Tomorrow, President Obama and Vice President Biden will announce a new campaign to prevent sexual assault on college campuses. Entitled “It’s On Us,” the campaign will emphasize that it is the responsibility of every person in a community to help prevent sexual violence. Drawing on a recent report from the National Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault, the campaign strives in particular to engage male students, harnessing their potential to help prevent sexual assault by shifting peer behavior and, accordingly, community norms.
The announcement comes on the heels of the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act, which acknowledges that domestic violence and sexual assault are crimes under the law and allocates federal funding for survivor services. Vice President Biden, who, as a Senator in 1994 sponsored the original VAWA bill, recently identified the bill as his “proudest legislative accomplishment.” Indeed, VAWA has made strides for survivor services and coordinated community responses to violence. The most recent reauthorization of VAWA, passed in 2013, included provisions for culturally comprehensive services to help break down access barriers for LGBT, immigrant, and Native American survivors of violence.
But, as “It’s On Us” acknowledges, our work is not yet done. Rape and sexual assault on college campuses are rampant. One in five women and one in eight men are raped or sexually assaulted during their time at school. What is more, university administrations are largely failing to respond adequately to students’ reports. A survey of more than 300 colleges and universities commissioned earlier this year by Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) found that “many institutions are failing to comply with the law and best practices in how they handle sexual violence among students.” More than 40 percent of schools have not pursued investigations of a single rape or sexual assault in more than five years, but that is not because these assaults are not happening. As the survey highlights, students face barriers to reporting their assault, meaning that data does not accurately reflect the severity of the problem.
The confined setting of a campus community poses unique challenges for those students, both men and women alike. It is far too common for survivors to be subject to daily, traumatic reminders of a past assault upon seeing their assailant in the dining hall, in the dorm, or in class. Student activists across the country are responding; in fact, it is their work that has inspired the wave of Congressional and the White House attention to rape and sexual assault on college campuses. These students find a legal basis for their claim in Title IX, widely known as the statute that governs varsity athletics, and which more broadly prohibits universities and other institutions that receive federal funding from discriminating on the basis of sex. Initiatives such as Know Your IX assert that by mishandling reports and failing to seriously condemn acts of violence, university administrations are failing students who have a moral and legal right to a safe learning and living environment.
Our Jewish tradition teaches us that mental distress and moral humiliation are equated with physical harm. Our faith also commands us not to stand idly by while our neighbor bleeds (Leviticus 19:16). The physical and emotional abuse inherent in sexual violence is a direct violation of the Jewish tradition and of a broader morality that implicates us to protect ourselves and our peers. The burden is on all of us to foster an environment that does not tolerate rape or sexual assault, and to drive a shift toward cultural norms that prevent those assaults in the first place.