Joe Biden Says It’s On Men To End Rape Culture

Photo: Kris Connor/Getty Images.
Over the past 25 years, outgoing Vice President Joe Biden has made combatting domestic violence, sexual harassment and sexual assault something of a mission.

First there was the Violence Against Women Act, the landmark piece of legislation he introduced back in 1990 when he was a U.S. senator. That bill, which was signed into law four years later, changed the way law enforcement addressed issues of domestic violence and sexual assault. He led the charge to reauthorize it three times.

Then there is his work as vice president to change the culture surrounding sexual assault and violence. Throughout his two terms, Biden has been outspoken about the underlying societal norms and values that lead to violence against women.

He appointed the first White House Advisor on Violence Against Women. He worked with former Education Secretary Arne Duncan to create guidelines for universities on how to address sexual assault on campus. And he even he established the first-ever White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, launching the “It’s On Us” campaign, an effort to educate students about the issue.

As his term comes to an end, Biden is out there, still beating the drum. “Here’s the deal guys. I’m no longer going to be vice president, but…I’m going to be setting up a foundation that’s going to devote the rest of my life to dealing with violence against women” he said at the It’s On Us summit at the White House earlier this month.

Refinery29 had a chance to ask Biden about rape culture, shifting cultural norms, and how women can continue to fight the good fight in the age of Trump.

Terms like “rape culture” have grown in popularity on the left in recent years. In your mind what does “rape culture” mean and how have those on the right misinterpreted it? Is it a useful term or is it alienating?

“Something is terribly wrong when people ask victims of sexual assault questions like, ‘What were you wearing? Why were you there? What did you say? How much did you drink?’ Rape culture happens whenever women are reduced to sexual objects instead being treated with the inherent rights and dignity that belong to all humans. And we have to take it on wherever we find it in our society, whether it’s the so-called locker room talk, or bar banter, or the tasteless joke—anything that condones or even promotes violence against women.

“Naming rape culture—calling sexual assault by its rightful name—isn’t about attacking or alienating anyone on the left or the right. It’s about taking off the social blinders that make it easier to overlook violence, rather than confront it. And because this culture is pervasive in our society, we all have a responsibility to step up to change it.

Sex without consent is rape. Period. It is a crime. That’s something we all should be able to agree on.

Vice President Joe Biden
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“That’s why I wrote the Violence Against Women Act with my staff in the Senate more than twenty years ago. Back then, violence against women was considered a ‘family affair.’ Victims suffered in silence. Too often, judges, lawyers, even friends and family blamed the victims instead of the perpetrator. I was convinced that if the curtain was pulled back on this dirty little secret—the vast majority of the American people would demand change. After thousands of hours of research, hundreds of hours of hearings, testimony from advocates and experts, health professionals, psychiatrists, and brave survivors, we finally enacted the Violence Against Women Act in 1994. We’ve reauthorized it three times since then, and the country has made great progress because of it. Domestic violence dropped 72% between 1993 and 2014.

“But we still have a long way to go. On our college campuses, for women between the ages of 18 and 24, nothing had changed over the past 20 years. Today, 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted before they leave college. That’s unacceptable. We have to change the culture that excuses sexual assault by saying boys will be boys. We have to ensure that a survivor’s right to justice is never swept aside because of concerns for the reputation of the accused or of the school.

"Sex without consent is rape. Period. It is a crime. That’s something we all should be able to agree on.”

Photo: Terry Ashe / Getty Contributor.
Then-U.S. Sen. Joe Biden at a committee hearing in 1990, the year he first introduced the Violence Against Women Act.
You have talked about needing to change the “cultural norm” in this country around issues of domestic violence and sexual assault. During the Obama administration we had a friendly administration in terms of these issues. It is unclear if we will in the next. So how do we continue to change the culture even if we don’t have legislative or governmental support?
“As I said, this is bigger than any one person, any one president, or any one administration. It’s on all of us to stop sexual assault and violence. You don’t need me or President Obama in the White House to know what the right thing to do is when you see violence and sexual assault taking place right in front of you. Speak up. Get involved.

“And by the way, it’s not just the job of women to keep pushing for change. One of the questions we asked during this Administration was what high schoolers and college students thought we could do to make campuses safer. I held virtual town halls with thousands of students across the country. And the overwhelming response was to get men and boys involved. Get men and boys involved.

“That’s why President Obama and I launched It’s On Us—a campaign to fundamentally change the culture around sexual assault. It’s On Us is a student-centered movement that engages all aspects of campuses from the presidents, to the football coaches, to the fraternities, to student activists, and everyone in the middle to push the message that everyone has an obligation to step up, step in, and stop sexual assaults.“And you don’t have to wait. You can take action right now. Join the 400,000 people who have taken the pledge to stop sexual assault and violence. Pledge to recognize that non-consensual sex is sexual assault.

"Pledge to identify situations in which sexual assault may occur. Pledge to intervene in situations where consent has not or cannot be given. Pledge to create an environment in which sexual assault is unacceptable and survivors are supported. Take the pledge at itsonus.org.”

Now more than ever, young people will need to be engaged in politics and make sure their voices are heard.

Joe Biden

What message do you have for the millions of millennial women who read Refinery29 and who may feel disenfranchised by the incoming administration, or at the very least disconnected from politics in general. What advice do you have for us?
“At the end of the 1960s, America was divided. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King had been assassinated. My city of Wilmington, Delaware had burned and been taken over by federal troops. Families had been torn apart by the Vietnam War. It didn’t seem possible for the center to hold, and it was all about to spiral out of control. But we didn’t come apart.

“And today, after more than four decades in public life, I still believe in the resiliency of the American people—of your readers—and in the fundamental, basic, decent instincts of average Americans who are capable of doing extraordinary things.

“Even though it doesn’t look like it right now—there is more consensus on more issues than we hear out of the Congress or in the press: on rebuilding our infrastructure, on raising the minimum wage, on fighting climate change, on child care and paid leave, on LGBT rights.
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“America has been tested before. And we must never forget that the success of this great nation isn’t guaranteed. There’s nothing guaranteed about democracy—nothing guaranteed about self-governance. We have to earn our progress, just as every generation before us has. If you were disappointed by the outcome this past election, the answer is not to sit on the sidelines or throw up your hands.

“Now more than ever, young people will need to be engaged in politics and make sure their voices are heard. The next four years must be a time of action—to show the world that the future of America is bright and that we still hold sacred our founding principles—that all men and women are created equal. Rich, poor, middle class. Black, white, Hispanic. Gay, straight, transgender. Immigrant, native born. We come from different places, but we remain the strongest when we are one America where we all do our part.”
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