What the White House Isn't Getting About Sexual Assault

In an effort to stop blaming women for sexual assault the White House has shifted the conversation to focus on men: you need to look out for your wives, girlfriends, and daughters. In the PSA featuring celebrities from Steve Carell to Benecio Del Toro, and even Joe Biden and Barack Obama, the message that it's men's responsibility to prevent, report, and support the victims of sexual assault comes through in a chorus of deep, manly, and almost scolding sound bites.

Although the White House tackling sexual assault is a victory for advocates for sexual assault survivors and prevention, the way the task force is framing this issue is fundamentally flawed. This PSA, while an honorable effort, promotes an extremely patriarchal view of women -- a view that fundamentally goes against what research says is necessary to stop sexual assault.

Both the UN and the CDC have published reports showing that in cultures with greater gender inequality and adherence to gender norms, women are at a greater risk for sexual violence. Research shows that in societies that emphasize male honor and physical strength, rape is more common. So this framing of sexual assault -- that women are these delicate muffins who need to be protected by men, who are stronger and have more power -- is actually promoting the very cultural norm that creates the environment for sexual assaults to happen in the first place.

Says Gina Scaramella, LICSW, the Executive Director of Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, "The conversation about prevention and response should be framed as a civil and human rights conversation. Everyone should be encouraged to prevent sexual violence and all people should not hurt all people -- not because you're a man but because you're a human and care about other people. It's not just about men not hurting women, it's about saying violence isn't okay period. Saying that women are a special class in need of protection by men only ignores male and transgender survivors and underlines the dynamic we are working to dismantle. We need to create a culture that sees all people as having intrinsic values as humans... not one that says the exploitation of only certain groups is not okay, and only certain other groups are responsible for not being violent."

The Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC), that Scaramella has directed for 11 years, is the second oldest in the country -- it's been around since 1973. They've developed curriculums that are downloaded daily and used around the country. They present nationally on a range of topics from how to create safer public transportation to day care centers to bars. Someone from BARCC goes to the hospital with a sexual assault victim at least once a day, and works with the survivor, their family, and their school on an on going basis. "We really see what things work and don't work," says Scaramella.

And yet, in the White House Task Force Report, rape crisis centers like BARCC are only mentioned as places for service rather than places with experienced staff who could help create informed policy. The assumption is that people with law degrees or Ph.D's are not on staff (which is not true), and that the knowledge gained through practice isn't as valuable that gained through earning a three to five year degree.

This elitism carries over to many college campuses. Says Stephanie DeCandia, Esq, BARCC's director of Client services and Advocacy, "The advocates working day-to-day with survivors on campuses are seen as very ground level. Often they're not invited to actually participate in higher-level campus discussions about policy. It's the people with the PhDs in clinical psychology who inform the policies, rather than the counselor who talked to 200 victims that year."

And thus, policies and PSA's are created that -- despite the noblest of intentions -- promote the very culture that is a contributing factor to the widespread problem of sexual assault on college campuses and everywhere else.

"There is a lot of policy structured around the engagement of men meant to bring good men out and make 'good men gooder,'" says Scaramella. "It's not that that's a terrible strategy and I'm not saying there's no room for that at all. That should absolutely be a tactic. But to have the whole goal and strategy painted from that patriarchal framework feels like a problematic reinforcing of tired old stereotypes painting men with valor and women with neediness...that makes our work on the ground that much harder."

If the federal government wants to prevent sexual violence, perhaps consulting those with day-to-day experience helping survivors is a good place to start.