Joe Biden Is Not What Matters Here

Joe Biden and Susan Rice
Vice President Joe Biden and national security adviser Susan Rice talk as President Barack Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi brief the press after a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office of the White House on April 14, 2015. Rice has defended Biden from accusations of inappropriate touching. Mike Theiler-Pool/Getty Images

Reading Lucy Flores’ account of her experience with Joe Biden, in which she described him putting his hands on her shoulders and kissing the back of her head just before she was to speak, I was keenly aware that I was supposed to find his conduct charming. I wanted to find it charming. Rationalizations rose up unbidden: Oh, calm down, I thought to myself, he’s just being affectionate. I imagined him as he might have imagined himself in that circumstance—a kindly man lending his protection to a young woman earlier in her career. I imagined him feeling proud of his generosity and goodness as he put his hands on her shoulders and kissed her head. Nothing predatory or malign about it. So yes: I felt mildly exasperated with Flores for making this an issue. This surprised me because I completely identified with what she described. I physically shuddered at the very idea of a strange man smelling and kissing my unwashed head. But a machine started up in my brain whose function it was to suppress that reaction. Neither shudder—hers or mine—was supposed to be part of the propriety calculus; it lived in the domain of flinches and squirms and private preferences it’s impolite to mention. Biden’s conduct was avuncular and public. It was well meant. As another woman told the Washington Post, similar unwelcome intimacy from Biden made her uncomfortable “even though it was intended as a compliment.” That his behavior made Lucy Flores want to disappear from her own campaign event—that the very idea of it happening to me made me writhe in sympathy with her—was somehow coequal to or less important than our own mannerly, socialized need to acknowledge Biden’s apparent good intentions.

This is what some of the responses in the aftermath of Flores’ account have been missing: that an individual reaction to Biden’s “tactile” chumminess is more complicated than what we’ve been given credit for. The way this machine works in my own mind is familiar and confusing; so is the strange meta-discussion about Biden’s conduct that’s ensued. In BuzzFeed, Katherine Miller correctly observed a certain automaticity infecting our discussions of this incident. There are lazy formulas: Is Biden “canceled”? People say they “believe” Flores—but there’s little to doubt, since Biden has literally been filmed doing exactly what she describes. Belief here is standing in for the framework we use for survivors of sexual assault, one that doesn’t quite work. Biden defenders are offering refutations, saying, He and Flores were never alone! when she didn’t claim that they were. They are claiming close friendship with Biden, when those who have complained had no relationship with him at all. Miller writes that these reactions are so bizarrely out of step with the incident itself that they register a mismatch between the scripts we have available and the reality we’re trying to describe.

This resonated with me even though my own machine (or program) was operating on a slightly different axis: Reading Flores’ claim, I felt the same faint defensive surprise I felt the first time I heard someone explain what sexual harassment was and why it wasn’t OK. (But isn’t he just trying to make her feel pretty? the program says.) I felt much as I did when I first encountered a principled objection to catcalls—specifically, that they made women self-conscious and nervous and unsafe on streets they had every right to occupy unperturbed. (But it’s a compliment!) I felt as I felt when I read my first-ever explanation of how a lot of behavior that the movies taught me to see as charming fit the definition of stalking. (But this is how love looks!) That many women did not feel pretty or complimented or loved was not, for a very long time, factored into the equation. Deprogramming means learning, over and over again, that this isn’t just the order of things. It’s a framework in which men are granted the freedom to behave messily and spontaneously while their conduct is excused and naturalized and made lovable—boys being boys, Joe being Joe. And others endure it like it’s weather.

This is the kind of epiphany people like me have to achieve over and over again. That something is done openly and has been for years does not mean it is harmless or that it should be publicly accepted. It is important to recognize that no one has claimed that Biden’s actions felt to them like sexual misconduct. It is also important to recognize that the women who nevertheless say they didn’t like it are seen as rude and intolerant, ungrateful and unkind. (Or even, per one theory, malicious.) We have been laughing nervously at Uncle Joe on C-SPAN for years—a figure whose membership in one’s extended family came with the license to be inappropriate, but also meant you could never directly ask him to stop. It’s why the internet has taken up the Creepy Uncle moniker—a darker construal of what the “Uncle Joe” nickname implies—a figure whose uncomfortable gaffes are seen as lovable and whose paternalistic intimacies we code as innocent.

So I gently disagree with the claim that every individual knows already how they feel about these allegations—or that they’ll fall firmly into a camp of exoneration or a camp of blame. The truth is, I feel both ways about Biden’s behavior. I feel both the way I’ve been taught one should feel—that it’s no big deal, he meant well, and life is full of shudders and challenges—and the way I personally feel when I am touched in similar ways by similar figures: repulsed, infantilized, small. I suspect I’m not alone.

Many have characterized this incident as a distraction. I don’t think it is. These gray areas matter greatly, and it has been amazing to watch this culture, over the course of my lifetime, come to a clear consensus about so many of these gray and thorny questions: We have (mostly) agreed, for instance, that leering and unwanted touching in the workplace are not OK. Whatever the intent, we understand that the effect is by and large invasive and belittling, and that conduct like this denies women the equal treatment they deserve. Catcalling and stalking are no longer excused as charmingly undisciplined expressions of love. None of this means that there aren’t circumstances where shoulder rubs are fine or welcomed. It does mean that we’ve developed an ability to recognize why, whatever’s in his heart, a man shouldn’t go around uniformly doing it to anyone at any time. Touching people is not a personality or a style. Insisting on the freedom to do so would mean prioritizing your way of being over other people’s experience of you. Women have been politely pretending to enjoy attentions like these—by letting Uncle Joe, or Uncle Richard, or Uncle Harry continue to think that they were lending “support,” or being chivalrous and respectful. But if Joe and Richard and Harry truly want to be respectful, they will understand that head-kissing is not acceptable by default.

I don’t personally care very much about Joe Biden. What I do care about is the extent to which this conversation, messy and undisciplined and confusing though it’s been, has illustrated just how many women have had to deal with a tactile “uncle” of some kind or another. Up until now, there has not been a good language for it. We are not alone in our private discomfort with these public behaviors, wishing we could disappear and wondering why we couldn’t receive these attentions more graciously. (It’s in the open, so it must be fine! No one else seems shocked.) Finding a language for it seems like an important first step toward not only objecting, but coming to a new and better consensus.

In an ideal world, Biden would apologize to the women he made uncomfortable. He didn’t. But significant progress has been made, in a way that has less to do with Biden himself than with how everyone will talk about this stuff going forward. Biden’s videotaped folksy semi-concession is to my mind less about his candidacy or what’s in his heart than it is about getting everyone onto the same page—even if some are doing so grudgingly. Rather than wage a proxy fight over his candidacy by endlessly relitigating whether this kind of touching is affectionate or creepy, paternalistic or kind, Biden at least said that he understands he must change his behavior. He concedes that much. There are distinctions between taking responsibility and apologizing, between admitting you’ve made a mistake and trying to make amends to the person you harmed. I’m not especially encouraged by where his video falls on that spectrum. But regardless of whether Biden has changed, something has. Many women have uncomfortably fielded physical affection from men they “know” but don’t know. That’s not new. What’s new is the wide recognition that they’re not alone in that discomfort, and no longer obligated to agree that it’s normal, and fine, and just how things are.