Mainstream coverage of sexual assault on college campuses grew only after powerful men entered the conversation

The issue, long covered by reporters in the feminist space, attracted more coverage in the wake of a PSA from the executive branch

Jon Stewart weighed in last week on the debate surrounding sexual assault on college campuses with a satirical and poignant segment on The Daily Show entitled “The Fault in Our Schools.”

The segment opens with a searing indictment of James Madison University, which, Stewart reports, recently reacted to an instance of alleged sexual assault by announcing that the perpetrators would be “expelled upon graduation.” Stewart goes on to explain that JMU is only one of 55 colleges under investigation for mishandling cases of sexual assault.

“Are colleges trying to incentivize sexual assault?” Stewart asks the audience. “Clearly universities are not making their campuses safe for women.”

“The Fault in Our Schools” has been lauded by feminist publications and journalists who cover sexual assault. Eliana Dockterman, a reporter for Time who has been reporting developments in the sexual assault debate for months, wrote of the sketch: “The way [The Daily Show takes] on gender-related injustice is hilarious: they even get a ‘not all men’ reference in there.” Jezebel blogger Erin Gloria Ryan was equally supportive of Stewart’s coverage, writing, “it’s got everything a lady could want.” Carol Hartsell referred to the clip in The Huffington Post as a “withering takedown of the ridiculous double standards women face.”

But Stewart’s critique is just the latest in a raft of coverage of sexual assault on college campuses, an issue that has drawn increased media attention since the April announcement of a related government initiative. It was introduced with a public service announcement, called “1 is 2 many,” which quickly went viral and was accompanied by a report and the formation of a task force to combat sexual assault on campus.

The PSA features the President and several male celebrities explaining that sexual assault affects “our sisters, our daughters, our wives, and our friends.” The men call on the audience to help, speak up, and not blame the victim. The PSA inspired a slew of blog posts and articles, most of which were overwhelmingly in favor of the campaign. In one, Zerlina Maxwell at Feministing wrote:

This PSA means so much to me personally. In some ways, it’s powerful validation that no it was not my fault and even the leader of the free world agrees and wants everyone to do more to support people like me who are the “1.”

Coverage of sexual assault on college campuses surged after the PSA was released, but the issue has been creeping its way into the public eye for several years now. In October of 2012, an opinion piece in The Amherst Student penned by a victim of sexual assault elicited hundreds of comments. It was followed by an editorial in The Brown Daily Herald that November, entitled, “Let’s Get Serious About Sexual Assault.”

The following summer, sexual assault on college campuses made it out of college dailies and into national news outlets. In August of 2013, Jezebel and The Huffington Post attacked Yale University for not being harsh enough on alleged rapists, after a group of students announced they would be filing a sexual harassment suit against the school. During the following academic school year, the Yale Daily News published numerous pieces on Yale’s response, questioning Yale’s code of sexual misconduct and consent education workshops.

Although coverage was slowly and steadily growing, the White House PSA launched the issue into the pages of national newspapers—and, in the process, took control of the narrative. By May, headlines about sexual assault had appeared in nearly every major national news outlet. On April 28, The New York Times headline read, “White House to Press Colleges to Do More to Combat Rape,” and a day later, USA Today published an article entitled, “White House wants transparency on sexual assaults.”
Not all journalists were as willing to accept the government’s take, however. BuzzFeed’s Katie J.M. Baker criticized aspects of the White House Report in an article entitled, “Everything You Need To Know About The New White House Campus Sexual Assault Report.” Baker writes, “the report only hints at ramped up enforcement without detailing how that enforcement will work,” and ends with a quote from Alexandra Brodsky, co-founder of Know Your IX: “‘Committee reports can only get us so far,’ Brodsky said. ‘There’s a lot more to comply with here, but the White House hasn’t yet increased the stakes.’” On April 24, J.A. McCarroll penned a piece for SheRights.com criticizing the White House PSA for its reliance on an all-male cast, and “dude feminism.” McCarroll writes:

In these campaigns, the masculine mystique is still very present, albeit a kinder, gentler version. By flattering men’s strength and asking them to use it to protect women, we once again place men in the driver’s seat of culture, asking for them to renounce violence and be less vile guardians.

On the other side of the debate were critics who thought the administration and the media were giving too much attention to victims of sexual assault. Time ran a spread of articles by activists, politicians, writers, and students called, “The Debate: How Should Colleges Handle Sexual Assault?” The spread included a piece by Christina Hoff Sommers, scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, in which she argues that rape culture creates panic and that the government’s calculations regarding sexual misconduct—that nearly one in five college women have endured sexual assault—are grossly inaccurate. Hoff Sommers writes, “the new rape culture crusade is turning ugly,” and that “it appears that we are in the throes of one of those panics where paranoia, censorship, and false accusations flourish—and otherwise sensible people abandon their critical facilities.”

Comments like Hoff Sommers’ have provoked heated responses and inspired debate about whether media outlets have an obligation to censor such opinions. On June 6, George Will’s bi-weekly column in the Washington Post criticized colleges for giving victims “a coveted status that confers privilege,” and referred to the hot-button issue as a “supposed campus epidemic of rape, a.k.a. ‘sexual assault.’” Critics immediately attacked the Post for publishing the column, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, another publication that had run the controversial piece, announced that it would discontinue Will’s column.

On all sides of the debate, however, were journalists responding to an issue made prominent by a male president, and an all-male PSA. While victim’s stories have made their way into the news coverage, it has been through the lens of President Obama’s initiative. Women who experienced sexual assault years ago, like Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz, are only now being offered the opportunities to tell their stories on a national level.

While “The Fault in Our Schools” is a satisfying and poignant satire of all that is wrong with sexual misconduct on college campuses, it comes too late. Women and girls have been grappling with the issue for years. Students have been talking about it and writing about it in college dailies, but the wider world wasn’t listening. When asked about the Daily Show segment, Maureen Shaw, editor at SheRights.com, said:

Straight, (mostly) white men have appointed themselves the guardians of our culture, so it is no surprise that the straight, (mostly) white male mainstream media is only now kicking up dust over the issue of campus sexual assaults. However, it is important to remember where the root of this agitation lies: with the feminist community and our allies, who have been raising our collective voice in protestation on this issue for a long time now.

The positive media attention “The Fault in Our Schools” is garnering, while ultimately good for the cause, is another example of the sway held by those homogenous “guardians of our culture,” and a somewhat depressing reminder that it takes a person like Jon Stewart to make people care about an issue that would otherwise be designated as feminist, and thus ignored.

“While I’m happy to see the campus sexual assault epidemic receive the national media attention it deserves—including The Daily Show,” Shaw continues, “we need more women and feminist representation in the media. With men serving as the mouthpieces of our country… we always run the risk of falling into the ‘dude feminism’ trap.”

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Fiona Lowenstein is a CJR intern. Tags: , , , , ,