You had me at James Bond: White House PSAs on sexual assault put onus on men

It seems the Obama Administration is making good on its campaign to prevent sexual assault on college campuses — and by proxy provide teachable moments about rape culture to the entire nation. Earlier this week, the White House released the first report (PDF) from the newly created sexual assault task force. In tandem with the report’s release, a second PSA — featuring an incredible lineup of Hollywood A-list men — debuted.

Did James Bond just tell us that he’d start by believing survivors of sexual assault? I have never wanted to be a Bond Girl more. (Also, how pissed is Steve Carell?) … All kidding aside, there’s some good things happening in the PSA, as well as the campaign as a whole.

The White House task force report lists four action items to kick things off: surveying the problem; engaging men in rape prevention; better response and resources for survivors; increasing transparency and improving enforcement. (Full report.) It’s ambitious in scope and there’s a lot of work to be done as anyone already on the ground on this issue can tell you. I mean, one in five women in college will be sexually assaulted. But the administration has already taken bold action by naming 55 colleges under investigation — including Harvard, Cal-Berkley, and Penn State — for dropping the ball.

The PSAs that are rolling out in the “1 is 2 Many” campaign are another key component of the task force program: Take the message to men. The first PSA, featuring professional athletes, including Eli Manning, David Beckham, and more, focused on dating violence while this new, actor-laden PSA focuses on rape. Both key in on men talking to men about different forms of violence against women. On the face of it, I like the strategy that it is time to put more effort into educating men about these issues. Rape and domestic violence (or dating violence, in the college context) are not “women’s issues.” These are society issues that effect everyone. Additionally, this takes a refreshing strategy of awareness for men about the problem and that they are part of the solution.

My one major complaint about the PSAs is that they rely heavily on the implied gender roles of our society (aka the gender binary). The language is laden with references to “our sisters, our daughters, our wives” with its associated implication that men should be thinking about protecting women because men are the natural protectors of women. If my choice is between a rape culture ideology that says rape is inevitable for all females or a sexist culture ideology that says women are fragile beings that must be protected by the males of the group, well, it’s not much of a choice. Obviously, if those are my only two choices I’d rather be “protected” than deemed automatically entered into The (Rape) Lottery (Shirley Jackson reference!) merely because of my gender. Sadly, these are just two sides of the same rape culture coin. (Because assumptions about gender roles are actually what got us into this mess.)

Even with its flaws, this new White House campaign is not only promising but gives me reason to hope for real change. Unlike past administration’s campaigns — looking at you, War on Drugs — the sexual assault task force has the potential to save lives, promote lasting cultural shifts, and even reduce the costs associated with sexual violence. While the War on Drugs is a futile gesture that has done little to curb actual drug use and done a lot to overcrowd our prison system, a War on Rape could actually accomplish meaningful change with relatively low costs. We could reduce the number of sexual assaults with effective education — including medically accurate, comprehensive sex education — and continued effort to un-learn the systemic misogyny that has created a culture that is tacitly complicit in allowing rape with very little consequence. If the Obama administration can continue to bring the muscle to the equation, such as the investigations of colleges shirking their duty to uphold the law, we have a chance to make a huge impact on a whole generation of people. If that happens, whether or not the White House task force continues after Obama leaves office will matter very little. Because once this generation’s eyes are opened, they will not easily be shut again.

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