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White House calls on men to 'step up' in sexual assault prevention

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden noted that society still doesn't value women and called for a sea change in preventing sexual assault.

A new White House campaign aims to enlist communities — and men in particular — to reduce sexual violence on college campuses.

President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden both spoke Friday at the launch of “It’s On Us,” a campaign aimed to encourage bystander intervention and to give young men and women tools to help survivors of sexual assault. A public service announcement associated with the campaign features celebrities John Hamm, Connie Britton, and Questlove, among others, speaking out in support of sexual assault prevention.

"It’s clear from sports leagues to pop culture to politics, our society still does not value women," Obama said. "The message that sends can have a chilling effect on our women."

The president noted that one in five women are assaulted during college, and only 12% of those incidents are reported. "We know that men are assaulted, too," Obama added. "Men get raped, and they’re even less likely to talk about it."

Both Obama and Biden referred to their daughters when empathizing with the need to end sexual assault on campuses. Biden noted that when he dropped his daughter off at college years ago, he said an added prayer for her safety. He particularly pointed out that men "have an obligation to make a pariah" out of anyone who assaults a woman. 

"The vast majority of young men are decent, honorable young men who want to do the right thing," Biden said. "It’s on all of us to change the culture that asks the wrong questions — and our culture still asks the wrong questions. It is never the right question for a woman to ask: ‘What did I do?’ The question is: ‘Why was that done to me and will someone do something about it?’”

Biden put out a specific call to men to intervene in Friday's speech. "To the guys out there who are watching this on television: Step up. You have an obligation to intervene," he said.

The White House Task Force formed in January to tackle campus sexual assault is expected to release model policies for schools by the end of September. Legislation that would require schools to conduct campus climate surveys and would expand the range of enforcement options available for the Education Department was introduced in July.

Since the Obama administration clarified that sexual assault and gender based violence are forms of discrimination, survivors have pushed for the Department of Education to hold schools accountable for failing to take their reports seriously, an initiative that Obama referred to on Friday.  In May, the Department’s Office for Civil Rights released for the first time the list of schools under investigation for possible violations of Title IX. There were 55 on May 1. The list has expanded to nearly 80 schools, and students are filing more new complaints and speaking out about their experiences at a disturbing pace.

"Recalling rape always hurts," said Lily Jay, a survivor of campus sexual assault, in noting the courage survivors must have when pursuing advocacy work. "That’s the terrible irony of sexual assault activism. So empowering so important but it also tethers you to your pain."

According to recent CDC data, one in five women will experience sexual violence in her lifetime. And a National Institute of Justice survey suggests that one in five college women will experience sexual assault while at school. Data on male sexual assault victims is harder to find, but the CDC data estimated 1.7% of men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes.

Even as colleges and universities change their policies, and as students organize to raise awareness and agitate for more progress, new allegations of faulty police investigations have surfaced, most recently in the Florida State University community.

"One of the most effective ways to prevent rape is to mobilize men and women on campus to join together in stopping perpetrators before they can commit a crime,” Scott Berkowitz, president and founder of It’s on Us partner RAINN, said in a statement. “We also need to make sure that if a friend is sexually assaulted, students know how to support him or her and ensure they have access to the help they deserve through the National Sexual Assault Hotline and local resources."