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It’s On Us: Wrong For Our Community?

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Around mid-September, the White House unveiled a new initiative to work towards ending sexual violence specifically on college campuses. The basis of the campaign is to empower students to engage in bystander intervention and prevent assaults from happening. The campaign rolled out with a flashy video containing sound bytes of celebrities saying that “it’s on us to prevent sexual violence.” In addition, the initiative has a website where interested persons can take its pledge and use its handy technology to put your face or your school’s logo behind the It’s On Us brand stamp. Although a great first step and an innovative way to engage campuses with this issue, the It’s On Us campaign is not a great fit for Carleton.

Who are we to be determining that the campaign is not the best for Carleton? We are the students involved with activism on campus around sexual violence. We are student associates in the Gender and Sexuality Center (located in the basement of Scoville Hall) and part of our job is to create engaging and effective programing to stymie sexual violence on campus. You might remember the GSC’s name from the Doing It Right presentation that you saw during your New Student Week or maybe you know the name through our various other programming like Vagina Monologues, SpeakUp, our Healthy Community and Relationships Dinners, or QLGBTeA Time. We’re an active force on campus that is interested in this issue and spend a good part of our time thinking about how we and other Carls can engage with it. Other groups like Carleton Advocates Against Sexual Harassment and Assault (CAASHA) are an important part of the process and also work to end sexual violence on our campus.

Why do we not believe that It’s On Us is a good fit for Carleton’s campus? In short, it is basic and problematic. We’ll start by identifying some of the problematic language that the campaign utilizes and move on to some of the larger structural issues that it perpetuates. We’ll conclude with some of our own ideas and encourage you readers to think critically about your engagement with this issue.

Our work in the Gender and Sexuality Center is twofold, dealing with both sexual violence prevention and LGBTQIAP issues. In our office, we work to see how these two issues are in fact inherently tied together and inform one another. With that in mind, one of the first issues of the campaign is that it is not trans*inclusive. It uses language that excludes people that do not identify on the gender binary, essentially erasing their experiences with sexual violence. Although the It’s On Us website does not address the abuser/abusee relationship, the speeches and press releases around the campaign has mostly addressed the issue as one of men doing violence against women. At the GSC, we recognize that sexual violence occurs in all communities, it affects people of all gender and sexuality identities, and it has to stop. In our programming we strive to recognize the multiplicity of identities that influence experiences of sexual violence.

The campaign, although a good first step, does not address some of the larger issues involved with sexual violence. Empowering a bystander to intervene in situations and create a community that supports survivors does not address the larger systemic problem that creates an atmosphere in which sexual violence is acceptable. All the methods that the website outlines are to “save the victim” instead of discouraging the attacker. Which works to continue a negative cycle of not addressing the large problem and placing the responsibility on people to not get raped instead of teaching people not to rape. Additionally, It’s On Us does not address the power dynamics that are involved in being a bystander. Some people will feel very comfortable intervening in all situations while others will only feel comfortable in specific situations. This may be a result of personal comfort level but there are other systematic inequalities that disadvantage certain groups like women, people of color, and people whose first language is not English. The second point of the It’s On Us pledge states “I pledge to identify situations in which sexual assault may occur.” It is our belief that this point distances the interested person from the problem. It is important to recognize that the culture in which we live enables sexual violence to happen in all communities and thus you may not be that distant from the issue. However, in a certain context this point could be especially powerful which leads us to another problem with the campaign.

It seems that the main focus of the campaign is to spread the It’s On Us brand instead of equipping interested people with the tools they need to end sexual violence. The website contains 13 tips to help people that are no longer than two sentences. Although the website encourages people to support survivors, it gives no advice to do that besides listening to them and discourages you from blaming survivors. Additionally, the tips tend to help people intervene without thinking about their actions within a larger setting. The campaign does not focus on empowering people through information and resources to help people work to end sexual violence. We believe that this is the largest problem with the campaign. Encouraging students to end sexual violence without the proper resources is irresponsible and could potentially lead to more harm than help.

The GSC hopes to do the exact opposite. Our goal is to empower students by giving them resources as well as strategies to combat the issue directly. The office runs two workshops that specifically address issues of sexual violence. One is centered around bystander intervention and the many ways that a bystander can intervene in a problematic scenario. The other is focused on how to best support survivors of sexual violence. Part of our larger goals as an office is to empower people to have productive conversations about sex, consent, and most importantly communication. Most of our programs address healthy communication, including workshops like Getting What You Want from Relationships, Anatomy of Pleasure, and Gender 101. Our Healthy Communities and Relationships program also addresses these issue through relevant programs including our termly dinners.

Perhaps first and foremost, we address issues through our own campus pledge that the GSCAs present in our Doing It Right presentation. Our pledge is introduced and context is provided through the stories that are part of the presentation. The Carleton pledge is more about individual responsibility both in relation to others and how one’s own actions can contribute to or change the problematic culture in which we live. By introducing the pledge to all new students the GSC aims to make students of all different backgrounds aware of their involvement in this issue. Another reason why the GSC is reluctant to engage with It’s On Us is because we’ve done a lot of these things before. The way It’s On Us plays out on campuses is usually through people holding signs with the pledge points or saying that they are taking the pledge. The GSC does a sign based campaign every year before our SpeakUp event and last year GSCAs took pictures of students and organizations holding up points from our own pledge.

The It’s On Us campaign is an important initiative by the Obama campaign. We are very excited to see the White House directly addressing sexual violence on college campuses. However, this does not excuse one of our nation’s premiere institutions from making a problematic initiative. The White House could have had the nation’s leading researchers and activists creating the language and strategies of this campaign. But, for many schools this pre-boxed campaign from an important authority might be the starting point for their own process to end sexual violence. Given what it is, the GSC feels it necessary to show solidarity with schools that are embracing this campaign in order to start larger conversations about sexual violence prevention on their campuses. That being said, we do not feel that it should be integrated into our own policies and programs. We encourage all to sign the pledge if they feel so obliged but understand the limitations of the campaign and recognize why the Gender and Sexuality Center has chosen not to engage with it.

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