Taking the stage at the 2016 Oscars to introduce more than 50 survivors of campus sexual assault, then-Vice President Joe Biden received a standing ovation from the star-studded crowd. Smiling at the A-list audience, he joked that he was the “least qualified person here” and urged viewers to “change the culture” around campus sexual assault—an issue he had made his signature cause over the previous five years.
But now, as Biden prepares for a possible presidential run—and as multiple women allege he made them feel uncomfortable—activists say Biden often stumbled in his fight against campus sexual assault. Multiple activists told The Daily Beast that Biden’s approach to sexual violence, while well-intentioned, was shot through with paternalism.
“His language was very gendered about men having to protect women,” said Jasmin Enriquez, an anti-rape activist who attended several of Biden’s “It’s On Us” events. “It was just that benevolent sexism of ‘Men have to be the heroes,’ not ‘Nobody should have to experience sexual violence ever.’”
“It infantilizes women and takes away their level of their own control,” she added later.
Biden became vice president at the beginning of the campus anti-rape movement, which spurred investigations into more than 200 universities for their treatment of survivors. The Obama administration jumped on the problem, issuing new guidelines for campus sexual assault probes and signing a survivors’ bill of rights. Biden served as the public face of many of these reforms, giving speeches, meeting with survivors, and launching a national media campaign to combat sexual assault.
Activists who worked on the issue say they appreciated having such a prominent champion in the White House, and everyone who spoke to The Daily Beast said they felt Biden’s intentions were good. Even Enriquez said that, though Biden was not a poster child for what an ally should look like, he did “use the power that he had available to him to open the White House to conversations about sexual violence.”
But activists also said that Biden’s approach could come off as patronizing. One activist described the politician as having a “save the girls” mentality, which focused more on being a knight in shining armor than a partner in a women-led fight.
“I think that his approach to the issues often feels more like a protective grandfather than an ally working with survivors who are agents in their own right,” said the activist, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her employment. “I don’t doubt that comes from a place of affection and concern, but that is different than looking at women as agents, as equal partners in this fight, or even as people from whom he should be taking the lead.”
Others have called attention to Biden’s tendency to lump together women and children, such as in a recent speech where he recalled his father telling him never to “raise his hand to a woman or a child.” In one of his most famous speeches on campus sexual assault in 2017, Biden focused on the men in the audience, saying it was “our responsibility, men in particular, but all of us, to stop this culture.”
In notes sent to Biden’s office in 2014, Enriquez’s organization pushed back on some of this gendered language, saying that his national anti-rape campaign, It’s On Us, “should be for people as a whole.”
“There could be subtleties that focus on messaging towards men, but the message and brand as a whole has to lend itself to all people, regardless of their gender identity, for them to want to participate,” the leaders of the organization wrote.
Enriquez said Biden’s office responded to that note with a one-sentence thank-you email.
Several other activists told The Daily Beast they were frustrated with aspects of the It’s On Us campaign. Wagatwe Wanjuki, an anti-rape activist who has previously received funding from the organization, said she found it odd that Biden made himself the spokesperson for a movement that was ostensibly about survivors. (The vice president was the only one to speak before sharing the Oscars stage with the 50-plus sexual assault survivors.)
Caroline Heldman, an Occidental College professor and author of a book on the campus anti-rape movement, said Biden could at times seem “dismissive of the expertise of survivor activists.”
“He was not only the savior, he was the knower—the possessor of knowledge in the room about sexual assault, even when he was surrounded by experts on violence,” she said.
In recent weeks, multiple women have claimed that Biden touched them inappropriately at public events. None of them have described the incidents as sexual in nature, but all said it made them uncomfortable. Several anti-rape activists were among those bothered by the touching—a particularly striking experience given Biden’s repeated comments about the importance of consent.
Survivor Caitlyn Caruso told the New York Times that Biden had rested his hand on her thigh during an event on sexual assault at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in 2016. Activist Sofie Karasek wrote in the Washington Post about an “unwelcome, uncomfortable” interaction with Biden at the Oscars, in which Biden leaned in and touched his forehead to hers when she recounted an emotional story. Wanjuki told The Daily Beast about a similar experience at the same event, where she said Biden grabbed her hands backstage without her permission.
“I’m there because I’m a survivor and he knows that,” she said of the experience. “Just to assume that I wanted to be touched felt jarring.”
But the activists said their discomfort went beyond the touching, into the way Biden approached the issue of sexual assault. By painting himself and other men as saviors, they said, he unintentionally took agency away from female survivors.
“I just feel like a paternalistic way of doing it is kind of antithetical to what you stand against,” Wanjuki said. “If you’re actually dealing with the core concepts of rape culture, thinking about protecting women and protecting survivors isn’t going to fix that.”
Other sexual assault activists have come to Biden’s defense. Actress Alyssa Milano, a prominent figure in the #MeToo movement, pointed to his work with It’s On Us and called him a “champion on fighting violence against women.” Some have highlighted his role in passing the landmark 1994 Violence Against Women Act. Another activist present at the 2016 Oscars, Chloe Allred, told The Daily Beast she had a positive experience with Biden and that he was “very warm and caring.”
Biden’s campaign did not respond to several requests for comment.
Even the activists who criticized Biden’s approach said they appreciated his commitment to addressing sexual assault, which is one of the reasons they did not speak up sooner. According to Heldman, “Everyone was so appreciative that he used his power to advance the cause that we overlooked it.”
Zerlina Maxwell, a political commentator who serves on the Biden Foundation advisory council on Violence Against Women, said she thought the former vice president was a strong advocate for women and that his gaffes stemmed from a generational divide. But she also did not think this should shield him from criticism.
“His motivation or his desire to do advocacy on this particular issue... comes from a paternalistic sort of protective headspace: ‘I want to protect women,’” she said. “I think some survivors find that condescending.”
“His intentions are good, but again, we’re not talking about intentions, we’re talking about the impact,” she added.
Biden himself addressed the controversy in a video released Wednesday. Though he stopped short of apologizing for his behavior, Biden acknowledged that times had changed and that he would be “more mindful and respectful of people’s personal space” in the future. During public remarks on Friday, he joked twice about touching attendees with their consent and later told reporters he was “not sorry for anything that I have ever done.”
Biden also angered activists earlier this month when he failed to directly apologize for his treatment of Anita Hill, the law professor who accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during confirmation hearings in 1991. At an event on sexual assault this week, Biden said he regretted that he “could not come up with a way to get [Hill] the kind of hearing she deserved” as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He did not apologize for his own actions.
Kamilah Washington, a sexual assault activist who also attended the 2016 Oscars, said Biden’s failure to apologize to the women he made uncomfortable only made the situation worse. She said men like Biden were often applauded “just for being in the room” in conversations around sexual assault, and said it is crucial that they are now being held to a higher standard.
Of herself and her fellow activists, she added: “There’s a sense that we’re all out for blood and want to ruin people's careers, but usually all people want is acknowledgement and accountability that isn’t blanketed in excuses.”
“It needs to be humbling for people who are being held to account, and I don’t think he’s there,” she said.