In a new public service announcement aiming to encourage bystanders — particularly men — to step in to prevent sexual assault, Vice President Joe Biden tells viewers that if they see someone being sexually assaulted, “you have to do something about it.”
The minute-long PSA video, which also features celebrities such as actors Steve Carell, Seth Meyers, Dule Hill and Daniel Craig, debuted Tuesday as part of a major push from the White House to tamp down on sexual assault on college campuses in the wake of ever-increasing complaints from students that their cases have been mishandled.
“If she doesn’t consent, or she can’t consent” to sex, instructs a solemn Benicio del Toro, an acclaimed actor, “it’s rape, it’s assault.”
A White House task force that first convened in January to address the problem of college sexual assault also released its recommendations Tuesday, after it held what senior administration officials said were dozens of sit-down and online meetings with sexual assault survivors, university administrators and staff members, law enforcement officers and other stakeholders over the past three months.
The task force concluded that in order to recognize the problem of sexual assault and create better prevention strategies, men must be a more integrated part of that conversation.
“We need to engage men as allies in this cause,” the task force said in the report of its recommendations (PDF). “Most men are not perpetrators — and when we empower men to step in when someone’s in trouble, they become an important part of the solution.”
The report continued, “If we get this right, today’s students will leave college knowing that sexual assault is simply unacceptable. And that, in itself, can create a sea change.”
The shift to a discussion on preventing sexual violence and educating people on college campuses on how to intervene represents a distinct departure from what has often been a focus on the behavior of the women who have been assaulted.
Rape victims, feminist scholars and others advocating for sexual assault prevention have frequently complained about a pervasive rape culture, one that is permissive of — and even glorifies — violence against women, and then blames the women for their clothing or behavior when they’re sexually assaulted.
Such questions arose, for example, after a group of high school football players raped an incapacitated teenage girl in Steubenville, Ohio, in 2012. The same misguided conversation happened after the ruling by a Montana judge that a 49-year-old teacher who raped his 14-year-old student should serve only a 30-day sentence because she was “as much in control of the situation” as her teacher.
At the college level in recent weeks, leaked emails and texts from the unofficial Epsilon Iota fraternity at American University in Washington, which was banned in 2001, revealed members talking in graphic and derogatory terms about raping women and getting them so intoxicated that the women would black out, according to media reports.
And in 2010, Yale University made national headlines after Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity pledges chanted, “No means yes, yes means anal” during an initiation ritual on Old Campus. In 2011, Yale suspended the local DKE chapter for five years.
“We don’t do enough to teach young men that you can’t have sex with somebody who’s incapacitated,” Lynn Phillips, a professor at the University of Massachusetts who studies sexuality and youth culture, told Al Jazeera in October.
She added that the prevailing culture “frames masculinity as being about power and aggression and about getting everything you can, sexually.”
A January 2014 report from the White House Council on Women and Girls (PDF), for example, found that 7 percent of college men admitted to attempting sexual assault, and more than 60 percent of those men committed multiple assaults, with an average of six sexual assaults each.
The PSA and the task force’s recommendations, in that vein, also call for colleges to improve their sexual-assault prevention programs. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released, on the new NotAlone.gov website (PDF), a report detailing sexual-assault prevention strategies that have been shown to work — and also what doesn’t work.
While federal law requires schools to provide sexual assault prevention and awareness programs, the White House said the CDC, the Department of Justice and the Education Department are gathering a team of experts to discuss emerging programs for violence prevention, and that the DOJ’s Office on Violence Against Women would be developing violence prevention pilot programs that would be tested on college campuses.
Particularly effective, the CDC report acknowledged, are what are known as bystander intervention programs, in which students are taught to speak up and intervene if they see someone who is in danger of being assaulted — or someone who is about to commit assault.
“What we’ve learned in the field is that the best way to intervene in rape or sexual assault is to engage the bystander,” Alan Berkowitz, a California-based psychologist who consults with government agencies and colleges about sexual assault prevention strategies, particularly among men, told Al Jazeera.
His research on bystander prevention programs was among those programs cited in the task force report (PDF). The tactic aims to change what he says are people’s often incorrect assumptions about their social groups that stop them from speaking up. Those assumptions might include worries that their peers will become angry or embarrassed by an intervention in a sexual assault, that someone else will intervene instead or that others actually aren’t concerned about the assault.
That’s what’s called the bystander effect, Berkowitz said, a phenomenon often illustrated in psychology textbooks by the infamous 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens, N.Y., whose attack was reportedly witnessed but not reported by dozens of her neighbors.
But the bystander effect can be reversed. “The truth is, based on recent research, including my own, we have determined that most men would respect another man who intervened to prevent sexual assault,” Berkowitz said. “If you teach them the skills to intervene, then you reduce the bystander effect and you can actually eliminate it.”
Part of it, he said, is creating strong, shared social norms for people to intervene if they see violence. “The good news is that most people are uncomfortable with inappropriate behavior, and most people want to do something,” he said.