New book offers lessons for parents on discussing campus sexual assault

In the guide for caregivers whose child was sexually assaulted on a college campus, Susan B. Sorenson provides advice and identifies resources, both on campus and within the community.

Several years ago, a friend came to Susan B. Sorenson asking for advice. “Her daughter had been sexually assaulted while studying abroad,” recalls Sorenson, who recently stepped down as the long-time director of Penn’s Ortner Center on Violence & Abuse

Cover of the book "After Campus Sexual Assault: A Guide for Parents by Susan B. Sorenson." In the middle is a twisted red pipe cleaner.

Despite the prevalence of campus sexual assault, which happens to one in four female undergraduates, according to the Association of American Universities, Sorenson’s search for resources to share came up empty; very little existed to guide parents. Sorenson, who has spent decades studying sexual assault and violence against women, decided to undertake the task herself. The result, “After campus sexual assault: A guide for parents,” was published in June. 

For the book, she met with students from four universities. “I listened to several dozen students who had been sexually assaulted, some quite recently, some a couple years before,” she says. “I met with parents of these students as well as parents of other students who had been sexually assaulted but who hadn’t spoken with me, and I met with campus staff members.” 

Unquestionably, she says, students who are sexually assaulted need this support and care. “Parents need help, too,” she says, “and they often struggle alone.” To that end, Sorenson offers four of the lessons she gleaned for parents of college-age students who have been sexually assaulted. 

A wide range of behaviors fall under the umbrella of “sexual misconduct”

And in reality, the definition almost doesn’t matter, Sorenson says. “If a child calls saying that she’s been sexually assaulted—and I will use a gendered term here because girls are statistically more likely than boys to be sexually assaulted at colleges and universities—parents should accept that at face value. That’s reality to their child so they need to take that seriously, find out how she’s doing, and respond. That’s an example of loving parenting.” 

When parents receive this information matters

“If they’re told shortly after the misconduct happens, the daughter probably is in crisis mode,” Sorenson says. That requires a certain type of care from parents, different from the type needed by someone who tells them later, after she’s managed the situation on her own for a time. 

Some victims choose never to disclose sexual assault. “Sometimes parents don’t want to know,” says Sorenson. “After knowing them for 18 or more years, the student has a pretty good idea what category her parents fall into.” 

Cultural considerations matter

In some cultures, talking about sex is taboo, as are drinking and dating. “The likelihood of a girl who comes from such a family disclosing may be even lower because she doesn’t want her parents to know about other parts of her life such as dating and going to parties,” Sorenson says. 

Campus staff can help

Resources for students can be powerful tools for parents, too. “Staff can help describe options that are available, and there are more than most people realize,” Sorenson says. They include colleges providing confidential spaces where a student can share information and decide how to proceed. 

Seeking this kind of help is different than filing a police report. Unlike law enforcement, campus staff often can quickly and immediately improve a student’s life following an encounter, she says. For example, they might be able to facilitate switching a dorm room or class placement. “Our students will do better,” Sorenson says, “if they have support from campus—and their parents.” 

Susan B. Sorenson is a professor of social policy and former director of the Ortner Center on Violence & Abuse in the School of Social Policy & Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. “After campus sexual assault: A guide for parents” was published in June by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.