Violence on the ballot: mediating accountability with a Biden presidency

May 8, 2020

I vividly remember the day the Access Hollywood tape of Donald Trump surfaced. As a then-sixteen-year-old, I watched the coverage in sheer disbelief at the vulgar, objectifying language and privilege perpetrated by a man vying for the highest position of power in our country. However, I remember thinking, retrospectively idealistically, that I was watching the end of Donald Trump’s political prospects.

The lessons learned following the 2016 release of the Access Hollywood tape, which captured President Donald Trump boasting his prerogative to assault women, have been difficult to swallow, but eye opening. I, like every American, watched the tape quickly fade from American consciousness—much like the countless allegations against Trump that followed. In the following months and years, many women and allies in America and around the world have been emboldened to share their experiences of sexual violence, often at the hands of people in positions of power. Yet, despite this progress, our country is bereft of accountability. Cumulatively, all instances of dismissed allegations fuse together to reinforce a strong, relentless cycle of violence that particularly benefits those in power. The individual and community cost of this is immeasurably profound.

However, another central lesson is that the cycle of violence and institutional inaction are not just partisan problems perpetrated only by those with the worst intent in the country. Rather, they have seeped their way into the complicated fabric of our democracy and are normalized within our political system. The truth is, sexual violence is and has been allegedly perpetrated by those in our country who have boasted their advocacy for women. Similarly, even notable advocates sometimes protect perpetrators and dismiss allegations. All around, America rarely supports individuals in their assertions of sexual violence. Tara Reade’s allegations against former Vice President and presumptive 2020 Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is one such example. 

In 2019, in the middle of Biden’s successful primary run for the presidential Democratic nomination, a few women came forward to accuse Biden of inappropriate touching and sexual harassment. Tara Reade was one of these women. A few months later, in 2020, Reade came forward also alleging sexual assault by Joe Biden in 1993, when she served as a staff assistant to his Senate office. When coming forward in March, she also filed a formal report with the Washington D.C. police. Following the allegations against him, Biden’s campaign staff denied all incidents of sexual harassment or sexual assault. On May 1, 2020, Biden himself broke his silence on the sexual assault allegations, also claiming that they “never, never happened.” As he became the apparent Democratic nominee, many of his endorsing Democratic politicians have voiced their belief in and support for Biden, including potential vice presidential picks Stacey Abrams, senator Elizabeth Warren and Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer. Driven by political motives, very few advocates have called for an investigation into the allegations with even fewer outwardly believing Tara Reade.

The tendency to believe the alleged perpetrator over the person allegedly impacted is inconsistent with fact and logic. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, only two to ten percent of sexual assault reports are “false.” Even then, different definitions of sexual assault and police protocols often inflate these percentages. The incongruence between the low rate of false reporting and the low rate at which individuals impacted by violence are believed contributes to a low rate of reporting. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), approximately 23 percent of sexual assaults are reported, with this number even lower among members of the LGBTQIA+ community and women of color. Furthermore, the significant trauma associated with sexual violence and the newfound trauma from society’s dismissal of allegations contribute to even lower rates of reporting. This all demonstrates the necessity of affirmative responses to someone impacted. If an individual impacted by sexual violence makes the personal and often difficult decision to speak about their experiences, we should believe and support them. Generally, those impacted by sexual violence seldom receive this right. Exemplifying this, media erasure, public disinterest and voiced disbelief sought to bury and delegitimize Reade’s allegations. This is made especially enlightening given the impending 2020 presidential election.

Reade’s allegations subject Americans to a difficult conundrum regarding the former Vice President’s candidacy. It is difficult to reconcile the allegations against Biden with the understanding that another term of Trump’s presidency would be disastrous. The conundrum within itself is indicative of the substantial faults in our political processes, but silence and inaction still uphold this corruption.

While it is essential that America elect Joe Biden over Donald Trump, it is detrimental to dismiss the allegations against both men in the process. In doing so, one normalizes instances of violence, silences those who come forward, and enhances the platform of alleged perpetrators. In the moment, this may seem like the only way forward—after all, one can perceive accountability for Biden to be at odds with the greater goal of removing President Trump from office. However, its impact is not minimal. The current dismissal of allegations of sexual violence contributes to and reinforces the alarming rates of sexual violence against women, individuals of other oppressed identities and those who stand at the intersection of these marginalized groups. It is also why Donald Trump, Joe Biden and countless others easily evade accountability or investigations into allegations against them. The overall message in this country is that taking allegations of sexual violence seriously is never convenient enough for structures of power. However well intended, the inability to hold our presidential candidates accountable and to investigate allegations of sexual violence reinforces this message.

The way forward is to challenge the notion that electing Joe Biden necessitates exonerating him. It is easy to favor Joe Biden over Donald Trump but harder not to excuse Biden’s flaws in the process. Any discontent or frustration should not evaporate with the decision to vote for Biden in November. We should outwardly believe Tara Reade and any individual impacted by sexual violence, call in those who do not and demand a fair and transparent investigation from the Democratic National Committee into the allegations. Additionally, we must apply civic pressure to the actions and decisions of a Biden presidency. This includes electing Democratic leaders to the federal legislature to check presidential power and protesting for a diverse Cabinet and for pro-choice Supreme Court nominations. This is not only essential to the fundamental rights and liberties of individuals in the moment, but will also help create a norm of accountability for future sexual violence allegations.

We must also continue to educate others on the allegations against Donald Trump and to fight against the normalization of violence. Accountability for Trump is not and will never be a “lost cause.” Democrats have historically sought accountability for Republicans, and vice versa. As a result, the tendency is to only investigate sexual violence if politically convenient for one’s respective party. However, sexual violence is not a partisan issue. Investigating the allegations against Biden is as essential as investigating the many accusations made against Donald Trump, regardless of where on the party line one is situated. As a result, we must similarly call upon the Republican National Committee and our federal government to investigate the allegations against President Trump. We need bipartisan accountability in order to break the cycle of violence and create a norm of accountability to all perpetrators of violence. Against the forces of media erasure and political convenience, these efforts can honor those impacted by violence while still ensuring democratic progress. We must vow to do better to strip all perpetrators of power, so we are not faced with the conundrum of choosing between them ever again. 

The Prevention, Advocacy & Resource Center’s (PARC) 24/7 hotline is a confidential resource for Brandeis students impacted by sexual violence, dating and domestic violence and stalking. It is in service during the school year and throughout the summer. A professional advocate can be reached at any time by calling 781-736-3370. 

Menu Title