When Meraiya Otero Turner was a teenager, she was more excited to turn 18 than 21. Legally drinking would be cool, but what she really wanted to be able to do was vote. Now, at 23, the Florida teaching assistant isn’t sure she’ll be casting a ballot at all in this presidential election.
“I never pictured myself feeling so apathetic,” Turner said, “but at this point I feel so lost.”
Turner, a survivor of sexual assault who identifies as a Democrat, said she would never consider voting for President Donald Trump. But she has found herself increasingly conflicted about how to wield her power at the ballot box now that former Vice President Joe Biden has emerged as the presumptive Democratic nominee.
In March, former Senate aide Tara Reade accused Biden of assaulting her in 1993. This allegation came about a year after Reade and seven other women publicly said that Biden had touched them in ways that made them feel “uncomfortable.” At the time, Biden publicly vowed to “be much more mindful” of women’s “personal space.” His campaign has denied Reade’s more recent assault allegation. A subsequent New York Times investigation could not corroborate Reade’s assault allegation with Biden staffers at the time and found “no pattern of sexual misconduct.”
However, many survivors of sexual violence — who also care deeply about getting Trump out of office in November — are taking the allegations seriously. They are grappling with what it means to cast a vote for a man accused by one woman of sexual assault in order to prevent a man who has faced upward of 60 allegations of sexual assault and misconduct from becoming president again, and wondering why these are the choices left after a campaign season that began with the most diverse slate of candidates in U.S. history.
“How can I vote for a man who may have possibly made another woman suffer the same life-draining pain I’ve suffered since I was assaulted?” Turner said. “Voting this year makes me feel like I’m having to trade my sanity to support [an alleged assailant], or to not vote and help Trump win.”
HuffPost spoke with 15 survivors of sexual assault about Reade’s allegation and how it affected their view of Biden’s candidacy. Almost all found Reade’s account highly credible. Some plan to vote for Biden nonetheless because they see him as the lesser of two evils and worry about the damage Trump would do with another four years in the White House. Others are more reticent to line up behind the presumptive Democratic nominee and say they plan to sit out the election. Some of these survivors said any allegation of sexual assault ought to be disqualifying.
Regardless of how ― or if ― they choose to vote, every survivor was dismayed at how Democratic Party leaders had minimized Reade’s allegation. Many said that the whole episode was emblematic of how the political system ― including the Democratic Party ― dismisses the concerns of survivors, sending them a clear message: You don’t matter.
Two Uneven Track Records
Trump’s track record as a womanizer was well-documented long before he became president. But it wasn’t until he began his campaign in 2015 that many people really took note of his past degrading comments about women and the growing sexual misconduct accusations against him.
There was the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape, published a month before the 2016 election, in which he bragged about grabbing women “by the pussy.” And then there are the allegations of sexual misconduct. Before he was elected president, 20 women had accused Trump of misconduct, ranging from sexual harassment to assault and rape. Since then, 45 more allegations have been publicly reported against him.
The president and his administration have repeatedly denied all of the accusations, and Trump has made a habit of smearing his accusers’ character and publicly attacking their credibility.
Trump’s misogynistic ideologies are also reflected in his policies. After taking office in 2017, Trump reinstated and expanded the global gag rule, a controversial policy that cuts off U.S. funding to any international organizations offering abortion care services. Trump appointed Betsy DeVos as education secretary, and she single-handedly rolled back sexual assault survivors’ rights on college campuses across the country. Most recently, Trump nominated and then backed now-Supreme Court judge Brett Kavanaugh despite an allegation of sexual assault against him.
It truly feels like I have to sell out part of my soul to appease the other. Shannon G., 26, Oregon
In contrast, Biden had maintained a somewhat positive reputation among survivor advocates. The former vice president notably drafted the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 and, in 2014, launched It’s On Us, an organization combatting sexual assault on college campuses, with President Barack Obama.
Over the years, though, Biden has been widely criticized for how he handled Anita Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas during Thomas’ controversial 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Biden, the then-chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has been castigated for not doing enough to ensure Hill’s allegations were given full consideration.
Last year, eight women came forward to accuse Biden of inappropriate touching. Last month, Reade, one of those eight, accused him of more than inappropriate touching: she alleged that in 1993 Biden kissed her and penetrated her with his fingers without her consent. Reade said she pushed Biden off of her and he allegedly became annoyed and said: “Come on, man! I heard you liked me.”
Biden’s deputy campaign manager denied the accusation, telling HuffPost: “Women have a right to tell their story, and reporters have an obligation to rigorously vet those claims. We encourage them to do so, because these accusations are false.”
When reached for further comment, a spokesperson for the Biden campaign referred HuffPost to the statement it gave The New York Times last week.
