In recent days, two women have told two stories about Joe Biden with strikingly similar details. Former Nevada Assemblywoman Lucy Flores wrote in the Cut that the then–vice president had grasped her shoulders, nuzzled her hair, and planted a “big slow kiss” on the back of her head while the two politicians were waiting in the wings of a 2014 campaign rally stage. Two days later, Stephanie Carter, wife of Obama-era Defense Secretary Ash Carter, published a piece disputing the widespread notion that a viral photo of Biden grasping her shoulders and nuzzling her hair during her husband’s 2015 swearing-in depicted a violation of personal space.
“I absolutely support her right to speak her truth,” Carter wrote of Flores. “She should be, like all women, believed. But her story is not mine. The Joe Biden in my picture is a close friend helping someone get through a big day, for which I will always be grateful.” Biden issued his own response to Flores’ story: “In my many years on the campaign trial and in public life, I have offered countless handshakes, hugs, expressions of affection, support, and comfort,” he said in a statement. “And not once—never—did I believe I acted inappropriately. If it is suggested that I did so, I will listen respectfully. But it was never my intention.”
Both Carter and Flores were braving high-pressure, high-visibility events when Biden came up behind them to deliver an unsolicited, intimate touch—Carter in the national spotlight for the biggest day of her husband’s career, Flores at a rally supporting her own lieutenant governor campaign, three days out from Election Day. Both were subjected to Biden’s hands on their shoulders and his nose in their hair.
But Biden’s alleged actions had completely different effects on the women. Flores wrote that the incident left her “mortified,” “uneasy,” “powerless,” and “gross.” She characterized his touching as “demeaning and disrespectful,” leading to feelings of “anger and…resentment” that grew over time. Carter, in contrast, found Biden’s touch soothing and kind, even “generous,” during a difficult day.
This discrepancy in reception underscores an immobile fact that makes cases like Biden so difficult to talk about: the subjectivity inherent in assessments of sexual harassment. The legal definition of sexual harassment requires that a harassing behavior be unwelcome and unwanted. If the person on the receiving end of an action welcomes or wants it, it’s not harassment. It doesn’t matter what the harasser wanted to do or thought he was doing; nor does it matter, within the broad categories of sexual remarks and physical contact, exactly what he did. He could touch two women the same exact way, and if one welcomed it while the other did not, he’s only harassed one of them.
The subjectivity of harassment has been at the heart of many disagreements about the transformative potential of the #MeToo movement. #MeToo skeptics worried that discouraging men from harassing women could scare them off completely or make every romantic interaction stilted, precluding most consensual flirtation and sexual advances. #MeToo supporters contended that the line between appropriate and inappropriate behavior, especially workplace behavior, is clearer than harassment apologists make it out to be. Meanwhile, in the first few months of #MeToo, unwanted kisses became a particular bugbear for some critics. Shouldn’t people be allowed to kiss other people, they wondered, without asking permission and getting an affirmative response?
Like many other feminist writers, I argued at the time that it was perfectly reasonable to ask would-be kissers to pay attention to (and heed!) verbal and nonverbal cues that demonstrate a desire to be kissed or not—and that however awkward asking for consent may feel to some, it’s a lot better than subjecting anyone to unwelcome intimate contact. Reading Flores and Carter’s Biden stories last weekend, I was reminded of that early-#MeToo-era conversation about relatively low-level sexual harassment: the unwanted kisses, squeezes, pats, and sniffs. I’ve heard the argument that Biden couldn’t have known one woman’s reassuring grasp would be another’s nauseating violation. If many women welcomed Biden’s kisses, nose rubs, and up-close whispers, some believe, he should be forgiven for assuming the others would, too.
But to give Biden a pass for extrapolating one woman’s comfort onto every other woman is to ascribe to him all the social intelligence of a tree stump. Biden is a career politician and an extraordinarily charismatic one at that. His life’s work has been built on his ability to read individual people, gain their trust, make them feel comfortable, and modulate his emotions to mirror theirs. Even those of us with a less preternatural knack for schmoozing would surely be able to guess that a new acquaintance, a young woman trying to earn political power with an imminent speech, might not appreciate an unsolicited back-of-the-head kiss. Biden has also spent the past several years alternately denying and apologizing for his role in failing Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation in 1991—an event widely credited as a turning point for American awareness of sexual harassment. If he wants voters to believe he’s spent the past few decades thinking over that travesty of a hearing, he can’t really turn around and claim he’s been forgivably absent from the cultural conversations it helped catalyze about inappropriate workplace behavior.
Because Biden’s actions as described in the current set of allegations don’t rise to the level of sexual assault, the question facing Democratic voters assessing Biden’s feminist bona fides isn’t so much whether women have been touched and made uncomfortable by him—he hasn’t disputed Flores’ story, and his statement in response all but said he expects other stories to follow. (“I may not recall these moments the same way, and I may be surprised at what I hear,” he said, making Flores’ single moment plural.) The question is whether he knew, or should have known, that what he did was wrong.
In a lukewarm statement of support for Biden on Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, “He has to understand in the world that we’re in now that people’s space is important to them, and what’s important is how they receive it and not necessarily how you intended it.” Here, she gives Biden the out that so many men spotlighted by the #MeToo movement have taken: Low-level harassment and gendered invasions of personal space were fine a few decades ago, so we can’t expect older men to respect women’s bodies to the extent required by current expectations. In this narrative, men of a certain age are like rickety gas-guzzling cars that don’t meet today’s fuel-efficiency standards. Sure, they wouldn’t be acceptable as newly manufactured models. But they can’t change now, so reasonable people should grandfather them in.
The good news for the Bidens of the world, and those who’d prefer not to be nuzzled by them, is that it’s easier to change a person than an outdated machine. The parallel Biden narratives that Flores and Carter have presented—same actions, different effects—suggest that men like Biden don’t necessarily need to unlearn specific behaviors. They just need to learn to empathize with women, which means erring on the side of not touching someone (nobody ever died for lack of an uninvited hair sniff!) when they aren’t sure beyond a reasonable doubt that she would welcome it.
Most men have already proved themselves capable of empathizing in this way—only with other men. Would Biden have smooched Beto O’Rourke’s head backstage at a rally? Would he have grabbed an unsuspecting man’s face and rubbed noses with him, as he allegedly did to a congressional aide in 2009? Maybe! Biden did have a habit of whispering sweet nothings into Obama’s ear. But his famously touchy demeanor usually manifests as bro-y back slaps and bear hugs with men; with women, it’s a patronizing set of hands on the shoulders, an unsettlingly close lean, a kiss on the head. He knows enough about body language and personal comfort to touch people differently based on their gender. A politician concerned with gender equity might have given some thought to why that is.
It’s telling that Biden has constructed his defense around the claim that he never had the “intention” of causing women discomfort. He’s placed the burden of reckoning on the recipients of his actions, the women who mistook his friendly gestures as invasive and unsettling. But good intentions that forge ahead, time after time, with no regard for the unique circumstances of each situation are no longer good—they’re careless. Any leader might occasionally offend women or step out of line in physical interactions with them. But he’d do so in spite of his sincere best efforts, not because he seemingly didn’t care enough to try.