Politics

As a College Student, I Had My Own Close Encounter With Joe Biden. I’m Still Not Sure How to Feel About It.

Lilly Jay, a survivor of sexual assault, stands with Vice President Joe Biden at the launch of the “It’s On Us” campaign at the White House on Sept. 19, 2014. Biden is leaning close enough that his head is almost touching Jay's.
Lilly Jay, a survivor of sexual assault, stands with Vice President Joe Biden at the launch of the “It’s On Us” campaign at the White House on Sept. 19, 2014.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

“Now I know,” I thought to myself, “what a vice president’s breath smells like—coffee.” An interesting fact gleaned on a surreal day. At the time, it didn’t occur to me that perhaps he should not have been close enough to me that I could smell him at all. It was Sept. 19, 2014, and I had just introduced then–Vice President Joe Biden at a White House event. I had been asked, as a survivor of college sexual assault, to join Biden at an event for It’s On Us, a new White House initiative to address the problem of sexual violence on campus. I was hoping to produce a happy ending to an incident that had rocked me to my core as an 18-year-old. My mom and dad were there. My brothers and the boyfriend I would later marry were all watching via livestream. I was in the White House, and I was getting the last word.

When I entered the East Room to deliver my speech, the crowd stood and clapped as if I were some kind of composite of all the young women and men who had similarly been hurt as college students. How bizarre to be applauded for just carrying on after a traumatic event; I hadn’t been aware there were other options. My remarks called upon college administrations, professors, and students not to rely on survivors to do the hard work of creating necessary change, but rather to take responsibility for their own communities. I introduced Biden as an ally. When he came to the stage, he leaned in and gave me coffee-scented words of encouragement. Then he held my hand and pointed at me as he said something to the crowd.

Holding hands with the vice president felt a little odd—when was the last time I had held hands with anyone? But I didn’t experience it as intrusive or unsettling. I remember later being disappointed that most of the press pictures of me that day captured some degree of physical contact with either the vice president or president. I could have sworn there was a moment I stood on my own. But mostly I tried not to think about my day at the White House at all. It was meant to be my lemonade from lemons, a capstone to an experience I’d sooner forget.

While reading Lucy Flores’ and Sofie Karasek’s accounts last week of their interactions with Biden, a knot gathered in my stomach. I experienced, in a very small dose, the kind of doubt, the queasy sense of having been duped that I once felt so strongly as a survivor. I believe Flores and Karasek, and I believe they felt humiliated and distressed by Biden’s physical contact. It was me who I doubted. The feeling of questioning my own experience was a familiar one. Why hadn’t I been more aware of Biden’s contact with me? Why didn’t it occur to me to be perturbed? Why had I so quickly discredited my annoyance at having to hold hands with him like I was a little girl?

I am hesitant to definitively sum up how Biden made me feel that day because it seems beside the point. As a graduate student studying clinical psychology, I am aware both emotionally and intellectually of how little people like ambiguity. It takes up too much room in our minds, so we seek to resolve the contradiction. For every person who felt comforted by Biden’s touch, there could be someone who felt unsettled. Is anyone keeping count? Are we waiting for some kind of grand tally in order to settle this? What I will say is this: That day, Biden’s gestures toward me felt more paternalistic than predatory; there was nothing prurient about him holding my hand. I think he believes, like the waiter who recently squeezed my arm during dinner, that certain kinds of touch are friendly and fatherly. But neither of those men are my father, and there are lots of ways to be friendly.

Biden can’t know, nor can anyone else, what a touch of any kind might mean to another person. Erring on the side of asking before touching is a guideline so simple it might just work. And had he asked me that day: “Can I hold your hand?” I don’t know what I would have said. I was so electric with nerves, I may have said yes and received his hand in mine warmly. I was also so enamored with the chance to publicly assert that I was independent, unbroken, and whole that I may have declined. It’s hard to imagine in retrospect what I wanted in that moment, but I know I would have appreciated the opportunity to decide for myself. Biden grabbing my hand constituted a small boundary-crossing that seems to reflect a kind of inability to imagine another person’s perspective more than anything else. I don’t think he considered that I, as a young woman—a survivor of sexual assault who had just spoken about that experience in perhaps the most public forum she’d ever be in—maybe did not want or need a hand to hold.

My sense that Biden, who is known for his empathy, actually has a limited ability to understand how others might feel grew as I watched him joke about the issue and sidestep an apology. It wasn’t until that “sorry not sorry” video and his jokes about seeking permission before touching people that I realized I had been privately rooting for Biden. Even now, I still want to settle back into a comforting belief that the man who stood next to me talking about the importance of curbing campus sexual assault is a good person with the possibility of success in 2020. But his failure to own up to the distress he has caused some women is not as open to interpretation as his touching. While some people enjoy hugs from strangers and others do not, I don’t know anyone who enjoys not receiving an apology when hurt, or having their lived experience made into a joke. I was willing to reserve judgment and embrace the ambiguity of Biden’s physical contact—to give him the benefit of the doubt. But I don’t know how much longer I can make space for him to do the right thing and own up to his missteps.