I have two teenage daughters, which means I live in a household of head-snapping contradictions. Everything you’ve heard about adolescent girls is true, and not true. They are in equal parts infuriating and beguiling, full of arrogance and certainty one minute, crumpled by insecurity the next. And just when you think you’ve accidentally raised judgmental mean girls, they do something so kind, so empathetic (like help you change their demented grandfather’s sheets without a word of complaint), that the memory of it sustains you through a whole month of snark.
One day they go into their bedrooms all gangly and tweeny and come out looking like women. This is to be expected, yet we are not prepared for the way the world looks at them in the wake of that transformation. After one daughter’s middle-school graduation, she strode down the street in her new heels and with her new curves, plowing ahead of us without looking back. It was all I could do not to follow her waving my arms yelling, “I know she doesn’t look it, but she’s only 14!”
Now she’s 17 and applying to college. I have to let her disappear around that corner on her own. This is never easy for parents, but perhaps it’s even less so these days. She’s busy imagining who she’ll be when she’s living among her peers, on a campus somewhere that is not here. Meanwhile, I’m unable to stop reading the headlines about sexual assault and bungled rape investigations at some of the best universities in the country.
In late January, I couldn’t escape the accusations that a group of football players had raped an unconscious neuroscience major at Vanderbilt University. At a trial for two of them, the lawyer for one of the accused said his client’s judgment was distorted by a campus culture in which drunken sex was prevalent.
Just the fact that this case wasn’t swept under the rug is encouraging. New federal mandates that aim to reform the way universities handle sexual-assault cases represent huge progress. And sure, the stats on how pervasive the problem is are still being debated, but the awful stories keep coming. So while I might have worried more about pregnancy, now the specter of assault looms larger. How do I talk to my college-bound daughter about that?
The irony is that while we’ve always warned our little girls about strangers, the numbers say that if our college-age daughters are assaulted, it will likely be by someone they know. And like a lot of mothers, I’ve spent years telling my girls that they can do anything a boy can, that they can rely on their smarts above all and that they should never be ashamed of their bodies. But that’s not exactly true. No, girls can’t get drunk like guys can at a party, not without compromising their safety. And yes, girls are more vulnerable, physically and in other ways. Accusations of promiscuity can still damage a woman to an extent that many men can hardly fathom. Just ask that Vanderbilt student, now a Ph.D. candidate. Her alleged assailants took humiliating photos of her during the attack.
It’s not fair, but it’s reality. I realize that I need to have some version of the talk that so many African-American parents have with their sons about being careful of what they wear and how they behave so as not to put themselves in danger. To our girls we say, be brave, take risks. But internally we want them to do whatever it takes to stay safe. We say, be proud of your beauty. Yet we fear that showing it off will make them a target.
It’s a thicket of contradictions and hypocrisy–as my daughters are quick to inform me when I dare suggest maybe they put on a jacket over that strappy top. But I can’t help offering some advice as I watch one prepare to walk out the door:
Nourish your female friendships. You want women in your life who will have your back at parties and will speak up when you’re about to do something you shouldn’t. And you’ll have their back too. Being a part of this kind of posse is a lifelong gift.
When it comes to guys, look for kindness over cool. And trust your gut. If it feels wrong, leave. Say no. Say no. Say no.
I would defend your right to wear what you want and have just-for-fun sex if you want. But as your mother, I wish you so much more. I hope you take any chance you can to know someone truly and intimately. It is the best perk of being human.
If the inequities get you down, know that you are part of a revolutionary generation that is insisting on change. Just look at the women in a new documentary debuting at Sundance called The Hunting Ground. It’s the story of student assault survivors who cleverly used Title IX (the legislation forbidding gender discrimination) to force the Department of Education to investigate sexual-assault accusations at schools across the country. They transformed their vulnerability into something powerful.
And if you need me, I’m still here.
This appears in the February 09, 2015 issue of TIME.