White House PSA on Bystander Intervention

Last week, the White House launched a second video PSA as part of its 1 is 2 Many campaign against sexual assault. Like the prior PSA (starring athletes Eli Manning, Jeremy Lin, Jimmy Rollins, Evan Longoria, David Beckham, Joe Torre and Andy Katz), the new PSA also relies on star power to carry its message, this time with actors (Daniel Craig, Benicio del Toro, Steve Carell, Seth Meyers and Dulé Hill) in addition to Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

This year has seen quite a bit of action from the White House on sexual assault. On January 22, the White House Council on Women and Girls released a report titled “Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action” which identified sexual assault on college campuses as “a particular problem.” The president then formed a task force specific to campus sexual assault, which released its recommendations on the same day this new PSA was launched. The current situation is certainly not great. As of May 1st, 55 schools are under investigation for the mishandling of sexual assault reports. Fixing these issues is going to require a two-pronged approach: school administrations need get their act together in terms of ensuring confidential reporting, legal services, and counseling; and they need to get cracking on prevention efforts.

The new White House video PSA is aimed at prevention, and interestingly, though the 1 is 2 Many website says “Watch our new PSA on campus sexual assault” the video itself doesn’t seem particularly targeted to college students. Additionally, its planned distribution raises some questions: the PSA will air in select Regal Entertainment Group and Cinemark movie theaters, over NCM Media Networks’ Lobby Entertainment Network (LEN), and in movie theaters on military installations and ships underway worldwide. I’m sure some of the movie theaters are near college campuses, but if this effort were really targeted to college students, I would expect something more along the lines of “this video will be incorporated into freshmen orientation programs.” If one looks just at where the PSA will be playing, the military is really what jumps out – not campuses. Oddly, though, the 1 is 2 Many website doesn’t mention the problem of military sexual assault anywhere, despite the fact that the mishandling of military sexual assault cases has been in the public eye pretty consistently throughout the past couple of years, due both to egregious incidents and the release of the documentary The Invisible War. It’s very strange to me that 1 is 2 Many and the media in general have been describing this PSA as focused on college students, when its message is clearly much broader.

The PSA video starts by stating that there is a “big problem” that’s “everywhere” including “college campuses, bars, parties, and even high schools”, and “it’s happening to our sisters, daughters, wives, and friends.” Then it defines the problem as “sexual assault” and throws in the call to action: “It has to stop. We have to stop it,” followed by the definitional portion of the PSA, and a hefty dose of morals: “If she doesn’t consent or can’t consent, it’s rape. It’s assault. It’s a crime. It’s wrong.” That established, the PSA moves into bystander intervention, with various celebrities saying “If I saw it happening…” “I’d do something about it”, “I’d speak up”, “I’d never blame her, I’d help her.” The PSA ends by saying what should motivate this intervention: “I don’t want to be a part of the problem. I want to be part of the solution” and stating that it’s about “respect” and “responsibility” (appealing to a sense of values).

This PSA is revolutionary in that it specifically turns the focus away from victim blaming, and shines a light on the idea of someone who “can’t consent” which is important, given recent cases like Steubenville. The choice to draw on celebrity power is a huge plus, since people definitely sit up and listen to actors and athletes. There’s a clear sense of pressure from role models, and an appeal to shared values, which is always a good move (and perhaps a particularly great way to address the military population).

This PSA does, however, have some shortcomings. For one, it starts by defining the problem as something “big” that is “everywhere.” PSAs on gender-based violence do this all the time, and while it seems like it makes sense to set out the problem as a big deal, it’s actually a self-defeating strategy. If the overall goal of your message is to empower individuals to create change, the last thing you want to do is make the problem seem impossibly huge. It awakens a doubt in the back of the mind: if it’s this big of a problem, and hasn’t changed so far, isn’t it inevitable? How can anything I do make a difference?

This PSA has also gotten pushback for the statement that “it’s happening to our sisters, daughters, wives, and friends.” This statement does two things: 1) it establishes/assumes that men need to think of women along the lines of a personal connection in order to see them as valuable and worthy of safety; and 2) it focuses only on female victims. Men are also the victims of sexual assault, but reports are much lower because men feel significantly greater pressure to remain silent about it. In the military, for example, men are thought to make up about 50% of sexual assault victims, but only 14% of reports. Hmm… with this in mind, it really feels like the focus on our “sisters, daughters, wives, and friends” is doing more harm than good, particularly given that this PSA is specifically being shown to military audiences.

I get that the PSA is trying to humanize victims and activate a sense of connection among viewers. While yes, I agree that a sense of personal connection shouldn’t be required to get people thinking about women as important, I do think that activating a sense of personal connection does get at the foundation of bystander intervention. People will step in to help their friends without thinking twice, but stepping in to help a stranger is a stretch. It isn’t automatic. It’s easy to start thinking things like: “This is none of my business. I don’t want to get involved. I don’t know what the whole story is here. Someone braver will probably step in. ” or “Nobody else is getting involved, so clearly this must not be a big deal” (in other words, the bystander effect). These are things we wouldn’t be thinking if the person potentially being assaulted was our friend/relative. The idea of the PSA is that everyone has responsibility for stopping sexual assault, which is a major shift from the victim-blaming messages we hear constantly about how women and girls are responsible for protecting themselves. This is a big change, and it’s not going to happen all at once.

That said, why can’t this campaign encourage bystander intervention among both men and women? Do we have to appeal to a gendered sense of “white knight” chivalry to encourage men to participate in shared responsibility for a community problem? A recent NPR article on bystander intervention does an amazing job of describing how both men and women can be part of the solution, even highlighting the actions of a college-age woman who successfully intervenes when a guy is harassing another woman at a party.

The last thing I want to say about the sisters/daughters/wives/friends construction is that there is a lot of silence around sexual assault experiences. A lot of stories don’t get shared, and so I think this part of the ad is also meant to be a wake-up call: yes, this probably has happened to your sister, your daughter, your wife, your friend. You just may not know about it. But hey, it also may have happened to your brother, your son, your husband, or your male friend. There are definitely ways this PSA could have worked to be more inclusive while still sending a strong message.

I really wish the video had gotten down to specifics in its final call to action. It sends a general “do something” message, which is inspiring, but not in a way that easily translates to action. What if each celebrity had instead said what they would do in a specific situation? Like “if I heard my friend tell a rape joke, I’d say it wasn’t funny” or “if I saw my friend leaving with a very drunk girl, I’d pull him aside and help her find a safe way home.” This would probably require a whole series of ads to accomplish, but modeling specific situations and responses is much more powerful than a general call to “step up and do something.” That said, this PSA is still a great first step towards creating a new social norm where it is unacceptable to ignore violence when we see it happening. If we want to accelerate the process, though, we need to start getting down to specifics, while paying attention to the full scope of the problem.

Lastly, I’m disappointed in the distribution of this message, given the fact that it’s coming from the White House. Having the message in movie theaters is great, but what about more frequently-used, mainstream media, like YouTube, Hulu, and Pandora? Doesn’t the White House have enough pull to make that happen? If this is going to be a broad message, then I want to see it everywhere. Where do you wish this message was being heard?

3 thoughts on “White House PSA on Bystander Intervention

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s