Former US Vice President Joe Biden, who is now the presumptive Democratic nominee for November’s presidential elections, has come under increased scrutiny over the past few weeks as allegations of sexual assault against him were being corroborated. The accuser, Ms Tara Reade, claims that Biden had pinned her against the wall and digitally penetrated her in 1993 when she worked as a junior staffer in his Senator’s office.
Although several people have attested to the authenticity of Reade’s claims, Biden continues to vehemently deny them and enjoy the virtually unwavering backing of the Democratic establishment, which fears that any blemish on their candidate’s image would lead to a loss in the upcoming elections. As the story continues to unfold and the elections draw near, it is important to review the nature of the claims made against Biden, the reaction they evoked, and the consequences that ignoring that would have on the future of the #MeToo movement.
Reade first spoke out against Biden in April 2019, when she joined a group of women who claimed the former Vice President touched them in a way that made them uncomfortable. Fast forward to March of this year—after many failed attempts to gain the attention of national news outlets, Reade finally managed to come forward with her claim that Biden sexually assaulted her back in 1993. Reade argues that she had complained to Biden’s senior staffers at the time and informed them about the assault, and claims that their response was to, essentially, force her out of her position.
Over the past few weeks, Reade’s account has been corroborated by a close friend of hers, a former neighbour, and her brother, all of whom confirm that Reade had told them about the assault back in the 1990s. It took mainstream media platforms a few weeks, but ultimately news of her accusation began to spread like wildfire. Now, a resurfaced video of the Larry King Live show from 1993 further authenticates Reade’s claims. The video features the voice of Reade’s mother (now deceased), who called to discuss “problems” her daughter was having while working for a “prominent senator.”
Biden and his campaign categorically deny Reade’s accusation, saying that while they believe women should have the right to tell their story freely, this particular story is utterly fabricated. Biden’s assertions have been supported by his aides, former staffers, and a growing number of Democratic party members, all of whom attest to the integrity of his character and what they claim is an exceptionally stellar political record when it comes to fighting for women’s rights.
Some have gone as far as to debunk Reade’s account by questioning her motives (portraying her as a Russian spy) and highlighting the gradual evolvement of her testimony and her often stilted recollection of certain details. Some have also raised scepticism as to why it took Reade so long to come out with her accusation and pointed to several occasions over the past few years in which Reade had praised Biden’s actions as a politician.
It is widely known today that many survivors of sexual assault spend years in silence about their experience, and that those who do come forward eventually often reveal their story gradually and are fuzzy about some of the details surrounding the attack. In an interview for The New York Times, Scott Berkowitz, the founder and president of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), stated that it is common for survivors to have positive feelings towards and even admire their attacker. “With people who work for politicians, there’s usually a strong measure of loyalty or respect in that relationship. So it’s not indicative that someone wasn’t telling the truth,” said Berkowitz.
What is so unnerving about this case is that these exact same arguments were touted by Democrats in 2018 as they supported Dr Christine Blasey Ford when she accused Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her. While neither case has a ‘smoking gun’, Reade has arguably more corroborating elements in her corner that Dr Ford did, and yet, the same Democrats who chose to believe Dr Ford now unanimously opt to stand by Biden, leading many to deduce that Democrats only advocate for women’s rights when it serves them politically to do so.
In an article for The Cut titled The Biden Trap, Rebecca Traister underscores the unique predicament this scandal puts female politicians in, and particularly the women on Biden’s shortlist for VP. Kamala Harris, Stacy Abrams and Amy Klobuchar have all publically stated they stand by Biden, reciting an almost by-the-book announcement that women should be free to tell their stories but their experience of Biden leads them to unequivocally believe him.
But, as Traister points out, whatever position female politicians choose to take at this point will be to their detriment; should they continue to side with Biden, they will be portrayed as hypocrites who betray their professed values in exchange for political clout, and if they so much as question his credibility they will be pegged as radical feminists largely responsible for four more years of Trump.
At the very least, people’s view of Biden should be highly nuanced from this point on, and any support of his candidacy should be balanced with a frank meditation on the grave moral dilemmas arising from having him as a presumptive nominee.
Yet, given the rising credibility of Reade’s allegations, it seems that the only moral course of action would be for the Democratic party to exercise its authority and replace Biden as the nominee. Yes, we face a sensitive situation and a fateful election ahead; and, yes, Trump too has a whole slew of women accusing him of sexual assault.
But Democrats have an opportunity to reject this culture of violence and complacency, and take a bold stance in favour of women’s rights. There will never be a ‘convenient’ time to hold powerful male figures accused of abuse accountable, and one cannot pick and choose when to challenge their impunity and when to give them a pass. Glossing over the testimony of one survivor is equal to silencing them all.
In March, movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years in prison on sex crimes and rape conviction, three years after the first allegations against him were thoroughly listed in the article Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Harassment Accusers for Decades published by The New York Times.
Among the most recent allegations, those coming from former production assistant Mimi Haleyi and actress Jessica Mann were crucial for the conclusion of this trial and for paving the way for a new kind of test in sex crime trials, as claimed by The Washington Post.
While the verdict—which was widely celebrated among those who have followed the #MeToo movement—managed to break through our current COVID-19-related media filter, little attention was given to the pivotal role that Mann’s testimony played in the popular trial and beyond.
During the three-day trial, Jessica Mann described in detail the several occasions in which, throughout the 5 years they have known each other (from 2013 and 2017), Weinstein sexually assaulted her. One of the assaults, which was described to have taken place at the Doubletree Hotel on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, was the main argument for charges of first and third-degree rape in the case against Weinstein. The second main accusation took place in Los Angeles at the Peninsula Beverly Hills hotel. According to Mann’s testimony, on this second occasion, the producer also tried to make a sex film with his phone staged up on a table facing them.
Mann’s testimony was a difficult one to hold accountable, as among the two times she was allegedly raped by the Hollywood producer, they had numerous consensual sexual encounters, both before and after the abuse. Messages and emails Mann sent to Weinstein were presented in court and showcased her praising him for helping her with her career as well as her personal life. By looking at the exchange of content, some of the juries could have argued that the two had a romantic relationship, which was exactly the argument the defence lawyers used to discredit Mann’s allegations. Mann’s story also had several inconsistencies, making her an easy target for the defensors, and more generally a weak testimony for a sexual assault case.
Mann was labelled as an opportunist by many and her account was harshly discredited by Weinstein’s defence attorney Donna Rotunno. This isn’t a treatment kept exclusively for Mann, but is a wide-spread argument used against women who have come forward accusing powerful men of sexual assault.
Having previously been on friendly or romantic terms with the abuser, the state of soberness of the victims, and the time gap between the assault and the accusation are just a few of the several arguments used by both defenders and the public opinion to disprove the victim’s account in order to protect the reputation of someone accused of sexual harassment and sexual abuse. For a long time, when it came to sexual abuse allegations, a widespread misconception made people believe that rapists had to be a stranger, someone outside of the victim’s network.
Prior to this, testimonies such as the one Mann made on Harvey Weinstein’s crimes were rarely considered by the jury, making her braveness and Weinstein’s consequential sentence not only a victory for this case specifically but a hopeful shift in how sexual assault cases are handled.