In late March, Anna Fahr, a 38-year-old independent filmmaker, went down an Internet rabbit hole. She Googled and tweeted and posted on Facebook: She wanted to know why she couldn’t find any mainstream outlets’ stories about Tara Reade — a woman who alleges former vice president Joe Biden sexually assaulted her when she was working in his Senate office in 1993. First, a friend had sent her the link to a March 24 Intercept article that detailed how the legal advocacy organization Time’s Up declined to fund Reade’s allegation. Then, Fahr listened to a March 25 interview in which Reade told her story to progressive podcast host Katie Halper.
It “set off alarm bells” that an allegation against the leading Democratic presidential candidate seemed to be “hush-hush,” says Fahr, an American citizen who’s splitting her time between Toronto and Beirut. In the age of #MeToo, she wondered: “Why in this particular case are we not having a conversation about this?”
Fahr had followed the several allegations of Biden’s inappropriate touching when they first arose last spring. Reade, now 56, had been one of those women — she said Biden touched her neck and shoulders when she worked in his Senate office. But a year later, on the podcast, Reade said that Biden pinned her against a wall, reached under her skirt and pushed his fingers inside her when she was a 29-year-old staff assistant. Biden’s campaign has strongly denied Reade’s allegations.
While the initial allegations of inappropriate touching were “huge concerns for anybody who’s about to endorse and elect a candidate for presidency,” Fahr says, “it wasn’t until I had actually listened to the entire interview with Tara Reade — it went beyond the sniffing the hair, putting hands on shoulders.” To Fahr, Reade’s account constituted “assault.”
With Biden as the presumptive Democratic nominee, the general election in the fall will pit two white men, who have both been accused of sexual misconduct, against each other. Across the board, it’s this “lesser of two evils” argument that has left women feeling frustrated. “It says a lot about our political system that the leading candidates on both the right and the left have both been accused of sexual assault and have very questionable track records when it comes to women,” says Fahr.
On Sunday, controversy over Reade’s allegation erupted onto the national stage after the New York Times published an analysis of the allegation, which found “no pattern of sexual misconduct by Mr. Biden.” A day later, The Washington Post published a piece based on three weeks of examining the allegation: “The former vice president has been accused of unwanted hugging and other physical contact, but The Post found no other allegations against him as serious as Reade’s,” the article read.
The reports came after Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) dropped out of the presidential race on Wednesday, clearing way for Biden to become the presumptive nominee. For some women, Reade’s allegation has cost Biden their support; for others, it won’t necessarily impact how they approach the polls. But many agree that coverage of the allegations has been too little and too late.
When Laura Krome, a retired social worker and therapist living in New Jersey, first heard about the allegations of Biden inappropriately touching women a year ago, she “didn’t really know” what to make of it all. “I mean, look, I’m 70 years old,” she says. “I’ve known men like this my whole life.”
But even for Krome, the media’s coverage of Reade’s allegation — Krome says she thinks that Reade, as well as the other women, are credible — has been “soft.” Krome had been a Sanders supporter since 2016, when he ran against Hillary Clinton in the primary. Now, looking toward the general, she is putting her policy values above all else. “My main issues are economic justice and climate change, but it would be nice to have a candidate who had a clean record with women,” she says.
Karlyn Borysenko, a 39-year-old organizational psychologist living in New Hampshire, is less concerned about the allegations against Biden specifically. (She believes that people “should have due process no matter what,” she says.) Instead, it comes down to how Democrats and proponents of the #MeToo movement have handled this particular situation.
Borysenko sees a difference in how the party has dealt with these allegations and the ones against Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, for example. “This person has come forward, which is always a difficult thing for anyone,” she says. “That woman should be taken just as seriously as Christine Blasey Ford was.”
This tracks with most partisan scandals, according to Lara Brown, director of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. Brown says that within the Democratic Party, there does appear to be a “higher standard for Tara Reade” than there was for Christine Blasey Ford, who in 2018 alleged that Kavanaugh, then a nominee to the Supreme Court who would solidify the court’s conservative majority, sexually assaulted her when they were both in high school in the 1980s.
“And I think that is the nature of scandal in politics, that they are viewed through a partisan lens,” says Brown. “The Democrats want someone who can beat Donald Trump, and to Democrats, all of Trump’s scandals are so far beyond the pale that maybe we don’t really know what’s happened with Biden.”
Many mainstream outlets have pointed out the slew of allegations against President Trump in light of Reade’s against Biden. Trump has been accused of sexual misconduct by more than a dozen women. As Brown points out, when an “Access Hollywood” tape emerged a month ahead of the 2016 election — in which Trump was recorded as saying that “when you’re a star, they let you do it” — many Republicans chalked it up to “locker room talk.”
But the comparisons between the two candidates are moot for women who see any allegation of sexual assault as a dealbreaker.
Such is the case for Alannah Raitt, a 25-year-old bus driver and barista who’s also a volunteer aide for Joshua Collins, a Democratic candidate for Congress in Tacoma, Wash. “I will not support people who can’t seem to respect people’s bodily autonomy or can’t seem to understand the concept of consent,” says Raitt, who identifies as a victim of sexual assault. “I don’t understand how so many people can say ‘Oh, well, Trump’s done it too.’ That’s the lowest bar on the planet, and that’s not an excuse.”
The same goes for Sarah Ann Masse, who was one of the first women in October 2017 to allege sexual misconduct by disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. It doesn’t matter which party the accused stands for, she says: “For me, sexual violence is not a partisan issue. If we’re going to believe survivors, we have to believe them regardless of the politics of their abuser and regardless of whether we like their policies.”
Although Trump may try to capitalize on the latest allegation, the allegations likely won’t be a big talking point for either candidate, according to Brown. Scandal matters more in primaries, because those are to a certain degree “character elections,” she says. “In this situation, I do think most Democrats are going to say to themselves, even if Biden is tarnished, Donald Trump is far worse. So on a relative scale, this isn’t even an issue to be discussed.”
Although Fahr, the filmmaker, had been a Sanders fan throughout the primary, she thinks that progressives who are pro-Biden, as well as centrists, should do “soul-searching” about how to win over voters like her. “What kind of concessions can they make voters who are on the fence feel more at peace with themselves about casting a ballot for someone who has potentially sexually assaulted somebody?” Fahr wonders.
Masse, the actress, is daunted by the choice of what to do when it comes to the general election. “I don’t know how to proceed, because it is an agonizing situation,” she says. “And I look forward to a world where that’s not the choice we have to make anymore.”