“It’s on You”: Sexual Assault and the Limits of Liberal Language
Issue   |   Tue, 12/05/2017 - 21:40

The “It’s On Us” campaign was initiated in the fall of 2014 by the Obama administration and the White House Council on Women and Girls to increase awareness of and reduce sexual assault on campuses across America. The announcement was followed by celebrity endorsements, social media campaigns on the importance of consent and individual endorsements by universities. As anyone who has attended Amherst in recent years can attest to, the campaign found a form of discussion on this campus: bystander intervention trainings, the creation of Peer Advocates for Sexual Respect and the phrase “It’s On Us” (along with shirts emblazoned with both the slogan and the Amherst logo) represent some important facets.

Yet, as with any movement, any shift in the language used to represent and counteract the problem of sexual assault undoubtedly one of the most pressing, misunderstood and traumatic issues on this and other campuses one must ask: What actual changes in culture does the change in language bring? “It’s On Us” as a slogan means nothing on its own. It only carries meaning through its actualization: when students begin to feel safer, more self-assured, trusting of peers and capable of seeking help if the need arises.

The extent to which the campaign, and the initiatives and resources that followed it, has really changed our campus’ culture itself is a hard question to answer. While climate surveys that ask for student responses might be a place to start, assessing the environment as it is felt and experienced on a daily basis remains difficult.

One place to start is by recognizing that there is an often enormous divide between language on the one hand, and practice and lived experience on the other. Media stars, notably Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer, were in many ways beacons of liberal ideals. And both were, for years, conducting themselves abhorrently and assaulting colleagues.

Not only did they preach liberality before the allegations broke, they also did it after. Charlie Rose used the language of consent, suggesting that he was “pursuing shared feelings,” while Matt Lauer said in his apology that “there is enough truth in these stories to make me feel embarrassed.” Both are lies, perversions, distortions: there were “no shared feelings,” and there is not “enough truth,” but truth alone.

We can hope that Rose and Lauer know this, but their writing clearly did not reflect it. Instead, they choose to believe the catchphrases — the acceptable language — and to see their actions as fitting into them or as slight aberrations from them. Their intellect failed to lead them to the true ideals behind these phrases: honesty.

All of this is to say that the divide between language and reality that reveals itself in our media stars is not necessarily something totally foreign, given the divide that many students on college campuses feel. That is, the existence of “It’s On Us” doesn’t often transfer to any greater sense of safety, security or trust on any given night.

It also means that the language of “It’s On Us” might be inadequate. Surely the campaign is well-guided, and it represents one of the first steps for universities to implement changes in policy, offer services and counseling and create reform in culture under the banner of collective responsibility. Indeed, one of the core ideas implied by “It’s On Us” is that a society, or college campus, cannot rely on a conception of “others”— be they police or administration — for justice. Justice is possible, the slogan says, only when our responsibility to each other, to “Us,” is upheld. This is certainly true.

But at times, and in the wake of these most recent scandals and the discourse that surrounded them, one wonders whether collective responsibility is really what we need. One might also wonder, “Who is this ‘us’? Is it the whole campus? Is it your group of friends? Is it your team? Is it the school as a whole? Or is it simply an abstraction?”

It is difficult to say. But it seems that something about the belief in collectivity — that we are doing something together to end or interrupt sexual assault — that displaces individual responsibility and creates the illusion of change that precludes each of us from realizing the necessity of our own actions as friends or bystanders.

What might make more sense and actually lead to more of a changed, equitable culture is changing the terms.

“It’s On You” means that there is no us, there is no collective sense of shared responsibility, until you, again and again, do your part.