White House PSA on Bystander Intervention

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?

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New Dating Violence PSA Communicates Through Dance

This great new PSA from the University of South Florida takes the unusual route of using the language of dance to show the warning signs of dating violence.

Speaking Without Words: Dating Violence

The person behind this unique effort is Andrew Carroll, Assistant Professor in the department of Dance and Theater at the University of South Florida. Before entering academia, he spent nine years as a soloist with the Pennsylvania Ballet Company in Philadelphia, and now he’s pioneering an effort to create educational videos on social justice topics. The nonverbal nature of his work makes it easily adaptable both nationally and internationally. This dating violence video is already being used by the Los Angeles School District, where 200 different languages are spoken, and internationally (Germany, Greece, Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Belgium, and Belarus, among other countries). The CDC in Atlanta is also interested in using it their domestic violence programs.

Prior to this, Professor Carroll created a similar video on bullying in 2012. The bullying video was also quickly adopted by US and international organizations.

The concept of using dance to communicate and educate about a social justice issue is a great idea, because watching movement activates mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are the brain cells that cause us to actually feel the feelings we see in others’ faces and the actions we see in others’ bodies (see my previous post for more info on how they work), and this generates empathy. Dance is not just ordinary movement, though; it is art. A dance performance like the one in this video is movement specifically designed to deliver powerful, amplified doses of emotion. Since evoking emotions is the number one most critical thing to make any message memorable and effective, using movement-based art to communicate makes a lot of sense.

I should clarify that I’m using the term “PSA” loosely with this video. It’s not an advertisement, but rather an educational tool. It’s much longer than a typical ad, and because it’s meant to be used as part of an educational program, it doesn’t have to have to be concise with its message. It can instead focus on evoking emotion and preparing viewers to delve deeper into the topic through discussion. However, I think this video’s potential for virality (it’s already making its way around the world) sends it into the public arena in a way that’s very similar to a PSA campaign.

Part of the reason the video is getting so much attention is the uniqueness of its nonverbal message. The only words that appear, right at the beginning, are: “Speaking Without Words: Dating Violence. Recognizing warning signs.” The rest is all dance. People have to use words to talk about this video, though, and it’s interesting to look at the choices they make. I first found out about it through this article by 10 News in Tampa, Florida, and the the thing that immediately struck me was that the entire article refers to “domestic violence”, not “dating violence,” even though the video itself specifically refers to “dating violence.” So are these two terms interchangeable? Not exactly.

“Dating violence” is a relatively new term, and is most often used in efforts specific to teens and college students.

“Domestic violence” is an older term, and it has a lot of strong associations. It tends to conjure up the image of an older, married, heterosexual woman being controlled and physically abused by an aggressive, violent man, like Julia Roberts in Sleeping With the Enemy:

sleeping_with_the_enemy
Source

“Dating violence” on the other hand, is relatively free from such associations and aims to expand the images we see when we think about violence in relationships. The CDC defines dating violence as “as the physical, sexual, or psychological/emotional violence within a dating relationship“. So the main difference is that we’re not talking about married people/people in a committed relationship here. People of all ages can experience dating violence, but usually the specific focus is on younger people navigating the dating world.

Here is an example of the kind of thing the term “dating violence” encompasses:

Source: That’s Not Cool campaign.

You can see how “two teenage girls in an abusive relationship” departs from the pre-existing framework most of us have in our minds around domestic violence. If you asked a few people walking down the street what “domestic violence” is, it would be pretty rare to get any response referring to teenagers, much less teenagers in a same-sex relationship. It would probably also be pretty rare to hear a teenager describe a peer’s abusive dating relationship as “domestic violence.” They’re just not the same thing.

It’s not always easy to choose between a very loaded, easily recognizable term like “domestic violence” and a less recognizable but more flexible term like “dating violence”, but it’s important to think about it, because it can make a big difference. While a highly-recognizable term might grab attention, a less recognizable but more specific term might bring about subtle shifts in understanding and help create a stronger connection with the target audience.

Looking again at the dance PSA video, it makes sense that a local news channel would choose to use the term “domestic violence”, since that is the term its target audience – the general public – is going to most quickly and immediately recognize. “Domestic violence” is guaranteed to grab people’s attention and draw them in, in a way that “dating violence” might not. However since the target audience of the video itself is much more specific to young adults, it makes sense that it uses the term “dating violence” instead.

As a final note on terminology: if you think about it, abuse within a relationship is still abuse whether the people in the relationship are 13 or 75, dating or married. This is why people in the violence prevention field usually say “intimate partner violence” as an umbrella term. Unfortunately, “intimate partner violence” completely fails at evoking emotion, making it a hard sell for any kind of advertising effort. Law enforcement and the general public stick with “domestic violence”, and this is definitely the term that resonates strongest with most people (though clearly, the image resonating with them may not be the image a specific effort is trying to convey). Another thing to consider is that “domestic violence” can also include violence among family members that do not have an intimate relationship. This is often referred to as “family violence.” Since the end goal of a PSA campaign is communication, not perfect academic correctness, the best choice is always going to be the one that gets your target audience both paying attention and connecting with your message.

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