Over the course of about two weeks in late March and early April, Tara Reade went public with a new allegation of sexual misconduct against Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders suspended his presidential campaign, and Biden became the Democratic party’s presumptive nominee.
As the party swiftly lined up behind Biden, there was little discussion of Reade’s accusation, in which she alleges that Biden pushed her up against a wall, kissed her, and penetrated her with his fingers when she served as a Senate staffer in his office in 1993. Biden’s campaign denied the allegation, telling the New York Times, in a story that was published 19 days after Reade came forward, that the former vice president has dedicated his career to “changing the culture and the laws around violence against women.”
Reade’s recent allegation arrives almost exactly a year after she and seven other women spoke out about instances of unwanted physical contact from Biden, which included touches on the back, kisses on the head, and forehead-to-forehead touching. (The Biden campaign did not return VICE’s request for comment.)
These accusations are just one reason for the lack of enthusiasm that has loomed over Biden’s candidacy from the start. But now that the former Vice President is the party’s only hope of defeating Donald Trump, many liberals have pivoted to the mantra “vote blue no matter who,” a plea to voters to support whatever Democrat is on the ballot in the general election.
So far, this line isn’t working on survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, many of whom feel that, by making Biden the nominee, the Democratic Party is leaving them with an impossible choice. Some may vote for Biden begrudgingly in November, but others have given up on electoral politics altogether—the Democrats’ response to the allegations against Biden (or, according to them, the lack of a response) has crystallized their decision to turn their backs on a two-party system they say has time and time again allowed survivors to be collateral damage in the pursuit of political gain.
“I don’t think Biden, his campaign, or the party at large has any understanding of how detrimental the reports of misconduct against him are,” said Sage Carson, who does advocacy work for victims of sexual assault, and who is a survivor of assault herself. “Democrats don’t want to deal with violence when it’s in their own backyard.”
Red flags started going up for survivors when, last April, Biden followed up his apology to those who accused him of violating their boundaries with a joke. Just two days after Biden tweeted out a video promising to “do better,” he made an event appearance during which time he greeted the woman who introduced him with a hug: “I just want you to know I had permission to hug Lonnie,” Biden deadpanned to the crowd.
“I was really surprised to see him making light of these stories,” Ally Coll, one of the women who has accused Biden of inappropriate touching, told VICE at the time. “There’s a responsibility on our leaders at this moment to try to understand the experiences of people who have been historically discriminated against, especially in the workplace. Joking about those experiences does not demonstrate that to me.”
In the year that’s followed, survivors say Biden has done little to demonstrate that his understanding of gendered power dynamics has evolved. Instead, they see him using accomplishments like the 1994 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which he helped push through as a senator, and the survivor advocacy initiative he spearheaded as Vice President as a shield to fend off allegations and criticism. So too have some of Biden’s surrogates: Senator Kirsten Gillibrand—known for leading the calls for former Senator Al Franken’s resignation—said on Tuesday that the allegations against Biden are different from those leveled against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh because “Vice President Biden has a strong record of fighting for women in his life.” (As of this writing, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the only prominent Democrat to publicly state that it is “legitimate” to talk about the allegations against Biden. Silencing any discussion of them, she said, amounts to “ a form of gaslighting.”)
“You can do all of those things and still cause harm and not believe survivors,” said Clarissa Brooks, a writer and survivor advocate, referring to Biden's record of advocating for survivors. “And then you can run for president and never have to answer for any of them because of that cloud of philanthropy and advocacy.”
More frustrating for Brooks, however, is the idea that it’s incumbent on survivors to vote for Biden despite their discomfort, and the suggestion that if they don’t, they’re effectively casting a vote for Trump instead. She plans to vote for neither, though she said she’ll vote in the down-ballot races in Georgia, where she’s based.
“I really don’t have any interest in voting ‘blue no matter who,’ and I think that rhetoric puts the onus on voters and not on the system,” Brooks said.
There’s also the emerging narrative that Biden’s alleged transgressions aren’t nearly as bad as Trump’s, which include accusations of sexual harassment and assault by more than two dozen women. The author and commentator Reza Aslan recently wrote on Twitter that voters have to come to terms with where the “bar” is for a Democratic nominee: “Vote for the non sociopathic, non racist, non serial rapist who won’t kill us all.” Some argued that the Times similarly asked readers to compare the allegations against Biden to those against Trump when they included in their Reade story a paragraph dedicated to Trump’s reported misdeeds. The women who accused the president, Times reporters Lisa Lerer and Sydney Ember wrote, “described a pattern of behavior that went far beyond the accusations against Mr. Biden.”
Survivors say Reade’s allegation—and the many other accusations that preceded it—don’t need to be “worse” than those against Trump for them to matter. Suggesting otherwise, they say, invites voters to rank people’s traumas.
“My hope when I’m voting for an elected official is that I’m not just choosing the one who’s raped and assaulted fewer people. I’m looking for someone who is not harming anyone.”
“I think it’s dangerous logic to get into, where we’re ranking the harm survivors have endured,” said Jaslin Kaur, a survivor and immigrants rights organizer based in Washington, D.C. “It puts us in a position where survivors will internalize that ranking system and think that if we weren’t raped or physically assaulted then it doesn’t matter.”
Kaur said she can’t in good faith vote for Biden, given the allegations that have been made against him. It’s not a “protest vote,” she insisted—it’s a demand that the Democratic Party demonstrate a concern for survivors, and a rejection of a politics that would have survivors settling for “the lesser of two evils.”
Carson couldn’t say how she plans to vote in November—and though she wasn’t speaking on its behalf, she’s associated with a nonprofit organization that does not endorse candidates. Nonetheless, she’s disappointed with the options that she’s left with, especially when the Democratic field had once offered voters so many opportunities to nominate a candidate who doesn’t face the sorts of accusations Biden faces now.
When Carson casts her ballot, she’ll see the names of two alleged abusers at the top of her ticket.
“I’ve seen a lot of folks saying that Biden would have to commit so many more acts of violence before he’s as bad as Trump,” Carson said. “My hope when I’m voting for an elected official is that I’m not just choosing the one who’s raped and assaulted fewer people. I’m looking for someone who is not harming anyone.”
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