Category: Abuse


A friend recently tagged me in a Facebook post that attempted to discredit Tara Reade, the woman who has accused presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden of sexual assault. You can read that post in its entirety here. What follows is my response. Please note that my interest here is neither to defend nor to discredit any particular politician or political party. Rather, my concern is for victims of abuse of all political persuasions who are attacked, slandered, and shamed whenever they come forward against people in positions of power and influence. It is disheartening that both major political parties exploit abuse accusations against their political rivals, but are willing to ignore them against their political allies. Truth and justice, not political expediency, should be our motivation when dealing with accusations of abuse. It is to that end that I have written this response.

I’ve hesitated to weigh in on the Tara Reade story because the inherent political nature of this issue is fraught with danger, particularly for people like myself who are in positions of church leadership. But I have decided that the importance of speaking up in defense of abuse victims is more important than maintaining the illusion of neutrality. As Elie Wiesel said, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” So I’ve decided to respond to the attacks on Reade, most of which, like the aforementioned Facebook post, rely on a greatest hits collection of victim-shaming tropes. Here we go.

“…Tara Reade has numerous websites and social media accounts under various names, although many have now been deleted because they conflict with her latest story.”

Right off the bat we start with an assumption about why Reade deleted her social media accounts, the first of many assumptions and insinuations in this piece. No evidence is provided for these claims, mind you. We’re supposed to reject Reade’s story because of lack of evidence, but we’re asked to believe this criticism of her that is also offered without evidence. Curious.

Next we move on to a common criticism of Reade.

“Reade is a huge fan of Vladimir Putin…”

I’ve repeatedly seen Biden defenders appeal to Reade’s love of Russia as a means of discrediting her. However true this may be, it does not prove that she is lying about being sexually assaulted by Biden. We’re verging into conspiracy theory territory now, where anyone who has ever said anything positive about Russia is suspected of being some kind of secret agent who’s out to help Trump win reelection. Conspiracy theories on the left are as unbecoming as they are on the right.

“Over the years, Reade has written openly about her personal life, including being abandoned by her father and suffering domestic abuse by her ex-husband. I would think that someone who shares stories of such a personal nature so publicly would almost certainly include a mention of sexual assault by a VP.”

Writing about abuse by a husband or father, as difficult as that might be, is nowhere near the same as accusing a well-known and powerful government leader of sexual assault. The latter involves far more public scrutiny. This point of attack reveals a profound lack of understanding about the dynamics of abuse and how it impacts victims. It is quite common for victims to wait years before coming forward; many never do. The fact that Reade waited for so long to come forward, even after she had publicly discussed other abuse experiences, does not disprove her story. The author is simply engaging in common victim-shaming tactics meant to silence Reade rather than engage substantively with her claims.

But the author is not content with questioning Reade’s credibility because of the timing of her accusations; she also questions how Reade could be telling the truth when she previously said positive things about Joe Biden.

“Personally, I have a hard time believing that someone who was sexually assaulted would spend so much time on social media praising and commending their alleged perpetrator for their work preventing violence against women.”

Maybe the author has a hard time believing that because she doesn’t understand how abuse impacts victims.  Most victims of sexual abuse are assaulted by people they know, not by strangers. The result is that they often have complicated relationships with their abusers. They may even have feelings of affection toward the abuser. To an outsider, unaware of what is happening behind the scenes, it may appear as though everything is fine in the relationship between the abuser and the victim. This is one way that abusers avoid accountability. They cultivate trust in the relationship with the victim and create the impression that they have a caring relationship, making it harder for the victim to be believed if they should ever come forward. The abuser may even explicitly tell the victim, “No one will believe you.” And sadly, many times they are right.

By the way, this is one of the arguments that Harvey Weinstein’s defenders have made. They say that the women accusing him of rape continued to have a relationship with him after the assault, so how could their accusation be true? But it’s not hard at all to understand how that could happen, if one has taken the time to become educated about abuse and the complicated relational dynamics involved.

The author also casts doubt on Reade’s story by implying that since she has changed it, she is unreliable.

“Then, on March 24, the story changed suddenly and dramatically.”

This is loaded language. By saying the story “changed… dramatically,” the author implies that Reade contradicted herself or fundamentally altered the facts of her story. This is not necessarily the case. She came forward with previously undisclosed details. This does not prove she is lying. It could mean that she finally found the courage to tell the full truth.

