By Shannon Watts, Staff Writer
Trigger warning: general mentions of rape and sexual assault.
While lazily scrolling through my various social media feeds on Friday, I had to do a double take when Jon Hamm’s face appeared on a post by the White House Instagram. The executive branch and the star of “Mad Men” seem the strangest of bedfellows, but Hamm is apparently one of the faces of the administration’s new video for the It’s On Us campaign.
The White House unveiled the It’s On Us campaign earlier this summer and followed up with the aforementioned video on Friday. The campaign is President Obama’s response to the growing sexual assault problem in the US. Many people have lauded the campaign for its widespread appeal and modern message. But, as usual, the internet helped me understand why I’m not completely satisfied with the White House’s new strategy. The campaign has done something good in one dimension, but has fallen short in others to address what the US truly needs to do to stop sexual assault.
One of the main focuses of the campaign (and of the videos in particular) is literally the idea that “It’s On Us.” The videos star a number of famous men and women, who are trying to tell the American public that it is on bystanders to help stop sexual assault. This is important; although we’ve made a lot of progress against sexism in the past few decades, victim blaming is still heavily entrenched in American culture. Victims are often faulted for their own sexual assaults and the onus is placed on them to protect themselves through defensive behaviors.
The White House’s establishment of a platform that says it is not a person’s job to prevent their own sexual assault is a crucial foundation for further action. But that’s the pitfall. The road to future action is entirely unclear.
So far, the campaign’s actual method of spreading awareness uses vague hypothetical scenarios, in which gender-neutral people are attacked and others should step in. The campaign misses a simple important point: it’s not just a bystander’s job to intervene. It’s a person’s responsibility to not rape. That seemingly simple but crucial message gets lost.
The scenarios are individual circumstances, and the White House is only urging you to intervene in them. There’s a complete lack of understanding or lack of effort to portray the societal factors at play. There’s no mention of the systemic nature of violence against women; sexual assault is referenced like an anomalous occurrence. No policy stance (for example, something like California’s new legislation) is advocated.
The emphasis on the video isn’t on changing culture, hearts or minds to attempt to eliminate sexual assault. It comes off as simply an effort to stop particular circumstances before they go any further.
The White House seems entirely unaware of the true nature of sexual assault, and doesn’t recommend any new or highly effective strategies to address it and stop it. Any message speaking out against sexual assault is important, but we expect and need something stronger, more comprehensive, and more contextually aware from our government. When something like the “Yes Means Yes” definition of consensual sex shows up on the White House Instagram, I’ll know they finally mean business.