On Friday, April 8, Mic sat down with Vice President Joe Biden in Boulder, Colorado, to discuss It's On Us, the initiative he has spearheaded to combat sexual assault on campus. Mic correspondent Antonia Hylton asked Biden about the strategy underpinning It's On Us, criticisms of the program, the 2016 race and more. Read more about bystander intervention and watch our video featuring one survivor's story here.
You can watch the full recording of our interview below, followed by the transcript:
Mic: Thank you so much again, Mr. Vice President, for joining me today. It's such a pleasure to get to speak with you.
Joe Biden: It's an honor to be with you.
You have been fighting violence against women for decades —
— and your current initiative, It's On Us, asks students and their peers to step forward and speak out when they see behavior or interactions that could be dangerous. Why is this your current approach to campus sexual assault?
JB: Well, you know, when I wrote the Violence Against Women Act 22 years ago, we actually had great success. Violence against women has come down 67%, more people are reporting. But I had a woman who helped me write that, a woman named Cynthia Hogan, a great lawyer. She's now with the NFL, since that halfback grabbed his wife out of a elevator by the hair. And they decided they got to get in the game, no pun intended.
And I said, and I brought, the president allowed me to bring the Violence Against Women Office inside the vice president's office with the support and help of the Attorney General. And so I said, "Let's find out what's going on." And she went over, and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, who keeps crime rates — she came back with a devastating piece of information. Women between the ages of 14 and 24 — we've made no progress. One in four on college campuses were being raped back then, or assaulted, the same way now.
And so that's when I decided we had to change things. And what I did was, I did virtual town meetings with a lot of colleges and students as well as high school students, and I asked a question. I said, "If we could do anything to change the circumstances on campus, what would it be?" I expected them to say, "More lighting, lighting in parking garages, more campus cops." You know what the number one thing was? "Get men involved."
And that's when it started. And that's when I went to the president, we agreed we'd start this program called It's On Us and in the meantime what we've done is we've gotten hundreds of celebrities and athletes and movie actors to get engaged in saying, "One's too many."
I just did the NAACP — the NAACP, I'm so associated with, the NAACP, uh, excuse me — the National Collegiate Athletic Association, in the Sweet Sixteen and I went down for the Final Four and was interviewed by all the announcers there who wanted to talk about the message to send out to college students.
So, I'm convinced if we keep this up we can begin to change the culture on campuses, so that women are no longer blamed.
You know, one of the saddest things I learned holding those hearings was that women tend to blame other women who are raped. Women tend to hold themselves, ask themselves the question, "What did I do?"
There is never a circumstance where a woman's assaulted — never — where it's her fault. The only time a man ever has a right to raise his hand to a woman is in self defense. Period.
But this culture of ours is upside down. We've got to change it. Just as we've begun to change the culture — your generation, the millennials — have changed the culture on LGBT issues. You've literally changed the culture, and rapidly. We can do the same thing, where a woman no longer asks a question, "What did I do?" Or no judge or prosecutor ever says, "What were you wearing? Did you have on a bra?" It's irrelevant. It's irrelevant.
So, I actually just graduated from college. Not even a year ago, and that statistic you mentioned, that 1 in 4 women will be assaulted during their time there always sticks with me. But also that only 6% of college presidents right now acknowledge that rape is an issue on their campus.
JB: That's right.
How do you react to that and what do you think explains that disconnect?
JB: The disconnect is, they know it's happening. But they're afraid it will hurt their reputation, their institutions, their competitive edge.
And that's why Arne Duncan, the former secretary of education, came to the president and me and said, "I've got an idea. Let's use Title IX." All those colleges get hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid. There's now 117 major institutions under investigation, for not taking it seriously.
I'm about to call another meeting, have college presidents come back to Washington, tell me what they're doing. Actually challenge them not to show up. It's their responsibility. They have an obligation. It's a little bit like I said today — and I know I'm going to get criticized for saying this — a corporation that doesn't want to let it be known that they allow a toxin to seep into the water supply. This is a toxin on college campuses. Universities can do something about it.
