence, there are several confidential or nonconfidential resources on campus, providing a range of services.
Kalamazoo College Counseling Center
Hours: Mon-Fri 9 a.m.–5 p.m.
Kalamazoo College Student Health Center
Hours: Mon-Fri 10 a.m.–12:30 p.m. & 1:30–4 p.m.
Kalamazoo College Campus Safety
Kalamazoo College Office of Gender Equity/Title IX
Director of Gender Equity/Title IX Coordinator
Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety
Harm Reduction International https://hri.global/
SAMHSA Harm Reduction https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/harm-reduction
Planned Parenthood. (n.d.). What is sexual consent?. https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/relationships/sexual-consent
UC Davis Health Education and Promotion & CARE. (n.d.) Let’s Talk About it: A Guide to Consent and Sexcessful Communcation. https://shcs.ucdavis.edu/health-topic/sexual-communication