This past year was a landmark one for sexual assault activists on campus: the Title IX network helped sexual assault survivors file federal complaints against eleven schools for mishandling and underreporting rape on campus; legislators and activists collaborated on bills meant to make reporting rape to law enforcement more easy (but, crucially, not mandatory); and now, at long last, the issue of campus rape has received serious attention from the White House.
On January 22, the White House Council on Women and Girls released a report titled "Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action," in which the seriousness of sexual assault as a far-too-prevalent social ill was outlined and affirmed: according to its analysis, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 17 men have been raped in their lifetime. The report characterizes sexual assault on colleges campuses "a particular problem," noting that colleges tend to be plagued by abysmally low reporting rates — on average, only 12% of victims report their assaults to law enforcement — and arguing that "the dynamics of college life appear to fuel the [sexual assault] problem." Very admirably, it manages to conclude that drinking on campus increases the likelihood of assault without even engaging in victim-blaming! Good for you, U.S. government.
As the report indicated he would, later that day President Obama signed a memorandum ordering the creation of a task force focused on campus sexual assault. In his preliminary remarks, he contextualized the task force as part of a necessary government move to eradicate all forms of brutality against women, noting that his administration has also strengthened the Violence Against Women Act and cracked down on sexual assault in the military. "I want to make sure we're doing everything we can to spare another American the trauma of sexual assault," said Obama.
The President also mentioned the IX network directly: "We have seen progress, including an inspiring wave of student-led activism and a growing number of students who found the courage to come forward and report attacks. That's exactly what we want them to do. We owe all these young people an extraordinary debt of gratitude." But, Obama noted, the government mustn't rely on students to protect themselves from sexual assault and metastasized institutional negligence:
But we cannot stop there. There's obviously more that we have to do to keep our students safe. And that's why here today, I will sign a presidential memorandum creating the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. And we're going to work with colleges and universities and educational institutions of all kinds across America to help them come up with better ways to prevent and respond to sexual assault on their campuses. And then we'll help them put those ideas into practice.
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According to the memorandum, the Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault will be co-chaired by designees of the Office of the Vice President and the White House Council on Women and Girls; its other members include the Attorney General, the Secretary of the Interior, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, the Secretary of Education, the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Police, the Director of the Domestic Council, the Cabinet Secretary, and the heads of other agencies or offices, as designated by the Co-Chairs. So — that's four women and three men, three of whom are people of color, on the Task Force so far. A committee comprised mostly of women debating something that affects women's bodily autonomy? In my government? Unheard of!
The Task Force will function only in an advisory capacity; it has 90 days to develop and submit proposals on the President on how to provide "instructions, policies, and proposals for institutions" on how to prevent, respond to, investigate and punish sexual assault — as well as how to properly train students, staff and faculty. The Task Force will also be responsible for finding a way to measure the success of sexual assault prevention and response programs and for increasing transparency around institutions' responses to reports of sexual assault. In order to accomplish this, the Task Force will "consult with external stakeholders, including institution officials, student groups, parents, athletic and educational associations, local rape crisis centers, and law enforcement agencies." There's no way of knowing how much the Task Force will collaborate with students and survivors — but, as Tracey Vitchers of Students Active for Ending Rape told ThinkProgress, "For the task force to be effective, it must involve the voices of current college students and recent college graduates."
The question of how to prevent rape on campus is immensely overwhelming; it's not something that anyone can easily take on or comprehend, especially if they're not familiar with the current climate on campuses — which is why student and activist input is essential. In part, campus rape prevention a question of how to reverse the insidious, ubiquitous logic of rape culture. That's something Obama seems to understand well, at least in theory: in his remarks, he noted the importance of bystander intervention as well as the need to radically change the way in which we teach young men to conceptualize sex and treat the women around them:
We've got to keep teaching young men in particular to show women the respect they deserve and to recognize sexual violence and be outraged by it, and to do their part to stop it from happening in the first place. During our discussion earlier today, we talked about I want every young man in America to feel some strong peer pressure in terms of how they are supposed to behave and treat women. And that starts before they get to college...
[W]e can do more to make sure that every young man out there — whether they're in junior high or high school or college or beyond — understand what's expected of them and what it means to be a man, and to intervene if they see somebody else acting inappropriately. We're going to need to encourage young people, men and women, to realize that sexual assault is simply unacceptable. And they're going to have to summon the bravery to stand up and say so, especially when the social pressure to keep quiet or to go along can be very intense.
What, exactly, that will look like — an educational initiative or some kind of public service campaign — is unclear so far. What is clear is that college administrations can no longer willfully ignore that sexual assault is a serious, prevalent and preventable problem.
At the closing of his speech, President Obama said, "You can judge a nation, and how successful it will be, based on how it treats its women and its girls. Those nations that are successful, they're successful in part because women and girls are valued. And I'm determined that, by that measure, the United States of America will be the global leader." The malignant attitudes that cause those in power to undervalue women and ignore the unique threats they face certainly won't dissolve overnight — but this is a hugely significant and quite powerful step in the right direction.
Image via AP.