In January, the president formed a White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault, and this week it released a report of its findings — along with this anti-rape PSA, featuring Dule Hill, Benicio del Toro, Steve Carell, Vice President Biden, Daniel Craig and President Obama.
It’s a good message. It’s an important message. There’s a longer way to go, but it’s a start.
There are things to quibble with in it, sure. Couldn’t we have sprung for extra characters in the slogan back in 2011 when this whole thing began so that it was One is Too Many, not 1 Is 2 Many, which sounds like a bad 90s band?
But its heart is in the right place, and it puts the ball in the right court. It offers a simply stated reminder of a simple fact: Rape is not something that simply happens. It is not something that is inevitable and that it is your responsibility to safeguard yourself against by wearing certain things or avoiding certain streets or drinking some things but not others. It is something people do. People can stop it.
Then again, having your heart in the right place only goes so far.
As Emily Bazelon writes at Slate, there have been laws on the books to prevent this since the 1970s. It’s the enforcement that’s the missing piece.
To have the president in a PSA saying that this is something that we take seriously. But the best way to show that we’re taking this seriously is for there to be consequences, not just more guidelines. As Alexandra Brodsky, co-founder of the Know Your IX campaign, which educates students about Title IX rights, told Bazelon: “Cultural change is a huge part of preventing campus violence, but enforcement is key for cultural change.” And new guidelines can pose problems of their own — for instance, expanding the definition of sexual harassment to include something as broad as “verbal conduct.”
The problem is not just that schools don’t have adequate guidelines in place. It’s that we are still treating this as though it can be handled with the same process as a plagiarism complaint.
As RAINN noted in its February letter to members of the task force: “It would never occur to anyone to leave the adjudication of a murder in the hands of a school’s internal judicial process. Why, then, is it not only common, but expected, for them to do so when it comes to sexual assault? We need to get to a point where it seems just as inappropriate to treat rape so lightly. . . . While we respect the seriousness with which many schools treat such internal processes, and the good intentions and good faith of many who devote their time to participating in such processes, the simple fact is that these internal boards were designed to adjudicate charges like plagiarism, not violent felonies. The crime of rape just does not fit the capabilities of such boards. They often offer the worst of both worlds: they lack protections for the accused while often tormenting victims.”
Insisting on a clear and supportive process for reporting and transparency about ongoing investigations and making sure schools don’t drop the ball on something as basic as allowing a perpetrator to keep sharing a dorm with his victim are just the beginning. Schools must be held accountable for holding perpetrators accountable — not allowed just to update their guidelines every time an incident occurs.
The words of the PSA are important. Moving from words to actions would be even better.