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#ItsOnUs emphasizes importance of bystander intervention to combat sexual assault on campus

President Obama speaks at an event to launch the #ItsOnUs campaign on September 19. (Twitter)

President Obama speaks at an event to launch the #ItsOnUs campaign on September 19. (Twitter/NASPA)

On Friday, President Barack Obama unveiled the #ItsOnUs campaign, the latest of a series of White House initiatives to combat sexual assault on college campuses.

“Sexual assault is not just a crime — it’s a civil rights violation,” the president said, addressing several survivors of sexual assault, prevention advocates and student body presidents from more than 200 academic institutions from across the country.

Unlike previous initiatives such as #1istoomany and #NotAlone, which aimed to draw attention to the issue and provide a series of best practices to academic institutions on how to hold perpetrators accountable, #ItsOnUs specifically targets men with the message that sexual assault is a campus-wide problem that involves all students. In an environment where women are consistently blamed for drinking too much or dressing provocatively, many sexual assault prevention advocates see this framing as an enormous step forward.

“#ItsOnUs is about engaging bystanders,” said Nancy Schwartzman, founder of The Line Campaign and creative director behind Circle of 6 App, an iPhone and Android mobile phone app designed to facilitate bystander intervention in potential sexual assault scenarios and abusive relationships. “It is a huge cultural shift in that it is placing the blame on the perpetrators rather than the victims.”

Over the past year, there has been an enormous surge in student activism around holding universities accountable for sexual assaults on campus and implementing programming to educate incoming students on the meaning and importance of sexual consent to prevent assaults before they happen. Following several publicized cases, including a Title IX lawsuit at Yale University, the survivor-led sexual assault resources network Know Your IX was founded and began protesting the Department of Education, which in turn led to meetings at the White House.

In many ways, the Obama administration has listened. In 2013, the Violence Against Women Act was reauthorized to include provisions for survivors of sexual assault, dating violence and stalking on college campuses. In January of this year, the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault was formed, and with it, up-to-date statistics on the extent of campus sexual assault and a series of best practices for colleges and universities across the United States to give healing resources to survivors, hold perpetrators accountable, and mandate programming during campus orientation events that defines and emphasizes the gravity of these crimes.

However, there are many ways that these “top down” campaigns fall short. Short of pulling federal funding for Title IX violations — a long and complicated process — there is little the federal government can do to enforce these policies for both accountability and prevention on campus. Many survivors, such as Emma Sulkowicz, a Columbia University senior who is drawing attention to the university administration’s abysmal treatment of her sexual assault report by carrying the dorm room mattress she was attacked on with her everywhere she goes to symbolize that her assailant has yet to be expelled, are still fighting for justice and have exhausted the existing system.

“What is frustrating is that not all of this [programming] can be mandated,” said Schwartzman, who brings her film “The Line” to college and university campuses across the country to facilitate workshops on sexual consent. “Unfortunately the White House cannot mandate that every coach in the United States teaches this stuff or mandates sexual health and consent classes in every high school and middle school in the United States.”