Campus sexual assault is not a new problem. An outrageous number of students have experienced and continue to experience it, and have persistently protested it over the years despite victim-blaming, straight-up misogyny, and various other forms of ridiculously unhelpful and bigoted bullshit. College women in the 1970s built on the legacy of anti-rape work primarily advanced by women of color and “took back the night.” Decades later, another generation of activists started survivor advocacy groups and dragged mattresses across their campuses.
These calls for change largely landed on the deaf-at-best, combative-at-worst ears of campus administrators, legislators, and even other students. In April 2011, however, none other than Vice-President Joe Biden and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan heard these calls and joined their efforts. Biden and Duncan issued comprehensive guidance that reminded colleges that they are obligated under federal civil rights laws to not only respond to, but also attempt to prevent sexual assault on their campuses.
Three years later, in January 2014, the president and vice-president established the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. This task force flipped the culturally accepted narrative about sexual assault: Instead of putting the burden on survivors to prevent their own assaults (What were you wearing? Were you drunk?), it asked all Americans to help prevent rapists from raping through bystander intervention.
This administration’s notable efforts culminate today in the It’s On Us summit, during which members of the administration will gather at the White House and engage in conversations with student leaders, federal colleagues, community organizers, and business representatives about how sexual assault is being addressed on campuses across the country. The task force will release its second and final report offering recommendations that built on those included in its first report, “Not Alone,” and strides made by the administration since 2014.
In advance of the summit, Vice-President Biden agreed to answer a few of our questions about what he and the task force have accomplished so far — and the sizable amount of work left to tackle.
Julie Zeilinger: It’s On Us relies primarily on promoting bystander intervention as a means of addressing and ultimately remedying sexual assault. As a society, how can we address the systemic causes of gender-based violence, and work to reduce its occurrence altogether, rather than simply avoiding violence in progress?
Vice-President Biden: I say it over and over: We have to change the culture. When I started writing the Violence Against Women Act more than 20 years ago, gender-based violence was not taken seriously in society. Survivors were not given the recourse they deserved. Too often, they were blamed and perpetrators were not prosecuted. For too long, women who were abused or raped were asked the wrong questions: “Why were you there? What were you wearing? What did you say? What were you drinking?” Those are all the wrong questions. It’s never the victim’s fault. Instead, we should be asking: “What made him think that he had a right to touch me? Why on earth did no one step up when they had the chance?” And for the men — or any bystander — the question should be: “What would I have done if she was my sister?”
System change requires a cultural change. That is why we need men to be part of the conversation and to step up, change the culture, and help reduce violence.
This campaign also seeks to involve men in the fight to end assault. Why do you think the burden has previously fallen on women, who are disproportionately victims of this phenomenon, rather than the perpetrators? Why weren’t men involved before and what societal change would you attribute to opening the space to involve them now?
Biden: Unfortunately, our society has placed the burden on survivors to speak out and prove the wrong, rather than placing the burden — and responsibility — on all of us. But in the last 20 years, we have made progress in changing that culture. Domestic violence is down by 72 percent. But when it comes to college campuses, not enough has changed. One in five women on a college campus will be a victim of sexual assault. When I found that out, I hosted a virtual town meeting with thousands of students, and I asked them for the best action we could take to change things. The overwhelming response was: Get men involved. That’s why we started the It’s On Us campaign. The campaign asks all Americans — men and women — to be part of the solution when it comes to keeping women and men safe from sexual assault.
Since then I’ve joined actors, entertainers, and athletes who have gotten involved — everyone from Josh Hutcherson to Lady Gaga. I’ve traveled to college campuses, hosted events at the White House, and even attended the Final Four and the Academy Awards to share the message of It’s On Us. We are starting to turn the corner and get to a place where no means no means no.
We still have a lot to do, but college presidents, administrators, coaches, athletes, and members of fraternities are coming to the table to talk about how they can step up to be part of the solution. We have a long way to go, but I believe this generation can change the culture so that this violence is never acceptable.
Have you noticed any notable trends in reactions or responses of men to this campaign? Have they offered any insight into the way they might view the campus sexual assault epidemic differently than other genders?
Biden: We’ve seen real, promising responses from men on and off campus. Olympic athletes came together to record a public service announcement for the It’s On Us campaign. We’ve partnered with Major League Baseball and NCAA, which hosted a video contest with student athletes during March Madness. Fraternities across the country have joined the campaign through the new It’s On Us Greek Leadership Council.
I encourage all Americans to join me and the 400,000 other people who have taken the It's On Us pledge online at itsonus.org.
How do you think the fight to end campus sexual assault will be affected by the Trump administration? What advice do you have for activists in this space moving forward?
Biden: The It’s On Us campaign lives on college campuses across the nation — not at the White House. It will continue through the 400,000 people who have taken the It's On Us pledge online and the students who have hosted almost 2,000 events on over 500 college campuses across the nation. My message to activists, students, companies is that we’ve come a long way, but we have a hell of a long way to go. So keep up the fight and keep the faith.
While these efforts are a noble start, as Biden notes, they are ultimately just that: a start. It’ll take more than celebrity-driven campaigns, more than one administration’s work, to end rape culture in America. It’ll take more than bystander intervention in an attempted assault to address why assailants choose to assault in the first place (like, for example, the complex cultural forces of toxic masculinity standards). It’ll take our culture finally, actually believing in and valuing gender equality to recognize that assailants shouldn’t have to think of a potential victim as a loved one in order to not assault them — just as a human being.
The It’s On Us summit is a timely reminder of why now more than ever is a crucial time to support the intrepid leaders and organizations that are doing this work — and who will undoubtedly persevere no matter what the next administration has in store. You can help continue Biden’s work by taking the It’s On Us pledge and learning more about getting involved with and supporting the organizations below.
End Rape On Campus: This organization works to end campus sexual violence by offering direct support for survivors and their communities, educating the public about sexual assault prevention, and advocating for policy reform at the campus, local, state, and federal levels.
Know Your IX: This survivor- and youth-led organization aims to empower students to end sexual and dating violence in their schools. They draw upon the civil rights law Title IX as an alternative to the criminal legal system — an alternative that is more just and responsive to the educational, emotional, financial, and stigmatic harms of violence.
Party With Consent: PWC is a movement that facilitates dialogue about sexual violence prevention through events and education and especially focuses on the roles men and masculinity play in this epidemic.
RAINN: The nation’s largest anti-violence organizations offers resources about sexual assault and information about reporting and recovery, as well as a hotline and live-chat feature for those looking for immediate help. They also have an action center that offers plenty of opportunities to get involved.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline: This hotline operates 24/7, is confidential, and is free of cost. Callers to The Hotline — 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) — can talk to highly trained advocates who offer compassionate support, crisis intervention information, and referral services in over 170 languages. The hotline also notably offers resources specifically for LGBTQ individuals.