The White House "It's On Us" Campaign Demands A Change In Culture, Not Just Policy

We know that we have a big rape problem in this country. We have horror story after horror story after horror story emerging from college campuses across America; statistics making it clear that if you haven’t experienced sexual violence in any form, you’re in the minority; and Fox News to remind us that still, it’s all a joke. And we don’t know what to do about it — which is why it’s so important that the White House has launched the “It’s On Us” campaign, complete with celebrities, videos, and, yes, tips.

Okay, admittedly, there's something a bit depressing about the need for "tips" on how to handle sexual assaults. It should be a given, that “if you see something, intervene in any way you can.” You should know to “talk to your friends honestly and openly about sexual assault.” But with 1 in 5 women experiencing rape in their lifetimes — over 80 percent of them before they reach 25, by someone they know — and the grimly disappointing reactions these women receive, clearly, something’s amiss. Which is where this campaign can really make a difference.

Launched Friday at the White House, “It’s On Us” is a partnership between student leaders at over 200 colleges across the U.S., the Center for American Progress’ Generation Progress, several private companies including Tumblr, and (somewhat surprisingly), college sports groups like the NCAA. It involves a website that has celebrity-filled videos (Jon Hamm’s earnest, manly face features prominently) urging Americans to pledge to keep women — and men — safe from sexual assault. As incentive, there’s $6 million going for 18 American colleges that manage to (finally!) develop strong rape prevention and response programs.

It's On Us on YouTube

Most importantly, though, the campaign is about changing the way that we as a country think about rape. It's not about isolated incidents, limited to the people involved. It's about the culture that allows it to happen, again and again.

As a White House press release explains:

“It’s On Us” aims to fundamentally shift the way we think about sexual assault, by inspiring everyone to see it as their responsibility to do something, big or small, to prevent it. The campaign reflects the belief that sexual assault isn’t just an issue involving a crime committed by a perpetrator against a victim, but one in which the rest of us also have a role to play. We are committed to creating an environment — be it a dorm room, a party, a bar or club, or the greater college campus — where sexual assault is unacceptable and survivors are supported. This effort will support student-led efforts already underway across the country, and will focus particularly on motivating college men to get involved.

The potential in the campaign lies in changing the way that we respond to unwanted sexual activity. Removing the protector/victim mentality, which tells men to "protect to their wives and daughters" and inserting something much more fundamental: basic human decency. Watching out for each other, and each others' limits. Knowing that we are almost as much to blame as the attacker, if we perpetuate rape culture with our comments, or by turning a blind eye.

In a White House blog by Jeffrey Zients, director of the National Economic Council, he writes:

As a husband, as a brother, and as a father of three boys and daughter who is a sophomore in college, it's on me to help create an environment in which sexual assault is unacceptable, and where survivors are supported.
It's on me to tell my kids to never blame the victim. To not be a bystander. It's on me to make sure they know that if they see something that looks wrong, they need to get involved -- to intervene any way they can, even if it means enlisting the help of a friend or resident advisor. It's on me to teach them to be direct, and to trust their gut.

Earlier this month, California passed the seminal "Yes means Yes" sexual assault bill, redefining (or rather, more explicitly defining), that non-consentual isn't limited to a no. That was a landmark move. Let's hope this campaign will turn out to be so too. Sadly, we need it to be.