Please Stop Shoving That Bernie Sanders Rape Essay In My Face

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48 years ago, Bernie Sanders wrote a spicy take about rape culture, and men can’t stop showing it to me.

Hey, did you know that Bernie Sanders once wrote an essay about a woman having a rape fantasy? If you are blissfully unaware of this fact, then you are lucky, and also you are probably not a woman who has had the audacity to express frustration with Joe Biden being the presumptive Democratic nominee despite his well-documented history of creepiness toward girls and women.

For the uninitiated: in 1972, Bernie Sanders wrote an article called “Man and Woman” for a Vermont-based alternative paper. This article begins with a shocking, attention-grabbing lede:

Wha-wha-wha-what? [Cue Patrick Stewart doing a quadruple take]. What’s this about people fantasizing about rape? Oh my stars!

The essay continues,

Wow. That’s an extraordinarily taboo topic, but it’s actually kind of an interesting question! Many people are, in fact, titillated by things they loudly claim to find horrific. This was true in 1972, and as any quick browse of the tags on the most popular videos on the myriad free porn aggregators on the internet will confirm, not much has changed. (If anything, our obsession with sexualizing youthfulness and violence toward girls and women has intensified.) Sanders continues,

What is going on in this essay? Sanders seems to be suggesting that rape fantasies—which are indeed common, and do not indicate that a person actually wants to be raped—might be part of a larger system in which women are generally expected to be docile and subservient to men, and that allowing this “man-woman situation” to go unexamined is a source of alienation between the sexes. After all, in the opening scenario, both the man and the woman are having compatible fantasies, but they’re having them alone and not communicating about them. Why don’t they discuss their fantasies and get a little role-playing thing going when they get home from the revolutionary meeting? Is it because of how shame around issues of sex and power encourages us to keep quiet about our desires, especially if those desires are of a taboo or transgressive nature?

In the context of 1972, in the wake of the so-called sexual revolution, this is a take that feels very influenced by second wave feminism. It might even hit some Andrea Dworkin-esque notes. Sanders appears to be conflating rape fantasies (which can be acted out consensually) with rape culture, which seems a bit naive and kink-shamey by contemporary standards. But his larger point is that what we now call rape culture indeed exists, that evidence of it can be seen in many of the popular images we consume as a society, and that it harms both men and women by leading to conflict and alienation. I mean, duh, and also wow, kind of? For not just a dude to be thinking about this stuff in 1972, but Bernie Sanders?

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Bernie Sanders’ infamous “rape fantasy” essay as published in the Vermont Freeman, February 1972

Many articles about this essay—as well as the statement his own campaign made about it—emphasize Sanders’s desire to distance himself from it, and that the essay is ‘dumb,’ and a bad attempt at satire. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone actually talk through what it really indicates, though, which is that Bernie Sanders was thinking about the psychological aspects of rape culture back in the 1970s, and trying to imagine ways to subvert it.

To take this essay as a celebration of either rape fantasies or rape culture is to take its point, turn it upside-down, and run in the exact opposite of its intended direction. And yet that’s what everyone who has insisted I read it seems to be doing with it.

Which brings me to the men who keep showing it to me. (This has happened about a half a dozen times in the past week, enough to inspire me to sit down and write this.) The men I’m talking about, of course, are the Biden Boys. The Joe Bros. The Jœthren Brethren, if you will.

The context of these non-consensual encounters with the Bernie Sanders rape essay always starts with some liberal—someone who was very distraught about Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, no doubt—declaring that they think Joe Biden’s recent sexual assault accuser Tara Reade is a Russian agent or some other nefarious actor. I’ll point out that honestly, it doesn’t even matter to me whether Tara Reade is telling the truth because we’ve known for years that Joe Biden is kind of a creep, and one reason we know is because the internet is full of videos of him grabbing and kissing little girls while they try to squirm away.

This comment will typically elicit one of two kinds of responses. The first kind of response defends the grab-and-kissing as innocent, because “all grandpas do this to kids.” This is an argument I’ve encountered many times—not just from men— and it depresses the hell out of me. It troubles me because at this point, we’re basically saying that the right of grabby grandpas to feel completely entitled to children’s bodies (even children they are not related to) is somehow inalienable, as if allowing kids to help set their own boundaries over who gets to touch them is just wayyyyy too much to ask. As an author for Today’s Parent wrote in a blog post about forcing kids to hug and kiss relatives, “when we ignore our children’s instincts in these situations, what are we teaching them about consent?”

The second response—one I’ve only seen from men so far, curiously—is to shove the Bernie Sanders rape essay in my face.

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Biden Bro DESTROYS hypocrite with rape essay on Twitter dot com

“Now show us whether you have a double standard,” said one of my Twitter followers recently (definitely not a bot), implying that I’m a hypocrite if I don’t find it as offensive as disregarding someone else’s bodily autonomy. But as I’ve already outlined, the only way to really take offense at the Bernie Sanders rape essay is to completely misconstrue its point. (This herring is so red I’d make a joke about it being a communist plot if it wasn’t being used to try to derail the only progressive candidate in the highest-stakes election of our lives.)

To be clear, I don’t think Bernie Sanders is a perfect candidate. By defaulting to pandering to white male fragility at times, he can be very unintentionally divisive, as I’ve discussed elsewhere. Also, a small but devoted contingent of his diehard supporters are among the most annoying people on the left, as I’ve also covered. But comparing this 48-year old essay about rape culture—an absolute non-story that you have to willfully misconstrue to find offensive—to a lifelong pattern of violating women and girls’ physical boundaries is a cartoonishly bad argument. Why not just admit that you only care about sexual assault when you don’t agree with the politics of the accused and be done with it?

Why not just admit that you only care about sexual assault when you don’t agree with the politics of the accused and be done with it?

All of that said, YES, I will obviously vote for the lesser-of-two-grabbers if it comes to that nightmare scenario in November. The more you tell me to do it, the more nonconsensual it will feel, but I will still do it anyway, because there are fates even worse than not being able to escape the kissing clutches of Status Quo Incarnate. The Trump administration’s mishandling of the current public health crisis alone is criminal, and must be stopped at all costs. But if you’re a liberal dude trying to defend Joe Biden’s amply documented creepiness toward girls and women by shoving a quote about rape in someone’s face, I would strongly urge you to take a long look at the irony in that situation—and then maybe close your computer and go for a walk or something because at that point, you’re doing more harm for your own cause than good.

Artist and historian. PhD student researching religion, material culture, media, and politics. Bylines at The Wire Magazine, Art in America + more.

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