Sofie Karasek is a survivors’ rights advocate and progressive organizer.
Two days before my photograph was taken with then-Vice President Joe Biden, as I stood on the 2016 Oscars stage with Lady Gaga and 50 other sexual assault survivors, Alabama college student Megan Rondini died by suicide after she was raped.
I didn’t know Rondini, but I understood her pain. On the night of the Academy Awards in Hollywood, standing behind the curtains on the Dolby Theatre stage, I thought that if only this performance had come a few days sooner, maybe Rondini would still be alive. Maybe it would save another person’s life.
Biden introduced the performance and asked to meet us afterward. I felt the urgency of this crisis coursing through my body — that the failure to support survivors could lead to more deaths — and I told him Rondini’s story. In response, he leaned down, took my hands and put his forehead to mine.
I was taken aback. I averted my eyes, hoping my body language could shorten the interaction. I didn’t think he was going to kiss me, but it felt like if I met his eyes, it wasn’t out of the question, either. It was unwelcome, uncomfortable and strange. At the same time, I was glad to convey this serious message to him, glad it seemed to resonate with him.
Soon the photo of our foreheads together went viral.
#MeToo hadn’t yet exploded. There was no space for a nuanced discussion of whether that level of intimacy, between a 22-year-old and the vice president of the United States, was appropriate. And something amazing came of that photograph: Rondini’s parents saw the story in The Post and ended up connecting with resources to help them pursue justice.
Two months later, I spoke at a conference in Colorado where Biden was also speaking. I was eager to tell him about the good the photo had done, so I zipped in line to greet him. “Sofie!” he exclaimed, and we talked about the photo. The interaction was completely normal. I felt proud then.
But as time passed I began to feel a sense of shame and belittlement every time I saw the photo. I had displayed it on a bookshelf in my room, but I eventually took it down because people would make fun of it — “It looks like he’s about to kiss you!” It brought up too many conflicting feelings.
On one hand, the photo helped the Rondinis, and the Oscars performance had an enormous impact on our discourse about sexual assault. The public had been reckoning with sexual harm sector-by-sector — the Roman Catholic Church, the military, college campuses — and now the dots were being connected. Perhaps some in the audience were inspired to share their stories about sexual violence in Hollywood, which would spark #MeToo the following year.
On the other hand, even though Biden’s gesture was well-intentioned, it was paternalistic. Perhaps Biden meant to act like a comforting father or grandfather. But he never asked whether that was okay. Had he said, “Is it all right if I give you a hug?” I would’ve welcomed it. He didn’t.
As women, we become conditioned to men encroaching on our personal space, and so we brush it off. That’s what I did at the Oscars — I silenced the voice that whispered that my discomfort mattered. Biden was in a position of power — the second-most-powerful person in the country, to be precise — and his presence was drawing attention to the problem of sexual harm. He has done important work to address sexual violence over the years. I didn’t want to discredit it then. I don’t want to discredit it now.
But it’s precisely because he has been active on this for so long that he should have realized much earlier that he could be making women uncomfortable and that, given his powerful position, women could be holding back from expressing those feelings. Of course, no one likes to admit having done something wrong. Accountability is hard work. It takes maturity, emotional intelligence, moral clarity and courage.
The situation with Biden also brings up important questions about accountability. It’s clear now that there are limits to having, by and large, just two options for dealing with sexual harm as a survivor: reporting it in a system that’s often biased against you, or doing nothing. What I want is a process for both justice and healing, not one at the expense of the other.
I also want Biden to truly take ownership. And that starts with genuinely acknowledging that he did wrong by Anita Hill in 1991 during the confirmation hearing of now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, that he regrets not apologizing to her years ago, and that his more recent paternalistic behavior was another form of the sexism that for years he worked to oppose.
We’re all human beings, and we all make mistakes. People who do good work can also cause harm. I didn’t allow myself to hold the complexity of this until #MeToo arrived, including — or, perhaps, especially — with regard to my interaction with Biden. Before 2017, it was hard enough just to get people to care about rape and sexual harassment, let alone personal space and boundaries. And that’s why I’m speaking up now.
Joe Biden often calls on others to have the courage to speak the truth. I hope that he can find it within himself to do the same.