When parents drop their daughter off at her freshman dorm, the last thing they want to think about is the likelihood of her getting sexually assaulted on campus. But in the U.S., it’s a fact as real as finals — one in five women will have been attacked by the time they place the tassel on the other side of their mortarboard.
We’ve all followed horrific stories of assault on college campuses, of women, men, and transgender students who have undergone the unthinkable and often faced scorn or suspicion when they needed unwavering support. To have their voices heard, they’ve fired back by writing letters addressing victim shaming and by dragging their dorm mattresses around campus.
But counteracting campus rape culture hasn’t just been a grassroots effort. It’s gone up to the federal level, and Vice President Joe Biden has focused on it in earnest during his time in the White House.
On Thursday, Biden spearheaded the administration’s last summit from the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, delivering an ad hoc speech to young supporters on what he called “the greatest civil rights issue of our time.”
It’s fitting that Biden championed the initiative, as he was the original sponsor of the Violence Against Women Act, landmark legislation that was passed in 1994 that introduced sweeping reforms over how domestic abuse is handled in the U.S.
“An estimated one in five women has been sexually assaulted during her college years — one in five,” Obama said. “Of those assaults, only 12 percent are reported, and of those reported assaults, only a fraction of the offenders are punished.”
The It’s on Us initiative set out to change that by not only creating awareness but imposing investigations and financial penalties for campuses that refused to comply with federal standards.
Biden said in an op-ed last year that more than 250,000 students pledged to take action against the crime, vowing “to recognize that any time consent is not — or cannot — be given, it is sexual assault, and it is a crime.”
Or, as he said Thursday, “Silence is complicity. Silence is a killer.”
This was Biden’s last address about campus sexual assault while serving as vice president. But don’t think he’s done with this initiative — Biden revealed (albeit kind of abstractly) that he’s by no means done with It’s on Us or championing women’s rights.
“I’m no longer going to be the vice president,” Biden said, “but I’m going to be setting up a foundation and devote the rest of my life to dealing with violence against women.”
He added that come Jan. 21, a day after the Inauguration, he would continue the work he started and work “very hard with the coming administration” to combat violence against women.
Biden also wrote a strongly worded letter addressed to college presidents and administrators, imploring them to not only take action against campus sexual assault but change the culture surrounding it.
“We haven’t seen enough of you,” the vice president wrote. “As presidents, chancellors, deans, and administrators, you have an obligation to stand up, to speak out, to foster the safest and most inclusive environment possible for every student that walks onto your campuses … change depends on your leadership.”
What the White House set out to do
In 2011, Biden was joined by former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in creating a guide — including a breakdown of federal civil rights laws — to help colleges and universities prevent and respond to sexual assault. Three years later, President Obama joined Biden in creating the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault and the It’s on Us campaign, an initiative launched in 2014 to create awareness of — and put a stop to — sexual assault at universities across the country.
What about the new administration?
Biden didn’t mince words when talking about Trump’s penchant for talking about grabbing women by a certain part of their anatomy.
After talking about his days as an athlete, he brought up the subject of locker room talk, referring to the Trump campaign’s response to his infamous video. “I never heard that kind of locker room talk,” he said. After pausing a moment, he said: “That’s assault.”
He said that while he prays the next administration will make violence against women a priority, there’s plenty that private citizens can do. “We have to continue to organize.”
And while Trump’s record on preventing sexual assault is uncharted in the political realm, the Obama administration’s actions will reverberate for years to come, regardless of the upcoming administration.
In the final report, the task force notes that there are still more than 20 federally funded research projects on campus sexual assault that will yield more information on the epidemic over the next several years.
So, while we can’t be sure of what a Trump presidency will mean for campus safety and ending rape culture, Biden encouraged everyone to stay involved and hold their college administrators accountable.
As we reported when the initiative kicked off, It’s on Us suggests parents ask every school being considered the following questions:
- Does the college or university have a Title IX coordinator? This is the employee responsible for assuring the school is compliant with Title IX of the 1972 Educational Amendments, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded school or activity. “They’re required by law to have one,” Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Obama, explains. “It’s an indication that they take their responsibility to help to provide a safe environment very seriously.”
- What’s the college or university doing to prevent sexual assault from ever happening? “We don’t ever want it to ever happen on a campus,” she says, “and so ask them: What are you doing to ensure my child will be safe here, and free from sexual assault?”
- If it does happen, what is the college or university doing to make sure it’s properly taking care of the accuser — and the accused? In other words, what kind of a process do they have in place for that?
- What are they doing to help people who have been victims of sexual assault? In the event that the unthinkable does happen, know what other types of student support services are provided.