The author insinuates that Reade’s motivations are political, implying that Bernie Sanders’ supporters are trying to gin up interest in her story. She also implies that Reade is simply seeking attention. Again, these are common victim-shaming tropes that are used against almost every woman who accuses a powerful man of abuse. Republicans said the same thing about Christine Blasey Ford. She’s a Democratic operative; she’s just trying to get her 15 minutes of fame. I wonder how many people who were tweeting out #BelieveWomen in support of Blasey Ford are now piling on Reade.

The author then includes a lengthy quote from Biden’s former executive assistant, who says, “…I never once witnessed, or heard of, or received, any reports of inappropriate conduct…” The nature of sexual abuse is that it is usually perpetrated so that no one knows about it except the abuser and the victim. But even if there are other witnesses nearby, skilled predators know how to cover up their actions. Larry Nassar, for example, abused young girls while their parents were right in the same room. They didn’t see the abuse, either. But it certainly happened nonetheless.

The next few paragraphs are an attempt to discredit Reade because of her affinity for Russia. I’ve already addressed this argument above, so I won’t add anything more here, except to say that there are a lot of insinuations in this piece but little evidence.

But now we come to what might be the most disingenuous line of the entire piece.

“In my opinion, Reade seems to be a very emotionally troubled person. She has written openly over the years about being abandoned by a deadbeat father and about the abuse she claims she suffered by her ex-husband. As someone who has suffered as well, I definitely feel for her.”

The author “feel[s] for” Reade, but has just written paragraph after paragraph accusing her of being an attention-seeking, politically-motivated liar. Seems more than a little insincere. But here again we have another common victim-shaming strategy. “Look, the accuser is an emotionally troubled woman; clearly she’s been through a lot. She has suffered abuse from other people in her life.” The implication is that Reade is untrustworthy because of her emotional trauma. We can’t really believe what she says because her father or ex-husband abused her; maybe she’s projecting those experiences onto Biden for some reason.

Countless victims have suffered the same treatment, having their past suffering cruelly twisted against them by those who wish to discredit their accusations. This is an ad hominem attack. It does not engage with the substance of Reade’s story. It simply attempts to undermine her story by claiming that she is an unreliable narrator. We can’t trust what she says about abuse because–how’s this for irony–she’s been a victim of abuse.

In this way, victims are caught in a Catch-22. If they act as though they are unaffected by the abuse, critics will say, “She doesn’t look like someone who’s been through trauma.” If they do show emotion, though, critics will say, “She’s clearly unstable.” Rachael Denhollander talks about this impossible emotional dilemma in her book, What Is a Girl Worth? (which I highly recommend reading if you want to learn more about abuse issues).

Then there’s the last sentence in the article.

“There is a serial sexual harasser, assaulter and abuser running in this election, with no less than 25 credible accusers, and his name is Donald Trump.”

What makes those women “credible” but not Reade? The author apparently lacks the self-awareness to realize that Trump’s defenders have made the exact same arguments against his accusers that she is now making against Reade. Democrats really want to have it both ways on this one. When women accuse Republicans of sexual assault, they’re believable, but anyone who comes forward against one of their own is obviously lying, motivated by politics, or simply seeking attention.

Isn’t it possible that the people defending Biden are also motivated by politics? Isn’t it possible that they are trying to discredit Reade specifically because her story is politically inconvenient for them? And how can we take them seriously when they say they “believe women” and care deeply about victims of abuse when they respond to Reade with tired victim-shaming tropes and unsubstantiated character smears?

There is another implication in that last sentence, and it is that regardless of Reade’s accusations against Biden, Trump is still far worse. Look, 25 women have accused him! Is that what our political system has become? We’re left to choose between the lesser of two sexual predators?

Perhaps both Democratic and Republican partisans find that logic convincing. I do not. It is a false dichotomy that says we must choose the lesser of two evils or we are tacitly supporting the greater evil. If more of us would refuse to accept this morally bankrupt reasoning, perhaps we wouldn’t be left with such unsavory options. If we would hold our own side accountable for wrongdoing instead of excusing it, maybe we’d see some integrity and credibility return to Washington. Or we can keep frothing out the mouth over the latest outrage perpetrated by our political enemies while blithely ignoring the injustices of our own side, and watch our political system descend further into corruption and dysfunction.

