Why We Shouldn’t Believe Joe Biden

With all the focus on Believe Women, we don’t notice when men are even less credible.

Tara Reade’s claim that Joe Biden sexually assaulted her in 1993 is forcing Democrats to decide whether they are the party that believes women, or the party that believes women when it’s politically expedient. Comparisons are being made to Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations against Brett Kavanaugh in 2018, with Republicans crying hypocrisy and Democrats saying there’s no comparison. But the cases are similar in their strengths and weaknesses — both women’s stories have some inconsistencies, both told their stories to multiple corroborating witnesses, and both allegations came at a time when their alleged attacker is on the cusp of attaining high office, in other words, at a time when an allegation might be perceived as politically motivated.

Of Ms. Ford’s accusation, Biden himself said, “For a woman to come forward in the glaring lights of focus, nationally, you’ve got to start off with the presumption that at least the essence of what she’s talking about is real.”

In an interview on Morning Joe, Mika Brzezinski read Biden’s words back to him, and asked if they should also be applied to Tara Reade. Biden answered that Ms. Reade’s claims should be investigated — although he refuses to allow his Senate documents at the University of Delaware to be searched for a complaint Ms. Reade says she filed — but that in the end “the truth is what matters. And in this case, the truth is the claims are false.”

In other words, Biden is asking the US electorate to take his word for it, pointing in his defense to a lack of evidence. As is the case with many sexual assault allegations, especially those that occurred long ago and weren’t reported until much later, most of the evidence in question is he said, she said. Even if there were an investigation into Ms. Reade’s claim, it wouldn’t yield the smoking gun Democrats would need to force them to oust Biden, throw the Democratic ticket into turmoil, and risk another four years of Trump. Which is not to say that an investigation isn’t warranted. The statute of limitations on Ms. Reade’s claims has expired, and so any investigation would have moral, rather than legal ramifications. It’s not about proving exactly what happened in 1993. It’s about proving to the American public that what happened in 1993 matters.

Democrats are now debating the meaning of the Me Too movement’s call to Believe Women. Skeptics interpret the phrase literally, and point out the obvious problem: if women are to be believed no matter what, we could wind up in a feminist dystopia where a woman’s word is carte blanche to convict. This ignores the reality that, because of the difficulty of proving and securing convictions for sexual assaults, and because accusers are often scrutinized and ridiculed, few victims even report sexual assaults, precisely because they don’t think they’ll be believed. So, Believe Women, or Believe Survivors, is not an attempt to undermine due process, but an attempt to undo a long history of discrediting and dismissing survivors of sexual assault. Put simply, it means “take sexual assault claims seriously.” And yet Believe Women seems to provoke exactly the impulse it was intended to prevent. The more weight we give a woman’s word, the more detractors to want to scrutinize it. And while we home in on the accuser, we forget to ask ourselves, “Why should we believe men?”

Ms. Reade’s detractors point to everything from her support of Bernie Sanders to her once-professed love of Putin as a sign of her ulterior motives. But let’s also take into account Biden’s long history of fabrications. His catalogue of lies includes misrepresentations (getting “arrested” on his way to see Nelson Mandela), post hoc revisions (saying he opposed the Iraq war when he didn’t), plagiarism (both in law school, and in his 1988 primary stump speeches), and downright falsehoods (claiming he marched in the civil rights movement, was the first in his family to attend university, and graduated top of his class in law school). To explain a half-fabricated, half-conflated story about pinning a Silver Star on a Navy captain, Biden echoes his own defense of Christine Blasey Ford, saying that “the essence of the story” was true. That may be fine for a man, but if the 2016 election was any indication, we have a much lower tolerance for women who lie. A woman’s claim of sexual assault can be dismissed over inconsistencies, but a man with a proven record of falsehoods is still somehow fit for the presidency.

Perhaps little has been made of whether or not Biden is telling the truth, because in reference to Ms. Reade, Biden hasn’t offered an alternative version of events. He simply insists again and again that “It never happened.” He didn’t answer Mika Brzezinski’s question as to his relationship with Ms. Reade, speaking only to having no knowledge of a complaint. He said, “I don’t remember” four times, which might suggest that he doesn’t remember Ms. Reade at all.

Many women support Biden in his denial. Ms. Reade says at the time of the alleged assault she filed a complaint to Marianne Baker, Biden’s long time executive assistant. Ms. Baker flatly denies that any claim of inappropriate conduct was made, “not from Ms. Reade, not from anyone,” and that any such claim, “would have left a searing impression on me as a woman professional, and as a manager.”

The alleged assault took place in 1993, the same year marital rape became a crime in all 50 states, and two years after Biden presided over Anita Hill’s testimony before the Senate judiciary committee, where a Republican senator remarked that women’s large breasts were discussed all the time. Biden has been widely criticized, including by Hill herself, for not allowing supporting witnesses to testify on her behalf, for not reigning in Republican senators who maligned and humiliated Hill, by for example, bringing in a doctor to testify to Hill’s erotomania, despite having never met her.

