Last week, the White House released a new nationwide initiative “It’s on Us” to combat the scourge of sexual assault on college campuses by emphasizing the role that every student, especially bystanders, must play in preventing sexual assault.
“The fact is that from sports leagues to pop culture to politics, our society still does not sufficiently value women. We still don’t condemn sexual assault as loudly as we should,” President Barack Obama said in his speech at the initiative’s launch last Friday. “This is on all of us, every one of us, to fight campus sexual assault.”
Placing the onus on bystander intervention is exactly the right focus for preventing sexual violence and changing a culture that is altogether too passive, if not permissive, of sexual assault. The initiative’s website, ItsOnUs.org, states its goal “to create an environment in which sexual assault is unacceptable and survivors and supported,” and features pledges for students to sign alongside a star-studded video.
Ever since the issue of sexual assault on college campus captured national attention after several harrowing accounts of college’s inadequate treatment of survivors, the White House has taken strong action in countering an epidemic that affects one in five women during their college years.
In April, a White House task force on sexual assault released its commendable first report, which recommended engaging men on campuses and the development of clearer disciplinary systems and sexual misconduct policies. In May, the Department of Education released a list of 55 colleges and universities with open sexual violence investigations by the department’s Office of Civil Rights for possible violation of Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination for institutions receiving federal funding. Both Harvard College and Harvard Law School were on the list.
While there are a number of institutional changes, such as codification of an affirmative consent policy, that colleges and universities can take to make sexual assault response more clear and supportive of survivors, the national culture around sexual violence is less easy to change immediately—even though it is just as important. By emphasizing that every person is a potential bystander, that every person must remain vigilant, that culture of passivity can slowly begin to change.
And while it speaks well of the White House to be so responsive to the issue of sexual assault on campuses, there are many other communities damaged by sexual violence, including the homeless, American Indians, and trans people.
The problem of sexual assault on campuses is one close to home—but until all Americans are free to live without the debilitating scars of sexual violence, everyone must do their part. It’s on us.
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