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The Inconvenient Truth of Rape

Yes, we are in the middle of a contentious primary season and a presidential election with much on the line. And, yes, allegations of sexual assault or rape against the current leader in the Democratic primaries are inconvenient. But rape is even more inconvenient.

"In the age of #MeToo many people still question why survivors waver and hesitate in coming forward with their assaults," writes Zenkus. "Imagine the additional pressure a survivor feels when an abuser holds a position of authority, is well known, and is among the politically powerful." (Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT)

"In the age of #MeToo many people still question why survivors waver and hesitate in coming forward with their assaults," writes Zenkus. "Imagine the additional pressure a survivor feels when an abuser holds a position of authority, is well known, and is among the politically powerful." (Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT)

The recent allegations of rape against Joe Biden have created a firestorm online. The accuser, Tara Reade, spoke with Katie Halper on her podcast last month and described in grim detail how Joe Biden violated her when she was a staffer in his office in 1993. Her story was graphic, detailing how she was digitally penetrated by Mr. Biden as he pinned her up against a wall. 

The response has been sadly partisan, with those who support Joe Biden and want to see him as the eventual nominee of the Democratic Party roundly dismissing Ms. Reade’s charges as baseless and motivated by politics. When Reade came out with part of her story last April, she was doxxed and labeled a Putin supporter, and it’s been pointed out that she now supports Bernie Sanders for President as well. But none of these things should matter. Rape and sexual assault are not violations exclusive to one political party over another. Tara Reade’s story is credible, and the media and political establishment need to hear her. 

As someone who has spent most of his career working with victims of sexual violence and currently teaches about this type of trauma at the university level, I can say that Tara Reade’s story rings true, like so many other stories of sexual assault I have heard throughout my professional career. That she waited so long to tell her full story, only disclosing part of the story last year, has been a criticism of detractors, but this is exactly how so many victims of sexual trauma handle their disclosures. 

The trauma of sexual violence can affect mind, body and soul. A victim’s sense of time and place can be turned upside down. Memories often enter consciousness in pieces, unlike memories of non-traumatic events which are easier to recall fully and in a linear fashion. In the account, Ms. Reade remembered seemingly innocuous details: her legs hurting from walking on the marble floor on her way to meet Biden the day of the assault; wearing a skirt and no stockings because it was hot; the coldness of the wall she was pinned against. 

Reade’s recollection of what was said during the encounter is spotty, with two chilling exceptions. The first: “C’mon, man, I heard you liked me,” Biden’s preemptive suggestion that she was to blame for what was happening to her. The second, simply: “You mean nothing to me.” 

Many people who believed Dr. Blasey Ford when she came forward with her allegations against Brett Kavanaugh are the same people now attempting to dismantle Tara Reade’s story. They only need to turn to Blasey Ford’s testimony before the Senate to understand why Reade’s story should be taken seriously. 

When Senators asked why she couldn’t remember linear details of her account with Kavanaugh, Blasey Ford, a professor of psychology at Palo Alto University and a research psychologist at the Stanford University School of Medicine, explained how the brain responds to trauma, sometimes creating disjointed memories, and how seemingly unimportant details can stand out while other key details may be lost. When Republicans criticized Blasey Ford for taking so long to come forward with her story, Democrats rightly came to her defense, pointing out that victims often take decades to come forward with their stories. Why the same deference is not given to Tara Reade is as perplexing as it is troubling. 

In the sexual violence advocacy community it is well understood that survivors take time to tell their full stories. While I was a director at an advocacy agency, a young girl who was sexually abused by a male relative told police he fondled her above her clothing. Months later she spoke about the penetration. This is typical for victims of trauma. Rarely does the story come out all at once. 

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When Tara Reade joined other women in April of 2019 speaking about Biden’s on-going issue with inappropriate personal boundaries, she spoke about how he put his hands on her and caressed her neck. She did not speak about the most egregious abuse. Response from Biden supporters was swift and condemnatory. All of the women were publicly criticized, their stories dismissed, and their characters attacked. 

In the age of #MeToo many people still question why survivors waver and hesitate in coming forward with their assaults. Imagine the additional pressure a survivor feels when an abuser holds a position of authority, is well known, and is among the politically powerful. 

Despite the veracity with which news outlets jumped on the Blasey-Ford allegations, the media has been slow to acknowledge Reade’s story. Amanda Marcotte, in her March 31 piece in Salon, tries to present a case for the media’s hesitation, but ends up using the excuses of Reade’s detractors to muddy the waters and lessen the impact these allegations should have. Marcotte subtly points out that Reade only worked for Biden “briefly,” as if that’s somehow a factor in likelihood or severity of an assault. She points out that there were no witnesses, which is true; perpetrators rarely violate victims in front of others, although Biden’s personal boundary issues are available in numerous instances for anyone to see. Marcotte claims Reade’s story has “changed over time.” It has not. Details have been included now that Reade wasn’t comfortable including in the past. 

Finally, Marcotte slams Reade for tweeting a post supportive of Russia. Why would this matter? Anyone can get raped, even people who like countries Marcotte and others find distasteful. Questioning from a place of understanding is one thing, feeding into rape-culture narrative is another. It is imperative to understand the difference. 

It is important to understand why the term rape applies here. According to the Department of Justice in their expanded definition of rape, penetration of the body by anything, including fingers or an object, meets the standard. This is what Joe Biden has been accused of. It is serious, and it is disturbing. 

Yes, Tara Reade took decades to tell her whole story to the public. Yes, we are in the middle of a contentious primary season and a presidential election with much on the line. And, yes, allegations of sexual assault or rape against the current leader in the Democratic primaries are inconvenient. But rape is even more inconvenient. I have learned this from the courageous survivors I have known throughout my professional career and in my personal life. It happens when you least expect it. It is intrusive, disruptive and life altering. Survivors do not get to choose when they are violated, but they do get to choose when and how they come forward.

 

Anthony Zenkus

Anthony Zenkus is a licensed social worker and social work educator and trains judges, law enforcement, medical professionals and educators on sexual violence and trauma.  He has worked for more than 30 years in the fields of family violence, sexual violence and trauma. He teaches in the graduate schools of social work at Columbia University and Adelphi University.

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