(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.