The White House has released a 60-second public service announcement calling for an end to sexual assault featuring such household names and faces as Daniel Craig, Dulé Hill, Benicio del Toro, Seth Meyers, Steve Carell, and both the President and Vice President themselves.
The message of the video is simple: it’s part of their 1 is 2 Many campaign, the website for which boasts a fairly comprehensive amount of information about sexual assault prevention and response. Whereas many sexual assault prevention campaigns focus on actions that women can take to avoid being assaulted — reminding women to watch their drinks or alert a friend if they’re going on a date — this one appears to be more focused on community accountability for the prevention of assault, offering some fairly concrete directives for how to prevent assault and support survivors.
Support all survivors regardless of their gender or identity. Listen to their stories without judging or blaming. Offer to go with them to seek resources and services if they want them. Speak up if you hear comments that promote violence against women. Be aware of language that you use that degrades women and survivors of other identities. Don’t be afraid to be an active bystander and intervene if you believe violence is occurring and it is safe for you to do so. Be a role model for healthy relationships. Always treat others with respect and expect the same from others. Mentor and teach younger people to also act as role models. Join an organization that is working to end dating violence and sexual assault. Don’t have one in your community? Start one!
The campaign also includes Not Alone, a web resource for university students to know their rights when it comes to sexual assault and Title IX, Title IV, and the Clery Act. Given how reprehensibly many American colleges and universities are handling campus violence and sexual assault, and how many survivors are encouraged not to seek justice for their assaults for the sake of the university, the President’s promise to “have your back” is a notable one.
If that’s what stands out about the campaign itself, what stands about about the video are the men. All of the speakers explaining to the viewer why 1 is 2 many are men — men who seem specifically chosen to speak to certain ideals (the action hero, the two likable comedians, the affable actor of West Wing fame, the actual president of the United States, etc). Although the all-male cast of the PSA doesn’t necessarily mean it’s targeting men per se, it does associate this PSA and attendant campaign with a (sort of) new and desperately needed phenomenon when it comes to sexual assault prevention — the involvement of men. The video’s script asserts that “We have to stop it,” “you have to do something about it,” and the desirability of being part of the solution rather than part of the problem; all appeals that are aimed at men who may have previously considered themselves separate from the problem of sexual violence. Besides the stated concern of one being too many, the subtextual message is clear: men, this problem has to do with you, and it’s on you to help end it.
Organizations like Men Can Stop Rape have existed for some time, but lately we’re seeing much more male involvement in “mainstream” awareness campaigns about what were traditionally thought of as “women’s issues,” like sexual assault or intimate partner violence. In Texas, Dallas Men Against Abuse have had high-profile paragons of masculinity as sportscaster Dale Hansen, former Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, and college football hall-of-famer Don McPherson involved in their rallies against violence against women. McPherson has also written editorials calling for men to “step up” and end violence against women. The thinking behind these messages — and the choice to have them come from men — is that men are more likely to become invested in the issue of sexual and/or gendered violence if they hear about it from other men, and also that men who want to assault women will be less likely to do so if they think other men are willing to call them on it. It’s an acknowledgement of the fact that patriarchy makes mens’ responses to virtually everything more valuable than women’s, but an attempt to use those powers for good.
Of course, these campaigns aren’t perfect. As on-point as much of the White House’s PSA is, it still dips into the territory of arguing that men should care about sexual assault because these women are “our sisters, daughters, wives and friends,” not because they’re, you know, people regardless of their relationships to men. (It also serves to erase the experience of people who are sexually assaulted but aren’t women.) And many organizations — Dallas Men Against Abuse among them — rely on the rhetoric of what makes a “real man,” a less-than-perfect strategy which seeks to transform patriarchal norms while at the same time reinforcing them. Still, the White Houses’ campaign and accompanying video mark a hugely important shift in the national conversation about sexual assault. First, that it’s being acknowledged at all, especially by the President personally; but second, that it’s nudging the conversation in the direction it needs to go: what the responsibilities are for those of us who aren’t survivors, and what role all of us (especially men) need to play to end sexual violence in our communities.