White House sexual assault task force has taken first steps on long complicated mission

Posted at 1:21 PM, Feb 13, 2015
and last updated 2015-02-19 17:41:59-05

One in five. That’s the staggering number of U.S. women that will be a victim of rape or attempted rape in college, the same statistic that President Obama continually touts as he pushes for reform.

On Jan. 22, 2014, President Obama announced the White House task force on college campus sexual assault, a massive interagency effort toward making college campuses safer for women and men. The president’s plan, unprecedented in its scope, was applauded by many advocates and survivors across the nation. But now, a year after the task force was formed, it’s time to ask: What has it actually done?

In its first report released last April, the task force laid out an ambitious schedule. Some of those benchmarks were nebulous, such as assessing “promising” policy language or exploring models for how campuses should deal with perpetrators. But other dates were more concrete: the call to launch a pilot sex-offender rehabilitation program, which they did, or the slew of resources for campus officials on Title IX requirements and survivor support, some of which have been delivered and some that haven’t.

But the goal probably shouldn’t be to tap toes over deadlines. We all know government agencies aren’t good with those, in the first place. And combating campus sexual assault is way too complicated for a rush delivery on solutions.

The biggest take away from the task force’s first year is how it has approached the issue. For years, the focus of sexual assault has been on the victim. What were you wearing? Were you drunk? Why would you walk alone that late at night? The task force, in line with many survivor advocates, aims to shift that blame.

The task force’s It’s On Us campaign begins that long haul. The collaboration with Generation Progress, a millennial-focused activist group, promotes bystander intervention, something that has been largely overlooked in existing campus training programs.

“It’s a very important piece of the program because it’s one that’s not often talked about,” said Kristin Avery, campaign manager for It’s On Us. “We really want to get everybody thinking about how they can take part in this issue that’s in the national conversation every single day and what people on an individual level can do to help end a very big problem.”

Since its launch in September, there have been 261 It’s On Us events at campuses across the nation, and organizers are already planning engagement pushes around spring break and March Madness. But bystander intervention is only a means to a much bigger end.

“Our larger goal is to really change the culture around sexual assault,” Avery said. “We want to change the way that it’s talked about and the way that it’s dealt with on college campuses.”

That culture change could be essential to arriving at a solution. A recent report from the Pentagon shows that cases of sexual assault at three military academies has decreased, but more than 40 percent of the students who came forward feared retaliation for reporting the incident. That fear underscores the need for change.

The task force’s thorough refocus on campus sexual assault has shocked longtime advocates.

“It was unfathomable to me that a presidential administration could take campus sexual violence this seriously,” said Meg Stone, who has worked with sexual assault survivors for 22 years. “It’s unfathomable that the response would not just be this law-enforcement only or services only, that it was this holistic, multi-tiered response to sexual violence. It was one of those things that I couldn’t imagine something this good would come out of a presidential administration, and then it did.”

But in its reframing, the task force left out an important and proven sexual assault prevention program – self-defense. Stone is director of IMPACT Boston, a self-defense curriculum that gives students the tools to defend themselves in the moment of assault. She said that though the plan provides good intervention and aftermath care for victims, there is a key element missing. The prevention.

“It is unbelievable to me that they’re not investing more – not just in any self-defense training,” Stone said. “It’s not just any person who took karate, it’s well-trained, highly skilled, highly qualified people who can present self-defense in a way that makes totally clear that the person that perpetrates is responsible for that act and the person who is the intended victim is not, and to give students the practical tools that have actually been shown by research to reduce victimization rates.”

Although she emphasized that the shift away from victim blaming is positive, Stone said taking defense out of the equation also takes away one of the most effective methods of prevention. A study done at the University of Oregon shows that a group of women who took a self-defense course reported much lower instances of sexual assault.

“The reality is that we have little tiny shreds of evidence about what make people more or less likely to rape,” Stone said. “I would love to be doing whatever one could do to have a person who would have otherwise perpetrated sexual violence have a change of heart that impacted their behavior for the rest of their lives. What I do know is that people who have the skill set and the support and the permission and the socialization that says, ‘If someone chooses you as the intended target of sexual violence, you’re not their prey. Here’s what you can do.’ I know that works.”

 “I do this not because it is my most lofty goal, but because it is the most effective thing I know,” she added. 

In a Washington Post op-ed, self-defense instructors and anti-violence educators Lauren Taylor and Lynne Marie Wanamaker echoed Stone’s concerns, saying that it was “wrong to omit self-defense from its prevention recommendations.” They, too, believe that it is a practical solution for victims.

“We would never tell women that they ‘should’ take a self-defense class: Prescribing behavior is the very opposite of empowerment,” Taylor and Wanamaker wrote. “The only thing we’d say women ‘should’ do is feel free to move in both the public and private spheres without fear. In the absence of such freedom, we believe that women’s self-defense is a valuable — and increasingly proven — tool to prevent sexual assault.”

So self-defense is one piece of the puzzle of preventing sexual assault. But as it turns out, there are a lot of pieces, and the task force has already put some into place. There’s, a resource for survivors and schools dealing with sexual assault victims. There are the Title IX guidelines given to school administrators. There are toolkits, data dumps.

The White House task force aims to be more than an empty gesture that has faded away; it seems like a genuine drive to change a pervasive, dangerous part of campus culture. Still, looking at horrific fallout from sexual assault cases at institutions such as Vanderbilt University, where two former football players were convicted for aggravated rape and sexual battery just this month, it’s clear they have a long way to go.

[Also by Abby Johnston: Beer storm brewing on Capitol Hill]

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