"I Was Heartbroken": Joe Biden Pens a Moving Essay About His Fight to End Sexual Assault on Campus

With the It's On Us campaign, the former vice president continues his crusade.

When I had the great honor of serving as this country's vice president, my responsibilities took me around the world and back again. But nothing was more important to me than continuing my life's work to end violence against women. This is a battle I've been fighting for more than 20 years—since before I wrote the Violence Against Women Act that was passed in 1994—and it's one I thought we'd been winning. Since 1994, domestic-violence rates have dropped by 63 percent. Rape crisis centers, battered-women's shelters, and survivor hotlines have sprung up across the country. But it seems like time has stood still on college campuses.

"It is abundantly clear that we still live in a culture in which violence against women is allowed—even encouraged—to persist."

I was heartbroken by some of the studies I read as vice president: Data showed that we have made virtually no progress for college-age women. More than half of intimate-partner violence occurs before the victim has reached her 25th birthday, and one in five women will be sexually assaulted in her college career. We also know that sexual assault does not end with the attack: The physical, emotional, and interpersonal effects can last a lifetime. Without adequate support, survivors are at risk of suffering debilitating mental-health challenges and dropping out of school. As a result, campus sexual assault affects public health, diminishes quality of life, and reduces the earning potential of thousands of women. We all have a stake in this work. In 2011, the Obama–Biden White House sent important guidance to schools spelling out their responsibilities to prevent sexual violence.

Award ceremony, Event, Award, Official, Ceremony,

Joe Biden introduces Lilly Jay, a survivor of sexual assault, at the launch of the It\'s On Us campaign

(Image credit: Getty Images)

It baffles the mind that some federal officials believe this guidance is not necessary. Now is not the time to go backward. It is abundantly clear that we still live in a culture in which violence against women is allowed—even encouraged—to persist. There are still men who believe they have the right to hurt a woman, and women who believe they must have done something to deserve it. That's why I launched It's On Us with President Barack Obama in 2014. Starting with college campuses, we want to make it clear that everyone—from the dean to the swimming team—has a moral obligation to speak up against violence and to stop it from happening.

We're asking students to hold one another accountable and to intervene if they see someone being targeted for assault. To me, if you see that a student is being taken advantage of—at a party, in the dorms, at a bar—and you don't do something to stop it, you are complicit. You are telling the victim and the perpetrator that sexual assault is OK. And it is never, ever OK.

Everyone has a role in stopping it. Sexual assault is a problem in LGBTQ communities as well. Anyone can be a victim, no matter their gender or the gender of their attacker. It's On Us is working to change the culture and make colleges safer for everyone.

I've been fighting against sexual violence for my whole career, and I truly believe that this generation is better positioned than any other to change campus culture. Today, more than 420,000 people have signed the pledge to do their part in ending campus sexual assault. But we won't get any closer to a future without violence unless we engage everyone. Whether you are a student, a parent, an alum, a university official, or a community leader, you can make a difference by speaking up and taking action.

"I'll be visiting college campuses and meeting with students around the country to deliver a simple message: It's on all of us to stop sexual violence."

The first few weeks of classes in the fall are critical to our mission. This is when freshmen, especially women, are most vulnerable, and when our actions can have the greatest impact in securing their safety and their futures. I'll be visiting college campuses and meeting with students around the country to deliver a simple message: It's on all of us to stop sexual violence.

I invite you to join It's On Us for the Fall Week of Action, October 22 to 28. The victories we've achieved over the past three years will not continue unless supporters and allies like you step up to the challenge and take your peers with you. If you want to see the culture change, if you want safer colleges for young women, don't just stand by. You can, and must, add your strength and voice to this fight. The time is now: Sign the pledge at itsonus.org (opens in new tab) and make a change.

Joe Biden was the 47th Vice President of the United States. Learn more about It's On Us and how you can get involved at itsonus.org (opens in new tab). This article appears in the October issue of Marie Claire, on newsstands now.