For the second time in two national elections, a man who has been credibly accused of sexual assault has won his party’s nomination for president and will most likely win the election. When Donald Trump was inaugurated, millions mobilized to the Women’s Marches to register their disgust at the new head of state. Simultaneously, the #MeToo movement surged, upending mainstream ideology about gender-based violence and finally holding high profile abusers to account for their behavior. The forward momentum in confronting sexual violence seems to have come to a halt in the case of Tara Reade.
Understanding this situation means taking a hard look at what happens when a movement for bodily autonomy is subordinated to partisan electoral politics. While Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) spoke to the pervasive sexism carried out by powerful men in her beautiful and brilliant takedown of Republican Representative Ted Yoho, there is a deafening silence in regards to the allegations against Democrat Joe Biden. Many of the most progressive figures, left institutions and organizations are giving Biden cover. You would never know he stands accused of sexual assault by following the mainstream conversation about the election.
This silence has put the #MeToo movement on the brink of co-optation by the liberal establishment. New contingencies are being placed on whether survivors are deserving of support based upon party affiliation and relative power within that party. Defending the hard-won advances of the #MeToo movement means rejecting these contingencies, and defending Tara Reade. For a sexual assault movement to have meaning, it must remain squarely and unapologetically in solidarity with those who face sexual violence, regardless of the circumstances.
#MeToo risks being defanged, but that doesn’t mean the sentiment and desire to organize as survivors, and in solidarity with survivors, has gone away. Networks across the country continue to organize, drawing awareness to gender-based violence and organizing to strengthen the fight against it. The socialist movement should take up the task of helping develop a left response to sexual violence at this impasse. If we do not maintain a principled position against sexual harassment and assault, staking out ground independent of the Democrats, socialists risk being seen as seperate and apart from the ongoing radicalization against gender-based violence. Instead, socialist organizations like DSA should be the natural political home for that sentiment.
The Case of Joe Biden and Tara Reade
The facts of this case have been so distorted, that it is necessary to start by recounting Tara Reade’s story.
In 1993, Reade was a staff assistant to then-Senator Joe Biden. Reade describes that while in the Senator’s office, Biden pinned her against a wall, forcibly kissed her and reached under her clothes, penetrating her against her will. Shortly after the assault, Reade filed a complaint and Biden’s office terminated her employment. She was never able to get a job on Capitol Hill again.
This case has more corroborating evidence than most sexual violence accusations. At the time of the assault, Reade confided in her neighbor, a coworker, her mother, who then called into the Larry King show about the assault, and her ex-husband, who referenced the assault in a court document during divorce proceedings. Reade also filed a complaint with Senate personnel, but any pertinent documents are being held by the University of Delaware and have yet to be released. Though she spoke to people close to her, Tara Reade chose not to go public with her complaint at the time of the attack.
Reade decided to speak about the details of her experience in an interview with Katie Helper in March of 2020 when it became clear that Biden was likely to be the Democratic Presidential nominee.
She had reason to believe she’d be taken seriously following the explosion of the #MeToo movement. Three years earlier, the movement took on more than 200 powerful men, often costing them their high power jobs, and in a few cases even forcing criminal charges. From actresses, to farm workers, to professional athletes, the question of sexual harassment and assault carried out by elite, rich men on people they had power over, has expanded the growing awareness of gendered sexual violence in society.
#MeToo also reached Capitol Hill, exposing institutionally-enabled sexual assault in politics. A survey of Congressional staff found that 1 in 6 employees had experienced sexual harassment. In 2017, several members of Congress resigned after numerous women came forward with accounts of sexual misconduct. Representative John Conyers, Senator Al Franken, Representative Patrick Meehan are just a few of the many elected representatives who vacated their offices, with dozens of other political hopefuls ending their campaigns amidst accounts of their behavior.
Tara Reade’s case has been treated completely differently. In January 2020, Reade contacted the Time’s Up Defense Fund for support against online harassment she was facing, knowing that she would need lawyers and public relations assistance to get her story out effectively. Yet rather than rally to her defense, Time’s Up refused to assist her, asserting that because Biden was a candidate for federal office, it was a partisan political issue and their 501(c)(3) status prevented them from working on this case. Contrast this to 2018, when Times Up organized a national walk-out in solidarity with Dr. Christine Blasey Ford against Brett Kavanaugh. Reade later discovered that Time’s Up’s public relations firm is led by Anita Dunn, a top strategist for the Biden campaign.
Joe Biden’s team launched a PR defense plan in response to Reade’s accusation. They produced talking points that instructed supporters to deny the incident ever occurred and to praise him as a staunch supporter of women’s rights. They also had surrogates offer apologetics for him.
As Reade’s claim remained unacknowledged by Biden himself, women’s rights advocates and activists drafted a letter praising the candidate’s support of survivors politically, but calling on him to address the serious charge. The letter never went public; instead the organizers were brought into discussion with Biden’s aids to help the campaign press for accountability before the end of April, Sexual Assault Awarness Month.
