Over the last week, four women have made public statements saying Joe Biden made them uncomfortable with what they viewed as inappropriate touching.
Lucy Flores wrote an op-ed for The Cut describing Biden smelling her hair and kissing her head before she spoke at a political rally. Amy Lappos told the Hartford Courant that Biden grabbed her by the head and rubbed noses with her at a political fundraiser. Two more women, Caitlyn Caruso and D. J. Hill, spoke to the New York Times Tuesday about their experiences. Caruso says Biden “rested his hand on her thigh — even as she squirmed in her seat to show her discomfort — and hugged her ‘just a little bit too long’ at an event on sexual assault” when she was 19. Hill says that at a fund-raising event, she and her husband took a picture with Biden, during which he “put his hand on her shoulder and then started dropping it down her back, which made her ‘very uncomfortable.’”
Biden’s initial response to Flores over the weekend was to say that never in his long career in politics, “did I believe I acted inappropriately. If it is suggested I did so, I will listen respectfully,” he said. “But it was never my intention.”
Now that three more women have spoken out, he’s issued a response video via Twitter.
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
He says that he wants to discuss “gestures of support” that have made women and some men uncomfortable. You can watch the video, but ultimately, he defends his behavior as being driven by a desire to make “human connections” in politics, a field that is often devoid of such interactions. “I shake hands, I hug people, I grab men and women by the shoulders and say ‘You can do this.’ Whether they’re women, men, young, old–It’s the way I’ve always been. It’s the way I’ve tried to show I care about them and I’m listening.”
Except what he’s finally hearing now is that that’s not how a lot of people want to be listened to or supported. For many people, the way Biden expresses support–from placing hands on shoulders as he mentions to the far more intimate acts described above–makes them shut down or feel comfortable. Some find it distracting, as they describe their inner monologue that followed, having to try to decipher his motives.
In the end, none of those four women described Biden’s touching as overtly sexual or malicious. None of them called theirs a “#MeToo” story. That didn’t stop the backlash, of course, as plenty of people rushed to tell them they were wrong about a thing they never said in the first place.
Everyone: Why can’t #metoo recognize a spectrum of harm?
Two women: This wasn’t assault or harassment, but it made me uncomfortable, however well intended.
Everyone: why are you giving Joe Biden the death penalty
— Irin Carmon (@irin) April 2, 2019
So Biden is defending the intentions of his actions–again, a thing none of these women have actually questioned–but he does, thankfully, say that he will reexamine his behavior.
“Social norms have begun to change, they’ve shifted, and the boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset,” he says. I’m not sure if that’s actually true or if women are just carving out a space where they can finally say the things they’ve been feeling for decades. Either way, Biden says he’ll “be much more mindful,” which is really all anyone was asking for. “That’s my responsibility and I’ll meet it,” he says.
I do wish Biden would acknowledge that the ways in which he is physically affectionate with women do differ from how he is with men. Unless he’s ever offered support for a grown man running for office by kissing the top of his head, or rubbed noses with a male congressional aide, that fact remains.
It’s also important to note that Biden never actually apologizes for making anyone feel uncomfortable; he just acknowledges that that’s the case.
When asked for a comment, Amy Lappos–one of the women to speak out about her experience with Biden–shared this statement with me:
It’s a start.
I’d like to point out you can make personal connections without crossing the line. Men and women do it everyday. Not everyone wants to be touched and it’s not sterile or disengaging or cold to respect boundaries.
That being said, anyone who can hear women and change behaviors is taking the right steps.
I hope he can influence others to keep raising that bar and have women at the table when setting that bar.
A lot of the people who have spoken out in favor of Biden over the last few days defend him by saying they know him well or they’re longtime friends or colleagues. So obviously his physical affection isn’t going to strike them as odd. But all of these women had only just met Biden, and were in professional or political settings, when he touched them the way he would touch a close female friend.
Some people–a lot of people, no doubt–wouldn’t have a problem with that. Sometimes someone introduces themself and says “I’m a hugger!” and the other person says “Me too!” and everything’s great. But not everyone likes hugs. Not everyone even likes a handshake. And certainly not everyone likes it when the Vice President of the United States rubs noses with them or places his hand low on their back.
Joe Biden should have been aware of that, and it’s telling that he never once considered if the women in front of him wanted to be touched so intimately. But at least he’s considering it now.
(image: Craig Barritt/Getty Images for Glamour)
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