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Joe Biden was a champion of campus sexual assault reform. Now the movement doesn't know what to do.

What do you do when one of your strongest supporters turns out to be part of the problem?

by Carter Sherman
Apr 10 2019, 6:11pm

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For years, Joe Biden spoke forcefully about the need to fight sexual violence on college campuses. He gave a speech at the Oscars. He wrote an open letter condemning a famous university’s sexual assault case. He held a female student as she cried, and kissed her on the forehead.

But over the last two weeks, seven women have come forward to say that Biden touched them, often without their permission, in ways that made them feel uncomfortable. And now, activists in the fight against sexual violence on college campus are facing a White House-sized question: What do you do when one of your strongest supporters turns out to be part of the problem?

“I think it puts them in a very difficult position, politically,” said Carrie Baker, a Smith College professor and author of “The Women's Movement Against Sexual Harassment.” “They’re already dealing with a politically hostile environment. And you have to count your allies, and you have to balance critiquing your allies to fighting your enemies.”

Biden has long framed himself as an champion of women, particularly through his work with the It’s On Us campaign, an Obama-era White House initiative that aims to raise national awareness about the ubiquity of campus sexual assault and to support survivors. As of Wednesday, Biden’s face remains plastered on the campaign’s website.

“I can’t thank him or love him enough for those policy positions and his advocacy,” said Caroline Heldman, an Occidental College professor who’s written a book called “The New Campus Anti-Rape Movement.” “But he has definitely worked against his purported values and the advancement of women when he routinely engages in invasive and unwanted touch.”

"It’s just so shocking, based on his previous work."

Touching a sexual assault survivor without consent, as Biden has been accused of doing, can plunge them into reliving the trauma of the assault. And activists who spoke with VICE News were often particularly appalled that Biden, a man immersed in the campus sexual assault reform movement, failed to grasp that people might have felt unable to say no to him, as the vice president of the United States.

At a campus event a few years ago, shortly after sharing her story of being sexually assaulted, then-student Caitlyn Caruso felt Biden rest his hand on her thigh, she told the New York Times. In another instance, Sofie Karasek met Joe Biden after the two appeared onstage at the Oscars among a group of sexual assault survivors. When they spoke afterward, she shared an emotional story with him, and he pressed his forehead to hers.

“As women, we become conditioned to men encroaching on our personal space, and so we brush it off,” Karasek wrote in a Washington Post article about the encounter. “That’s what I did at the Oscars — I silenced the voice that whispered that my discomfort mattered.”

Biden has not explicitly denied these stories, though he has said he doesn't believe he acted inappropriately. He also has not apologized for what he did. “Social norms have begun to change. They’ve shifted, and the boundaries of protected personal space have been reset,” he said in a video posted to Twitter last week. “And I get it. I get it. I hear what they’re saying. I understand it. And I’ll be much more mindful. That’s my responsibility.”

Two days later, during his first public remarks since the scandal broke, Biden joked about having permission to hug someone who appeared with him on stage.

“CONTINUUM OF MISCONDUCT”

Like the rest of the country, anti-assault activists are still trying to weigh Biden’s behavior and to evaluate its harm and its consequences. A well-intentioned, powerful man touching a woman without permission is not the same as raping her. But those kinds of actions do live on the “continuum of misconduct” as Kristen Houser, chief public affairs officer for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, called it.

“We’ve had the #MeToo movement really helping over the past year and half, of exposing this full continuum, and it did a great job of exposing the continuum of harassment misconduct and assault,” she said. “But we forgot that those things are built on entitlement.”

VICE News reached out to the 28 colleges and universities listed as “Campus Innovation Schools” on the It’s On Us website — the anti-campus sexual assault initiative that Biden serves as a face of — as well as 13 schools that had held activities for the It’s On Us campaign’s 2019 Spring Week of Action last week. Of those that still participated in the program and responded to VICE News, three said there had been no change to their affiliation with It’s On Us. Six declined to comment or give an interview.

“There’s a lot of good coming out of this program that I’ve seen, aside from anything that’s been said about the former vice president,” said Jennifer Wilson, associate director of communications at State University of New York College (SUNY) at Cortland.

The school’s It’s On Us chapter held numerous activities during the Spring Week of Action; last April, Biden presented one of its students, who was shot while stopping a sexual assault, with a Biden Courage Award in a ceremony hosted by It’s On Us and the Biden Foundation.

“Now, I would hate to see it go away,” Wilson said of the It’s On Us program, which SUNY-Cortland does not anticipate changing.

None of the women who’ve said that Biden made them uncomfortable classified his touch as sexual harassment or assault. (Lucy Flores, the first woman to come forward, did say his actions would be considered inappropriate in a workplace though.)

“It’s inappropriate behavior. It’s not illegal behavior,” Heldman said of Biden’s touching. Had Biden been accused of a crime, she said, people and institutions would have had a much harder time trying to defend his behavior.

“Definitely all kinds of touch, even like non-sexual touch, can be used power over someone,” added Lee LaDue, who works for the Gender Violence Prevention Program at St. Cloud State University and helps advise the school’s chapter of It’s On Us. “When we live in a world where men’s touch has often been used to control women and maintain a misogynist system, all of us — but particularly men — need to be aware of that.”

Those subtleties can already be hard to grasp, even when Democrats aren’t desperately trying to field a candidate who can beat Donald Trump — a man accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women — in the 2020 presidential election. LaDue worries that people might look at what’s happening to Biden and decide the #MeToo movement has gone too far.

“They go, ‘Oh my god, when it’s gonna stop?’ And they stop taking it all seriously. And that’s not gonna help the movement,” she said. While LaDue doesn’t want to minimize the harm Biden might have caused, she’s also not sure his actions deserve the national spotlight.

“If we just fall into it, I’m sorry, but we’re going to end up with men like Mike Pence, who won’t go out to lunch with a woman without his wife,” she said.

“I don’t think people know how to feel about it at this point, because it’s just so shocking, based on his previous work,” said Kaitlin Reese, a freshman at Assumption College and anti-assault activist who’s worked with her local chapter of It’s On Us. She was once elated at the idea of a Biden candidacy.

“With these allegations, I can’t say that I will vote for him anymore,” Reese said.

“Based on the allegations, I think it is the right thing for It’s On Us to not partner with Biden,” she went on. “If they were to support Biden and partner with him, I think It’s On Us would be going against its message, and I think that is very harmful for survivors and allies.”

Biden and the It’s On Us campaign might’ve helped lend visibility to the nationwide campus sexual assault movement, but women and people of color have long led efforts to curb sexual violence. That day-to-day work will continue, advocates assured VICE News.

“Frankly, we could look at this [and say], ‘Oh, gosh, is it gonna damage the progress?’” Houser said. “But I would rather say, ‘What a great opportunity to have such a public example of why the concept of asking for consent all along the way is so important and in all of our intersections.’”

Emma Ockerman contributed reporting.

Cover image: Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers construction and maintenance conference in Washington, Friday, April 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)