Opinion: Joe Biden Scandal Shows Progress

What the conversation can tell us about norms in 2019


Former Vice President Joe Biden on March 16

On March 29, Lucy Flores, former member of the Nevada State Assembly, published an essay on The Cut telling of a time when, as she was running for Lieutenant Governor of Nevada in 2014, then-Vice President – and now likely candidate for the Democratic nomination for President in 2020 – smelled her hair and kissed the back of her head, leaving her feeling deeply uncomfortable.

Since Flores’s told her story, a slew of women have come forward with similar incidences of Biden initiating unwanted physical contact. Biden released a video on April 3, explaining that he has always tried to make “a human connection” in his politics, and, while he didn’t apologize, he said that moving forward, he will be “much more mindful.”

I’m not going to write about what this does or should mean for Biden’s almost certain presidential candidacy. That’s certainly a valid and important conversation to have, but it’s been done by masses of journalists in the past few weeks. Instead, I’d like to focus on what we can learn simply through the fact that the conversation is happening.

The accusations against Biden are not the same as many of the stories of sexual assault brought to light in the #MeToo era. The interactions, for one, were not explicitly sexual and they were not aggressive. Instead, they are instances of a man feeling entitled to invade the personal space of women around him. The men mean well but were raised in a time in which they were taught, implicitly as well as explicitly, that women’s bodies were there for them. They were not conditioned to consider whether their actions would make women around them uncomfortable, and they may laud themselves as men who would never do anything to what the men exposed through #MeToo did. Without question, though, these men would feel violated if someone came up behind them, nuzzled and smelled their hair, and kissed the back of their head.

If you’ve lived as a girl or woman, this may sound familiar. For decades – and centuries and probably forever – women have been expected to cope with men intruding on their personal space in regular, mundane settings. Often, this is talked about in the context of the “creepy uncle” who means no harm, but gets just a little too close for comfort or holds onto hugs for just a few moments too long. In the workplace, this conduct held up beyond the political realm of Joe Biden: my great aunt recently told me that she had a boss who would kiss women who were one or two levels beneath him each time they had small office meetings. For obvious reasons, this was uncomfortable, but at the time, that discomfort was just a part of the package of being a woman.

In fact, that discomfort is still very much part of that package. I have clear memories of being at a wedding in my early teen years and having an older man – who I had been never met before that day – take my arms, put a hand on my waist, and start dancing with me. He didn’t mean to make me uncomfortable, but it didn’t occur to him to consider either that I might not want to dance with  him or that it was weird for him to want to dance with me in the first place.

In a less benign sense, Donald Trump demonstrated this behavior in one of the 2016 debates when he stalked close behind Hillary Clinton, seemingly attempting to physically intimidate her. In her memoir What Happened?, Clinton explains the oh-so-familiar dilemma she faced: tell him off and risk being seen as out of line, or power through with tense muscles and gritted teeth? As with so many women who were conditioned to understand that this was a part of the deal and trained not to make a fuss, she sucked it up and carried on.

Although these are not #MeToo stories, they are instances of men making women uncomfortable that, since the cultural reckoning of the past couple of years, all kinds of previously acceptable, harmful behavior is being called into question. I firmly believe that the fact that we are discussing whether Biden’s conduct disqualifies him from being the nominee is a demonstration of the fact that women are being treated with more respect. Without the progress made by the #MeToo movement, I don’t think Lucy Flores would have necessarily thought to come forward, and I don’t think Americans would have responded as strongly.

In a sense, I’m allowing myself to be naively optimistic. The current President has been accused of and bragged about doing much worse than kissing women on the back of the head, and he was still elected. Still, I believe that one of the very few positives of the election and presidency of a proud sexual assaulter is that it has served as a catalyst for women to demand that the standards and cultural norms change. In this sense, I really think that we are living in a different world than we were three years ago.

The important question, then, is not how Biden’s campaign will be affected by the public’s realization of his behaviors, but whether he will change these behaviors. Hopefully, the stories of Lucy Flores and the other women whom Biden has made uncomfortable have made men who considered their behavior harmless reassess whether they act appropriately. Hopefully, they will ask the women in their lives if they’ve experienced this phenomenon. Hopefully, those who have contributed to this phenomenon will come to recognize that, apologize, and change their ways.