April 27, 2017

Dear Mr. Biden

Photo of a poster for Sexual Assault Awareness Month
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Dear Mr. Biden,

Yesterday you delivered a speech at George Mason University for which you’ve already received several articles of praise. The occasion for your speech was Sexual Assault Awareness month and the praise you have received was for your speaking directly to men about the basics of sexual consent.

I know the bar is low right now for men in political positions of power to understand the significance of sexual consent. For speaking up against that power, I grant you an extra applause accompanied with a sigh of relief to say: thank you.

And yet, it’s still not enough.

I agree with you insofar as you said that when a woman is drunk she is not able to consent and that this is rape (yes, of course it is). I agree with you insofar as you said that men should stand up to their friends if they see them taking advantage of someone (yes, of course they should). I agree with you insofar as you said that sexual assault is not about sex, it’s about power (yes, yes, yes).

But the understanding you demonstrated in these earlier words was diminished by something you said later to the male listeners: “And if you can’t get her to say yes because she wants to, you ain’t much.”

It would take me more than a 400-word blog post to describe all the ways that this comment manifests misunderstanding about sexual assault, toxic masculinity, and the larger problems of patriarchy, but I will limit myself to three concerns:

First, your comment is based on an archaic understanding of gender identity and sexual relationships. Sexual courting is not a unidirectional act anymore. True and valid consent occurs when two adults both consent, not when a man finally gets a woman to say yes.

Second, your words portray consent as something that a man “gets” based on his performance. In fact, consent is not a prize to be won based on a demonstration of one’s “masculinity.” Consent is not something that one person wins at all. Yet, what you have said—“if you can’t get her to say yes”—issues a challenge to men: if they were smarter, sexier, (ahem) more convincing, then the woman would of course say yes.

Finally, what you say suggests that the woman in question would only say “no” because the man “ain’t much.” There are numerous reasons women would say no in a sexual situation, many of which have nothing to do with the worthiness of the person petitioning them. Your words do not encourage men to respect the logically and emotionally complex decisions of women. Instead, you suggest that women are impressionable if men are good enough.

I started this post by saying thank you, and I meant that. For much of what you said, thank you. Still, I really hope that next time you speak on sexual assault and consent, as your involvement with It’s on Us will certainly lead you to do, you will deepen your understanding of the issue. There’s always April 2018.

Sincerely,

A Fellow Observer of Sexual Assault Awareness Month
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