They can have on-campus rape counsellors. They can have on-campus instructions to help people. They can put together an environment where a woman has a chance to come and say what happened to her, to let her make the choice of what she wants to do, but to give her guidance and counselling in the process.
But they don't. And the reason is, what happens if, at XYZ University, they find out that there are X number of women assaulted every year on the campus? It's immoral. It's wrong. They have an obligation.
Some critics of It's On Us actually feel that, as it is, the campaign doesn't do enough to call out rape culture and ask for that cultural change, that —
JB: They don't listen to me.
— that relying on bystanders won't lead to that institutional disruption. What do you say to that?
JB: Well, I say, the institutional disruption is the cultural problem. The cultural problem is — it's like when I wrote the Violence Against Women Act, no organization would support it. Not one women's organization. Nobody. It took years to get it moving. You know why? Well, everybody knew this dirty little secret was going on, but it was inherent in our culture.
Look, the first woman I interviewed when I was, I knew I had to sort of pull the mask back on this dirty little secret. There was a lovely woman named Marla Hanson, a model in New York City. She had an efficiency. She wanted a one bedroom apartment. She lived in an upscale apartment complex. The landlord kept hitting on her. So she was going to leave.
She got a phone call on location saying that she wanted to, he said, "Look, if you meet me in the restaurant bar" — in the building, where she lived — "I'll sign a contract for a one bedroom." So she showed up. He hit on her again. She got up and left.
The coward hired two thugs. She walked out and they slashed her face with razors.
I asked her, "What did your mother say?" She said, "Why were you in a bar?" What did your girlfriends say? "Well, you were in a bar. How short was your skirt?" That's a sick culture.
You know where the phrase "rule of thumb" comes from?
I think I do.
JB: In the late 1300s, common law in England, a woman was a chattel, a piece of property like cattle. But so many women were being beaten to death by their husband, the English common law court said, "A husband can no longer beat his wife with a rod bigger than the circumference of his thumb." It's part of our culture.
So you mentioned the story of Marla, and I'm curious if there's another specific story that maybe stands out to you, that maybe transformed the way you look at this issue. Or guided your, the way that you set up It's On Us.
JB: Well, there is one. There was a lovely young woman who became an advocate. By the time she testified she had been an advocate for four years. She went to a small college, a Catholic school, just north of the University of Pittsburgh.
And it was during her orientation period, and the last day of orientation, before school began on Monday. There was a big bonfire because they had. They didn't play football, but they had a soccer team. And she went to the bonfire with all her friends, you know, to cheer on the team. And a young man — he was an upperclassman, I don't know what year he was — who dated a friend of hers back home said, "I'll walk you back to your dorm." He said, "But I've got to stop at my dorm to get a coat."
She stopped with him. He pulled her into the room and he raped her.
I'll never forget what she said. She said she ran back to her dorm, ran upstairs, took all her clothes off, went in the bathroom and took a — it sticks in my mind — a scalding shower. That was her phrase.
She said, "I put a towel around me and I'm sitting on the end of my bed in my room. My resident advisor came in and said, 'What happened?'" She said, "I told her and she looked at me and she said, 'You've been raped,' and I looked back at her and said, 'No, I wasn't. I knew him.'"
Where the hell does that come from? "No, I wasn't, I knew him."
The way to change the culture is the same way we change the culture of LGBT. The same way we changed the culture 10 years ago, five years ago.
Even in the city of Washington, or out here, a group of businessmen could be sitting down having lunch and a gay waiter could come up with a lisp and one of the wise guys say, "I'll tell you what I'll have," everyone would remain quiet because they thought they, you know, they didn't want to — today, they'd say, "What the hell are you doing, man? Leave." That's how you change the culture.
It is never, never, never the woman's fault. And I get asked, "How will I know when there's success?" There will be success when not a single woman has been abused ever asks herself, "What did I do?"
Some advocates have said that a quick way that we could start making some concrete changes in the culture would be to consider banning fraternities where a disproportionate number of these assaults occur. Do you think that in order to put an end to rape culture, that we need to consider banning fraternities or other single-sex organizations?
