Rose Byrne on Frat Culture and How Bystanders Can Stop Sexual Assault

6 minute read

In a new campaign spot for the White House’s “It’s On Us” anti-sexual assault campaign, a schlubby bystander becomes the hero. This otherwise zoned-out guy on a couch decides to get up and intervene when he sees another young man trying to stop an inebriated woman from leaving the party, thereby potentially stopping a sexual assault.

The PSA is a new tactic to address what has become a crisis of sexual assault on American campuses by focusing on the role of bystanders. Recent research shows that 1 in 5 women is the victim of an attempted or completed sexual assault during college, and one in 16 men have also experienced some kind of sexual assault. And while the issue has gained attention in the media and through White House efforts to end assault on campus, pop culture is still rife with imagery that undermines these efforts to raise awareness about rape and sexual assault. Just this week a sexist music video depicting men in a fraternity telling women to “shut the f*** up” when the women refuse to “do girl on girl” went viral.

As the debate about sexual assault on college campuses has raged on, the blame has often fallen on the both the victim and the assailant for drinking too much or making other poor choices. Rather than being caught up in the debate over fraternities and binge drinking, the White House is attempting to reframe the argument. “Is it on her? Is it on him? The campaign says, ‘It’s on us.’ So we’re offering a third narrative,” Rachel Cohen Gerrol, executive director of of the PVBLIC Foundation, which helped push the campaign, explains to TIME.

“One of the questions we’ve gotten is why doesn’t this campaign say directly to men, ‘Stop raping’? And the reason for that is that the campaign is research-based,” Lynn Rosenthal, the White House Advisor on Violence Against Women, explained at an Advertising Week panel on the campaign. According to research, campaigns can change the behavior of those surrounding a person committing sexual assault: teach college kids bystander intervention, and they will be more cognizant of what a dangerous situation looks like and how to stop it.

“We don’t really have any evidence that a PSA campaign or t-shirts would change the behavior of an actual offender.”

The new spot is a followup to the White House’s first ads for the campaign, a star-studded video where celebs ranging from Jon Hamm to Kerry Washington to Vice President Biden and President Obama himself say that “It’s on us” to stop sexual assault. One of the campaigns celeb advocates is Rose Byrne, an Australian, who says she didn’t know much about fraternity culture or the problem os sexual assault on campus until she was offered a role in Neighbors, the Seth Rogen summer comedy about a couple with a baby who gets into a prank war with the fraternity next door. She did her research and was surprised by what she found. This year, fraternities have come under fire not only for their hazing tactics but also for being the scene of many alleged incidents of rape and assault.

“For me, it was eye-opening doing that film because it was all about how powerful fraternity culture is and how intimidating it can be,” Byrne told TIME. “What I’ve learned is that environment can be very intimidating for victims of sexual assault.” It was after wrapping the film that she jumped at the chance to join the White House in their campaign educating college students—and specifically college freshmen, who are at the highest risk of being assaulted—about bystander intervention.

AWXI - Day 4
Rose Byrne attends the It's On Us: From Activism to Action w/Jason Harris and Rose Byrne panel during AWXI on October 2, 2014 in New York City.Monica Schipper—2014 Getty Images

The site will offer myriad ways that students can intervene to prevent an assault, whether it’s telling a possible assailant that his or her car alarm went off or spilling a beer on him or her. The toolkit of suggested ways to intervene may eventually be supplemented by prizes for students who come up with the most creative methods, according to Jason Harris, CEO of Mekanism, the advertising agency that designs the spots for the campaign. The site also encourages students to intervene in conversations about sexual assault online that devolve into victim blaming.

“As you see this conversation begin to happen on social media, and you see people starting to say, ‘Well of course she was asking for it. She flirted with him or she slept with him before,” says Rosenthal. “When you intervene in those conversations, that’s just as important as the interventions that you’re talking about in the moment that you see something happening. That’s how we create a new social norm.”

The other social norm the campaign is trying to change: athletes being held to a different standard than their peers. Given the very public problems with sexual assault in national sports leagues, the White House will also be partnering with the NFL, PGA Tour, NASCAR and the NCAA for the campaign. And schools with storied and highly influential sports programs are already making the pledge, including the entire football team at Penn State and Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s basketball team at Duke.

As Byrne points out, the problem among athletes who are allowed passes for their bad behavior spreads far beyond America. “There’s a lot of cases like this in Australia. Sporting teams and football teams and the FAL and the NRL historically have been involved in horrible gang rapes,” she says. “There’s absolutely a culture in Australia of those sorts of things being wrongly tolerated because of who those men are.”

The White House has found changing the culture on campus through school administrations is a daunting task. That’s why the campaign also slyly speaks directly to the students rather than the institutions themselves, some of which had long fought the idea that sexual assault among students is a matter for their adjudication. “Schools have to deal with their boards, they have to deal with their funding, they have to deal with the people who support them mostly via athletics—the biggest donors at universities buy athletic fields and things like that,” says Gerrol. “And students could give a s***. And they just say this is not going to happen, not on our watch, not on our campus. So it’s easier and faster to make change with people who are not beholden to donors.”

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