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Hunting Ground? Real action on US campus sex assault still needed despite It’s On Us campaign

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The US It’s On Us campaign against sexual assault will be celebrating its second birthday this autumn. So what has it accomplished in its two years of existence?

The campaign was launched by President Barack Obama to build awareness around the issue of sexual assault on US college campuses. It was a September follow-up to Obama’s January 2014 establishment of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, led by co-chairs vice president Joe Biden and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett.

The campaign seeks to change the campus culture surrounding the problem and to provide students, administrators and families with a better understanding of what sexual assault is — and how to stop it.

Visitors of the organisation’s website, itsonus.org, can sign a pledge committing to keep women and men safe. Big-name partners in the organization’s mission include the Big Ten Conference for collegiate sports, MTV, Newsweek, Lyft and Pandora.

Success of the programme grew in January 2016, with the first ever state-wide campaign adapted from It’s On Us, in Pennsylvania, called It’s On Us PA. Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf was joined by presidents from over 40 colleges and universities around the state in his setting of specific goals for the campaign: to improve awareness and prevention, to remove barriers surrounding reporting rapes and to demonstrate leadership in campus culture when addressing this issue.

Specific manifestations of these hefty goals included a roundtable discussion event with Pennsylvania Physician General Dr Rachel Levine, a partnership with basketball tournament coaches and the planning of a national Spring Week of Action to push for even more awareness.

A fact sheet published on the White House website on 1st September 2015 — nearly a year after the campaign was launched — celebrated its successes, of which there were many. In less than a year, the campaign was listed as having secured over 90 partners (as of today, according to the It’s On Us website, there are 99). It had pulled in celebrities like Zoe Saldana to star in public service announcements about sexual assault. More than 650 events about It’s On Us were hosted by students.

What the fact sheet left out was data of changing rates of sexual assault on campus. Considering the whole point of the campaign is to reduce these rates, it’s an important piece of information.

A few weeks later, on 21st September, The Association of American Universities published reports from a Campus Climate survey they had conducted across 27 schools in the US. Their results suggested that one in four women experience sexual assault on campus — this certainly doesn’t make the It’s On Us campaign look effective.

The AAU study itself received backlash for its methodology (for example: less than a fifth of students contacted responded to the survey, “sexual assault” by the survey’s terms can mean anything ranging from unwanted kissing to gang rape, 27 schools is a relatively small sample size), so for all we know the campaign could be incredibly successful so far. It’s an incredibly loaded task to measure these results with as little bias and as much consistency as possible, especially when dealing with such a sensitive issue.

Where does this leave college campuses? We don’t know. When September 2016 comes around, perhaps the White House will have new data (with data that is farther-reaching and clearer than that of the AAU, one can only hope) that gives us a clear indication of what kind of impact the It’s On Us campaign has had at universities.

One thing is clear: Awareness is critical, and talking about these problems is more important than ever — no matter how difficult they may be.

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