Should your child read the Stanford rape victim's letter?

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  • Experts agree that the Stanford rape victim's letter is extremely powerful but disagree over who should read it
  • One in five women is sexually assaulted while in college, according to the Campus Sexual Assault Study

(CNN)The Stanford rape victim's letter is quite possibly the most powerful piece of writing ever about sexual assault: a woman's graphic and emotional description of what a man did to her one night behind a Dumpster at a fraternity party.

We don't want this to happen to our daughters, but sadly, it does: One in five women is sexually assaulted while in college, according to the Campus Sexual Assault Study (PDF). It happens to our sons, too: one in 16 young men.
    Since statistics, no matter how dramatic, often fail to penetrate the minds of teenagers, should we ask our teens to read this searing 12-page letter? Could its emotional impact help prevent them from becoming the victims -- or the perpetrators -- of a sexual assault?
    Experts in the field of sexual assault agree that the rape victim's letter is extremely powerful.
    "I've been doing this work for seven years now, and I was overcome when I read that letter," said Laura Palumbo of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
    "This is our work, and we're accustomed to reading about trauma, but this is still a letter that brings us to our knees," added Shaina Brown, public affairs and communications manager at the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
    But these advocates and experts disagree about whether you, as a parent, should sit down tonight and ask your teen or college-age child to read the letter.
    Amy Lang, a sexuality and parenting expert, says parents should sit down and read it with their children 14 and older. She says she'll be doing so soon with her 15-year-old son.
    "It really reinforces the new model of consent," said Lang, who founded the company Birds + Bees + Kids to teach parents how to talk to their children about sex. "It really makes it clear that if your partner can't say 'yes,' then there should be no sex of any kind. That's the rule."
    But Palumbo, the communications director for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, disagrees that reading the letter is the best approach for educating young people.
    "I would have concerns and hesitations, because this is a very raw and intense letter," she said. "I do not know that I would go directly to it, just knowing how difficult it was for me to read."
    Palumbo recommends instead that you talk with your children about themes from the incident, which many young people will probably have already read about on social media.
    "I'd be very interested in talking about how little control or influence she had of the situation," she said. "And about how no one leaves the house expecting to experience assault."
    Another lesson, she said: Predators don't announce themselves.
    "No one meets a person thinking they'll be capable of sexual assault. It's not something that we think of the people around us," Palumbo said.
    "It's an important reminder [to young people] that oftentimes, they think they're in situations where they feel very safe, and that's an environment that someone who perpetrates sexual assault may take advantage of."
    On the other hand, Scott Berkowitz, president of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, said that actually reading the letter could provide valuable lessons for young people.
    "My general sense is that most teens or college-age people would really connect with it and feel a bond with the woman who wrote it," he said. "It is hard to read, and it is emotional, but I don't think those are bad things."
    He added that young men, in particular, might benefit from reading through the whole 12 pages rather than just talking about the incident in general.
    "The letter does something that's a lot harder for parents to do, which is trigger their sense of empathy, something that's probably not the most common trait of 16-year-old boys," he said. "It's a lot harder to convey that emotion without having a specimen to show them like this letter."
    He added that parents know their children best and should make their own decisions about whether reading the letter is the right way to educate them.
    Even just talking about the case can be of great value, he said. Berkowitz said that one would never want to blame the victim, but it's valuable to discuss alcohol use with your children.
    "One of the things alcohol can do is make it harder to gauge what's going on," he said. "It makes it harder to discern when others mean harm."
    The case also makes it clear that each of us has the power to help others, as two Stanford graduate students did when they chased down Brock Turner, the man convicted of raping the author of the letter.
    Such "bystander intervention" can take several forms. For example, if a young person is at a party and sees two people leaving and something looks a little suspicious or "creepy," he or she can follow them outside.
    "There are simple ways to divert the situation or interject yourself so it doesn't turn into a violent crime later," Berkowitz said.
    And the overwhelming public support for the Stanford rape victim in and of itself is educational for young people, he added.
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    "Often, the perspective among teens and college students is that they're not going to be believed if they come forward, or that people will blame them," Berkowitz said. "The public reaction to this case shows that the public is now on the side of the survivors.
    "If something happens, you don't have to be afraid to tell Mom or Dad or your friends. It's not something you should feel embarrassed about or need to hide. We'll come forward and love you and support you."
    The National Sexual Abuse Hotline provides free and confidential support from trained staff members online and at 800.656.HOPE (4673).