How can you help your daughters stay safe from sexual assault as they leave for college?

It’s a new school year and thousands of students around the world are on their way to campus, ready for syllabus week (frosh week here in Canada!). I remember what it was like to drop my girls off at the townhouse where they’d be living, and saying good-bye to them, and driving three hours back home. It’s really emotional for a mom!

When we drove Katie off to college at 18, she was all smiles, but I was a mess, and it didn’t take long before she got really teary, too!

But one of the things I made sure that we went over before they left home was some basic rules for safety, thinking specifically about sexual assault.

Now, before I get into this, I want to state three HUGE caveats.

First, the best way to stop sexual assault is for those assaulting to stop.

The responsibility for this really should not be on the victims. I firmly endorse this Twitter thread that I saw this weekend:

She was saying that to prevent sexual assault–people should stop sexually assaulting. However, while in an ideal world we could just tell those who are prone to assault others to stop, we’re never going to stop evil from happening. So I’d rather at least give our girls some guidelines.

Second, no matter how careful you are, assault can happen to you and it isn’t your fault.

The vast majority of sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone known to the victim. Unless we want to go around life with our guard up at all times and never leave the house and never be with the opposite sex, we will be at least somewhat at risk.

Third, men can be victims of sexual assault, too.

Though we don’t talk about it as much, guys can be victims as well, especially during hazing at university. So make sure your boys know that this is not their fault, and that they can tell  you, too!

With all that said, I want to stress that the purpose of this post is not to say that we can prevent all sexual assault, or that anyone is to blame if it happens to them. Instead, I just want to go over some things that can help make our daughters more streetwise (though guys can be victims, I’m going to focus on women here). I learned most of these growing up in downtown Toronto, and I taught them to my girls, and they do help! What studies have found, too, is that the more confident you appear, the less likely you are to be targeted (note: I said less likely, not NEVER. Again, you’re not to blame). So feeling equipped, being aware of your surroundings, and having a game plan can help you feel more confident.

I’d like to share some general things that I taught my daughters when they were teenagers, and then add some specific to living on campus!

1. Never go near a guy in a parked car.

If he wants directions, stand far back and talk loudly. If you think you’re being followed by a car, turn around and walk in the opposite direction (ie. towards the car, so that the car would have to make a U-turn to follow you). I taught this one to my girls when they were young, and used to drill them on it repeatedly. Don’t go near a woman asking directions in a parked car, either. My fellow Canadians will remember Kristen French, who was nabbed by Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka when pretty Karla stopped and leaned out a window with a map to ask her for help. I told my daughters to be wary of all cars, even those with women.

2. If you walk in the dark, walk with your keys in one hand and your cell phone in the other.

Have 911 on speed dial. And place a key between your index finger and middle finger, with the sharp end pointing out. Then, if anyone ever grabs you, you jab them in the eyes as hard as you can. It sounds drastic, but if you just always walk that way, it isn’t a big deal.

3. Have a code word to tell others you’re in trouble

that you can say to your friend or parent on the phone when you are in trouble. Sometimes it’s even just a name that they never call you. My girls never called me “Mother”, for instance, so if they ever were to say that, I’d know there was something up. Even today, if they’re trying to tell me that they can’t speak freely, they can always say that and I know.

4. As much as possible, don’t be alone in a car with someone else. 

If you need a ride somewhere, make sure there are girls in the car, too. If that’s not possible, or if it’s a guy you’ve been dating for a while, don’t drive for the sake of driving. Drive because you have somewhere to go and you’re expected there at a certain time. 

5. Make sure someone always knows where you’re supposed to be–

and what time you’re supposed to be home. And make someone always knows who you’re with, and mention it to the person that you’re with that you told your roommate/friend you were out with them. And speaking of this one, parents, just because you know where your daughter is does not mean she’s safe. Babysitting can be dangerous! Make sure you know the family well before your daughter (or son) babysits.

And now five more tips for staying safe from sexual assault specifically for when they go away for college!

I asked Joanna (who works on the blog) and Rebecca (my daughter who is about to make me a grandmother) to chime in on this one, because they’re much closer to the university years than I am!

6. Avoid frat parties, and any party that has alcohol 

This one isn’t fair, but it is true. Some college students experiment with truly evil things when they are on their own for the first time, and date rape drugs are a very clear and common example of this. 

