It’s On Us leaders discuss sexual violence as a public health crisis

The Lantern
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It’s On Us aims to prevent sexual violence in college campuses. Credit: Courtesy of Mary Jaskoviak

Eliminating sexual violence may seem like a universally unsolvable puzzle, but the nonprofit advocacy program, It’s On Us, works to put the pieces together on a national scale.

Founded in 2014, It’s On Us has become the country’s largest nonprofit program committed to sexual assault prevention and survivor support on college campuses, according to the program’s website . It’s On Us Executive Director Tracey Vitchers said the nonprofit has since established chapters at hundreds of universities nationwide, including Ohio State, and aims to reframe how people, particularly college students, view the threat of sexual violence in their communities.

“It’s On Us was named ‘It’s On Us’ in 2014, really to intentionally call every member of the campus community into the conversation on sexual violence,” Vitchers said. “It’s On Us does believe that campus sexual assault is an epidemic in the United States.”

Mary Jaskoviak, vice president of Ohio State’s It’s On Us chapter and a fourth-year in health sciences and disability studies, said the “red zone” — a time frame between the beginning of fall semester and Thanksgiving break, during which over 50 percent of sexual assaults occur — has a stronger impact on Ohio State than it may have on smaller universities.

“We are a giant university,” Jaskoviak said. “The red zone is something that affects nearly every college campus in the U.S., but especially here, since we are such a large institution, the numbers are inevitably higher.”

Vitchers said many college students find their schools’ required sexual violence prevention programs ineffective because they often fail to comprehensively reflect the reality of college life and university-specific issues, thereby limiting the education’s actual efficacy.

“I think in terms of campus sexual assault, unfortunately, colleges and universities have largely trended towards treating sexual assault as a risk management issue instead of as the public health crisis that it is,” Vitchers said.

Vitchers said It’s On Us has designed its prevention-education programs based on a public health model that recognizes there are distinct behavioral and attitudinal beliefs — for example, the extent of a university’s athletic presence — that differ across campus communities.

Because It’s On Us considers “sexual violence” to be an umbrella term that encompasses such varying factors, Vitchers said the nonprofit works directly with individual universities to ensure education programs are properly suited to every campus.

“We work with our college campus communities to train our campus organizers to implement employee or peer education programs within their own campus communities, ultimately with the goal of changing the culture on college campuses from one that upholds rape culture to one that openly prevents it,” Vitchers said.

Jaskoviak said the stereotypical college nightlife scene is closely linked with higher sexual assault rates, especially on bigger campuses that are inherently more dangerous.

“There are all these new freshmen who might be a little bit more naive and don’t know all the resources that are available to them, and who might not know what the risks are,” Jaskoviak said. “Let’s say walking home by yourself at night or anything similar to that.”

To help Ohio State students feel safer, Jaskoviak said It’s On Us tries to provide as many resources as possible, hosting educational general body meetings and H.E.A.L — which stands for Hope, Empathy, Acceptance and Learning — Survivor Support Group sessions.

These sessions serve as a “safe space” for survivors, their loved ones — also known as “co-survivors” — and other allies so they can share their experiences without the presence of university-mandated reporters, Jaskoviak said.

Jaskoviak said It’s On Us hosts its H.E.A.L Survivor Support Group sessions Tuesdays from 8:30 to 9:30 p.m. in the Ohio Union. More information about the specific location of the support group, which varies weekly, can be found via It’s On Us’ GroupMe .

During the general body meetings, Jaskoviak said It’s On Us leaders usually give educational presentations about topics such as maintaining a positive body image and constructing healthy boundaries after experiencing trauma. The group also hosts community bonding time that is not always directly related to the topics of sexual assault and violence, she said.

“Here’s an hour of your week where you can just come and hang out and not have to think about [experiences of sexual violence] in a safe space,” Jaskoviak said.

In recent weeks, It’s On Us has partnered with external organizations like The Black Queer Coalition and Columbus’ extended Black LGBTQ+ community to further promote its messaging in the Columbus area, according to the nonprofit’s Instagram page . Vitchers said bringing more people into conversations surrounding sexual violence can only help boost prevention efforts on and off campus.

“For so long, the issue of sexual violence was really framed as a women’s issue,” Vitchers said. “And when you frame it as strictly a women’s issue, you not only ignore male or transgender, gender nonconforming survivors, and you also ignore that it is everyone’s responsibility to step in and be a part of the solution to prevent campus sexual violence.”

Though it can be frustrating when progress is slow, Jaskoviak said seeing people positively interact with It’s On Us is its own reward.

“You can see somebody who might not have spoken up in previous H.E.A.L group meetings,” Jaskoviak said. “One day, they’ll say something, they’ll share about their day, or they’ll share a little bit more about their experience or how they feel, or they’ll start to get more interaction with some of the other members of the group, and you just see those little things in it. It really brings me so much joy to see people being able to overcome some of their fears.”

More information about Ohio State’s chapter of It’s On Us and its various events can be found on the nonprofit’s Instagram page or via its GroupMe .

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