It’s hard to believe that when Joe Biden first wrote the Violence Against Women Act in 1990, he faced considerable resistance from those who argued domestic violence was “a private family matter,” and even worse, that abused women “brought it upon themselves.”
One would hope that over 20 years later, things would have considerably changed by now. Yet just last week, the former vice president published an essay on Cosmopolitan where he admitted there’s still a long way to go:
“We haven’t yet truly changed the culture to the point where no man believes he has a right to raise his hand to a woman and no woman ever asks herself what she did to deserve it,” wrote Biden. “We’re still working on that — together. And I need your help.”
Biden added that while he’s helped establish over 2,000 rape crisis centers and battered women’s shelters during his time in Washington, he was heartbroken several years ago after reviewing the latest national sexual assault statistics — which detailed that 1 in 5 women suffered sexual assault at college and 1 in 3 women would be victims of intimate partner violence in their lifetime. Biden’s response was to create It’s On Us, an organization he launched with President Obama in 2014.
“We called on men to step in, at a bar, at a party, in a dorm room, or anywhere they might see a woman being targeted for sexual assault, especially if she is incapacitated by drugs or alcohol or for any other reason is not able to consent. In my view, men’s silence when they see this happening is complicity. We also know that sexual violence happens in LGBTQ communities too. It’s On Us is about changing the culture for everyone.”
I wholeheartedly agree with Biden, that men have a responsibility to step in, to get involved, to speak up, to be humane — but I believe it starts way before the college years.
As a mom of a 10-year-old boy, I believe it’s my duty to raise him to respect not only himself, me, his family and friends, but women in general. I won’t allow him to raise his voice to me, or scream at his 6-year-old sister. And while they may occasionally play fight, any kind of hitting or pinching or pushing is not okay in our home. My husband and I have never raised our hands to our children — not even once — because we don’t believe that a physical punishment in any way solves an issue. My son has also been taught to respect his sister’s privacy, like when she chooses to get dressed or ready for bed with her door closed.
As he moves into his teen years, I feel it’s up to my husband and I more than ever to teach him about how to respect his own body and that of another person’s. Just as I’ve encourage him to speak up if he sees another kid being bullied, I will encourage him to speak up if he sees a girl being cat-called or harassed. To step in if he sees she’s inebriated, or in any way vulnerable. To make that call to get her picked up and home safely.
However, the lesson that I intend to imprint upon my son the most is that of consent: that if in any way a girl says “no,” he should immediately respect that — no matter the situation. And as Biden reminds us in his Cosmo essay, young people of both sexes need to be educated about the topic of consent; not just boys.
“The momentum I feel on college campuses today when I visit is incredible,” writes Biden. “More than 400,000 people have signed a pledge to recognize that nonconsensual sex is sexual assault and to do their part to create an environment in which sexual assault is unacceptable. We’ve held 2,600 events on colleges around the country. Students are leading the way, and they inspire me. In huge part because of them, we are so much closer to a world where no woman will ever blame herself for being sexually assaulted and no man will make excuses for this unconscionable behavior.”
Those are inspiring words to hear, for sure. But just think about how much we’d really change those terrifying sexual assault numbers if we could introduce these concepts well before teens even step foot onto a campus. Because truthfully, where does a man first learn how to be around women? Surely it starts with his mom, and his sisters, and his young female friends at school? I would also say it starts with how he sees the men around him speak to and treat women.
These lessons are important, and they need to start early. Which is why I try, in any way I can, to instill them in my 10-year-old now.
My son attends a co-ed school in order for him to develop friendships with girls and not develop a “them and us” type of mentality. He plays football and table tennis with girls, and while his best friends may be boys, he has a number of close friends who are girls. My hope is that the more he’s around girls, the more he will likely learn about them, understand them, and ultimately, respect them.
We may still have quite a long way to go when it comes to shifting the cultural perspective on sexual assault (as so many things in the last year have reminded us). But we are all a part of the solution here, as Biden himself so urgently reminds us; and so long as we remember that there is power in that, we won’t let ourselves backslide:
“The truth is, it will be up to all of us to make sure that doesn’t happen,” he writes. “It’s never just been about us — it’s about you. Everyone needs to become more engaged than they ever have been and not be discouraged by today’s political climate. Your voice matters. Your stories matter.”
And to ensure that, the former vice president has launched the Biden Foundation to continue working on this — something he describes as “one of the great causes of my life.”
Now more than ever, it is up to every one of us to change the culture of sexual assault. And it starts right now; with us moms and dads doing the work that’s needed to create young men and women we can be proud of, and a future they can feel safer in.