Still, we are asked to believe that Biden’s office was the exception to the sexist rule. Melissa Lefko, Biden’s staff assistant in 1993, said that Mr. Biden’s office was a “very supportive environment for women” adding that, “When you work on the Hill, everyone knows who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, and Biden was a good guy.”

Lefko, who doesn’t remember Tara Reade, is part of a new Me Too reporting trend: the witness who saw nothing. It’s one thing for character witnesses to testify to their own experience, but another to claim that because they didn’t see it, it doesn’t exist. It perpetuates the myth that all sex offenders are blatant and easily spotted. In reality there is no mold for sex offenders. Some are serial offenders, some only target victims they think will capitulate, while others only commit one or two assaults in their lifetime. In fact, research shows that the bad guys themselves don’t know who they are. In anational survey of college-aged men, 131 reported committing an act of sexual aggression that met legal definitions of rape. But only one actually viewed his behavior as rape, while 84% stated that it “definitely was not rape.”

While no one else who worked with Biden in the 90s has come forward, there have been more recent accounts of Biden’s inappropriate behavior. Images and videos of Biden’s touching and hair sniffing abound on the internet — Creepy Uncle Joe is even a meme. It’s easy to laugh it off, but if you actually watch these videos, it’s unsettling. It’s not just kissing and hugging. It’s grabbing young women by the arm and pulling them into him. It’s stroking little girls’ faces. Remarking to boyfriends that they have good taste. Telling young boys their job is to keep the guys away from their sisters, and young girls, “No dating until you’re 30.”

It’s obvious from the repetitive, stock nature of his comments that Biden’s misogyny is meant to be harmless, even charming. Still, his actions convey a lack of regard for women’s bodily autonomy and a tendency to view women and girls in terms of their sexual appeal. Perhaps this does not make Biden a monster, so much as a product of his time. Old-school Joe is part of his brand, supposed to appeal to moderate Democrats weary of political correctness.

It wasn’t until last April, when Lucy Flores and seven others declared publicly that Biden’s touching made them uncomfortable, that Biden acknowledged “the boundaries… have been reset” and promised to be “more mindful and respectful of people’s personal space.” But when asked if he wanted to apologize to the women he offended, Biden said, “I’m sorry I didn’t understand more. I’m not sorry for any of my intentions. I’m not sorry for anything that I have ever done.” Biden later showed how seriously he resolved to change at a union event where, after hugging a man and a young boy, Biden joked, “He gave me permission to touch him.”

In the lead up to his 2020 campaign, Biden issued another non-apology, this time to Anita Hill. In a phone conversation with Hill, he expressed his “regret for what she endured” 28 years ago, but according to Hill, he did not apologize for his own part in it. You can watch him stumbling to not apologize on The View. Hill said, “What I’m still wanting to hear is a full understanding of how as a leader he will hold himself — and then be able to hold others — accountable for this behavior.” But it’s clear Biden is not the person to hold anyone accountable, least of all himself.

The problem isn’t that Biden, at 77, is stubbornly behind the times. It’s that, while he acknowledges other people’s right to be offended, he still doesn’t view his behavior as wrong. He upholds touch as a means of connection. But touch can also be used to convey power and dominance, especially when the touch is from male to female, high status to low. Biden repeatedly points to his good intentions, as if it absolves him of responsibility for how his actions affect people. As Sofie Karasek, a survivor of sexual-assault who felt Biden violated her personal space at the 2016 Oscars, put it, “interactions and friendships are a two-way street … Too often it doesn’t matter how the woman feels about it or they just assume that they’re fine with it.”

Sexual assault, too, is a matter of acting without regard what another person wants. In a sense, it’s a problem of perspective. Numerous studies have shown that sexual assailants often misperceive their victims’ sexual intent, inferring a greater sexual interest than is actually there. And that the more assailants believe women are interested in sex, the more likely they are to justify their actions later. Consider what Ms. Reade alleges Biden said when she didn’t reciprocate: “I thought you liked me.” If we graft our own desires over what other people want, it’s possible to write off our bad acts as well intentioned.

Democrats may be forced into a bad act this November, but let’s not write it off. If we fail to investigate Tara Reade’s claim, we are silencing all survivors of sexual assault. Even if we do believe Tara Reade, we may still vote for Biden, because the alternative is an even more egregious predator. But let’s be clear on where we are and how we got here, forced to choose between the lesser of two rapists. Let’s consider the likelihood that this isn’t the first time it’s happened. The question is, when will it stop?

Maggie is a writer, copy-editor and tutor living in Brooklyn, NY.

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