Obama asks college men to stop sex predator friends: Will they listen?

The White House has taken a lead when it comes to forcing colleges that get federal aid to toughen rules dealing with sex assault allegations. While critics say this has alienated many male students, Obama announced an 'It’s On Us' campaign to encourage men to step in to protect women.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
President Barack Obama, with Vice President Joe Biden, left, outlines the 'It's On Us' campaign at the White House in Washington, Friday. Obama unveiled a new campaign to change the way people think about campus sexual assault.

President Obama on Friday announced a new campaign called “It’s On Us” as part of the White House’s years-long fight against campus sexual assault, asking particularly college men to help stop predatory and violent sexual tendencies among their buddies.

Obama on Friday called on TV actors Kerry Washington and Jon Hamm, rapper Common, and NBA star Kevin Love to drive home a message that “it’s on all of us to take responsibility for combating and eliminating sexual violence on college campuses,” as White House spokesman Josh Earnest put it.

The campaign to engage men to check their friends’ aberrant behavior, though, comes at a tense time between dwindling percentages of male students enrolling in college and changing rules and expectations on campus, many of them steered by the White House. In an August Bloomberg News story, Harvard University student Malik Gill says the college scene has gotten to the point where he won’t offer a girl an alcoholic beverage because “I don’t want to look like a predator.”

A growing number of male college students are suing their alma maters for sex discrimination and due-process violations after being punished for assault even though there was evidence the encounters were consensual. More than 30 such cases are now in the courts, a four-fold increase since four years ago. Meanwhile, US colleges are under intense pressure from the administration to crack down on campus sexual assaults or risk losing major federal Title IX funding. 

To be sure, women’s rights activists say the greatest and most difficult burden when it comes to reporting sexual assault still falls on the female victims, even in cases where local prosecutors don’t have enough evidence to file felony rape charges. In July, Sen. Claire McCaskill, (D) of Missouri, released the results of a survey that showed 40 percent of 440 colleges and universities had not investigated a single sexual assault case in the past five years. 

And the Obama administration has launched more investigations, directives, and fines concerning how colleges deal with sexual-assault allegations than any other administration.

One in 71 men report being raped at some point in their lives, according to the CDC, compared with 1 of every 5 women reporting a sexual assault at some point in their life. Forty percent of those said the assaults happened at college. 

The push by the Obama administration to combat such attacks has also made it more difficult for colleges to fairly interpret what are essentially “he said/she said” situations, law professor Elizabeth Price-Foley of Florida International University told the Washington Examiner in August.

New federal Title IX rules that replace a “clear and convincing” evidence of assault standard with a “preponderance of evidence” standard, critics say, dovetail into long-running feminist legal theory, where “feminism [itself] is built on believing women’s accounts of sexual use and abuse by men,” as legal theorist Catharine MacKinnon wrote.

“But a de facto presumption of guilt in alleged sexual offenses is as dangerous as a presumption of guilt in any crime, and for the same reasons: It upends the foundations on which our system of justice rests and creates a risk of ruining innocent lives,” Cathy Young writes this week in Slate.

The current push by the White House to involve men in anti-sexual assault campaigns also comes as US college campuses continue to become more and more female, with nearly a quarter more young women than men reporting they have a bachelor’s degree. Some social critics, including Helen Smith, the author of “Men on Strike,” have cited high-stakes sexual assault tribunals that assume the worst of men as one reason for the decline in male college participation.

On the other hand, the Obama administration, whose 2012 campaign centered on ways Republicans waged “war on women,” has from the beginning tried to include men in its anti-sexual assault push. Part of the rule changes in 2011 made it easier for male rape victims to report crimes. Emerging rules also will push for lawyers to be a part of college tribunals in order to protect the rights of the accused. 

In that light, the White House is counting on college men to not see themselves as victims of government overreach, but instead to become part of a solution to what some call a campus sexual assault “crisis.”

In fact, a White House task force on campus sexual assaults recommended in April that schools do a better job of engaging men in order to help stop sexual assault.

White House officials told Politico that the resulting “It’s On Us” campaign will point out the importance of bystanders taking responsibility if they see an assault in progress. Officials said many college men don’t support sexual violence, but fear recrimination from their peers if they try to stop it.

“By getting men involved, we think we can interrupt that way of thinking and develop new social norms,” another senior official told Politico. “This happens as a sustained effort over time.”

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