The White House Working to Fix Sexual Assault or Creating More Problems Along the Way?

unnamed-2Recently, America has finally started having more extensive debate about the way that sexual assault is handled on college campuses. So often, we hear about universities blaming the victim, failing to punish the attacker, and basically blundering through a process meant to help those who have lived through the unthinkable. The Obama Administration is taking action, creating something called “It’s On Us”, which looks to have a major influence on how universities approach sexual assault.

“It’s On Us” is a campaign that looks to spread awareness and foster education about sexual assault on college campuses. In a departure from some of the other campaigns we’ve seen regarding sexual assault, which usually focus on either potential victims or potential attackers, this campaign asks everyone to see their responsibility in creating a solution to sexual assault. There’s a major focus on bystanders, asking those who witness possible sexual assault to step in and take action. Take a look at the pledge, taken directly from the It’s On Us website:

This pledge is a personal commitment to help keep all women and men safe from sexual assault 

It is a promise not to be a bystander to the problem, but to be a part of the solution. 

I pledge to…

Recognize that non-consensual sex is sexual assault. 

Identify situations in which sexual assault may occur

Intervene in situations where consent has not or cannot be given

Create an environment in which sexual assault is unacceptable and survivors are supported

In theory, it seems like a plan that can, if backed by the right strategies, get results. So what are the government and universities throughout the country doing to see that this program brings about the desired results? The efforts began earlier in the year when the White House launched the Task Force to Prevent Students from Sexual Assault. This group set out to see that schools to create better preventative measures, to help schools better handle sexual assault cases, and to provide them with the tools to achieve these goals. The “Not Alone” campaign, a predecessor to “It’s On Us”, was set forth in April and worked to advance some of these initiatives. Now the newest initiative is out to further the work that’s already been done towards achieving those goals.

One of the biggest things that the White House hopes to achieve through this recent campaign is to engage men in the discussion about sexual violence. According to a facts sheet released from the White House, most men will not be violent towards women. However, they choose to stay silent because they are under the impression that other men accept this kind of behavior as the social norms. By including more males in these conversations, it is the hope that we can work to change the normalization of sexual violence.

Moving onto the bystander intervention initiative, the Center for Disease Control released a study earlier this year stating that onlookers can play a key role in discouraging and preventing sexual violence. In order for this to be effective, education must be put into play. Right now, the Task Force is planning to achieve this through increased awareness, decreasing sexual misperceptions about sexual assault, and providing skills to intervene effectively and with confidence.

Finally, the task force is still working to establish a number of other initiatives to prevent assault on campus. Some of these projects include sharing best practices with universities regarding sexual assault complaints and improving their response; beginning education about sexual violence at a younger age to aid in prevention; and helping to further the efforts already being made on campuses throughout the country.

So far, 233 schools throughout the nation have already taken the pledge. The campaign gained star power along the way, with celebrities such as Kerry Washington and Joel McHale showing their support via social media, in addition to millions of other tweets, Instagrams, and Facebook posts. “It’s On Us” seems to be making quite the impression in its early stages.


However, it’s important to look at this approach to sexual assault prevention and education with a more critical eye before accepting that these courses of action will be most effective at making these kinds of attacks a thing of the past. When first hearing about this initiative, I was glad to see that the White House was taking on an issue that I don’t believe gets enough attention. However, I had one immediate concern: despite what CDC studies tell us, how effective is this bystander intervention? Also, couldn’t it have unwanted consequences for those who are attempting to help?

Lauren Chief Elk, someone who has been long involved in the world of feminism, tweeted about her opposition to the bystander effect; taking the concerns I have about bystander intervention and solidifying my weary stance. The first issue with this approach is that it encourages everyone to intervene, whether or not they are able to safely do so. This strategy could be viewed as encouraging people to put themselves in danger. On a related note, bystander intervention has the potential to criminalize bystanders. Is someone at fault for a sexual assault if they didn’t step in, not because they weren’t looking out for the assault victim, but because they didn’t feel capable of safely intervening?

In addition, it’s very possible that intervention may not be seen as self-defense and someone trying to do good may end up facing legal and social consequences. For example, say that a student is trying to assault a woman. A friend of hers steps in and in the process, ends up getting in a fight with the assailant. Instead of the assailant getting in any trouble, the bystander is punished and his actions are not seen as self-defense. Finally, bystander intervention simply doesn’t change the status quo. Perhaps a bystander can prevent one incident of sexual assault, but that assailant is very likely to go after another victim who has no one to speak up on their behalf. At the end of the day, Lauren Chief Elk claims that bystander intervention is just another way of protecting rapists, particularly high profile individuals like athletes. While I don’t know if I wholeheartedly agree with this claim, I do hold onto my concerns about this strategy being the White House’s focus.

Blogger Melissa McEwan discusses another valid concern: It’s On Us does not appear to seek changing the culture surrounding rape and the way it’s dealt with administratively and at a federal level. One of the barriers presented by the White House is that victims cannot stay silent. However, in many situations the victims do not stay silent – they try to report the assault, but they are met with challenges from their schools, the police, and the legal system at large. It’s no wonder that many women don’t want to report their assault or wish that they had not reported it. It also places a huge burden on the victim to go about reporting their situation and the last thing we need to be doing is placing more responsibilities and blame on those that have suffered enough.

So to sum all of that up, I do think it’s great that the Obama Administration is taking on the issue of sexual assault, as I don’t think there have been enough attempts made at improving the state of sexual assault in this country. The fact that we’re headed in that direction is great! However, I think some refinement may be in order before schools and the federal government go ahead and begin implementing these strategies to schools.

What do you think – is the Obama Administration looking to tackle sexual assault through the right avenues or do you think there’s some improvement in order? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

A full Storify of Lauren Chief Elk’s tweets can be found here – it’s a great read that takes a much deeper look at Bystander Intervention than I ever could in this post!