“Vice President Biden has dedicated his public life to changing the culture and the laws around violence against women,” spokesperson Kate Bedingfield told the outlet. “He authored and fought for the passage and reauthorization of the landmark Violence Against Women Act. He firmly believes that women have a right to be heard — and heard respectfully. Such claims should also be diligently reviewed by an independent press. What is clear about this claim: It is untrue. This absolutely did not happen.”
‘I’m Just So Angry That We Are Left With This Choice’
Anger, exhaustion and grief were front and center in every HuffPost conversation with sexual assault survivors. Some are still considering begrudgingly voting for Biden. Others said they simply can’t vote for someone accused of perpetrating the same violence they’ve struggled to heal from for so long. All agreed that the choice between Biden and Trump makes them feel as if their stories and their trauma are irrelevant.
“I am just so angry that we are left with this choice — that the United States is in many ways still so complacent and so willing to overlook sexual violence that we are left to choose between Joe Biden and Donald Trump,” said Madi Bell, a survivor and social worker who originally supported Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “It’s so painful that allegations of sexual misconduct are seldom taken seriously and hardly ever disqualifying.”
Reade’s allegation against Biden was not initially front-page news as the coronavirus pandemic dominated news cycles and, some survivors suspected, left-leaning media organizations were hesitant to cover the charge. When it was finally covered, many readers, politicians and pundits began questioning Reade’s story.
“When the main talking points focus on the credibility of the accuser(s) rather than the actions of the accused individual, survivors feel invalidated,” Dr. Laura Wilson, associate professor of psychological science at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia, told HuffPost. The dialogue around a story like this, Wilson said, can be very triggering for survivors and bring up old trauma.
“That can have far-reaching consequences for their mental health and recovery,” she added. “It can increase emotional distress by making survivors feel angry, sad or isolated. It can silence them and make them less likely to talk about what happened to them.”
Bell, who works as a victim advocate at a university in Boston, acknowledged that some parts of Reade’s account are confusing. But she is adamant that that doesn’t mean the country should sweep her story under the rug. “There are no ‘perfect victims,’ and what I would do or what others would do in Ms. Reade’s shoes is, ultimately, not relevant,” she said. “Trauma is messy. Survival is messy.”
Many survivors told HuffPost that they feel as though Democratic Party leaders, who loudly supported the Me Too movement as it emerged in 2017, have largely been silent about the allegations against Biden. While the media coverage and political attention has not been as widespread as it might have been if the world was not in the throes of a pandemic, a few political leaders have commented on Reade’s accusation.
Former presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) both commented on the accusation last week, reiterating that all women have the right to be heard, including Reade. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), who has publicly discussed being a survivor of sexual assault, said she also believes women should be able to tell their stories.
“I think that it is important that these allegations are vetted, from the media to beyond. And I think that it is something that no one takes lightly,” said Whitmer, who has been mentioned as a potential Biden running mate. “But it is also something that is personal. And so it’s hard to give you greater insight than that, not knowing more about the situation.”
The general silence from party leaders on the accusation, however, has made many feel as if they’ve been lied to. Now, they feel the party has fully abandoned them for political gain.
“These allegations have exposed, to me, that not only does [Biden] not espouse these beliefs, but the Democratic Party does not either. Not only did they turn a blind eye to Biden’s purported behavior, they actively enabled him,” a 23-year-old Latina survivor from Colorado, who asked to remain anonymous, told HuffPost.
“How can I trust them? Is it truly too stringent of a purity test to demand that no candidate be accused of assault?” she continued. “Call me crazy, but I think one assault should be disqualifying. Neither of these men should be president. And if that means I’m dead to Democrats, then maybe they never saw my humanity to begin with.”
Call me crazy, but I think one assault should be disqualifying... And if that means I’m dead to Democrats, then maybe they never saw my humanity to begin with. Anonymous survivor, 23, Colorado
Women, and survivors in particular, are left in a lose-lose situation, feminist columnist Jessica Valenti told HuffPost. Sexual misconduct allegations are usually murky for a multitude of reasons — late-reporting, how trauma impacts the brain, rape culture’s effect on who we choose to believe — but Reade’s credibility is not necessarily what Valenti is worried about.
“What I’m more concerned about is the way that the allegations are being weaponized by bad-faith actors who have never cared about sexual assault before, and on the other side how women who believe Reade are being called Trump-enablers,” she said. “We can’t win either way.”
Many survivors said they hope that by creating space to be angry and grieve the loss of a better candidate, they will be able to make the right decision for them in the ballot box. Others have already decided they won’t vote come November.
“Someone who [allegedly] abuses their power in public, on the systemic level, is bound to do so in private, on the interpersonal level,” a transgender survivor, who asked to remain anonymous, told HuffPost. “I know enough now to recognize both as inexcusable, and I refuse to be complicit.”
Survivor Shannon G., who asked that her full last name not be used and who supported Warren and then Sanders, said the allegations against Biden feel “like a gut punch.” But she said she will reluctantly vote for him.
“Voting for an accused man is not something I take lightly,” she said. “It truly feels like I have to sell out part of my soul to appease the other.”
