It’s on us to go beyond ‘It’s On Us’


(Photo credit: Larry Downing/Reuters)

“Identify situations in which sexual assault may occur.

If you see something, intervene in any way you can.

If something looks like a bad situation, it probably is.

Get someone to help if you see something.

Get in the way by creating a distraction.”

The White House’s flashy new bystander intervention campaign, It’s On Us, makes sexual assault sound a lot like a bad thunderstorm — unfortunate, inevitable, striking seemingly out of nowhere, and devoid of human agents. The solution, then, is easy and comfortable: “Identify situations in which [a-tornado-I-mean-sexual-assault] may occur” and guide your friend to safety; remember: “If something looks like a bad situation, it probably is.”

Gender-based violence is not like the weather. It has direct, immediate human agents and is structural and systemic at its core. But the new campaign de-politicizes and de-genders sexual assault, portraying it as an easy-to-avoid problem solely between individuals, and making perpetrators out to be vague “someones” who do “something” to other “someones.” In reality, perpetrators are disproportionately likely to be men and their victims are disproportionately likely to be women (particularly queer and trans women, women of color, and women with disabilities), queer men, and gender non-conforming folks. 

The It’s On Us campaign’s failure to conceptualize of violence as systemic and structural guts meaningful responses to it. While bystander intervention more broadly may be usefully integrated into a more comprehensive anti-violence approach, it has serious limitations. And the way it’s framed in It’s On Us, it offers a strategy to avoid violence, not meaningfully reduce it. The campaign’s tips — like guiding your friends away from perpetrators at parties — might help an individual woman avoid a rapist in an individual instance but it won’t stop that rapist from turning to the next girl down the bar. It makes the problem seem discrete and manageable, with a quick fix that fits comfortably within an existing structure of how our world works, who has power, and who doesn’t. It enlists men, for instance, to protect their female friends at a bar but not to recognize their own power and privilege, the subtle ways in which they enact violence all the time.

It’s On Us is so appealing precisely because it doesn’t require us to disrupt the status quo.

But the White House’s aim of collectivizing our response to violence is important and good, particularly in a world where the responsibility of not-being-raped so often falls on the shoulders of those most likely to be victimized. It’s On Us invites “everyone to step up and realize that the solution begins with us.” So what if we took that goal and radically re-envisioned the means by which it sought to do it? In other words, what should being a proactive bystander really mean?

What if being an engaged bystander meant being someone who first and foremost is fiercely anti-sexist, anti-racist, and anti-oppression? A person who does more than interrupt individual “situations in which sexual assault may occur” but rather takes it upon themselves to recognize and dismantle the very power structures that produce and perpetuate violence to begin with?

If that sounds hopelessly abstract, here’s a non-exhaustive list of ways It’s On You to stop being a bystander and intervene actively to end violence on your campus (and beyond):

It’s On You to recognize and dismantle institutions that tolerate and perpetuate violence. If you go to a school that doesn’t expel perpetrators, It’s On You to hold your school accountable for its abuses. It’s On You not to invite rapists to your parties, and not to attend theirs. (Some sororities maintain lists of men who have raped their members and cut off ties with the fraternities to which the perpetrators belong.) If your favorite sports team shelters abusers and blames survivors, It’s On You to call it out and refuse to support it with your dollars. It’s On You to boycott the actors, musicians, and artists who beat up their partners. It’s On You to condemn police violence against women of color — and to do so loudly and publicly. If you live in a country where your government doesn’t hold universities accountable for civil rights violations (hint: ours), or which locks people up in prisons and detention centers where they are raped at alarming rates (also ours), It’s On You to hold your representatives accountable, whether on the streets, in the press, or at the ballot box.

It’s On You to be your own bystander. It should go without saying that you shouldn’t rape anyone; you should also make a commitment to recognize the ways in which you exert power over less privileged folks in your life, the ways in which you may violate someone else’s boundaries without realizing. It’s On You to be conscious of the space your voice takes up, and not to talk over folks with less power. (I once attended an anti-rape rally where a group of white male students took the megaphone away from a female survivor, telling her they’d had enough.) It’s On You to use your privilege to create space for marginalized folks to speak and be heard. If you’re a campus administrator, It’s On You to treat survivors with respect and decency, to hold perpetrators accountable, and to give your students the tools to talk about oppression, power, and violence in their lives.

It’s On You to reconceptualize what violence is and recognize it in all its forms. We are obsessed in this country — in our press, in our laws, and yes, in our White House bystander intervention campaigns — with an experience of campus violence that looks like a (usually able-bodied, white, upper middle class college) girl at a party assaulted by an acquaintance. That all-consuming narrative ignores and erases the multitude of experiences of violence that occur on campuses and off, even those that are almost as (or more) common — rape within a dating relationship, emotional abuse by an intimate partner, or stalking by a former or current partner, for instance. (Perhaps we ignore these forms of violence because to recognize them would be to acknowledge violence as both far closer to home and far more insidious than we’d like to admit.) It’s On You to recognize less public forms of violence. It’s On You to learn how to spot an abusive relationship and guide a dating violence survivor to support. And It’s On You to learn that the best ways to support a survivor of relationship abuse will likely be counterintuitive to you.

You don’t get a gold star in my book for buying an #ItsOnUs t-shirt or changing your profile picture. It’s on all of us to go beyond this campaign, to demand more from each other and from ourselves. Ending violence won’t be easy — if it were, we’d have done it long ago — and, as we’ve said before, that’s precisely why we have to do it now.

IMG_4962Dana Bolger is a founding co-director of Know Your IX and guest contributor to Feministing. She tweets at @danabolger.

New Haven, CT

Dana Bolger is a Senior Editor at Feministing and the co-founder of Know Your IX, the national youth-led organization working to end gender violence in schools. She's testified before Congress on Title IX policy and legislative reform, and her writing has appeared in a number of outlets, including The New York Times, Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. She's also a student at Yale Law School, and you can find her on Twitter at @danabolger.

Dana Bolger is a Senior Editor at Feministing and a student at Yale Law School.

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