If you’re lucky when you report your sexual assault, you’ll become known as a person who was sexually assaulted. If you’re unlucky, you’ll become known as a person who lied about being sexually assaulted.
It could still go either way for Tara Reade.
In March, Ms. Reade told journalist Katie Halper on Halper’s podcast that she had been sexually assaulted by Joe Biden in 1993, while working in his Senate office. Ms. Reade contends that, sometime in the spring of that year, Mr. Biden forced her against a wall, shoved his hand up her skirt, and forced his fingers into her vagina. Mr. Biden has unequivocally denied Ms. Reade’s allegations.
Since the interview with Ms. Halper, an ad hoc vetting of Ms. Reade’s claims has unfolded in the media. Those who doubt Ms. Reade cite the fact that she has exhibited unusual behavior over the years, such as using several aliases; that she praised Mr. Biden occasionally; that she made different allegations at different times; that her recollection of the alleged incident is spotty in places. Those who believe her point out that reporters were able to locate a 1993 clip of Larry King Live which features Ms. Reade’s mother calling in to ask an attorney who represented whistle-blowers about what her daughter’s options were, after having serious problems with a “prominent senator”; that a then-neighbor of Ms. Reade’s has confirmed she spoke with Ms. Reade about the incident in the mid-1990s; that her brother and friends remember a contemporaneous disclosure as well.
I have my own impressions regarding Ms. Reade’s allegations, but no one — save Ms. Reade and Mr. Biden — knows with certainty whether her claims are true. What I can assert with firm conviction is that Democrats ought to start considering a backup plan for 2020.
Ms. Reade’s account is not nearly as incredible as some have argued. In the course of my reporting, I have worked closely with many survivors of sexual assault. It isn’t unusual, in my experience, for survivors to exhibit behavior that seems unstable or erratic to others. They may initially disclose to investigators or journalists only a fragment of what happened, and then reveal more over time — some even falsely recant, either because they sense the police don’t believe them, or because they fear the consequences of pressing their claims. And victims often maintain relationships with their attackers or harbor mixed feelings about them.
“It’s not at all uncommon for someone to still have positive feelings about aspects of the person who assaulted them, or to admire or respect them,” Scott Berkowitz, the founder and president of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) told me. “With people who work for politicians, there’s usually a strong measure of loyalty or respect in that relationship. So it’s not indicative that someone wasn’t telling the truth.”
Sexual assault is a crime unlike any other, and its hideous uniqueness is often manifest in the ways its victims cope. Cavalier dismissal of Ms. Reade’s story therefore runs the risk of advancing misconceptions about sexual assault and its aftermath.
This is collateral damage that Democrats — who have spent the last few years championing the #MeToo movement — should be loath to incur. Democrats who subject Ms. Reade’s allegations to a level of scrutiny not widely applied to accusers in similar circumstances — such as Christine Blasey-Ford, who famously came forward during the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court to allege that he had sexually accosted her in high school — also open up past and future cases to reproachful disregard. Conservatives, like my colleague Bret Stephens, can see the plain gulf between how Democrats have approached sexual assault in politically advantageous cases versus Ms. Reade’s, and the evident hypocrisy threatens to discredit the entire enterprise.
Liberal thinkers and organizations have begun to realize this, and many have responded accordingly. Feminist author Jessica Valenti has emphasized the import of believing women “even when it’s politically inconvenient,” and Rebecca Traister has observed that the credibility of Ms. Reade’s allegations puts any female politician who might agree to join a Biden ticket in a poisonous bind.
Activist groups like the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, have released statements calling for a more thorough investigation than Mr. Biden’s camp has currently agreed to. While Mr. Biden has called upon the National Archives to release any records related to Ms. Reade’s allegations, he has declined to provide access to a cache of papers relating to his Senate career that are housed at the University of Delaware.
Believing women, that oft-rehearsed exhortation, must mean taking action if it’s to mean anything. A thorough and fully transparent investigation is critical, but nothing produced by any inquiry will entirely settle the question. It is still possible — if not likely — that all of this will simply fade away, and that Mr. Biden will continue his campaign without ever submitting to a full accounting, precisely the sort of thing #MeToo was meant to prevent.
But it is also possible that this won’t just go away, and that it will demoralize voters and place Mr. Biden at a disadvantage against Mr. Trump in the general election, despite the fact that Mr. Trump has a damning list of accusers alleging sexual offenses. For a candidate mainly favored for his presumed electability and the perception of empathy and decency, that’s a serious liability. To preserve the strides made on behalf of victims of sexual assault in the era of #MeToo, and to maximize their chances in November, Democrats need to begin formulating an alternative strategy for 2020 — one that does not include Mr. Biden.
Elizabeth Bruenig (@ebruenig) is an Opinion writer.
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