Even if Biden and Trump share a track record of being accused of sexual assault, a vote for Biden will be better for women, those who have survived assaults, and other vulnerable groups, several survivors said.
“Four more years of Trump would do more damage to more people than a Biden presidency,” said Eliza Winfree, a survivor from Tennessee. “It feels like I’m betraying myself to do the most good I can for the most people, but I believe in voting with empathy for those who are being disenfranchised by this administration.”
How To Move Forward
Survivors say that to move forward and earn their votes, leading Democrats and surrogates will have to allow the space for voters to voice their disappointments, anger and concerns, as well as reckon with the larger systemic inequities that plague both parties.
As Valenti put it to HuffPost: “We had such an incredibly diverse slate of possible nominees, but we ended up with the most moderate, old white man in the game.” Valenti, who was an ardent Warren supporter, said she views the outcome of the Democratic primary depressing, but also not totally surprising, given how entrenched racism and sexism imbue U.S. culture.
“Trump’s election was absolutely driven by a racist backlash to President Obama and misogyny,” she said, “and Democrats aren’t immune to that kind of bias, either.”
To confront that bias will require Democrats to listen to survivors instead of dismissing their concerns or reticence to cast a vote for Biden. Turner told HuffPost that seeing posts from prominent left-wing Twitter personalities like Dr. Eugene Gu — who, as The Verge reported last year, was himself accused of abuse — calling Democrats who were undecided on Biden “trolls who want to continue fighting because they love conflict and smears” has made her feel even more alienated from the party and even more hopeless about our culture as a whole.
“I know my reasons [for being uncertain about voting for Biden] are valid and I’m not a troll, so if Democrats want to erase my viewpoint and vilify me, they can erase my vote too,” Turner said.
One step advocates say the Biden campaign can take to avoid making these “holdouts” feel vilified is to engage in an open and honest dialogue about sexual violence and misconduct — and to put forth ambitious policies that would address what survivors and advocates see as failings in the justice system.
On his campaign website, Biden has outlined plans to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, “expand the safety net for survivors,” “confront online harassment, abuse and stalking,” “end the rape kit backlog,” address the “deadly combination of guns and domestic violence,” “change the culture that enables sexual violence,” “protect and empower immigrant women,” and “lead the global effort to end gender-based violence.”
What is at stake is bigger than me and my trauma, and the lesser of two evils may mean the difference of life and death for some. Claire Cumberland, 34, Indiana
“Biden shouldn’t be afraid to have this conversation. In fact, he should embrace the opportunity he has to shape this debate and to shape the way people think about these issues and ultimately save lives,” said Shaunna Thomas, co-founder and executive director of women’s advocacy organization Ultraviolet. “We’re asking him to make clear how his actions as the potential leader of this country are going to change the way we talk about and respond to sexual assault. He’s got to make clear what his administration will do.”
Casey, a 27-year-old Democrat from Iowa who backed Warren and asked that HuffPost not use her full name, echoed Thomas’ sentiments. She said Biden’s vice-presidential pick would be a “good start,” especially if he chose a progressive woman of color.
Biden has publicly committed to picking a woman as his running mate, and along with Whitmer, others who have been floated as possible choices include Klobuchar, Warren, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams (D-Ga.).
But Casey also stressed that Biden would have to do more than just surround himself with women and people of color.
“We deserve a commitment toward addressing sexual abuse, domestic violence, and a whole host of other issues that disproportionately affect women and non-binary people.” Casey said, “And we know we are not going to get that commitment from Donald Trump, so we just have to hope we get it from Joe Biden.”
Some survivors also stressed that they hoped people would be able to acknowledge the very real political and policy differences between Biden and Trump, despite the trauma that voting for any alleged abuser may spur. Several told HuffPost that this election would simply mean putting aside their personal pain for the greater good.
Elizabeth Sobkowiak, 40, sees this election as an essential one for the futures of her three adoptive children, all of whom are Black. “This election feels like a fight for their lives,” she said.
So she will be voting for Biden despite her disappointment in his presumed nomination. She pointed to Trump’s family separation policy at the U.S.-Mexico border, his aversion to taking meaningful steps on climate change, and the importance of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat on the Supreme Court as reasons he needs to be voted out of office.
Other voters expressed hope that with Biden in office, they could at least push for more progressive policies on issues like health care, gun control and criminal justice reform.
“This presidential election is different,” said Claire Cumberland, 34, who was a Sanders delegate from Indiana at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. “And though we are stuck with two choices that are triggering to our demographic [as survivors] specifically, one is going to come with a demonstrably more competent administration who is not going to actively go after laws and regulations that have been fought for for so long.”
“No one enjoys voting for the lesser of two evils,” she continued, “but I will do it because what is at stake is bigger than me and my trauma, and the lesser of two evils may mean the difference of life and death for some and that’s enough.”
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.