I personally know a girl who was raped after drugs were slipped into a glass of water at a party – she’d decided to go but avoided alcohol to stay safe. It was a horrible tragedy. Such violence is unacceptable and intolerable and it means that women and girls cannot safely be in some spaces. Avoiding frat parties (and any party where alcohol is being served) is an important way to reduce (though we can never eliminate) the risk.

Joanna Sawatsky

7. Be wary of walking or exercising alone, especially at night

It’s really nice, when you’re in the middle of studying for finals, to head out for a jog along a walking or running path. And 95% of the time that’s a great idea. But just be cognizant of your surroundings and if the path is totally deserted at 6 am, try a different, more populated route. It’s very rare for someone to jump out of the bushes, but it does happen. And be careful walking at night, too!

We had a rape on campus during my freshman year at 7:30 am, outside of one of the chemistry buildings. My friend Adam heard about the incident and decided that I wasn’t walking home alone at night. I was living in a new dormroom (actually, I was living the suite life of Zach and Cody and chilling in a hotel that had just been turned into a dorm) and it was rather far from the building that we’d previously both been in. But, never fail, Adam walked me home. I so appreciated his kindness – he’s now a doctor and I’m confident he’s fabulous at it.

Joanna Sawatsky

Before we were married, I spent a lot of time at Connor’s house with him and his roommates. One of their house rules, since they were a house full of guys, was that they wouldn’t ever make a girl walk back alone. So even if you didn’t ask for a walking buddy, if any of the guys heard one of the girls was heading out one of them would say, “Wait a minute and I’ll grab my coat and walk with you.” It wasn’t made into a big deal, it’s just what they did. They were truly wonderful guys–look for friends like that who will take your safety seriously!

Rebecca Lindenbach

8. Take a self defense class

After the sexual assaults on campus, my amazing mentor Ruth decided that a bunch of us from our church on campus were going to take a self defense class. So once a week, I got my nose out of my books to learn how to take someone out if I had to. The whole goal of the class was to give us tools to use throughout our lives, instead of technical moves that we’d forget in a year or ten. It was a hugely empowering and helpful experience and I’m glad I know how to break someone’s nose.

Joanna Sawatsky

Please: tell your girls that they’re allowed to defend themselves. And self-defense goes beyond just physical force, too–my biggest “self-defense” move was to just start talking to some stranger who was in the vicinity as if I knew them and say “Hey, there’s a creepy guy following me do you mind just talking with me until he goes away?” (Usually this happened at bus stops where there was at least one older woman I could go up to!) 

Rebecca Lindenbach

9. Choose the neighborhood where you live carefully–and try not to live alone!

First, you’re always going to be safer if you have roommates who know where you are and expect you home at a certain time, and if you widely advertise that fact with everyone you’re with. And watch where you live, too! 

A friend’s roommate was held up at knifepoint in their apartment south of campus during my sophomore year of college – another roommate had left the backdoor unlocked accidentally and a predator took the opportunity. I remember being so grateful that I lived in a different neighborhood, about a 10 minute drive from campus. It was worth it for both the cheaper rent and for the better and safer living environment. If you are moving off campus, be aware of the safety concerns in different parts of whatever city or town you’re in and ensure that you’re in a place where you’ll be safe.

Joanna Sawatsky

If your kids live in a less-than-stellar neighbourhood, too, take measures to make it safer. Put wooden dowels in the window wells so that people can’t open their windows, even if left unlocked by accident. Talk to the landlord about setting up an automatically locking door lock. Look at bus stop locations and whether or not your kid will have to walk along an unlit path for a while to get home or if they can get off the bus and have a safe way back. These things matter and make living alone way less scary!

Rebecca Lindenbach

10. And finally, and my big bonus one: TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS.

If you think something is off, it’s off. You don’t have to have a conversation with someone just because they started it. If someone’s making you uncomfortable on a bus, it’s okay to switch seats. If someone’s making you uncomfortable in an elevator, it’s okay to press lobby and get out. If someone’s making you uncomfortable in a library, it’s okay to get up and walk out, or to over and sit near someone who works there. Often we don’t do these things because we don’t want to be rude, but sometimes you have to be rude! As I said in this post, it’s okay to be rude to creepy people!

To reiterate, if someone attacks you, that is never your fault. At the same time, though, we should all try as hard as possible to minimize the risk of sexual assault.

The risk will never be 0. There will always be evil in the world, and women will always be at higher risk. But I do think that the more that we can talk to our girls openly about this, and the more we can help them feel empowered to speak up, say no, and be rude when necessary, the better.


Is there anything you would add? Do you have any horror stories from going away to college? Share with me your #11!

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