When Joe Biden finally acknowledged the accusations during an NPR interview in May, it was only to deny them, saying: “This never happened.”
After months of inaction and dismissal, Reade commented, “I think I’m a poster child as to why women won’t come forward…it’s pretty obvious if you did have a story, it would be pretty daunting wouldn’t it?” Reade’s isolation sends a signal to survivors at every level of society that they too could be abandoned. This is the impact of a partisan #MeToo politics.
#MeToo Between Cooptation and Continued Relevance
Nominating a man who has been accused of inappropriate touching by seven women and sexual assault by another is a dramatic re-reversal of social standards. From Steubenville, to Weinstein, to Cosby, the contradiction of how the movement against sexual assault finally rose to prominance by upending engrained myths and centering survivors stories (instead of the questioning of their stories) has been palpably set back. The pressure that exists to silence Tara Reade in order to get rid of Trump means that the movement makes a trade-off, limiting its own power in order to support a candidate who does not represent its basic tenets. This can only weaken the fight against sexual assault.
If we look back to the support Dr. Blasey Ford received compared to Reade, it’s evident that feminists have failed the test of being able to stand up to the Democratic Party when sexual assault rears its head at an inopportune moment. Certainly the fear of Donald Trump, the disgust, and the unleashing of reactionary terror that he oversees is a big factor. But why is it a given that Biden has to be the candidate to defeat Trump? We have seen first hand what the Democratic National Committee is capable of when they want something done, for example, the coordinated effort to eliminate Sanders from the race to assure Biden’s victory in the Democratic primary. It stands to reason that the Democratic Party could marshall its forces to find a replacement for Biden if they actually took sexual assault seriously. That this is seen as an impossible proposition, and that Democratic politicians political careers are bound up with being a team player alongside Biden, speaks to the limitations of a sexual assault movement that sees the Democratic Party as its most important ally.
It seems that #MeToo, as a force, has been brought into the Democratic Party’s strategy of subsuming criticism of Biden in order to defeat Trump. This does not mean that the issues underlying the viral explosion of the movement have gone away, nor that sexual assault has been solved. On the contrary, spontaneous uprisings against sexual assault are an international phenomenon and have proven explosive – they are part and parcel of a rising class struggle, and are interwoven into the larger social crisis.
The issue of sexual violence has been explosive, and also radicalizing. It brings survivors face to face with the limitations of the state and the system as it currently stands. However many men have been brought down by the movement, still, the Supreme Court, the President, and the administrations of universities and other institutions are all part of a system that stands in the way of justice for survivors. The existing protocols for responding to allegations are routinely retraumatizing for many survivors of assault, serving as disincentives against coming forward. While the mainstream liberal feminist movement concludes that the solution can be found by reporting to the police and letting justice be served through official channels, survivors have little confidence in the criminal justice system to protect them. It is estimated that 3 of 4 sexual assault cases go unreported in the United States. Of those reported, only 4.6% result in a conviction. These statistics only scratch the surface of a system that routinely fails survivors.
There are other reasons for survivors to be skeptical that going to the police is a good option. Brett Hankison, the officer who killed Breonna Taylor, has unaddressed sexual assault allegations against him. In New York, two officers raped 18-year-old Anna Chambers while she was in their custody and served no jail time. These are only two examples that inform a growing distrust of the police and call into question whether the “justice system” can ever really be a viable vehicle to those hoping to find recourse after a sexual assault.
This points to the connection between sexual assault and the ongoing uprising against police violence. Indeed, the issue of gendered sexual violence cannot be seperated from the Black Lives Matter uprising. The politics of sexual violence are also politics of race and racism, and historically have manifested as such. When this movement rises again, it will be with the experience of the anti-racist rebellion we are living through that has implicitly exposed the limitations of the liberal solutions to combating oppression. Training, body cameras and electing more Black politicians have not stopped the epidemic of police violence. Changes made at the policy and police training level have likewise not stopped sexual violence or made it any easier for survivors to find avenues for seeking justice.
The conditions and the consciousness brought to the fore by the uptick in struggle around #MeToo persists and is in development. It is up to activists and the left to defend the main tenets of the movement, refusing to allow people who come forward to be persecuted. Rallying in defense of survivors makes an immediate difference to Tara Reade as well as the millions of people who will question whether they will be believed if they come forward with their stories.
DSA and Survivors Organizing
Here, I want to address my experience with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), advocating as a member that we take a principled position and extend solidarity to Tara Reade. I focus on DSA as the largest socialist organization in the United States with power to influence left and even national discourse, and because it is an organization that is wholly independent of the Biden campaign and will not be endorsing him. Since 2016, DSA has grown rapidly into an organization of tens-of-thousands of young people. It is an organization that has enormous opportunities, but meeting those opportunities means staking out positions on which the socialist left can establish itself as an independent force.
