White House announces college-campus sexual assault awareness campaign

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President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden announced a sexual assault awareness campaign Friday that aims to promote bystander education on college campuses and engage more men in preventing sexual violence.

Components of the campaign, called “It’s On Us,” include tips on ending sexual assault and victim-blaming as well as an online pledge to not stand by in situations that may lead to sexual assault. Additionally, student leaders at college campuses nationwide, including UC Berkeley, and organizations such as the NCAA and Viacom have publicly partnered with the campaign.

“It’s On Us” represents an effort to facilitate change around the culture of sexual assault, according to UC Berkeley senior Sofie Karasek, a sexual assault survivor who co-founded End Rape on Campus, a survivor advocacy organization.

“They are intentionally trying to change the culture of men accepting that other men commit sexual violence,” Karasek said. “What’s different about this campaign is that it’s so much more comprehensive.”

The campaign utilizes a variety of social media to promote awareness: those who have taken the online pledge can change their Facebook profile pictures to support the campaign, and a public service announcement featuring celebrities was released Thursday. The NCAA plans to show the PSA at its championship events and publicize the campaign on social media.

The campaign’s focus on education signals a positive shift in treating sexual assault prevention as a collective effort, said Kevin Sabo, director of legislative affairs in the ASUC external affairs vice president’s office.

ASUC Student Advocate Rishi Ahuja called the campaign the “philosophical framework” of a new approach to sexual assault prevention.

Additionally, Ahuja, whose role on campus includes providing resources for sexual assault survivors, said the decision to target men was significant.

“When you’re trying to make a culture shift,” Ahuja said, “you have to utilize every mechanism you have to get the word out.”

UC Berkeley junior Meghan Warner, chair of the ASUC Sexual Assault Commission, lauded the campaign’s efforts to shift the dialogue from victim-blaming to a focus on active bystandership.

Although she said the ASUC will look to incorporate aspects and ideas of “It’s On Us,” focusing on the Cal Consent Campaign and other existing student activism on campus comes first.

“I am a very big proponent of student activism,” Warner said. “Not that there’s anything wrong with this campaign, but why would we take government activism when we already have this student activism that’s already in existence?”

According to UC spokesperson Brooke Converse, the university is still deciding how to engage in “It’s On Us” and integrate it alongside systemwide efforts such as UConsent, the University of California Student Association’s sexual assault awareness campaign.

Karasek applauded the campaign’s partnership with companies such as Electronic Arts, a video game developer that has made games such as the “Sims” and “Battlefield.” The company agreed to incorporate “It’s On Us” into the promotion of its brand, taking a step in reaching out to a male-dominated culture that might lack awareness of sexual assault, according to Karasek.

Along with the campaign announcement, a White House task force posted three documents on its website that provide sample language and recommendations for campus policy surrounding sexual assault.

The task force, created in January, released a report in April about ways for colleges and universities to respond to and reduce cases of sexual assault.

UC Berkeley, which is currently under investigation by the federal government for possible violations of federal law regarding the handling of sexual violence cases, is taking its own steps toward sexual assault awareness. The campus released a resource website for survivors in April and revamped sexual assault prevention training for incoming students.

At Wednesday’s UC Board of Regents meeting, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks announced that those who do not complete the mandatory orientation on sexual violence — numbering about 500 students — will have their registration blocked.

According to Ahuja, the ASUC Student Advocate’s Office just finished the hiring process for a confidential survivor advocate, who will help the campus coordinate a student-focused response to sexual assault.

Taking the conversation to the national level, though, ultimately leads to a greater scale of awareness, Sabo said.

“I’m excited that there’s now a national dialogue talking about what we can all do — not just women, but people of all gender identities,” Warner said.

Contact Katy Abbott at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @katyeabbott.