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The Depressing Future of the #MeToo Movement

The radical promise of “Believe Women” has been an unintended casualty of the quickly fading Biden sexual misconduct controversy.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Unless some other major allegation or piece of confirming evidence comes out—which it could well do—it feels as if Joe Biden has successfully weathered the sexual harassment and assault accusations leveled against him by former aide Tara Reade. Democrats offered scant indication throughout the past few months that they’d be willing to choose another nominee. The party’s most prominent women (and vice presidential contenders) made the rounds, dutifully reporting that Biden performed well during a Morning Joe appearance in which he denied the allegations, and groups like Emily’s List, NARAL, and Time’s Up issued press releases thanking Biden for so forthrightly committing himself to the message that he didn’t do what was alleged. Time’s Up, in particular, praised Biden for addressing “the allegation against him with the seriousness it deserves, something that the current president has never done.” The key takeaway was that style, not substance, mattered the most. As long as Biden deployed the right tone—avoiding Brett Kavanaugh’s petulant whine or Trump’s bullying dismissiveness—we can all get on with electing him president. 

It’s almost as if there wasn’t an actual accusation at the center of this worth discussing, just an incidental plot device in the grander narrative. As Susan Matthews wrote this week, even if Joe Biden was forceful in denying the allegations, he wasn’t “convincing.” But Biden’s campaign knows perfectly well that he didn’t need to be convincing. He simply needed to say that he didn’t do it, loudly and clearly, like speaking into a robot phone menu to reach an actual human being at the cable company. He needs to do just enough for liberal groups and politicians to say that he has taken it seriously and responded. It doesn’t matter very much what he actually said: His composed rhetorical demeanor means more than the substance. The memory of Kavanaugh’s dyspeptic rage and privileged fury here provides a comforting illusion that we would see right through a real rapist’s attempt to slip on the mask of the Good Male Ally. It sure will be interesting when the next Brett Kavanaugh swallows his pride and calmly follows the Biden playbook.

In a recent column for The New York Times, Michelle Goldberg ponders what she considers to be the essential concern from this whole episode: that the #MeToo movement now “threatens to become a way to handicap one political faction in the middle of a partisan free-for-all.” The piece leans heavily on the notion that Reade is less credible than Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford. The anguish about squaring #MeToo and feminism at large with the accusations against Joe Biden is real, but it’s the ultimate answer, not the anguish, that tells you which is more important. Goldberg’s piece is a nice example of how the great fear for liberals who are desperate to feel comfortable pulling the lever for Joe Biden in November is not that they might be supporting a sexual assaulter (against another such candidate) but that their preferred candidate might be taken down by the very standards they so recently championed when it was politically convenient. The real problem is not that the #MeToo movement threatens Joe Biden—clearly, it doesn’t and won’tbut that the accusations against him have unraveled the fantasy that the better future #MeToo promised to provide women was possible.

It is increasingly clear that Tara Reade’s claim that she experienced harassment at Joe Biden’s Senate office is well-grounded and that if we Believe Women, we have no good reason to discard it out of hand. There is the newly surfaced document, from Reade’s divorce proceedings in 1996, that stated that Reade told her husband about “a problem she was having at work regarding sexual harassment, in U.S. Senator Joe Biden’s office.” The document also said it “was obvious that this event had a very traumatic effect on (Reade), and that she is still sensitive and effected [sic] by it today.” And there is the video of Reade’s mother calling in to Larry King Live, asking a question about her daughter having a “problem” in a Senate office, and what she could do other than go to the press. (It is perfectly plausible that such problems might involve sexual harassment and that an older woman in 1993 wouldn’t want to specify that on national television.)

There is also the evidence, both in testimony and in video form, that Biden has a habit of touching women in inappropriate ways. There are seven other women who have said Biden touched, kissed, or sniffed them in a way that made them feel uncomfortable. As the late Alexander Cockburn warned in a 2008 piece, Biden shared “vanity” with his Senate colleagues as the most “conspicuous characteristic” of their collective personalities. This vanity, he noted, often “expressed” itself “in loutish sexual advances to staffers, interns,” and similar women found throughout the halls of power. “On more than one occasion,” Cockburn warned, his colleagues documented “vivid accounts by the recipient of just such advances, this staffer of another senator being accosted by Biden in the well of the senate in the weeks immediately following his first wife’s fatal car accident.”

