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The best thing parents can do to help prevent sexual assault? Talk about it.

LOS ANGELES — Passers-by write messages to sexual assault victims during an event held by the organization 7,000 in Solidarity, on UCLA’s campus June 4th, 2015, to pay respect to the 7,000 Bruins who have or will experience sexual violence over the course of their lifetime. (Photo by Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

What’s a parent to do?

A new Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that one in five young women who attended college in the past four years say they have been sexually assaulted. And two-thirds of those survivors say they’d been drinking before the assault.

Turns out, research shows that there is one very powerful thing that parents can do to help prevent their daughters and sons on college campuses from becoming victims, perpetrators or bystanders when it comes to sexual assault: Talking.

[Read about the Post-Kaiser poll: 1 in 5 college women say they were violated.]

Alcohol, some college administrators and law enforcement officials say, is the real date rape drug. And it’s far better for parents to have uncomfortable and even unwanted conversations with teenagers before they go off to college than to send them there unaware and unprepared, said Elizabeth Armstrong, a sociologist at the University of Michigan and author of Paying for the Party, a study of Greek life and social inequality.

“We found that the parents who were having extended conversations with their daughters about all these issues, that their daughters were safer in college,” Armstrong said. “With the boys, it was ‘You’ve got to understand, if she’s drunk, that’s illegal. If she’s incapacitated, it could ruin your life.”

[Drinking is central to college culture — and to sexual assault.]

Armstrong said these conversations can be tricky. Parents want to help their children successfully navigate college culture. But no parent wants to tell their child it’s okay to drink, when the legal age is 21. And yet the reality is, college campuses are awash in alcohol. One long-term study by the Harvard School of Public Health of tens of thousands of college students called alcohol “entrenched” in college campus culture.

In the Washington Post-Kaiser poll, nearly 40 percent of the more than 1,000 students surveyed said that when they drank socially, they drank too much. That number climbed to about 50 percent for students in fraternities and sororities, and it squares with the Harvard College Alcohol Study that consistently found 44 percent of college students were binge drinkers. The study found very little difference between “wet” campuses and “dry” campuses, predominantly in the South and Midwest, where alcohol is officially banned.

The Post analysis found that the young women who said they sometimes or often drink more than they should are twice as likely to be victims of completed, attempted or suspected sexual assault, compared to those who don’t.

And six in 10 women said it was common for people on their campuses to think that if a woman is sexually assaulted while drunk, she is “at least somewhat responsible.”

Much needs to change on college campuses, including a shift in traditions that have long glorified alcohol, training students how to recognize when an assault is more likely, how to intervene as a bystander and demanding accountability and transparency from schools.

[Read stories from dozens of sexual assault survivors.]

But in the meantime, parents can help their students know more about what they might confront and how to handle it.

“We were really surprised how much the young women would say, ‘My Mom told me if I went to a party, I should only drink from beer that was closed, or a see-through glass so I could see what I was drinking,’” Armstrong said. “Or they’d say, ‘My Mom told me not to leave my friends, not to go upstairs at a frat house alone.’ They felt uncomfortable that their Moms had told them that. But they actually were listening.”

Armstrong said she and her co-author heard young women recite – and follow – what their parents told them, and experts say are some of the best precautions for students:

  • As a freshman girl, be on guard during the first few weeks of school. The first weeks of school, during freshman year, are often the most dangerous time for young women, Armstrong said. Research has found that a small percentage of young men, perhaps 4 percent to 6 percent of those on campus, are perpetrating as many as 90 percent of the assaults. They are often well-liked and popular, and their behavior tolerated in hyper-masculine settings like fraternities or athletics, she and others say. They can often target young girls before the girls know any better. In the Post-Kaiser poll, many women who survived assaults during college said they were in their first two years of school when the assaults happened.
  • Always have a “battle buddy” when going out. Don’t go off alone. Agree to make sure both of you get home safely.
  • Don’t drink. Or, more realistically, don’t drink to the point of intoxication or incapacitation. Know your limits.
  • Make known your sexual boundaries before getting into a sexual situation. In today’s casual “hook-up” culture, sometimes it can be difficult for either party to know when a boundary has been crossed, particularly when alcohol is involved and impairs judgment and fogs memory.
  • Keep your drink in hand at all times. Don’t set down your drink and leave it, to give someone a chance to slip a “date rape” drug like Rohypnol or GHB into it. Don’t drink something you didn’t open or pour yourself.

The students who fared worst in their study, Armstrong said, were young women who had been overly protected, or whose parents didn’t go to college and learn to navigate this world for themselves.

And that, Armstrong and others say, is why changing the campus culture to protect everyone is critical.

Banning alcohol hasn’t proven effective, and students in the Post-Kaiser poll don’t think it would work.

Yet colleges could learn from a 2011 study that found that Historically Black Colleges and Universities have lower rates of alcohol consumption compared to non-historically black institutions. And rates of sexual assault, primarily when the victim was incapacitated, appear to also be lower. The study pointed to culture: Black women at non-historically black institutions, like those at historically black institutions, drank less alcohol than their white counterparts.

As far as binge drinking goes, the Harvard study found that 16 percent of African Americans were binge drinkers, compared to 49 percent of white students.

The military, too, another organization where men and women live in close quarters, has been trying to control alcohol as a means of preventing sexual assault, using breath tests, intensive assault prevention education, peer mentoring and rules that prohibit military personnel from buying more than one drink at a time. As a result, between 2011 and 2013, sexual assault rates at the Great Lakes navy boot camp dropped by 60 percent.