We don’t have language for discussing sexual safety. Even the words “sexual assault” are uncomfortable and invite the kind of imagery and fear that young people and parents alike might rather avoid. Life is challenging enough with homework and sports, extracurriculars and family schedules, not to mention college visits, job applications and the occasional travel plans. How is it possible, in addition to all of this, to effectively teach young people about sexual assault prevention? Especially when we don’t have many words for it beyond “good touch, bad touch” and “stranger danger,” terms children learn in preschool. Yet with sexual assault occurring every 92 seconds in this country, and half of them involving victims between the ages of 18 and 34, we know we have a big problem — one the government has done little to solve; it spends more money treating the effects of sexual violence than it does any other violent crime.

Sexual safety is a whole different ball game.

Recently, while teaching sexual assault prevention classes at a local high school, I learned that many students were not aware of the definition of sexual assault, so they weren’t clear on what they were protecting themselves against. To be fair, “unwanted sexual touch,” the basis of the legal definition, doesn’t usually come up in conversation at family dinners, and since prevention education is not an integral part of high school curriculum, how would they know? Many people, young and old, still think assault means rape, when in fact the definition is much broader. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network), any sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim is considered assault.

Before I began working on my recent book, I had been treating victims of sexual assault for more than twenty years, and I still struggled with how to talk to my teenage daughter about sexual safety. But we can do a lot more by talking about it than we can by avoiding it, which means welcoming the discomfort such conversations create. A simple starting point parents and young people can try is to explore the definition of sexual assault. A lot can happen from there, including discussing the incidents that have made headlines. Because unlike car accidents, the variables that determine whether or not an assault will take place are numerous, hard to predict and often involve more people than just the victim and the offender.

What are some of the most common variables?

Since 50 percent of all assaults involve alcohol use, and 63 percent of known offenders were under the influence at the time, alcohol is the number-one variable affecting assault outcomes.

The functioning of the autonomic nervous system, or what I call “the freeze factor,” is another common variable. Often, assault occurs because, in the moment, the victim was unable to say no due to their fight-or-flight response going into overdrive, with flight manifesting as “freeze.” Eight out of 10 assaults occur with offenders who are known to the victim. When there is a relationship at stake, the likelihood for the freeze factor increases. Being aware of personal fight-or-flight reactions invites the opportunity to work with them more effectively, by practicing behavior that counteracts the freeze response, such as speaking up when anxiety gets triggered.

A third variable centers around peer relationships. Risk increases when a group of people (even just two or three) are out for an evening and, at some point, they get separated, leaving one member alone with someone they may have just met and/or expressed interest in. Often, the rest of the group assumed this friend wanted to be left alone, or they were caught up in their own fun and didn’t realize their friend was in danger. Establishing a plan before going out for an evening, especially if heading to a party or club, helps ensure that no one gets caught in an unsafe situation.

The most important factor to remember when it comes to sexual assault is that it is never the victim’s fault. Victim blaming is one of the main reasons assaults are not reported more often. Family and peer discussions encourage better reporting outcomes and increase awareness as young people develop their own safety protocol while still enjoying the freedom of independence. Opening a conversation about the above variables could start with something like, “Do you know of anyone who was placed in a risky situation while drinking?” Or, “Have you ever found yourself caught in a freeze moment where you didn’t know how to respond or what to do?” Or, “How do you and your friends keep an eye on each other when you’re out at night or at a party?” All of these will get the conversation moving and aren’t accusatory. To help readers further the discussion, try answering the following according to the legal definition (“unwanted sexual touch or behavior”) and what it means to you:

Is it or is it not sexual assault when…

1) A coach slaps one of his female players on the butt as she walks past to go on the field.

2) A female tutor arrives for her session with a male student and suddenly gives him a hug and a kiss on the cheek as she comes through the door.

3) A group of students from an opposing team yells obscenities at a female goalie, and one of them threatens her sexually if she keeps the other team from scoring.

4) A young woman gets drunk at a party and a male friend (also drunk) grabs her breast as she walks by.

5) A town librarian is helping a gender-fluid college student locate a book for a research project. At one point, the librarian tells them how handsome they are, touches their hair and says, “There are books I could show you that are a lot sexier than this.”

6) A group of students are at a pool party. One of the young men has had a lot to drink and begins making sexual comments to the women. Suddenly, he pulls his bathing suit down and flashes his genitals at them.

7) Mike, an 18-year-old high school senior, has a crush on his male youth-group leader, who is 23. The youth-group leader drives Mike home one day and tells Mike he would like to kiss him. Mike agrees.

The scenarios described in questions 1, 2, 4 and 5 could all be classified as sexual assault, since they involve unwanted sexual touch. The scenarios offered in questions 3 and 6 could also classify, since the offenders made sexual threats (to the goalie and to the group of women at the pool party). In question 7, although Mike is 18, his youth-group leader’s role creates a power differential in their relationship. Mike consented to the kiss, but the youth leader overstepped the boundary of that role, potentially classifying his action as sexual assault.

Since knowledge is power, parents, community members, and voters can empower young people to be informed rather than afraid. Creating space for conversations such as these increases our comfort with a difficult topic, widens the doorway for future discussions, and equips young people with more self-knowledge. In short, talking about hard things keeps worse things from happening and cultivates the meaning of the word “enough.”