On Wednesday, President Obama announced a new White House initiative to tackle the issue of sexual assault on college campuses. The president unveiled the results of a new government report on the issue that found that one in five U.S. women have been assaulted in college, and created a task force to come up with policy solutions to make campuses safer.
The president placed the issue in context of a larger push to address sexual violence, noting that his administration has already cracked down on the rapes that occur in the military and expanded the protections in the Violence Against Women Act. He called for reforms to the criminal justice system, like ending the rape kit backlog, to ensure that sexual assault cases are taken more seriously.
But Obama specifically emphasized the sexual assault crisis on college campuses, an issue that has gained prominence over the past several years as college activists have filed dozens of federal complaints against their universities for failing to protect victims. Citing the one in five statistic in the new report, Obama called the sexual assault rate among college students “totally unacceptable.”
The president won praise from progressive activists for framing the issue without resorting to victim-blaming, ultimately emphasizing the ways in which rapists are primarily responsible for preventing rape.
“I want every young man in America to feel some strong peer pressure, in terms of how they’re supposed to behave and treat women,” Obama said on Wednesday. “That starts before they get to college. Those of us who are fathers have an obligation to transmit that information. We can do more to make sure that every man out there — in junior high, high school, and college — understands what’s expected of them, and what it means to be a man, and to intervene if they see someone else acting inappropriately.”
“We need to encourage young people, both men and women, to realize that sexual assault is unacceptable,” the president continued. He is asking the new task force to deliver policy recommendations within 90 days.
Sexual assault prevention groups welcomed the president’s new initiative. “The actions the Obama administration has taken have been remarkable,” Tracey Vitchers, the communications coordinator for Students Active For Ending Rape (SAFER), told ThinkProgress. “It was encouraging to hear President Obama speak about campus sexual violence in terms of a culture of consent rather than place the onus of preventing sexual violence solely on young women.”
Still, Vitchers noted that it’s important to push for inclusive policies to combat sexual violence that also take into account male and LGBT students, who are certainly also at risk for assault. And she pointed out that the new task force should partner with the student activists who are already working on the ground.
“For the task force to be effective, it must involve the voices of current college students and recent college graduates. Students, better than anyone, understand what is happening on college campuses in regards to sexual violence and will be an asset in shaping any goals or guidelines the task force will eventually publish for institutions to reference,” Vitchers explained.
Indeed, there are some concrete policies that groups like SAFER are already pushing for on college campuses — like education campaigns to help teach students about consent, healthy relationships, and effective bystander intervention. According to a recent report released by SAFER and the international group V-Day, the vast majority of colleges haven’t implemented these policies yet.