Survivors face a nauseating new twist on the usual lesser evilism. If the 2020 election offers little else, it should at least provide the space for both candidates’ victims to be heard.
What type of democracy could consider this a fair choice?
Trump infamously bragged about his abusive hobby of “automatically” attacking women in a conversation that was recorded and widely heard before he captured the presidency. But lesser known than Trump’s twenty-five accusers of sexual assaults spanning decades are the eight people who have come forward to recount sexual misconduct Joe Biden inflicted on them.
The media has relentlessly identified Biden as a democratic frontrunner instead of the as candidate most often accused of inappropriate touching. This refusal to acknowledge his record has done a running disservice to the bravery of Lucy Flores, Amy Lappos, Caitlyn Carruso, D.J. Hill, Vail Kohnert-Yount, and Sofie Karasek in reporting the vice president’s eerily consistent creepy behavior.
Their courage is so important because their complaints detail harassment and assault that Biden has sought to normalize and write off. As he launched his presidential campaign in 2019, Biden reassured no one with a video statement saying, “not once—never—did I believe I acted inappropriately.” He offered no apology, but acknowledged his regret that some people misinterpreted his intentions.
Squeezing thighs and kissing without consent only appear to be innocuous acts when viewed from the perspective of the attacker. The complainants all describe feeling objectified, belittled, bewildered, and mortified in ways they recognized as so inappropriate and unwelcome that they deserved to be addressed.
Instead Biden took to The View to nonapologize again and to prevaricate on his role presiding over the Senate Judicial Committee hearings that confirmed Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas despite Anita Hill’s allegations of Thomas’s sexual harassment. Among the ways Biden helped stack the hearings against Hill was his decision not to allow testimony from Thomas’s other accusers. In both his personal and professional conduct, Biden insists he is a champion for women’s rights, if only so many women would stop coming forward to tell the truth.
Biden’s cozy, victim-blaming banter on The View prompted Tara Reade to come forward first with her story of being harassed by Biden and later to describe a 1993 assault he committed against her that meets the justice department’s definition of rape.
Reade filed formal criminal charges after overcoming the usual public ridicule, conspiratorial counteraccusations, and death threats that accusers of high profile men encounter. Even TimesUp declined to support her allegations, possibly because of that organization’s ties to Biden campaign strategist Anita Dunn. Now, the other women’s stories reenter the media in a different light. The newfound news attention begs the question: how debilitating does an assault have to be before we are allowed to consider the survivor’s perspective as relevant and credible as the attacker’s?
Of course, the news doesn’t necessarily sympathize with Reade or Biden’s many other complainants. The New York Times compiled a convenient list of Biden friends and colleagues willing to deny any knowledge of the assault. But Reade described it at the time to her own friends who strangely do remember the story. By the time Biden physically attacked her, Reade had already complained to her superiors about Biden’s sexual harassment, and they had responded with inaction or frustration that she was not more flattered by his attention. The fact the same sycophants now balk at “one of the good guys” being maligned by the assault allegation says far more about their credibility than Reade’s.
Lesser Rape is of course a well-known tool in the denialist arsenal. When Dr. Christine Blasey Ford threatened Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court, Lindsey Graham lashed out with fury at the implication that the Yale darling could have committed the same type of offense as Bill Cosby, who had just been convicted of sexual assault. Graham and his fellow republicans could comfortably chalk up a wealthy white boy’s assault, cut short because Blasey Ford was able to get away, to drunken shenanigans. And then, perhaps, the mistake might just as easily have belonged to Blasey Ford’s memory or perception.
Meanwhile, in a matter of days, Cosby shed decades of protection from public disparagement as not only a beloved celebrity but a prominent voice in the conservative politics of personal responsibility. Years before his conviction Cosby acknowledged drugging women in order to access their bodies. He simply didn’t consider that to be sexual assault. His reasoning echoes Trump’s self-exoneration. But unlike Trump, Cosby’s standing could be irreversibly shattered on the racist mythologies that socially construct believable victims and abominable villains.
For his part, Joe Biden knows what trope to trot out. He affects the out-of-touch old man whose string of assaults arise accidentally from his wholesome commitment to “making human connections” through his wandering hands. This well-worn defense is the flip-side to the horror many people feel in the face of widespread sexual harassment and violence that projects aggression as a biological bias of all cis men. But there’s nothing natural or necessary about either Biden’s sexist misconduct or his theft of the party’s nomination.
Remember a distant lifetime ago when Biden suffered a damning defeat in the first primary contest of the 2020 election? When it came time in Iowa’s caucuses for actual humans to come into the same rooms, the Biden base that had been pronounced everywhere in the press just couldn’t be found. The Democratic Party establishment responded with uncamouflaged collusion, from the synchronized capitulations of Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar to the punditry’s unfounded but omnipresent claims about electability, promoting Biden as the beneficiary of their Anybody But Sanders campaign.
This entirely engineered situation presumes people will show up to support a pro-war, anti-Black, incoherent lech against the terror and destruction of the Trump administration. The politics of lesser evilism always drag in their wake an unspeakable hierarchy of harms. They imply that we must put aside solidarity with Syrians or Salvadorans, that we should cap our concerns over climate change and postpone our pleas for a rational health care system. Successive rounds of such concessions helped deliver an election in which the greater evil finds “very fine people” among the fascists who marched in Charlottesville, beating DeAndre Harris and murdering Heather Heyer.
But for sexual violence survivors, turning out to support a credibly accused abuser means setting aside our own reality as survivors. The harms survivors are asked to downplay and disavow are so aggressively normalized that just believing ourselves and being believed mark the front lines of our millions-strong battle in the #MeToo movement.
If this election, like every other presidential election, is again the most important election of our lifetimes, we cannot allow that to mean that the fight against sexual violence gets shoved back into the shadows. We need to recognize this lack of choice is a fucking fire alarm calling us to organize by whatever means necessary to set the limits of the possible ablaze.
Rachel Cohen organizes with Chicago Feminist Action