It’s Past Time to Acknowledge the Way Joe Biden Acts Towards Women

Joe Biden seated, leaning forward and speaking.

Late last week, a former Nevada assemblywoman named Lucy Flores published an essay in The Cut detailing what she describes as an “awkward” encounter with then-Vice President Joe Biden in 2014.

Flores, then 35, was the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in Nevada, where Biden had come to give the party a boost in their statewide elections. Flores says she was backstage at a rally, waiting to go on to speak to voters, when she “felt two hands on [her] shoulders.”  She says she “froze,” thinking to herself “’Why is the vice-president of the United States touching me?’”

“I felt him get closer to me from behind. He leaned further in and inhaled my hair,” she continues. “I was mortified. 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. My brain couldn’t process what was happening. I was embarrassed. I was shocked. I was confused. There is a Spanish saying, ‘tragame tierra,’ it means, ‘earth, swallow me whole.’ I couldn’t move and I couldn’t say anything. I wanted nothing more than to get Biden away from me. My name was called and I was never happier to get on stage in front of an audience.”

She goes on to describe how being a young Latina in politics had made her “used to feeling like an outsider in rooms dominated by white men,” though she says she’d never experienced anything like that Biden moment. Biden, on the other hand, appears to have had lots of similar moments. As Flores notes, over the years, there have been lots of pictures and videos appearing to show Biden nuzzling women and girls’ necks, whispering in their ears, or touching them in other apparently intimate ways.

Not all of those moments were necessarily uncomfortable for the individual woman involved. One of these “creepy” photos that went viral shows Biden whispering in the ear of Stephanie Carter during her husband’s swearing-in as defense secretary. After Flores’ article came out, that picture once again started making the rounds, prompting Carter to write an essay titled “The #MeToo Story That Wasn’t Me,” saying that the picture was “misleadingly extracted from what was a longer moment between close friends.”

It’s definitely not cool to project an experience with sexual misconduct onto someone else, and we can’t presume to tell other people’s stories for them. But we also have to note that the way Biden touched his “close friend” Carter is the same way he touches women and even young girls whom he does not know at all.

The body language is often the same: Biden, standing behind a woman or girl, with his hands on their shoulders (or sometimes grabbing their arms, torso, or even their face) and his face nuzzled into their hair. At best, it is an overly familiar and infantilizing paternal way of treating women and girls. Even if there is no sexual motivation, it’s completely inappropriate. Flores writes of her experience, “Is it enough of a transgression if a man touches and kisses you without consent, but doesn’t rise to the level of what most people consider sexual assault? I did what most women do, and moved on with my life and my work.”

For Flores, seeing pictures of Biden stirred up anger and resentment, knowing that she couldn’t say anything, not just because Biden was a powerful man—but because he fit an archetype that we’ve accepted as a society: the “uncle.” She writes,

Had I never seen those pictures, I may have been able to give Biden the benefit of the doubt. Had there not been multiple articles written over the years about the exact same thing — calling his creepy behavior an “open secret” — perhaps it would feel less offensive. And yet despite the steady stream of pictures and the occasional article, Biden retained his title of America’s Favorite Uncle. On occasion that title was downgraded to America’s Creepy Uncle but that in and of itself implied a certain level of acceptance. After all, how many families just tolerate or keep their young children away from the creepy uncle without ever acknowledging that there should be zero tolerance for a man who persistently invades others’ personal space and makes people feel uneasy and gross? In this case, it shows a lack of empathy for the women and young girls whose space he is invading, and ignores the power imbalance that exists between Biden and the women he chooses to get cozy with.

As an American Uncle, Biden is lovable and seen as harmless. He gets to have any questionable behavior dismissed as obliviously quirky, yet he’s still viewed as a capable enough authority figure to be a 2020 presidential frontrunner, despite not even having announced an official candidacy. It is a role that is afforded only to older white men, for whom there is no apparent end to the benefit of our doubts.

In Biden’s response to Flores’ essay, he says that never in his long career in politics, “did I believe I acted inappropriately. If it is suggested I did so,” he says, “I will listen respectfully. But it was never my intention.”

“I may not recall these moments the same way,” he continued in his statement,” and I may be surprised at what I hear. But we have arrived at an important time when women feel they can and should relate their experiences, and men should pay attention. And I will.” He goes on to say he will “remain the strongest advocate I can be for the rights of women.”

It’s not surprising that Biden doesn’t believe he ever acted inappropriately. Flores guessed as much in her article, writing that looking at pictures of him and so many other women, “I saw obvious discomfort in the women’s faces, and Biden, I’m sure, never thought twice about how it made them feel.”

Has Biden ever reflected on the fact that he interacts with women incredibly differently from how he interacts with men? Even if his manner of touching is nonsexual, it’s still inappropriately paternal and that, in itself, is necessary of reflection and correction.

To now say that he is listening, without any indication that he’s willing to actually reflect on what he hears is a blatantly transparent non-apology. (If you think that’s just nitpicking semantics, I think you’re underestimating how hard a team has to work to craft the perfect semantics for this kind of statement from someone like Joe Biden.) Appearing on CNN, Flores said of Biden’s statement that he appears to have a “disconnect” if he doesn’t think his behavior was ever inappropriate.

“Frankly, my point was never about his intentions, and it shouldn’t be about his intentions. It should be about the women on the receiving end of that behavior, and … it wasn’t the only incident where he was acting inappropriately with women,” she said.

There has been an ugly backlash to Flores’ articles. A lot of people have been sharing pictures of her with other politicians or analyzing her body language in the picture with Biden, to construct an argument as to why she shouldn’t be allowed to complain about her interaction with Biden. This is a gross attempt to dehumanize her, to say that she’s not allowed to feel differently about different types of touching with different people. It’s the sort of argument too often used against women speaking out about their experiences with sexual misconduct or otherwise uncomfortable situations involving powerful men.

Others are arguing, as they did around Al Franken, that liberals can and even should ignore behavior like Biden’s because Donald Trump is in the White House. This, too, dehumanizes the very real women involved, counting them as props in men’s political stories. We don’t have to wait for Republicans to oust their sexual predators before we decide it’s worth looking at the inappropriate behavior happening on our side of the aisle.

This is a complicated issue and people are going to see all different shades of gray in it. But at its core, can we at least acknowledge that if the role of “America’s Uncle” were really so harmless, we wouldn’t have to tear a woman down for expressing discomfort with it? We wouldn’t have to work that hard to protect the archetype.

(image: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

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