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White House Makes Sharp Pitch For Men To Fight Campus Sexual Assault

Top Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett in an exclusive BuzzFeed News interview on the newest iteration of the White House's It's On Us anti-sexual assault campaign.

Posted on November 13, 2014, at 6:00 a.m. ET

WASHINGTON — A new, sharply toned public service announcement produced for the White House's ongoing anti-campus sexual assault campaign is aimed at men, who research shows often don't intervene when they witness sexual violence in their midst.

President Obama has tried to make fighting campus sexual crime a component of his second-term legacy. Where previous efforts have focused on empowering women to turn in perpetrators and speak up about campus violence problems, the new effort aims to teach young men to break continuing taboos about getting involved when they see other men in the process of victimizing women, according to top Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, who detailed the campaign in a White House interview with BuzzFeed News Wednesday.

The campaign focused on men begins Thursday. The centerpiece is an ominous TV ad, narrated by actor Jon Hamm, that features a college party where a woman is blocked from leaving by one man before another intervenes. It will soon run in heavy rotation during college sports, before movies in theaters owned by Mark Cuban, on Xbox gaming consoles, and across social media. The push to include men in sexual assault prevention will also play a big role in an upcoming week-long national awareness campaign on college campuses. Obama administration plans for the "National Week of Action," running Nov. 17–21, include visits to college campuses by "White House and administration officials," a White House official said.

Jarrett told BuzzFeed News that the shift to outreach to men was a key component of the Obama administration's ongoing "It's On Us" anti-campus sexual assault campaign first announced by the president in September.

"Bystander involvement can be very important, and oftentimes men underestimate other men's attitudes toward violence. They don't understand that other men are opposed to violence too," Jarrett said. "So if they get the sense that it's OK [to intervene] because everyone else around the room feels the same way you do, so the first person who gets up will inspire the next person to get up, and the next person and a next person. Because everyone is uncomfortable with it, but as a general rule men don't know that."

Kyle Lierman, a member of Jarrett's staff at the White House Office of Public Engagement, spearheaded the PSA. He told BuzzFeed News the ad was specifically designed to connect with an audience of men on the issue of sexual assault.

"Most young men can relate to the guy that's sitting on that couch," Lierman said. "You have to show them how they can be a part of the solution."

It's On Us was created in part from the findings of a sexual assault task force launched by the White House that released its findings in April. Activists generally welcomed the effort, but some criticized some task force recommendations for being vague, especially those centered around enforcement mechanisms. White House officials have said the administration is stepping up enforcement efforts as the sexual assault program rolls out, and Jarrett pointed to partnerships with major colleges and universities as evidence that the program is being embraced.

Jarrett said the big goal of the task force — and the It's On Us campaign it begets — is to change the atmosphere surrounding sexual assault on campuses.

"It's a whole new paradigm, because what we're saying is that everyone has a role to play, and the responsibility should not simply be shouldered by the woman," Jarrett said. "Historically, you've heard people say to women, 'Well, take self-defense classes,' and, 'Don't put yourself in a situation where harm could come to you.'"

Making the problem of sexual assault on campus a problem only for women made women uncomfortable about it, Jarrett said, referring to the task force findings. That led to low reporting rates and a general discomfort about the subject, she said.

"We think by making this a responsibility of the entire community, it would take a little of that responsibility off of the woman and it would ensure a change in culture," she said. "There are limits to what you can do with rules and regulations and laws. The only way you're really going to change behavior is to change a culture of what's acceptable behavior and what's not acceptable."

Jarrett said the focus on men in the new administration campaign shows that social attitudes around sexual violence on campus are already changing.

"It's becoming a part of the conversation that everyone is having," she said. "I have several friends who have either juniors or seniors in high school. Every parent is asking the question, 'What is the attitude of the college or university you're considering toward sexual assault?' When my daughter went to college 10 years ago, it never occurred to me to ask that question."

Watch the ad:

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.