The strong case for Reade’s claim that Biden harassed her is complicated by the fact that she made a second claim of assault—that Biden pinned her against a wall and penetrated her with his fingers—and that her account of this incident has shifted over time. Vox reporter Laura McGann wrote a piece detailing her interactions with Reade, saying Reade had “told me that she wanted me to think of this story as being about abuse of power, ‘but not sexual misconduct.’” 

A friend of Reade’s who had “counseled her through her time in Biden’s office in 1992 and 1993” told McGann in 2019: “On the scale of other things we heard, and I feel ashamed, but it wasn’t that bad. [Biden] never tried to kiss her directly. He never went for one of those touches. It was one of those, ‘sorry you took it that way.’ I know that is very hard to explain.” The friend went on to note to McGann: “What was creepy was that it was always in front of people.”

Reade also wrote in an essay that she shared with McGann: “This is not a story about sexual misconduct; it is a story about abuse of power.” So what we have is evidence that Reade herself didn’t think of it as a story of sexual misconduct—hard, but not impossible, to square with the assault story—and a friend who she talked to at the time told a reporter that she squarely did not describe assault. 

On the other hand, Lynda LaCasse, a neighbor of Reade’s, claims that the former aide did, in fact, detail an assault to her in 1995 or 1996. Reade has explained that she didn’t disclose the assault when she first talked to reporters in 2019 out of fear that those reporters’ motivations weren’t genuine. Of course, McGann disputes that in terms of her personal interactions with Reade.*

Regardless, it seems fair to say that the prospect of sharing an assault accusation, especially of a major presidential candidate, is daunting. For those women who came forward in years past to bring their accusations of powerful Hollywood luminaries to light, this difficulty was acknowledged, and sympathy for their situation was easily conjured. Tara Reade was never afforded the same line of credit.

This is where the tension in the notion that the #MeToo movement has empowered a different sort of future for women starts to form its knot. As McGann wrote, those formative prosecutions of the #MeToo era “usually include not just consistent corroboration but oftentimes multiple stories, stacked on top of each other,” and a “herculean” journalistic effort. This is true. Another way to look at it is that a man who rapes only one woman has a pretty good chance of getting away with it; or that a man must rape multiple women for it to ultimately matter, as if each woman is a fraction of a human. Those women then must find one another and, locking arms, take the plunge together.

Reade’s accusation of assault made a far bigger impact and created an entirely different category of story than her previous account of experiencing harassment. Her harassment accusation was bundled in with several others and ignored; Biden weathered that story with a short video posted online that didn’t include an apology. Her assault accusation was, briefly, deemed too serious to let pass—that is, until Biden denied it again, and everyone agreed that he had Taken It Seriously. The lesson for women from all this: If you are raped, you better have evidence of it, proceed immediately with forensic precision to document your case, and be willing to share your pain over and over in hostile settings. If you aren’t raped but merely harassed—merely pushed out of your job because your boss doesn’t like that you complained about his treatment of you—that’s very sad for you, but it isn’t enough to derail a man’s career. At the very least, it depends on the man.

It’s important to think clearly about what standards have been applied to previous cases, both in the #MeToo era and before, when assessing Tara Reade’s allegations. What kind of evidence is acceptable? What is enough? Are we being fair to Tara Reade and to Joe Biden?

The sad fact about being a woman is that men have the upper hand in this situation. Statistically, he probably can rape you and get away with it. He can corner you in a dark room at a party, or in a hallway in the Senate, and as long as no one sees, it’s your word against his. He can take things too far at the end of a date. He can wear you down until you give up resisting, or if he likes, he might be able to just physically overcome you; you are probably physically weaker than him, and he can simply grab and push and invade in a way you might not be able to stop. Depending on the kind of acts he commits, you might be able to go to the police, get a rape kit, and be armed with physical evidence that you were raped. You might be able to file a complaint with your college. 

But a thousand things stand in the way of that process, like incompetent police departments and the mental anguish of reporting your rape. And if he merely stuck his hand down your top or up your skirt, there’s likely not going to be physical evidence to bolster your claim, leaving you with little option other than “reporting” it to hostile bureaucratic mechanisms and hoping that your having attempted to document the matter in this fashion might lend credibility later down the line. (It goes without saying that those bureaucracies were even more hostile in 1993 than they are today.)