What is becoming more and more clear is that there is a struggle inside DSA about how much partisan elections drive our own positions. In 2018, DSA called an entire week of action in solidarity with Dr. Christine Blasey Ford in response to the confirmation hearings of Republican Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Yet DSA has said nothing publicly in support of Tara Reade, nor organized anything nationally for her cause.
Thinking this was an important position for DSA to take, Socialist Survivors, an ad hoc group of DSA socialist feminists that I am part of, attempted to persuade the National Political Committee (NPC) to make a supportive statement in May. The statement was not accepted by the body, so instead, socialist feminists turned the proposed language into a public petition demanding that Biden leave the race and calling on DSA-endorsed candidates to rescind their endorsements of Biden. We asked the NPC to distribute our petition to the membership, which they did two months later. We also called on them to support our petition as a body, a decision which they deferred to the National Electoral Committee, the body that oversees DSA’s electoral work, worrying that a statement could have negative ramifications for DSA’s relationships with Democratic Party politicians. We never received a response from them on how this was resolved, and the national leadership has not signed on.
This highlights a pressure on sections of the organization to refrain from taking a strong position against Biden, despite our clear non-endorsement position. One explanation I have heard is that we must preserve DSA’s relationships with elected officials like AOC, who have endorsed Biden. Either way, the result was a strategic choice to not take a principled position on gender-based violence because it did not serve electoral considerations.
And yet, DSA members’ capacity for national coordination of work that breaks free of the electoral framework is greater than that of its national leadership. The Socialist Survivors petition is currently signed by thirteen DSA Socialist Feminist Groups and thirty DSA Chapters. Even now, when avoiding another four years of Trump means supporting Biden this election, DSA Chapters continue to sign on to the demand that Biden step down as the Democratic presidential nominee due to his sexual assault allegations. It has been truly confirming to see so many chapters vote to stand with survivors – every chapter that has made time in membership meetings to debate signing on has voted to do so, unanimously in most cases. This effort has put organizers in touch with others across the country who feel the urgency even if it remains an uphill battle for the time being. Plans are underway for national webinar discussions and organizing meetings to continue as the Democratic National Convention approaches and after.
DSA could be seen as an organization that fights for survivors, sending a signal to all the dispersed #MeToo sentiment that it wants to be an organizational home for those who are not willing to compromise their principles on the question of sexual assault. This would allow us to reach new audiences who would play an active role in strengthening the socialist left with the politics of anti-gender violence – something that socialist organizations also struggle to get right internally. If we were an organization that survivors felt more proud to build, it could develop our organization’s understanding of sexual violence, as well as prepare us to participate in and help advance future struggles against it.
It seems completely upside-down that the organization relies on the people closest to the electoral work to decide on questions like this. Yet DSA often adapts to the existing political discussion instead of differentiating itself by taking left-wing positions that liberal forces will not take up. In taking an unapologetic stance, DSA could send a message to survivors everywhere that there are organizations that have their backs, strengthening the currently dispersed fight against gender-based oppression and the socialisist left along with it.
Gender-based violence will continue to be a touchpoint of a generational radicalization against capitalism because it permeates every institution, organization, workplace and school. It is so interwoven into this world that it is hard to imagine extinguishing it. In navigating the world after a sexual assault, survivors come up against systemic barriers to justice, an experience that contradicts the liberal framework that claims we all have equal access to order and justice under the law. The reality is that state institutions are deeply biased, and rather than mediating oppression, they reproduce it.
To resist the ongoing liberal absorption of the movement against sexual assault, we need a left strategy. An organized left-wing of the feminist movement must be developed that takes a principled, radical position against sexual violence, at all its intersections. Socialist Survivors put out our open letter to urge the socialist left to help advance this goal. DSA will not be able to do this so long as we subsume our work to the electoral arena of a two-party system. While electoral work is an important piece of socialist strategy, it should be a vehicle for projecting our positions, not for determining them. After all, elected candidates do not transform the balance of class forces, struggle at the workplace and uprisings against oppression like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter do. Being guided by what positions will help DSA’s relationships to elected representatives or towards winning elections, will not allow us to participate in and give rapid support to movement struggles against oppression as they rise. Oppression does not follow an electoral calendar.
In the meantime, Tara Reade has been thrown under the bus by some of the very people who should have her back. She has been bullied and buried for having the nerve to tell her story, and yet, she will continue her fight for justice. This case is about credible accusations leveled against one of the most powerful men on earth, which means it gets to the heart of the structural problem of sexual violence.
“I have lost everything: my job, my housing and my reputation. I have been called every vile name imaginable & presented as a monster by the media for daring to speak about Joe Biden and what happened in 1993. I have lost all that & more but I am free.”
Tara Reade, 2020
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Natalia Tylim is on the Steering Committee of the Tempest Collective.