What Joe Biden Did May Not Have Been Harassment — But That Doesn't Mean It's Okay
Joe Biden's alleged inappropriate behavior exists in the realm of transgressions that we’ve come to see as ordinary. How do we move forward?
The first time a man made me feel uncomfortable, I was 12 or 13, that age you are when well-meaning adults start saying you look like a mujercita, a little woman, not a kid anymore. The details of the date and place remain fuzzy, but I remember clearly how a grown man my family knows hugged me a little too hard, held on to me for a little too long, and planted a kiss on my cheek a little too forcefully, to the point that it made me feel like my skin was crawling.
I had never been treated this way, but here I was, a confused mujercita with newly formed curves who still viewed the world with the eyes of a child. Looking back, there was nothing particularly sexual or abusive about the way he held me in front of my family, but it was also an uninvited, clear breach of my personal space. I understood something immediately: These invasions of your space, these small indignities, are the cost of moving through the world as a woman. Being a mujercita is just the beginning.
I've been thinking a lot about this moment, and every other time a man thought of my body as a public space, as women, four of them now, have been coming forward with allegations that former Vice President Joe Biden behaved inappropriately toward them in the past. Former Nevada Democratic politician Lucy Flores broke the silence last week. “I felt him get closer to me from behind. He leaned further in and inhaled my hair. I was mortified,” she wrote in an essay for The Cut. “I thought to myself, ‘I didn’t wash my hair today and the vice-president of the United States is smelling it. And also, what in the actual fuck? Why is the vice-president of the United States smelling my hair?’ He proceeded to plant a big slow kiss on the back of my head.” Her allegations were followed by a similar account Monday. "It wasn’t sexual, but he did grab me by the head," former congressional aide Amy Lappos told the Hartford Courant. "He put his hand around my neck and pulled me in to rub noses with me. When he was pulling me in, I thought he was going to kiss me on the mouth." On Tuesday, the New York Times reported two more stories; Caitlyn Caruso, a sexual assault survivor, said Biden rested his hand on her thigh even as she signaled she was uncomfortable at an event three years ago. D.J. Hill told the outlet that during a 2012 fundraiser Biden touched her shoulders and then began to drop his hand down her back, until her husband intervened.
All the women who’ve spoken up have emphasized that Biden’s alleged behavior was neither sexual harassment nor a criminal act. Instead, his actions exist in the realm of transgressions that we’ve come to see as ordinary, as rites of passage for women in the vein of the “boys will be boys” narrative that persists in society. What these women have said, however, is that his alleged actions made them feel demeaned and helpless because of the obvious imbalance of power. When these incidents took place, Biden was a longtime politician and at the time, the second-most powerful man in the U.S.
In his first statement issued Sunday, Biden stressed he didn’t believe he had acted inappropriately, but that he would listen “respectfully” to women’s experiences. He followed up with a video posted on social media Tuesday, framing his interactions as a matter of connecting with people and attributing women's experiences to how "social norms ... have shifted." He said he would be more mindful of people's personal space in the future, but he never apologized to the women who've spoke up. At the same time, his team has aggressively pushed back against the existing collection of photos and videos of Biden behaving questionably throughout the years — from whispering into women's and girls’ ears to kissing them in a similar manner to the way Flores said he kissed her. At no time, however, has Biden called the women liars or denied the incidents took place. For him, it’s a matter of perspective and intention. His defenders say his behavior boils down to the curse of being someone who is too affectionate. Biden himself doesn’t think he behaved inappropriately, therefore to them, that means he didn’t.
Social norms are changing. I understand that, and I’ve heard what these women are saying. Politics to me has always been about making connections, but I will be more mindful about respecting personal space in the future. That’s my responsibility and I will meet it. pic.twitter.com/Ya2mf5ODts— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) April 3, 2019
Hearing these women's experiences, I can’t help but think of all the times when I felt powerless and disgusted by a man’s behavior in a professional setting — even if I’m pretty sure some of them thought they were behaving in the same paternalistic, old-school way that has made “Uncle Joe” so appealing to many. Take for example when I was a bright-eyed 19-year-old at my first journalism internship and one of my supervisors touched my face and told me I would “look good on TV” while running his thumb across my cheek. This was a radio internship.