This difficulty is why “contemporaneous reporting” can stand in as evidence. In 2013, I was sitting by myself in the U Street Metro station, late on a Friday or Saturday night, when a man sat next to me and started talking to me. I was 23, wearing jeans and a raincoat, and had my headphones in. I don’t remember what he said at first, but I think I offered one- or two-word answers, enough to reveal my British accent, which immediately gave him more ammunition to continue a conversation. (I really must learn how to do an American accent.) He said that I was being rude to him with my terse answers; I said I wasn’t, and that my dialect often landed in the ears of Americans as sarcasm. 

After a minute, he said something like, “Alright, I see you’re not going to be nice to me, so good night, and don’t be so stingy with your pussy when you’re in America.” It was designed to be a frightening and intimidating reminder that my worth as a woman is tied entirely to how freely I offer up my sexuality to a man who wants it. He walked off to another part of the platform. We got on the same train. I was terrified the whole walk home. What if he followed me, still angry that I had spurned him? 

I have no “documentation” of this incident. (It goes without saying that I am lucky that it wasn’t worse than harassment.) I never learned his name, and I couldn’t provide descriptions of those other people on the station platform who may have witnessed what happened. There’s no video of the encounter or audio of the conversation. I immediately texted a friend about it—creating the sort of contemporaneous record that has been held in high regard in sexual harassment or assault allegations during the #MeToo era.

This is the sum of what I’d be able to provide in terms of “documentation” of the encounter. Perhaps this is sufficient in a claim against a random straphanger; had this been an encounter with Joe Biden or Brett Kavanaugh, however, it seems likely that I’d face an impossible mountain to climb. It’s worth noting, of course, that the contemporaneous-record standard is one neither Tara Reade nor Christine Blasey Ford managed to meet: Reade had her neighbor Lynda LaCasse’s recollections of being told about the alleged incident, but not for two years after the incident; Ford didn’t tell anyone about the “specific details” until 2012, when she described her encounter during couples’ counseling. 

Anyone who has thought about sexual assault for more than 15 seconds can probably figure out that “documentation” of assaults is hard to come by. Yet Michelle Goldberg, among dozens of others making similar points, lamented that the “original #MeToo stories were carefully and meticulously documented,” unlike Tara Reade’s. But the compelling nature of the accusations against Harvey Weinstein weren’t a product of particularly riveting documents or evidence: It was that there were dozens of them and that Weinstein’s behavior had been an open secret in Hollywood for some time. 

It was similarly the case that Bill Cosby’s accusers didn’t succeed on the strength of their documented evidence. The major break in that case was a damning bit of evidence that Cosby himself provided by accident—his free admission in his 2005 deposition that he had made a habit of keeping himself well stocked with Quaaludes to surreptitiously slip to women with whom he wanted to have sex. Even this confession, a piece of “documentation” that Cosby desperately tried to get thrown out of evidence was, on its own, insufficient. Justice prevailed only because a multitude of accusers, previously unknown to one another, finally came together against their tormentor. 

If we expect “careful and meticulous documentation” from every woman who has been raped, every poor girl who gets felt up or attacked by her boyfriend, we might as well just give up: Men have won. 

Perhaps, as McGann gestured toward, this is the real lesson of the #MeToo era: Not that women have power to report their accusers, but that they largely don’t. It also seems clear that the promises made by the organizations and institutions that supposedly championed the cause, such as Time’s Up, were illusory at best. One of Joe Biden’s top advisers, Anita Dunn, also offered Harvey Weinstein “damage control advice,” according to BuzzFeed News. How on earth could you even begin to think the #MeToo movement mattered at all when, in the end, the powerful will always move more swiftly to safeguard one another? If the lesson Joe Biden took from #MeToo’s ministrations was that he needed to address his accuser “seriously” and ensure she was “heard,” have we advanced the cause of women in the workplace or merely taught Anita Dunn a few new strategies for her clients to deploy against them?

Another lesson that the #MeToo era was supposed to have imparted is that we should consider the many costs associated with simply reporting incidents of harassment and sexual violence. Reade says her duties were reassigned after complaining about Biden; her interns at the time say they remember her abruptly being removed from supervising them. If Reade is telling the truth, it seems very likely that her career and life trajectory were completely changed by this experience; that without harassment from Biden, she could be just another respectable Washington professional. She could even be writing press releases for Time’s Up. When the #MeToo movement hit its heights, there was general agreement among those inclined to support it that one of the tragic consequences of harassment was that it pushed women out of industries like entertainment, media, and politics. This seems to have happened to Reade, yet the same sympathy has yet to be extended. 

