Letter to the Editor: The real meaning of “It’s On Us”

What does it mean to say that “It’s On Us” to stop sexual assault at Northwestern? That phrase certainly sounds true, but when it comes to sexual violence, empty words are all too common. Too often, if we were to peer past the platitudes that pervade the rhetoric on this issue, we’d find that when we say “It’s On Us,” we do not acknowledge our complicit role in shaping campus culture, or our power to change it.

Take the national campaign’s latest video. The premise of the video is that Johnson’s man cave is home to a bear that kills one in five of his guests — the point being that we should react towards sexual assault, which affects one in five college-aged women, with the same outrage that Johnson receives from his friends as they are attacked by the bear.

It seems ridiculous to have to point out, but there are a number of important disanalogies between campus sexual assault and bear attacks. Bear attacks are, by and large, out of the bear’s control. They have a sort of randomness to them: while potentially tragic, they are rarely anyone’s fault, except for maybe the hiker who got between a mother and her cubs. There is certainly no such thing as a “bear culture” that enables them.

Sexual assault is not a force of nature. While perpetrated by a small subset of the population, those assailants are human beings, not wild animals. They act with intention and have control over their actions. Over half of undergraduate men at Northwestern who responded to the recently conducted Campus Climate Survey said they believe that rape and sexual assault can happen unintentionally, but research shows that serial offenders commit the vast majority of assaults. If this is startling information, take some time to critically rethink your preconceptions about what sexual violence looks like. It’s on us to refuse to accept excuses for failing to seek active and enthusiastic consent every time. It’s on us to treat acts of emotional and physical coercion, no matter how subtle, as violence, instead of “mistakes.”

It’s also on us to recognize that sexual assault does not take place in a vacuum. Rapists are made, not born, and their actions are enabled by a society that stacks the deck in their favor every day through violent jokes, belittling questions aimed at survivors, an unfair legal system and misleading narratives that paint a selective and exclusionary picture of what sexual assault actually looks like. The language we use and the stories we tell can trap individual desires beneath the weight of collective expectation.

Agreeing to “Netflix and chill” doesn’t obligate anyone to have sex they don’t want to have, but the assumptions around this phrase, and others, can perniciously affect our culture around consent.

By constantly holding ourselves and each other accountable, we all have a part to play in dismantling rape-supportive cultures in our community.

That’s why this year, during the It’s On Us National Week of Action from Nov. 8-14, we are pushing the Northwestern community to move beyond awareness to action. We want to identify a set of concrete recommendations for students, faculty and administrators to address the problem of sexual assault as it actually exists at Northwestern in our various communities.

We urge the NU community to acknowledge that the problem isn’t just white men assaulting white women: People of color and members of the LGBTQ community are assaulted at a higher rate than their straight, white peers. Rather than trying to impose one-size-fits-all solutions from the top down, we want to hear from as many students as possible about what you think can and should be done to end sexual assault at Northwestern.

The goal of It’s On Us for Northwestern this year is to make sure your voices and recommendations are heard. At the end of the week, we’ll incorporate the community’s recommendations into a video and a report for administrators and student leaders.

We hope that you’ll join us in building a safer, healthier, more supportive Northwestern together.


Noah Star, ASG President

Christina Kim, ASG Executive VP

Wendy Roldan, ASG VP of Student Life

Erik Baker, ASG Senator for SHAPE, MARS, College Feminists, and Title IX at NU

Haley Hinkle, Medill ‘16

Sydney Selix, President of College Feminists

Jacob Kerr, President of Men Against Rape and Sexual Assaults (MARS)

Fei Wang, ASG Senator for Rainbow Alliance at NU

Bo Suh, Co-President of Rainbow Alliance

Amanda Odasz, Sexual Health and Assault Peer Educators (SHAPE) Communications Chair

Mollie Cahillane, Director of Sexual Health and Assault Peer Educators (SHAPE)