If only I had believed at 19 — after being raised on a steady diet of “good girls don’t cause problems,” at my first professional internship, in front of someone who could make or break my career before it had even begun — that it was even an option for me to assert myself and ask of this relative stranger not to touch me again. Instead, I laughed awkwardly, made up an excuse to walk away, and buried the exchange in the box of other creepy encounters I’ve had in my life. I could list similar transgressions that have plagued my life for hours on end: the looking up-and-down at my body before jokingly telling my father to “lock me away” to protect me from prospective suitors during my teenage years; the arm around my waist and the squeeze that followed at networking events; the kisses meant for the cheek but that landed dangerously close to my mouth. Small indignities peppered throughout my everyday life, as normal as breathing.
For some, these don’t amount to real violations, the so-called bad kind of misconduct that covers everything from rape to harassment, the kind at the center of the societal reckoning that has come into focus in the last 18 months. And yet, these types of experiences that we’ve long treated as innocuous color how women move through the world, especially for those who are already vulnerable and marginalized. It’s worth having an honest conversation — especially since the current occupant of the White House has been accused over and over again of sexual misconduct — about the boundaries men routinely cross without falling into the category society has deemed “truly bad” behavior.
Biden has approached these women’s experiences with a flippant attitude that is incredibly tone-deaf considering the cultural moment we find ourselves in.
It’s unclear how much Biden wants to engage with this conversation. Despite the insistence that he’s a champion of women, Biden’s team and by extension, the former vice president himself, have approached the women’s experiences with a flippant attitude that is incredibly tone-deaf considering the cultural moment we find ourselves in. Both of his non-apologies eerily echo the one he gave Anita Hill for the way he treated her after she accused Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. And according to the New York Times, Biden’s team sent the outlet quotes from nearly two dozen women — all former staffers, power players in politics, and media personalities — “vouching for the former vice president.” The “not the Biden I know” defense flies in the face of decency, particularly after many Democrats raged against the list of women who signed a letter supporting Justice Brett Kavanaugh after he was accused of sexual misconduct.
Biden’s 2020 presidential bid has been all but announced. He will likely forge on, regardless of the allegations against him. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that while she doesn’t think Biden’s actions are disqualifying, he should understand “people's space is important to them and what's important is how they receive it, not necessarily how you intended it." This understanding is at the heart of the allegations — the women who’ve spoken up deserve to hear him reckon with how his actions made them feel uncomfortable and demeaned. But because the ability to discuss these experiences with nuance has been lost, there’s been fear among many that this type of behavior is being lumped in with more grave allegations, such as the ones against President Donald Trump or many other men in power who’ve been accused of abusive behavior.
The potential for weaponization on the part of bad actors is also high, with groups such as the pro-Trump Great America PAC planning to release a “Creepy Joe Biden” ad. At a time when Democrats are desperate to find someone who can take back the White House, with Biden poised as the frontrunner before even entering the race, some question whether it’s even worth it to discuss his past conduct when there are “more important” issues to focus on. But it’s imperative to understand that harm exists on a spectrum and refusing to ask our elected officials to show empathy and ability to evolve is disappointing behavior for a party that claims to have the best interests of the American people at heart.
While I don’t think it’s productive to call for Biden’s head and write him off over this conduct — voters should also evaluate him on his record — we need a thoughtful conversation surrounding his lack of self-awareness about how his actions have impacted women and played into the same type of misogyny he has fought against. Legendary feminist activist Gloria Steinem put it best: “Our bodies and voices belong to us — that should be the first step in democracy. Just ask before hugging.” The women who’ve spoken up about their experiences with Biden have underscored this sentiment over and over again. It should not be that complicated. Biden can either choose to be an active participant in this debate or continue to be glib. I wouldn’t be surprised if he chooses the latter, however, because what’s one more indignity to deal with?