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Joe Biden, Rape Culture, and Living in the Dark

It's hard when someone you like, someone you think is a good man or woman, is accused of rape. Our first instinct is to not believe it. That's normal. But that cannot be the end.

A sign reading, "We Will Be Heard" at the 2019 Women's March in Washington, D.C. (Photo: TC Davis/Flickr/cc)

A sign reading, "We Will Be Heard" at the 2019 Women's March in Washington, D.C. (Photo: TC Davis/Flickr/cc)

Rape culture is defined by Oxford as “a society or environment whose prevailing social attitudes have the effect of normalizing or trivializing sexual assault and abuse”. When Judge Aaron Persky sentenced Brock Turner to 6 months in jail (he ended up serving only 3) for raping an unconscious woman, that was an example of rape culture. When the teenage football players who raped a girl in Steubenville, Ohio received more public sympathy than their victim, that was an example of rape culture. When the GOP defended Brett Kavanaugh as he was being accused of sexual assault by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, that was an example of rape culture, too. And when Nancy Pelosi said “Joe Biden is Joe Biden”, despite 8 women having come forward in 2019 with allegations of inappropriate non-consensual touch against him and despite Tara Reade coming forward with a disturbing allegation of digital rape, that, too was an example of rape culture. 

Rape culture holds victims to a higher standard than it does abusers. Rape culture allows us to turn a victim’s life upside down, looking at every tweet, post, public or private statement, for any inconsistencies, even when it has nothing to do with the crime perpetrated against them. Especially when it has nothing to do with that crime. Rape culture does this while making sure we’re never allowed to ask the same things of the alleged perpetrator. We don’t turn their lives upside down. We ask them for a denial, they give it, and then we move on. Nancy Pelosi, in a recent CNN interview, said she was done talking about the Tara Reade allegations. Case closed. Nothing to see here. Move along. Rape culture.

"Rape culture thrives in the dark. It hates the light. It tries to tell victims and future victims that the dark is normal. That the dark is the way it’s always been, and the way it always will be."

In the case of Tara Reade, Joe Biden’s documented history of public lying is never looked at. His fantastic and completely false claim of being arrested in South Africa while visiting Nelson Mandela goes unmentioned by politicians and the media. His years of lies about having been involved in the civil rights movement go unnoticed. We’re not allowed to talk about why he had to drop out of a presidential race because he plagiarized and then lied about it multiple times on the campaign trail. We only seem to have permission to deconstruct his victim, Tara Reade. We question the timing of her disclosure. We say she changed her story. We look for inconsistencies in her claims about filing a complaint after she was sexually harassed while working for then Senator Biden. We share hit pieces on social media which paint her as a “manipulative, deceitful user” because she may have been late on her rent and owed people money. We attempt to look into every nook and cranny of her life, and while doing so, make sure we keep the spotlight off of the man accused of victimizing her. It’s hot under those lights, best we keep them turned on the victim.

In rape culture, we say the alleged perpetrator is a “good man”. That’s what we’re saying about Biden now. He passed the Violence Against Women Act. He was Obama’s VP. Sure, he gets a little handsy sometimes, but he doesn’t mean anything by it. He didn’t mean to offend or harm women when he sniffed their hair, planted long kisses on their heads while touching their waists from behind, touched their thighs or caressed them – all without their consent. Joe Biden is Joe Biden. Move along.

Senator Dianne Feinstein waded into the world of rape culture and victim blaming when she said of Tara Reade, “Where has she been all of these years?”.  Questioning the timing of a victim’s disclosure is the epitome of rape culture. It’s what defense attorneys who represent men accused of sexual assault do. All the time. It’s an uninformed and ignorant way of looking at rape. It’s understandable when it comes from the mouths of lawyers defending rapists, like when it was uttered by Harvey Weinstein’s lawyers – that’s their job. It is completely unacceptable when it comes from a leading Democrat like Feinstein. The Democrats were supposed to be the party of #MeToo. They were supposed to be the party that didn’t defend men credibly accuse of rape. They were supposed to be the opposite of the Republicans, who defended Trump and Kavanaugh. They were supposed to be, but when it comes to rape and sexual assault, they are not.

Rape culture pervades every institution in our society. College campuses are notorious for sweeping rape under the rug. They’ve been called out on it. A young student from a renowned university walked around campus carrying her mattress to remind people that she was raped by another student and that she felt she wasn’t getting justice. She brought her mattress to graduation. Her rapist didn’t have to carry a thing. 