JB: No, but here's what we have to do. The Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department is investigating, now, patterns and practices of abuse. The civil rights cause of action. If fraternities engage in that, yes, they should be banned. Not all fraternities do that. Anything, any school that's engaged in a pattern and practice of allowing sexual assault to take place, turning a blind eye, should be held accountable under the civil rights laws of the country.
Well, but let's take Harvard for example, where I went to school. Forty seven percent of the women in my graduating class who interacted with single-sex social organizations reported, by the time that they graduated, they had been sexually assaulted. Do you think that that indicates a specific and localized crisis?
JB: Well, I think it indicates that there's a real problem at Harvard, and it's the responsibility of the president of Harvard University and the administration to go in and investigate it and if it's occurring and they can show that, get rid of the — get rid of those fraternities on campus that are engaged in it.
Let's shift gears to look at some of the other recent issues that some people are saying contributes to a culture that disrespects women. Just the other day, Donald Trump and his campaign tried to discredit a reporter who said that she had been assaulted. He has made fun of Megyn Kelly, Carly Fiorina, Heidi Cruz. What does it say about us when the Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump, speaks about women so regularly in this way?
JB: I'll tell you what it says about Donald Trump, is Donald Trump — it matters what people say. It matters what your leaders say. It matters. Words matter. And the public should hold them accountable. And how they vote. He could be a Democrat. He could be a liberal Democrat and say it. He should be held accountable — by voting no.
It matters what people say. It matters what they do. Their conduct matters. That sends a message to tens of thousands of young men and women who think it's appropriate to do that, to say that.
Well, to be fair, Donald Trump isn't the only person who has said some divisive things —
JB: Of course he isn't.
— about women lately. Sen. Bernie Sanders actually just said that Hillary Clinton isn't qualified to be president.
JB: That's totally different.
Some are saying, though, that that's a sexist remark.
JB: Look, they're both totally qualified to be president. They both get in a fight. Campaigns do this. It's like saying, you know, "She's dead wrong" or her saying, "He's dead wrong" on an issue. You cannot, you cannot argue that — if he said, "She's not qualified because she's a woman. She's not qualified because —"
Well, do you think she's held to a higher standard? Because she is a woman?
JB: No, I don't think she's held to a higher standard. This country's ready for a woman. There's no problem. We're going to be able to elect a woman in this country.
Would you like to see us elect a woman in this country?
JB: I would like to see a woman elected.
Staff, off-camera: That's it.
JB: No, no, no, that's all right, I'd like to see — no, no, I don't mind if, it's no problem. I'm not getting into that rabbit — I'm not —
I'd like to ask one more question as well.
JB: The president and I are not going endorse because we both, when we ran said, "Let the party decide." But gosh almighty, they're both qualified. Hillary, Hillary's overwhelmingly qualified to be president.
My last question for you, Mr. Vice President. When you announced in the Rose Garden that you would not be running for president, you mentioned that you and your family would continue to fight on a number of issues pertaining to the dignity of the American people. How are you going to continue the fight against sexual assault?
JB: Well, I'm going stay engaged in this fully, whether I set up an independent foundation, whether I work through some universities that talk to me, or an independent foundation, I'm going stay engaged. This has been the passion of my career. I've done a lot of other things in my career, but, you know, when I first started speaking on this no one wanted to talk about it. Nobody wanted to talk about it.
It's the single most important thing that I can do domestically, and I'm going to continue as long as I have a breath in me. And no matter what you think, no one ever doubts I mean what I say. Sometimes I say all that I mean, but I never say anything I don't mean.
I'll be involved in this until I take my last breath, because there's too many beautiful, bright, decent, honorable young men and women who are being victimized. And people are turning a blind eye. They're turning a blind eye. We have an obligation.
We're going be judged as a culture, as much as we treat this issue as anything else that happens to us 10, 20, 30, 50 years from now. And that's why I'm doing it internationally. I wrote an international Violence Against Women Act. that's why the president and I are making conditional what kind of aid we give based on whether or not a country allows genital mutilation, honor killings. There is no justification at all — cultural, religious or otherwise — for denying a man or woman their basic human rights. As long as I have a breath I'm not changing, since I was 22 years old. Nothing's changing.
Thank you so much for your time today, Mr. Vice President. I so appreciate it.
JB: Thank you.