By Joseph Vitale
President Obama’s administration last Friday advanced its initiative to combat sexual assault on college campuses by formally launching “It’s on Us,” a nationwide public service campaign that urges young people to play an active role in preventing sexual assaults on college campuses.
According to White House officials, it attempts to shift how young Americans perceive sexual assault by urging all parties to take responsibility in preventing possible instances of sexual assault.
Both in name and nature, the campaign makes clear there are not just two actors — a perpetrator and a victim — involved in an incident of sexual assault, but also preventative roles for others to assume.
One way the White House is accomplishing this is by encouraging men — who make up the majority of perpetrators — to take a more active role and intervene in situations that they find potentially dangerous.
“By getting men involved, we can change this way of thinking and create new social norms,” White House officials said on Friday. “Research shows that bystander intervention can be an effective way of stopping sexual assault before it happens, as bystanders play a key role in preventing, discouraging and/or intervening when an act of violence has the potential to occur.”
This campaign is just one step in the Obama administration’s effort to leave a lasting impression on the issue of sexual assault in colleges across the country. The endeavor originally began in January of this year, when the president, along with Vice President Joe Biden, established the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. It has worked closely with schools in preventing sexual assault, providing practical tools to help combat sexual assault.
The new initiative invites visitors to formally commit to assisting in sexual assault prevention on college campuses. The initiative asks students, for example, to 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 and to create an environment in which sexual assault is unacceptable and survivors are supported.” A growing list of those who pledged can be found on the campaign website.
The website also provides a series of tips to help students identify and prevent sexual assault. “If you see someone who is too intoxicated to consent, enlist their friends to help them leave safely,” reads one of the suggestions. Another tells students, “Trust your gut. If something looks like it might be a bad situation, it probably is.”
A unique facet of the launch is the inclusion of a brief but diverse list of celebrities who are aiding the White House in attracting the attention of the millions of students attending U.S. schools.
A video featured on its website features celebrities such as Kerry Washington (“Scandal”), Jon Hamm (“Mad Men”) and Questlove. Additional attendees of Friday’s event, which was held in the East Room of the White House, included Kevin Love, who plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Olivia Munn, who stars in the HBO series “The Newsroom.”
In order to reach a wide demographic, the White House also is recruiting numerous partners to help spread its message, including the National Collegiate Athletic Association, Electronic Arts and student body leaders at colleges and universities across the country.
Students from more than 200 schools have already committed to bringing “It’s on Us” to campuses, though Fordham’s name does not appear on the list of schools as of September.
The ambitious effort is likely to met with some challenges, though. Critics say that measuring success will prove difficult for government officials as it requires constant and active participation from students and school administrators.
Measuring success objectively is also a daunting challenge.
The White House has said that nearly one in five female students will encounter sexual assault during their four years of college, but underreporting leads to distorted data on how often instances of sexual assault occur. An increase in reports following the campaign may indicate that the pronounced push to end campus assault is failing. Others say that a jump in reports may indicate that a greater number of students are reporting incidents, one of the goals of the campaign. There is also the issue of false reporting to consider, which is more difficult to determine, monitor and prevent.
An accurate measurement of success, White House officials agree, may be found in the student surveys the campaign is pushing universities to distribute. A heightened awareness about the realities of sexual assault, a more comprehensive understanding of how to prevent sexual assault on campuses and increased reports of bystander intervention are all possible indices of an effective campaign.
Another tool to gauge the campaign’s success is how schools are handling reports of sexual assault. Allegedly botched investigations have brought national attention to the challenges facing both those who report and those who examine cases of sexual assault, leading to the investigation of more than 70 schools for their handling of sexual assault complaints.
Fordham students have been anything but silent on the issue of sexual assault. Fordham’s United Student Government has created a task force, called the Sexual Misconduct Task Force, to combat sexual assault on campus and serve as the essential role of liaison between USG and Fordham administrators.
According to a recent report in The Fordham Ram, the effort was brought to the forefront by Nicholas Sawicki, FCRH ‘16, vice president of United Student Government at Fordham College Rose Hill.
“We want to make sure that [sexual assault] isn’t happening at Fordham,” said Sawicki last week.
“And for the cases that are occurring, we want to provide better protection for our students, make sure that the policies laid down by Dean [Christopher] Rodgers are well understood and we want to hopefully change the culture that leads to this issue occurring,” he added.
He noted that one major goal of the task force this school year is to organize a conference that would bring together students, administrators and public officials, including local and state representatives and leaders.
Sawicki also announced in the most recent public USG meeting that he would be co-chairing the task force along with a student leader of Women’s Empowerment, a gesture of solidarity among various clubs and organizations who are similarly working to combat sexual assault on Fordham’s campus.
There have been 23 reports of such instances at Fordham between 2010 and 2012, according to a nationally distributed report, which was published by The Washington Post.
Joseph Vitale is the Managing Editor for The Fordham Ram.