Biden Calls for a Change in Culture

Former Vice President Joe Biden takes photos with UM students following his talk against sexual assault on campuses as part of the It's on Us initiative.
By Robert C. Jones Jr.

Former Vice President Joe Biden takes photos with UM students following his talk against sexual assault on campuses as part of the It's on Us initiative.

Biden Calls for a Change in Culture

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
As part of the “It’s On Us” initiative, the former vice president urged the UM community to help combat sexual violence against women.

Over a long distinguished political career that began in 1970 with a seat on the New Castle County Council in Delaware, Joe Biden has served as a U.S. senator, chaired committees on the judiciary and foreign relations, helped craft a multitude of federal crime laws, and ascended to the vice presidency of the United States. 

But on Tuesday, in front of nearly a thousand University of Miami students, some of them who have yet to vote in an election of any kind, the Delaware Democrat was more parent than politician, challenging his young audience to help change the culture in America and put an end to sexual violence against women.

“Sexual assault is about power and the abuse of power more than it is about sex,” Biden said, appearing at UM as part of the ongoing It’s On Us initiative, a campaign to combat sexual assault on college campuses that he and his former boss, President Barack Obama, launched at the White House in 2014.

At times speaking forcefully on the issue but still displaying the Irish charm for which he is known, Biden related a lesson from his father, recalling him as “a graceful, gentle man” who told him it is a “cardinal sin to raise your hand to a woman or child” and that people have “a moral obligation to intervene” if they see a woman being abused.

He also shared some sobering statistics: that one in five women will be sexually assaulted before they graduate from college, that 30 percent of women who were sexually abused will suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder, and that the likelihood of being afflicted by an autoimmune disease increases for victims of sexual assault.

During his remarks, the former vice president specifically singled out men, explaining that any man on a college campus who witnesses a fellow fraternity brother take an impaired coed up to his room should take immediate action to stop what could become a rape. “Grab her by the arm and say, ‘No, you’re not going there,’ ” Biden said, raising his voice.

He criticized the leadership at some universities across the nation for not addressing the problem head on, saying those institutions are reluctant to compile and release statistics on sexual assaults on their campuses for fear of getting bad press. “That’s why so few [university and college] presidents have done campus surveys,” Biden said, commending UM and President Julio Frenk for taking an active role in combating sexual violence against women.

In 2014, the same year Biden and Obama launched It’s On Us, UM kicked off an initiative of its own: The University of Miami President’s Coalition on Sexual Violence Prevention and Education, which consists of faculty, administrators, and student ambassadors.

“UM is committed to ensuring that everyone feels safe on our campuses,” Frenk said at Tuesday’s rally, noting that the University launched its third campus climate survey this week.

In remarks that preceded Biden’s, Frenk said, “We’re witnessing a moment of cultural transformation all over the world as women speak out against sexual violence, abuse, and harassment.”

It was a sentiment echoed by UM law professor Caroline Bettinger-López, who served a two-year term in the Obama Administration as the White House advisor on violence against women, senior advisor to then-Vice President Biden, and member of the White House Council on Women and Girls.

Sexual assault against women “is the most secretive human rights violation we have because it exists behind closed doors, and for so many years, society and our institutions have turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to it. It’s only now that I think there’s a true social movement that is happening,” Bettinger-López, professor of clinical legal education and director of the Human Rights Clinic at Miami Law, explained to UM News prior to the It’s On Us rally.

“Women and others who’ve experienced sexual violence are saying enough is enough,” she continued. “This should not be something we have to encounter on a day-to-day basis, and it shouldn’t be something that we have to continue to live with, and especially live with as a secret or as something that can bring shame on a person. When powerful people and leaders speak up, they open avenues for others to use their voices as well. Whether it’s Joe Biden or Hollywood movie stars who speak out, they can open the floodgates. It gets the media to pay attention and creates pathways for survivors to recognize that their voices matter in society.”

One of those survivors, UM junior Violet Sullivan, spoke at the rally. “I was the stereotypical victim. I had drunk too much and worn too little, but despite societal beliefs, I was not asking for it,” Sullivan said, recounting her traumatic experience of almost three years.

She credited UM’s strong support system, including its Title IX investigative team and counseling and academic support system, for helping her through the crisis.

“After about a year, I was diagnosed with PTSD. I suffered with nightmares and flashbacks and had many sleepless nights. My appetite was unpredictable, and I’d go days without eating or I found myself binging late at night,” Sullivan said. “But I have not been defined by these setbacks. Speaking out has allowed me to get help and gain insight on my subconscious. I have realized how strong and enduring I really am. I am at a place now where I can be kind to my body and realize that recovery is not a paved road, but a winding dirt road with obstacles and detours.”

Sullivan was among a handful of UM students who spoke at the rally before Biden took to the stage in the UM Fieldhouse. Among them were Camila Rodriguez-Rojas, president of the Multicultural Greek Council, who pointed out that women of color are disproportionately affected by gender violence; Ronnie Johnson, a student-athlete on the women’s soccer team, who urged students “to step up and become leaders for this cause;” and Kristi Schleider, an ambassador for the President’s Coalition on Sexual Violence Prevention and Education, who said “having the opportunity to help even one person makes being an ambassador worthwhile.”

Their comments were augmented by remarks from Audrey Cleary, psychologist in the UM Counseling Center and coordinator of the Sexual Assault Resource Team, and Maria Sevilla, associate director and Title IX investigator in the Dean of Students Office, who both discussed campus resources that are available to help students.

Biden, who spearheaded the passage of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, called for training for men and women, and urged students to participate on the April 3 Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) Day of Action.

Said Biden, “We’re on the cusp of changing the culture.”

Tuesday’s It’s On Us rally was made possible by Hurricane Productions and the President’s Coalition for Sexual Violence Prevention and Education, with support from the Interfraternity Council, Panhellenic Council, and the Department of Student Activities and Student Organizations.

The rally also featured a performance by a cappella group BisCaydence. One of four a cappella groups at the University of Miami operating under the Voices of UM umbrella organization, BisCaydence recently won first place in the regional quarterfinals of the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella.

Also attending was UM nursing student Valerie Halstead, who was one of ten student leaders from around the country honored two years ago by Biden as Champions of Change for their work combating sexual violence on college campuses. She sat onstage as the former vice president spoke Tuesday.