Besides the political consequences, this course of action will also serve to drive victims of abuse back into the shadows. When we take up their cause only in cases where it is politically advantageous for us, we’re showing that we don’t really care about them. We only care about exploiting them to win a political contest. When their story might hurt our chances of winning, we’ll throw them under the bus faster than you can say “Juanita Broaddrick.”

As for me and my house, we have higher allegiances than a political party. As I said in the prologue, truth and justice, not political expediency, should be our motivation when dealing with accusations of abuse. When victims come forward, they deserve fair treatment regardless of what political party they belong to, and regardless of what political party their accused abuser belongs to.

In closing, let me clarify that nothing I’ve written here implies that Reade is unquestionably telling the truth, and that Biden is guilty beyond reasonable doubt. I don’t know for certain that she is truthful. I know that false accusations of abuse are extremely rare, but they do happen. I know that friends and former neighbors have confirmed that she told them about the assault in the 1990s, which adds considerable credibility to her story. Her claims should be thoroughly investigated, and we should be willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads.

But the vast majority of criticisms, including this piece, are nothing more than attempts to defend Biden and discredit Reade by appealing to victim-shaming tactics that rely on a poor understanding of abuse. When we share these criticisms, we’re signaling to other abuse victims that if they should ever come forward, this is how we would treat them. We’re telling them that the cost of believing them would be too high if they accused someone we admire. We’re telling them that they are expendable, that their suffering is an acceptable loss if it allows us to maintain the status quo and avoid confronting the harsh reality that a close friend, a beloved pastor, a popular coach, or our preferred presidential candidate might be an abuser. On behalf of victims everywhere, I implore you to consider this carefully before you jump to defend Joe Biden, Donald Trump, or any other powerful person who stands accused of abuse.

I choose to stand with victims, with the powerless against the powerful, with the oppressed against their oppressors, with the voiceless against those who have silenced them. I choose to tell them that they are not expendable, that their suffering matters, that they deserve justice, that their abuser deserves accountability regardless of their position, and that hard truths are better than comfortable lies. Standing with victims is not the easy thing to do. But it is the right thing to do.

For those who wish to learn more about abuse, I encourage you to read Rachael Denhollander’s book, What Is a Girl Worth? Another good resource for understanding how abusers operate is the book Predators, by Anna Salter. It is based on her personal research and interviews with sexual predators and other violent offenders.

Photo by John Noonan on Unsplash

When dealing with abuse there is a concept called perpetrator bias. What is perpetrator bias? Here is one example of it.

This article about John Wetteland, a former MLB pitcher who was arrested and charged with sex abuse of a child, ends with a rundown of his professional accomplishments. But what relevance does his pro sports career have to his predatory behavior? None, really (except that for some reason we care more about these stories when they involve famous people).

But think how this subtly blunts the impact of the allegations against him. MVP of the World Series! Member of the Texas Rangers Hall of Fame! All-Star closer with 330 career saves! This is the article’s last word on John Wetteland—not that he has been criminally charged with sexually abusing a child under the age of 14, but that he was a really good baseball player.

In many cases of abuse, the perpetrator has family, friends, or fans who struggle to believe the accusations against him. “But he’s such a nice guy; I can’t believe he would do something like that.” Or in this case: “He had such an outstanding baseball career; could he really be a predator?” Our society subtly but powerfully reinforces those doubts with articles like these that focus more on the perpetrator’s good qualities and achievements than on his heinous crimes. Remember the uproar over Brock Turner, the college student who raped a woman and got an exceedingly light sentence? Central to the controversy surrounding his case were the numerous articles that portrayed him as an All-American swimmer from Stanford University instead of a rapist who sexually assaulted an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. This whitewashing of a perpetrator’s life happens all the time. Start paying attention to news articles about accused abusers and notice how often they end with a summary of the perpetrator’s talents, fame, or accomplishments.

The reality is that abusers come from all walks of life. They’re not just the creepy guy stalking that woman jogging in a dark corner of the city park. They’re successful businessmen. They’re famous R&B singers. They’re superstar athletes. They’re world-renowned doctors. They’re adored pastors. Don’t let the polished outward appearance of their life fool you—especially when they’re celebrities, whose careers are often built on idealized perceptions of their glamorous lifestyle. That’s exactly how so many of them get away with their crimes!

John Wetteland was a world-class athlete. He can also be a sexual predator who preys on children. Those two things are not mutually exclusive. The sooner our society figures that out, the sooner we can prevent more of our most vulnerable members from becoming the next victim.