In this upcoming election, women are very likely going to find themselves with a choice of voting for either Joe Biden or Donald Trump. Both of those men have been accused of sexual assault.
On March 26th, on The Katie Halper Show, a woman named Tara Reade, one of Biden’s former staffers from the early ‘90s, claimed that he pushed her against a wall and digitally penetrated her while she worked for him. When she backed away, Joe Biden allegedly replied to her refusal by declaring, “Come on, man, I heard you liked me!”
Reade’s allegation is hard to confirm, as it supposedly happened in 1993, more than 25 years ago, and — as is the case with many incidents of sexual assault — there were no witnesses. Some Biden supporters also expressed skepticism about Reade's story when it began to circulate widely among supporters of his primary opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders, whose campaign might logically benefit from any scandal that might force Biden to drop out of a race that he is almost certainly poised to win. Some have also pointed out that Reade’s story seems to have altered over time; though, for a variety of reasons, ranging from trauma to circumstantial pressure, this is not uncommon for accusations of sexual assault.
In possible support of Reade’s allegations, Biden has been accused of unwanted physical contact a great deal in the past. In an article for The Cut in March, 2019, Lucy Flores described Biden kissing her inappropriately. At the very least, he does not seem like a man with a really great sense of personal boundaries, and this new claim feeds into a damaging political narrative for the Biden campaign: Joe Biden consistently touches people without consent.
Even without Biden’s accompanying history, Reade’s accusation is a serious one, the kind you would expect to throw Biden’s campaign into disarray. It hasn’t. It’s barely in the news.
Over at The Guardian, Arwa Mahdawi wrote that the allegations had been overshadowed by headlines like, “The Top Ten Women Joe Biden Might Pick as VP “ and “Joe Biden's Inner Circle: No Longer A Boy’s Club.” But then, as Mahdawi noted, even if Reade’s story was reported on extensively, it is “hugely unlikely that Reade’s accusations will do any damage whatsoever to Biden’s ambitions. Allegations of sexual assault certainly haven’t posed any hindrance to Trump. The allegations against Kavanaugh didn’t stop him from becoming a Supreme Court justice.”
Nor did accusations stop Donald Trump, against whom 25 allegations of sexual misconduct have been leveled, from becoming president. He’s been accused of rape by the columnist E. Jean Carroll, who was, infuriatingly, fired following her accusation. Trump’s ex-wife, Ivana, claimed he raped her. Hell, Trump was caught on tape laughing about sexually harassing women. People knew he harassed women. Sixty-eight percent of voters in 2016 believed Donald Trump made unwanted sexual advances towards women. Even 20 percent of his base believed as much. It didn’t stop people from voting for him for President.
If the Biden accusation vanishes into the ether, if a vast majority of people don’t report on it, it’s not because they don’t know, or because there’s a cover-up in place, but because it appears many people truly don’t care if women have been assaulted. At least when it comes to who they vote for.
For one thing, we’re living at a strange moment in time when we are no longer beholden to the puritanism of earlier generations. Few people are shocked that a married politician might cheat on his wife, as we at least pretended to be for so many decades before this. In an age of liberalized sexual mores, acting shocked that sex sometimes happens outside the bounds wedlock would seem willfully naive. The vast majority of us fancy ourselves sophisticated regarding sexual matters.
And yet, as much as we accept the idea of people having sex, especially powerful men, many people haven’t yet embraced or even fully understood the notion that sex must be consensual, and agreed to enthusiastically by both parties.
A study recently asked men in college if they’d committed rape, and they largely said no. However, they answered in the affirmative to questions like, “Have you ever had sexual intercourse with an adult when they didn’t want to because you used or threatened to use physical force (twisting their arm; holding them down, etc.) if they didn’t cooperate?” Even people who committed sexual violence are often unaware they’ve done it.
If they’re confused about whether or not their actions were okay, no wonder. Up until very recently, men who harassed women were written about as highly sexualized womanizers, not as predators. The Washington Post remarked, “For years, what powerful men did in Hollywood, politics or elsewhere in pop culture was described in terms of "seduction ...sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll," and "free love, and it took on a sordid glamour.”
No such glamorous labels were applied to women who were sexually harassed or assaulted and spoke up about it. At best they were labeled prudish killjoys who took things too seriously, at worst, they were abject liars.
Americans have been struggling with the basic concept of consent for decades, from those surveyed on college campuses today, to Tara Reade’s own brother, who, at the time of the alleged Biden incident, told her, “let it go, move on, guys are idiots.”
When his own sister came to him about sexual assault regarding a man who he had probably never even met, he still didn’t see it as a big deal.
It’s harder still for most people to believe that a man they like did anything wrong, despite the fact that there’s no exact profile of men who commit sexual assault. It is statistically as likely to be your neighbor or brother or favorite politician as it is to be a sinister man in an alley. Still, it’s far easier to call women liars than to grapple with the failings of men we have come to admire.
Many people seem to feel women only need to be believed if their testimony is damaging to the “right” people.
A vocal contingent of Sanders supporters on Twitter are adamant in claiming that Tara Reade must be believed, and are taking a noble position. That said, some of them are less supportive when women make accusations about people in their own camp. After speaking out about her experience of sexual harassment while working for the Sanders campaign in 2016, Giulianna Di Lauro Velez wrote, “Both myself and other women who spoke on the record about our experiences on Sanders’s campaign received messages and tweets from Sanders supporters accusing us of lying and wanting to purposefully attack the Vermont senator. I was told to ‘enjoy my 15 minutes of fame’ and was mocked while the sexual harassment I endured was normalized.”
Calling women liars when they make accusations against men you like is a non-partisan pastime.
At the other end of the political spectrum, Republicans are adamant that we must believe Juanita Broaddrick’s claims about Bill Clinton being a rapist. Which of course, is followed by Bill Clinton fans claiming that Juanita Broaddrick is a liar.
Trump supporters have to throw themselves into overdrive in order to accuse every single woman who accuses Trump of sexual harassment of lying. It’s hard when you have over 20 of them, from E. Jean Carroll to Jessica Leeds to Jill Harth to… well, they will do this for every single Trump accuser, and there are so many.
But some of these women are liars, people might insist. They will point to the fact that one of these women has lied on at least one documented occasion. There is evidence of her lying! Yes, of course there is. You can find evidence to support the notion that practically everyone who ever lived has lied. I’ve certainly never met anyone who has never lied, and I think if I had, they'd be universally reviled.
It is easier merely to find indiscretions in women’s pasts than to think seriously about how many allowances we make, not even for our heroes, but for any man who seems useful. People will say allegations about Biden are not so bad, because it will allow Democrats to beat Trump. Trump fans will say allegations about him are not so bad, because it will allow them to beat Democrats. And so, women’s very valid pain ends up being reduced to nothing more than a political football to be lobbed at anyone’s favorite target.
There is a fairly easy solution to this, of course. If you are genuinely concerned about sexual assault, if you genuinely are appalled by the idea of someone who has possibly committed assault being President, well — those people are very usually men. Ninety percent of sexual assaults against women are committed by men, and 93 percent of sexual assaults against men are committed by men. If you’re truly horrified by the idea that someone in power might have committed sexual assault, you can significantly improve the odds of that not being the case by voting for a woman. But, then, that would hinge upon granting women even a tiny sliver of the loyalty and forgiveness society is so willing to extend to male leaders. And no one seems ready to do that.