Friday, September 19, 2014

White House Unveils New Public Awareness Campaign Aimed at Campus Sexual Assault

As part of its larger effort to focus public attention and government resources at the problem of sexual assault on campus, the White House today unveiled a new public awareness campaign aimed at amplifying the message that sexual assault is not just a matter between the perpetrator and the victim, but "one in which the rest of us also have a role to play." The campaign's name "It's On Us" reflects what is at core a basic but fundamental idea that sexual assault is a community problem with a community solution.  From the campaign's website, individuals can take a pledge, and then share
And they can share the fact of their having pledged with their social networks via Facebook and Twitter. 

This is the pledge: 
To recognize that non-consensual sex is sexual assault.
To identify situations in which sexual assault may occur.
To intervene in situations where consent has not or cannot be given.
To create an environment in which sexual assault is unacceptable and survivors are supported.
I recognize that is only small piece of a larger, more comprehensive governmental response, so it's unfair to criticize this initiative for being simply an online pledge. It's fine to incorporate a pledge initiative as one aspect of a multi-pronged approach. Especially when combined with social media, a pledge has the power to, by going viral, help normalize intolerance for sexual assault. But I think as far as its content goes, the pledge has only modest value in its over-simplicity.

The first sentence, for starters, is tautological. Sexual assault is defined as non-consensual sex and non-consensual sex is another word for sexual assault.

The second sentence is uselessly vague, since sexual assault "may occur" in any situation where one person and another person are in each other's company.

I like the third and fourth sentence well enough for what they do say, but I think they miss an opportunity to dig at least a little deeper into the root cause of the problem. As far as I'm concerned, sexual assault is a community problem worthy of a community-based solution (as opposed to a problem caused solely by individual offenders) because many more people than just rapists participate in the sexualization and objectification of women, which in turn creates a culture that gives offenders the perception of having permission to exert sexual power over women. This added layer of collective responsibility is lost in a message that makes it seem like it's sufficient to pledge to be ready to stop your female friend from going upstairs with that guy, or to give her a shoulder to cry on after she is assaulted. Maybe we should pledge to avoid language of sexual dominance ("scoring" and whatnot). Maybe we could pledge to boycott products that use sexualized images of women (or men) in their advertising. Maybe we could pledge to criticize all social contexts (professional sports, online gaming, Reddit, etc) that purvey and condone women's (or anyone's) sexual objectification.  That might actually make more sense as a message that is taking as a starting point the idea that sexual assault is a community problem for which we are all responsible.  It's well enough to pledge to "intervene" and "support" but I think it's also necessary to encourage people to examine their own behaviors that contribute to the culture that has given rise to this problem.