One on One: The promise and limitations of ‘It’s On Us’

Robin Jones Kerr: Welcome to our second installment of One on One. This week, senior columnist Justin Peligri and I are chatting about “It’s On Us,” the sexual assault awareness campaign that just wrapped up its National Week of Action. We wanted to look at the campaign through a wider lens and analyze its potential impact on this campus and beyond.

Justin Peligri: This conversation is especially important in light of the many sexual assaults students have learned about via text alert this semester, including one in an alley off New Hampshire Avenue just this weekend.

RJK: There’s been a bit of criticism of the “It’s On Us” campaign already – namely, that it’s largely a messaging or marketing campaign that doesn’t contain any real substance.

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Justin Peligri

JP: I’ve heard that, too. And there’s definitely a glitzy element of the awareness campaign that’s frustrating. I don’t need a filtered Instagram picture, for example, to prove to the world that I’m a well-informed bystander.

That said, I think critics expecting “It’s On Us” to be some sort of earth-shattering campaign have their sights set too high. The White House spearheaded the initiative, which added a bit of gravitas to the national conversation about sexual assault. The government didn’t really pour much money into it – but that doesn’t mean it’s a waste of our time.

The bottom line here is that sex – and, by extension, sexual assault – is an extremely stigmatized concept, especially on college campuses. If student leaders, an administrator and the head of campus safety can all get in a room and collectively admit that we have to change preconceptions and make survivors feel more comfortable (like they did at a panel discussion Friday) then I’ll count that as a victory.

RJK: What concerned me, though, was a question from the audience about how exactly students should intervene in a scary situation. A student pointed out that she didn’t exactly know what bystander intervention looks like. She was asking for a blueprint, a scenario, some instructions.

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Robin Jones Kerr

A few summers ago, I took a workshop on how to respond to street harassment. The instructor taught us how to stand – feet shoulder-width apart, one foot slightly in front of the other – as well as how to hold our hands, say specific phrases and even what tone of voice to use. Now I know exactly what to do, physically and verbally, if put in a situation like that.

This is the kind of instruction we need about bystander intervention – a pledge to do something only goes so far when you don’t know what to do.

Obviously, students on this campus are fully in the right mentality when it comes to sexual assault – that we want to see prevention, intervention and coming together as a community to support survivors. And huge props are owed to Students Against Sexual Assault and the Student Association for making the “It’s On Us” campaign so pervasive on campus this semester. But despite all the enthusiasm, our University has yet to give us the tools to turn our positive thinking into action.

JP: I agree. Students are definitely looking for a how-to guide for how to prevent assault. But the reason nobody is providing it is because it might not exist. Especially when alcohol is involved, there’s no user’s manual for figuring out what constitutes the beginnings of a dangerous situation. You can’t expect a “one-size-fits-all” solution to a problem that manifests itself in so many different ways.

What we can expect, however, is students who care about this issue to get loud about it. And that’s what we’ve seen: Students have real plans for making GW a safer school. For example, a committee of students and administrators is aiming to examine best practices and suggest how to improve on-campus resources. And student leaders have called for requiring bystander intervention training at Colonial Inauguration.

I’d also like to see the results of GW’s campus climate survey that students filled out last spring. The University has said it’ll release this information – but it hasn’t said when or in what format. It’s not a smart accountability measure if nobody besides administrators have access to that information. The full disclosure of the data is something SASA leaders should continue to advocate for even after “It’s On Us” fades from the headlines.

All students living in residence halls, enrolling in GW classes and drinking at fraternity parties should understand how they can play a role in fighting back against the disturbing statistics. That’s only possible if students keep the pressure on and administrators make the right calls.

RJK: Right, I think one of the successes of “It’s On Us” is that it’s made the folks on SASA – including Kirsten Dimowitz and Laura Zillman – some of campus’ most prominent advocates on this issue. SASA has, at least in my circles, a good bit of name recognition now. They go into meetings with officials and, because they’ve been doing all this outreach, can speak with authority about campus culture. We need these strong student leaders to push GW to actual change.

JP: Taking a broader view, I think there’s something different about 2014. A big part of that difference is the conversation-prone world we’re increasingly operating in, where survivors who previously went silent feel that now it’s safe to come forward, and where leaders on other college campuses are taking action to halt assault in its tracks. I’m happy I go to a school where students – through “It’s On Us” and other forms of activism – are constructively participating in this dialogue.

RJK: That’s true. I may have some qualms about “It’s On Us” in general (like that it doesn’t necessarily give students a playbook for how to intervene), but it’s doing the important work of starting conversations on campus.

It’ll especially be worth it if tangible developments, like mandatory bystander intervention training, come out of the new committee. Obviously, the end goal of all these efforts is the complete elimination of, or massive reduction of, campus sexual assault. But I recognize that this is a slow and steady process.

Campaigns like “It’s On Us” are doing the work in the meantime to increase awareness and push for better education and prevention efforts, so I’m content with gaining an inch at a time rather than demand a whole mile right off the bat.

Justin Peligri, a senior majoring in political communication, is a Hatchet senior columnist. Robin Jones Kerr, a senior majoring in journalism, is The Hatchet’s opinions editor.

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