JOE BIDEN: “The greatest sin a man can commit is abuse of power.”

Photos courtesy of Mimi Albano


Biden and 13 Reasons Why team visit Mason to speak on sexual assault awareness



Former Vice President Joe Biden came to Mason on the morning of April 26 to speak on sexual assault awareness and prevention.

The event also hosted “13 Reasons Why” Actress Alisha Boe, whose character Jessica was raped on the show, and Producer Joy Gorman Wettels. They attended in collaboration with the It’s On Us campaign, a national initiative that Mason joined at the campaign’s inception in 2014.

The It’s On Us campaign, launched by Biden and former President Obama during their administration, asks participants to take a pledge to prevent sexual assault. “It is a promise not to be a bystander to the problem, but to be a part of the solution,” according to the It’s On Us website.

Each speaker — from Biden, Boe and Wettels to Mason faculty and students — promoted the key message that we are all accountable for preventing sexual assault and not perpetuating rape culture.

Among the speakers was President Cabrera, who dismissed focusing on the statistics. Whether it is one in five, or one in seven, “I care about the one,” Cabrera said.

Biden began his speech by waving to take the teleprompter down. He explained that his commitment to eradicating sexual assault began with the lessons his father taught him in childhood.

“The greatest sin a man can commit is abuse of power,” Biden said, echoing what his father told him. Biden later elaborated that sexual assault is all about power and control.

Biden at times spoke directly to the men in the crowd. “Here’s the deal guys, you’ve got to speak up. You cannot let that kind of talk be bred on a college campus,” referring to sexual locker room talk like “I got a piece of her.”

Just as the It’s On Us campaign states that sexual assault is a societal problem, Biden reinforced the statement and said bias against sexual assault victims is built into state laws.

Biden continued that he wrote and worked to pass the Violence Against Women Act in the early 1990s, but at first it had no support.

He said he had hoped that from his generation to now it would have become less of an issue, but he pointed out that media is doing a big part in changing the culture: one example is “13 Reasons Why.”

In a Fourth Estate interview with Wettels, she explained how “13 Reasons Why” attempted to change rape culture. “Our hope was in creating such an honest portrayal was it would make people brave,” Wettels said. She asked students to not be bystanders and to stop rape before it happens.

The show has received a mixed response from viewers, with criticism on the show’s choices to graphically portray the issues of sexual assault and suicide. The National Association of School Psychologists cautioned viewers and said it “may lead impressionable viewers to romanticize the choices made by the characters.”

In response, Wettels said that they spoke to mental health experts and It’s On Us was involved. “We took very seriously the way to portray things we did. It is art, fiction and creative choices,” Wettels said.

Intervening and being supportive to victims were key statements in Biden’s speech.

Roommates, friends and other loved ones must know the right way to react when confided in and who to call for help, according to Biden.

As for how Mason is addressing sexual assault, this past fall the university officially redefined its definition of consent to now include “affirmative” consent.

Affirmative consent shifts “the focus of the investigative process to ask each party how they knew they had affirmative consent to engage in sexual activity,” according to Jennifer Hammat, Mason’s Title IX coordinator and a speaker at the event.

She added this is to change common reactions, such as “What were you wearing?” questions, that place blame on the victim, whether it be by their clothing or actions.

Biden denounced these reactions in his speech: “Why were you in a bar? What did you say? What were you wearing? … It does not matter.”

One of the Mason speakers for the event was student Emiko Ellis, who stated that as a survivor of sexual assault, she no longer blames herself but will always carry the weight of it. Ellis works for the Student Support and Advocacy Center (SSAC) at Mason.

Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS) was also mentioned at the event, with CAPS staff available throughout the auditorium if students felt that they needed to talk.

In closing the speech, Biden said, “I’ll know we succeeded [sexual assault prevention] when women don’t question ‘what did I do?’”

Read our piece on SSAC here.