More "campus rape crisis" weirdness came from the White House today, where President Obama and Vice President Biden announced the launch of a new initiative called "It's on Us". The campaign will feature celebrity-studded public service announcements aired during college sporting events and promotions from the likes of MTV, BET, and video-game company Electronic Arts.
In explaining the initiative on the White House blog, Jeffrey Zients—Obama's economic adviser (because nothing about this makes any sense)—wrote that "It's on Us" is "not just a slogan or catchphrase":
It's the whole point. Because in a country where one in five women on college campuses has been sexually assaulted—only 12 percent of which are reported—this is a problem that should be important to every single one of us, and it's on every single one of us to do something to end the problem.
Reading Zients' post, I was reminded of author and professor Joel Best speaking on the hallmarks of how media hype (and the attendent bogus statistics) get promulgated: First there is a high-profile tragic event, then the need to define the event as part of an identifiable Problem ("the heroin epidemic"), and then a desire to quantify the problem so as to place it in a larger context. I put "campus rape crisis" in quotes not to diminish the seriousness of sexual assault but because I think the phrase is a prime example of the phenomenon Best describes. Rape is a problem wherever it happens, which is sometimes on campus and more frequently not. The "campus rape crisis" is a thing perpetuated by people interested in profiting from the fear in various ways.
When you make up a problem—and again, let's be clear that I'm not saying rape, the underreporting of rape, or the way campuses handle rape is a made-up problem, but rather the idea that college campuses are some sort of rape epicenter—it is much easier to get credit for solving that problem. The White House doesn't actually have to impact rape rates or rape prosecution rates or anything tangible, because that's not how it has defined the problem. Its central concern is raising awareness about rape on college campus, a goal both amorphous and measurable in Facebook likes.
What's "on us," according to the newly-launched campaign website, is the imperative "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." If you agree with these vague statements, you can take The Pledge: "a personal commitment to help keep women and men safe from sexual assault" and "a promise not to be a bystander to the problem, but to be a part of the solution." I took the pledge and received the following message:
Thank you for your commitment to stopping sexual assault. Turn your profile photo into an It's On Us badge to show your pledged commitment to helping stop sexual assault.
The It's on Us site also offers sexual-assault prevention tips, which range from the banal ("keep an eye on someone who has had too much to drink") to the oddly aggressive. "If you see something, intervene in any way you can," says one. "Get in the way by creating a distraction, drawing attention to the situation, or separating them," says another. The focus on "bystander intervention" comes across as unsettling—less an insistence that friends help friends avoid creeps than a world where one's to be on the lookout always for ways to stop strangers from serving each other drinks.
It's not a terrible campaign, all around. Some of the tips are sensible. And a sexual-assault prevention initiative aimed equally at men and women that explicitly eschews victim-blaming and highlights the importance of consent is actually pretty radical. If this were a campaign run by MTV or a private foundation or a network of college campus-groups, I might be more applauding of their efforts. But I reject that this is a job for the president and vice president.
And I reject the larger premise of the It's on Us campaign: that all social problems require federal government action, and that college sexual assaults in particular are an area in need of "bystander intervention" from Uncle Sam. Zients says "this new initiative will help move (the Administration's) work forward by creating a new energy and awareness around these issues on campuses across America." I'm convinced this campaign is designed to advance the White House's goals, just not in the way Zients suggests.