This is an op-ed by Allure's wellness editor Rosemary Donahue.
The conversation around sexual assault and consent in our country has grown exponentially since the Weinstein accusations broke in late 2017 and the #MeToo movement (started by Tarana Burke in 2006) gained momentum. However, we still have a long way to go, and those who are brave enough to come forward put a lot on the line when they speak out about allegations of rape, sexual assault, or inappropriate contact, perhaps especially when those they accuse hold positions of power and prominence. And now, after four women have accused former vice president Joe Biden of inappropriate conduct, he's released a video on Twitter attempting to explain the situation — but he completely misses the point.
Before diving into the problems with the video, it's important to understand the allegations themselves. The first came from Lucy Flores, who wrote for The Cut on Friday, March 29, that when she met Biden at a campaign rally in 2014 (when he was vice president) he approached her from behind before smelling her hair and "plant[ing] a big slow kiss on the back of [her] head." In her piece, she also writes that the alleged incident left her "mortified," "shocked," and "confused," and says, "Even if his behavior wasn’t violent or sexual, it was demeaning and disrespectful."
Shortly after Flores came forward, Amy Lappos — who met Biden while volunteering at a fundraiser — said that he also touched her inappropriately, though she didn't necessarily believe the context or intent to be sexual. In an article published on Monday, April 1, she tells the Hartford Courant, “It wasn’t sexual, but he did grab me by the head. He put his hand around my neck and pulled me in to rub noses with me. When he was pulling me in, I thought he was going to kiss me on the mouth.”
A spokesperson for Biden responded to the initial accusation from Flores on Sunday with a statement that said, "In my many years on the campaign trail and in public life, I have offered countless handshakes, hugs, expressions of affection, support, and comfort. And not once — never — did I believe I acted inappropriately. If it is suggested I did so, I will listen respectfully. But it was never my intention. I may not recall these moments the same way, 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."
Then, on Tuesday, April 2, The New York Times published allegations from two more women who say that Biden also touched them inappropriately. Caitlyn Caruso (now 22) was 19 when she says she met him at an event for sexual assault at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She claims that during this event, he rested his hand on her thigh, even as she gave indications through body language that she was uncomfortable with this display. Further, Caruso says Biden hugged her “just a little bit too long,” according to the Times.
The story in The New York Times also included the account of writer D.J. Hill, who recalled meeting Biden at a fundraising event in 2012. Hill claims that when she and her husband took a picture with the then vice president, Biden put his hand on her shoulder before dropping it down to her back. She says this made her "very uncomfortable."
Though many have publicly supported these women, there has also been pushback in the week since they've come forward. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that the allegations should not be disqualifying for Biden when it comes to a potential 2020 race, though she believes he should be more aware of the personal space of others.
Other Democrats have commented on Biden's behavior and excused it, saying that people understand that's just how he is. Senator Dianne Feinstein, in particular, said, "It's a new thing that people have been affronted by it. Over 25 years I've never seen that before.” Others still are making attempts to contextualize the allegations, saying that compared to rape or other sexual violence, what Biden is being accused of is "a greeting." But none of those things really matter. What does matter is that these women say they were touched inappropriately, without their consent. Their boundaries were not respected and they've been brave enough to come forward. And now, Biden has responded in more detail in a video.
In the clip, Biden says, "Today I want to talk about gestures of support and encouragement that I've made to women and some men that have made them uncomfortable. I've always tried to make a human connection, that's my responsibility I think. I shake hands, I hug people, I grab men and women by the shoulders and say, 'You can do this,'[...] Over the years, knowing what I've been through, the things that I've faced, I've found that scores — if not hundreds — of people have come up to me and reached out for solace and comfort — something, anything — that may help them get through the tragedy they're going through."
He continues, "So, it's just who I am, and I've never thought of politics as cold and antiseptic. I've always thought about connecting with people — shaking hands, hands on the shoulder, a hug, encouragement[...] Social norms have begun to change, and they've shifted, and the boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset, and I get it[...] And I'll be much more mindful, that's my responsibility[...] But I'll always believe, governing, quite frankly —and life, for that matter — is about connecting with people; that won't change. But I will be more mindful and respectful of people's personal space and that's a good thing[...]"
The problems with this non-apology are many. First, it should be noted that there is no actual apology in the video, which clocks in at just over two minutes. Nary an, "I apologize" nor an, "I'm sorry" to be heard. No matter who you are or where you're from an, "I'm sorry" is the bare minimum for an apology to count, yet he failed to muster one up for these four women.
Then, he frames the actions that hurt them as gestures of support, even with the knowledge he now has that they were not received as such. These allegations are then juxtaposed against "scores, if not hundreds" of hugs, shoulder rubs, and handshakes with people he assumes had no problem with their interactions with him over the course of his career. It's important to note that just because someone hasn't come forward to say that they felt as though their boundaries were violated, it doesn't mean they weren't. Additionally, this type of reframing suggests that those who made the allegations are just being too sensitive, which is a classic gaslighting tactic.
But wait, there's more. The idea that boundaries are only just now a thing of importance, that consent is a generational thing and that personal space is "more important than it's ever been," is ludicrous. It's just that now, people like him — people in positions of power — may finally face consequences when they fail to respect the personal space of those who are not as powerful (though it's still pretty rare).
Finally, Biden also mentions multiple times in the video how important it is to make connections with his constituents. He assumes that he's made powerful connections with each person he's touched, both figuratively and literally, while on the campaign trail, at fundraisers, and attending hosts of other events during his political career. Yet, as these four women have said, he's missing a critical point of analysis, here — he fails to see that the way he's classically connected with others is only really one-way. When you touch other people without their consent, you're crossing a boundary and taking something away from them, and connections are supposed to be reciprocal.
While it's true that many Democrats have vouched for Biden, saying that this is the way he’s always been, our generation — and this current cultural moment — isn’t about accepting things because they’re what we're used to. We're not accepting the status quo any longer; we're more interested in overhauling it. And while I can acknowledge that it's a good thing Biden claims he will start listening and respecting the personal space of others at this juncture of his life, I also believe his statement was sorely lacking. Yes, it's crucial to understand that boundaries are important, and it's good he's decided to start listening. But boundaries and personal space have always been important, and people shouldn't have to tell you you've fucked up for you to come to that conclusion.
Read more about consent on Allure:
- 6 Bullshit Ways to "Apologize" for Sexual Harassment
- