The White House’s “It’s On Us” campaign looks to address sexual assault on college campuses. Its message is clear and succinct; that is its beauty. Non-consensual sex is assault. Be wary of common situations where sexual assault happens, according to White House guidelines. Intervene if you can. Refuse to tolerate it, and support those affected.
The campaign targets common misconceptions and misinformation. It advocates positive action in specific situations. Now, however, the campaign has been crowd-sourced to social media, and every student organization across the nation has a chance to enhance, or muddle, the message.
The campaign encourages student organizations to have a conversation about sexual assault, release their own pledge and create a banner to complement a perfect Facebook photo-op. Its intentions are noble, but, much like the ice bucket challenge phenomenon, we risk losing the core principles of the campaign along the way. Many have lamented how the ice bucket challenge became more personal stunt than fundraiser, but in the end, donations to ALS foundations spiked.
Yet “It’s on Us” addresses an institutional disease, not a human one. Sexual assault is an issue that demands not just awareness and money for research, but a fundamental change in how we conduct ourselves. The cure starts in our conversations, not a lab.
But the resulting conversations, at least at Yale, do not seem to live up to the original message. We’ve already seen the Facebook posts; organizations at Yale have churned out some pretty cliché vows.
A fraternity promised to “reject all forms of humor that degrade others.” If they’re honest, this goal is so broad that it is unattainable and probably not desirable. Sometimes, jokes among friends get severe, but a ribbing can mean affection and closeness. If the fraternity meant to reject sexist humor, then they should have said so. Their goal suggests they are subconsciously more preoccupied with being politically correct than changing a culture.
And humor is often how we deconstruct societal woes. I see nothing wrong with using humor to sincerely challenge perpetrators of sexual assault, or to parody ignorance and misogyny. If you shy away from even productive humor about sexual assault, then you inadvertently push the issue further under the rug. It becomes taboo, a conversation that can only be had with serious faces and the expectation that you will get to post your enlightened conclusions on Facebook. Progressive-minded comedians from Stephen Colbert to Louis C.K. have made these types of jokes about sexual assault. They, probably more than most political figures, have changed uninformed attitudes. If you don’t believe me, look up Louis C.K.’s bit about how it takes courage to date a man — the butt of these jokes, by the way, is never the sexually assaulted.
Another club at Yale vowed to “foster positive change on campus culture by stewarding an inclusive community in which we are all welcome and safe.” We’ve got some Orwellian equivocation here. How are you being inclusive? What is welcoming? It is a wonderful but vague sentiment. It seems these organizations had general conversations about “making Yale a better place.” I question whether a discussion about how and when to intervene in a possible sexual assault took place.
Maybe I’m asking too much; maybe this is a job for the Communication and Consent Educators; but if we leave it exclusively to the CCEs to have these conversations, then haven’t we already failed? We should make sure general conversations don’t become a smokescreen — a way for us to call a problem solved after an hour-long discussion, only to forget about it when we witness a troubling encounter and we’re “not sure enough” to say anything.
While the staged photos are meant to gently and positively peer-pressure our friends, I worry they’ve become a way to “score points;” look how enlightened and politically correct we are! To combat this temptation, maybe student organizations should make a banner, but instead of posting to Facebook, put the banner up in a space where the organization often socializes. Our commitments would literally hang over our heads.
Maybe we can re-share the “It’s on Us” video rather than staging a photo-op. After all, the words of President Obama, a multitude of celebrities and an exponentially growing list of individual petition-signers might carry a similar weight as a friend’s Facebook post. We should stick to the clear, succinct script of the national campaign, unless we have specific corollaries. There is a list of very real and practical tips on the “It’s on Us” website as well.
Let’s talk specifically and openly about sexual assault. Otherwise, this becomes just one conversation and one more “like”-fishing Facebook post. This is on us, so let’s not mess it up.
Jack Mahoney is a junior in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.