This gets to the question of the credibility of accusers: Perhaps Tara Reade isn’t the sort of polished Washington professional that the SKDKnickerbockers of the world can get behind precisely because she was pushed out of Washington in 1993. During the Kavanaugh nomination, there was a notion floated that Ford was the “perfect” accuser. As articulated by Senator Dianne Feinstein, Ford was educated and had degrees; she was a recognizable member of the professional class. She played by the rules and tried to proceed in a respectable way. She reached out to The Washington Post and her senator—the same Dianne Feinstein, who sat on the accusations. The depressing feeling was that if Ford couldn’t be believed, who could be?

And Ford was not believed, at least not in the way that mattered: Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court, where he will remain until he dies peacefully at 150 years old. But it seems that people took the wrong lesson from this—that what makes a “perfect victim” is all the superficial trappings; that “perfection” was a function of having the right education, the right connections, a polished look, and a willingness to play the game the right way by engaging the right gatekeepers (to whom you’d need to have access). Perfect victimhood, then, cannot possibly accrue to a woman who tells her story on an edgy podcast, or who lacks the right college credentials, or who once wrote some weird tweets or blog posts about Putin. 

None of these things, of course, have any direct relationship to the substance of a sexual assault allegation. But as we leave Reade’s story behind, we take with us the sad knowledge that these things do, in fact, matter to the powerful institutions that have laid claim to being the defenders of women. The implications going forward are as depressing as they are staggering. There are all sorts of women out there—women who suffer from mental illness, woman with petty criminal records, women who have been fired from jobs. These dents in the armor of perfect victimhood now loom large.

If there was any sort of evidence that Reade’s allegation is some sort of Putin-funded, Republican, or Bernie Bro plot to take down Joe Biden—which, as it would need to have been hatched decades ago, is an idea as zany as birtherism—it might be perfectly reasonable for liberals to freak out about the standards championed by the #MeToo movement being used against innocent Democrats, or that a fake accusation against a candidate could upend an election. This is the sort of thing conservatives bring up when feminists advocate for justice for assault victims: the specter of the lying woman who makes a false accusation for fun or profit. And yet no one has ever managed to account for all this fun, all these profits. Reade says she has been the recipient of death threats. The woman at the heart of the fabricated Rolling Stone rape story is neither rich nor famous in a way anyone would envy. 

Perhaps what we have learned most from this latest development in the saga of the #MeToo movement—that is, watching what happens when prominent men are accused of assault—is that the powerful sway of partisanship is deterministic in how, and by whom, accusers are judged. In defense of their candidate, Democrats and liberals in the media will trot out the same arguments made against Christine Ford by Republicans. Partisanship is the hottest forge of hypocrisy, and allegations of sexual assault appear to be no exception. 

In a Monmouth poll taken this week, a majority of Democrats say the accusation is probably not true—though a third of voters who say it is true say they would still vote for Biden—and 50 percent of Republicans say it probably is. Most Republican women did not believe Ford, even though it’s beyond doubt, statistically, that many of those women will have been survivors of assault themselves. In a poll taken around the time of the Kavanaugh confirmation slog, 81 percent of Democrats said they would “definitely not vote for” a candidate “accused of sexual harassment by multiple people.” 

Ultimately, the numbers tell a grim story that few will want to believe is true. Perhaps after Kavanaugh, liberals wanted to believe that the Democratic Party was the one of believing women and the Republican Party was one of ignoring them. In reality, though it’s inarguable that the Republican Party gives women less credit, there simply aren’t that many people on either side who would put the larger goals of their partisan “team” at risk for the sake of bringing a member of that team to justice for sexual misconduct, at least when there’s enough ambiguity to give them an out. This is a hard lesson to learn, but we must learn it.

There was a time we talked about Believing Women. We thanked women for sharing their powerful experiences. We witnessed tears and sorrow and rage. Many of those women will vote for Biden, perhaps weighing Trump as a worse option. It’s possible that their faith in Biden will be redeemed. The same, however, cannot be said for our faith in the #MeToo movement. “Believe Women” was not a promise we could expect feminist institutions to keep. We need to reckon with this reality. If our generosity and sympathy for victims only extends to certain women, in certain instances, then we should have never pretended that we had made any progress at all. Michelle Goldberg said she suspects that “whatever happens in this campaign, the credibility of the movement will suffer.” If it does, it is not the fault of Tara Reade. It is because that credibility was a fiction from the beginning.  

* This piece originally said McGann’s interactions with Reade called motivations into dispute.