Most victims don’t carry their mattresses around with them. Brock Turner’s victim doesn’t carry the dumpster around that Turner dragged her behind when he raped her. Anita Hill doesn’t carry the Coke can around that Clarence Thomas said someone may have put a pubic hair on. Dr. Blasey Ford doesn’t carry the bed around that Brett Kavanaugh held her down on when he assaulted her. And Tara Reade doesn’t carry the cold wall around that Joe Biden pinned her against when he groped her, kissed her, and penetrated her with his fingers.

But they do. 

I wish I was in the room when Senator Feinstein asked about Tara Reade, “Where has she been all these years?” I would have answered. I would have said:

She’s been carrying around that wall. Trying not to think about it. Trying to go to sleep each night and praying she doesn’t have the nightmares again. She’s been swimming in decades of self-blame and self-doubt, like every other victim of rape. She’s been trying to raise a daughter in a world steeped with rape culture, praying it will be different for her. She’s been painfully going back and forth, for years, about whether to come forward about her rapist. She’s been second guessing her years of silence, like so many other victims do. She’s been harder on herself than you’ll ever be on her. That’s what rape does. It leaves a trauma that stays for years, or for a lifetime. It makes you question yourself. It makes you doubt whether you even deserve to have a voice. And it keeps you silent. For years. For decades. For a lifetime. That’s where she’s been. Where every other rape victim has been. The dark. And your question has one purpose only: to push her back there.

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When victims finally come forward, out of the dark, it can be terrifying. Coming into the light feels scary when you’ve been in the dark for years. It feels unfamiliar. It feels blinding. It feels unsafe.

I was a director of two rape crisis centers in New York. I’ve seen children and adults who’ve lived in the dark and kept their secrets for years finally come forward, finally find their voice. I’ve seen 10 year olds who were raped by their fathers sit on witness stands while the family members of their rapist sit behind him, supporting him, staring her down. I’ve seen women in their fifties come forward, after decades of living in the dark, and finally talk about how they were raped when they were nineteen. I’ve seen men come forward, too, telling their stories of how they were raped in foster homes, or at soccer practice. And I’ve seen the good people I work with, counselors and advocates and attorneys, stand with these victims when they came into the light. So it was less scary. So it felt safer. So they could get used to being in the light and not crawl back into the dark. 

"Victims are still carrying their mattresses, their walls. But we can’t see them. We've pushed them back into the dark. It's safer for us when they're there."

Rape culture thrives in the dark. It hates the light. It tries to tell victims and future victims that the dark is normal. That the dark is the way it’s always been, and the way it always will be. It succeeds in hiding the sun, keeping the light away and changing the subject. It makes excuses for the dark. Joe Biden is Joe Biden. Boys will be boys. Move along. Leave the room. Turn off the light. 

At one rape crisis center where I was a director, there was a thirteen year old girl who was repeatedly sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend. He raped her, then he prostituted her out to his friends, other adult men who also raped her. Unlike most child abusers, he was arrested, tried and found guilty. The day he was sentenced, that thirteen year old girl stayed home from school and took her own life. She didn’t want to spend a lifetime carrying her mattress. She didn’t want to spend a lifetime in the dark. She found her voice, but it was silenced. Her mother still loved the man who raped her daughter. She still had pictures of him around the house. She still referred to him as a “good man”. 

It’s hard when someone you like, someone you think is a good man or woman, is accused of rape. Our first instinct is to not believe it. That’s normal. But when the evidence starts to pile up, when multiple witnesses come forward, as is the case with Tara Reade, saying she told them decades ago about how Joe Biden raped her, it gets harder to not believe it. When Tara’s mother’s voice crosses space and time to ask Larry King in 1993 about a serious problem her daughter was having with a prominent senator, it’s even harder. That’s where rape culture comes in. It gives us an out. Like the mother who said her daughter’s rapist was a “good man”. It makes it easier to move through this world thinking men we like don’t rape, thinking victims are liars. He’s a good man, something must be wrong with her.

And all the while we do this, the victims are still carrying their mattresses, their walls. But we can’t see them. We’ve pushed them back into the dark. It’s safer for us when they’re there. Then we can go back to our denials. Then we can breathe easy.

Joe Biden is Joe Biden. 

He passed the Violence Against Women Act. He’s just a little handsy. He means well. 

Turn off the light.

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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