How To Tell The Difference Between a Rapist and a Bear

The White House started a campaign about a year and a half ago called “It’s On Us.” The campaign is meant to stop sexual assault, which, I think we can all agree is necessary and important. This is a great campaign, and I’m both impressed and heartened to see the White House taking action like this. The campaign has created a number of PSAs, like this one, most of which are powerful and effective.

But their latest PSA (made in conjunction with College Humor), while funny, rubs me the wrong way.

Watch it, and see what you think.

Now… a lot of it is great. It points out how ridiculous it is to ignore the problem. It points out that a lot of the dismissals thrown out there – “boys will be boys” and “but it won’t be me” – are bullshit. Also good. It makes it clear that this is an everyone problem. Bravo.


It's a false comparison. A bear is a clear threat. No one is going to look at a bear and think, “Meh. No big.” No one is going to let a bear into their home and assume that it will be okay. No one would go out alone with a bear. A college boy is a different animal altogether.

Very rarely does a look at a college boy elicit a fight or flight response from our bodies. Very rarely do we know – just from a single glance – that a college boy is a threat. Very rarely do other college students avoid a college boy for fear of being raped.

But the statistic is there. One in five women will be sexually assaulted by the time they finish college. One in five.

I spoke to Christina about what was annoying me about this ad, and she expressed similar frustrations: "I don't like it because the whole thing is a false equivalence. ... A true comparison would be the five of them sitting at a poker table and trying to figure out which one of them was a rapist and freaking out."

She's right. But they don't. They don't do that. Instead, the men are the victims here. The men are sitting around trying to figure out which one of them will be eaten and how they can avoid it.

So... I think understand what the ad was trying to do. I think they were trying to get into the dude head. I *think* this ad was trying to put men in the situation they are rarely in - to help them understand the side of the victim. But it's still fallacious because a bear is a hell of a lot different from a person who, in another circumstance, could be a regular nice guy. As Christina so aptly put it, "No one tells the bear not to eat them. Because, literally, bears WILL be bears. Likening a rapist to an animal that is committing a natural animalistic act actually feels like it's defending the rapist."

So… I like a lot of what’s going on in the PSA. I like pointing out the ridiculousness of ignoring sexual assault. I like that there’s a sense of responsibility here. I like that they say things like “this affects all of us.” And I like that there's an attempt - however unsuccessful - to make the situation as clear and as alarming as it should be. One in five is a startling, horrific statistic. We should be scared and we should be doing something about it.

But… I don’t like the intimation that the threat is obvious. It’s not. I’m quite sure that if you asked all the women who have been sexually assaulted if they saw the threat coming… the majority would say no. Because it’s not clear. Rapists rarely look like rapists. Sexual assailants rarely look like sexual assailants. And regardless, it’s not up to the victim to look out for potential rapists. It’s up to the rapist not to rape. It’s that simple.

Notably, there are no women in this PSA. It seems a bit odd to exclude the actual victims from a discussion of the crime against them, doesn't it? I think the belief is that, in order to make the magnitude of this statistic make sense to a man, you have to erase the woman because that's where things get all fuzzy. (which... UGH) I *think* they were trying to speak to the dudes and say that they have to stick together and be responsible and watch over each other to make sure shit doesn't happen. To make sure each of them isn't assaulting? Which... is a good thing to promote, I guess? But still has it's major, major problems. ("Ya'll are gonna get all rapey, so just look out for your rapey homies and keep 'em from raping, you know?") I mean... it's insulting on a variety of different levels. For all of us.

I see the intent. I see what they were trying to do. They were trying to put this pledge in terms that make sense to someone who might struggle with understanding the impact of sexual assault.

Image Source: It's On Us

I understand that the aim was noble and I still fully believe that the It's On Us campaign itself is fantastic. But this ad missed the mark. In its attempt to make the unfunny funny... it changed the story. It changed the players and the situation and it simplified things much too much. The logical fallacy killed the goal of the PSA.

Ultimately, it should have been about consent. Sexual assault is unwanted sexual contact or behavior. No consent there. A positive sexual encounter requires consent. Enthusiastic consent, if you ask me. Everyone involved should be 100% into it and horny as all hell for each other. If anyone gets uncomfortable or tense or unsure... it should be over. Immediately.

But they couldn't talk about consent in this PSA because no one is going to consent to getting eaten by a bear. And no one is ever going to think that getting eaten by bear is no big deal. Getting eaten by a bear is never going to look like anything else. If a bear eats you, there will be unequivocal proof. And no one is going to believe a goddamn (apparently talking?) bear if it says you wanted to be eaten.

If this goofy PSA gets through to someone, fine. That's good. If watching this video helps someone out there who was too dimwitted to understand the gravity and frequency of sexual assault for women*, then okay. If it reminds people to speak up when they see something that seems off, to look out for other humans and make sure they're safe, then it's done something. But I hope its creators understand that what they've made here has some serious rhetorical weaknesses. And I hope they can do better next time. Because one in five women can't afford any confusion on this. I think this one is pretty clear, don't you?

* We fully acknowledge that women are not the only victims of sexual assault. Victims of sexual assault can also be men, trans, genderqueer, and nonbinary. We're referring regularly to women as victims here because the one in five statistic refers to women. However, any person can be a victim of sexual assault.


  • Take the It's On Us pledge here

  • Partner with RAINN and It's On Us here

  • Find out how to work with RAINN to stop sexual assault and support survivors here

  • Help keep other people safe by looking out for them and speaking up when something seems off. More tips here

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