Joe Biden drew cheers for his blunt comments about what constitutes rape, writes Kara Alaimo
She says Biden's sway among millennials can be strong counterweight to Trump's sexism
Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
“Guys, a woman who’s dead drunk cannot consent. You are raping her.”
Those 12 words, delivered by former Vice President Joe Biden at George Mason University on Wednesday, could well have more of an effect on young men, in college and out, than entire campaigns run by schools and nonprofit organizations.
Why? Biden’s the right messenger. The standing ovation he drew at George Mason – and the love his comments found as they rocketed around social media – tell the tale. This moment should also serve as a wake-up call for other men with sway among millennials to add their voices on the issue of sexual assault.
More than 20% of female undergraduates who responded to a survey of 27 colleges in 2015 said they had been victims of sexual assault or misconduct.
“College campuses are communities,” Biden told the George Mason crowd, “the place where people’s attitudes are affected, changed and altered. You all have an opportunity to begin to change the culture.”
Perhaps no one’s better positioned to say this than the former Vice President and his former boss, President Barack Obama – while in office, in 2014, the two launched an initiative called It’s On Us, aimed largely at educating men about what constitutes sexual assault. Both still tout the effort.
Indeed, as two men who became among the most powerful and respected people on earth, they have the reach and the credibility to tell other guys that attacking women makes them criminals, not cool.
President Donald Trump, for his part, has sent the opposite message to men. “When you’re a star … you can do anything,” he could be heard saying on a 2005 Access Hollywood tape that leaked in October.
“Grab ‘em by the pussy. You can do anything.”
And what happened after that tape emerged during the campaign? Americans elected Trump to be the powerful person on the planet.
In fact, based on this and other incidents, it seems much of America remains confused on the issue of sexual assault. Witness that last year, Brock Turner, a white, wealthy former Stanford swimmer, was convicted of felony sexual assault on an unconscious woman. Facing up to 14 years in state prison, he was given just six months in county jail and probation by a judge who argued that prison would be tough on him.
If we’re going to redefine what it means to be a man and toughen the consequences of attacking women, the message is going to need to come from some other powerful people.
Millennials have already shown they confer authority on Biden – in fact, they were responsible for re-electing Biden and Obama. And Biden is already a star on social media, where millennials spend their time, retweeting made-up captions to pictures that show his “bromance” with Obama, and yukking it up over Biden’s plainspoken and sometimes profane remarks.
Last year, a widely-circulated picture of Biden as a swaggering young man was described by an Australian newspaper as melting the internet, and a (left-leaning) poll just after the last election found that Biden is the Democratic frontrunner to run against Trump in 2020.
That’s why his sway on the issue of rape matters, and why he should not let up on his message.
In the public relations industry, we often spend mega-bucks paying the right people – who we call influencers – to send our messages for us.
Biden’s message may be priceless. But, to really get through, we need other men who college guys respect to start stepping up and doing the same. LeBron James, Steph Curry, Tom Brady, Mark Cuban, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg: can you hear me?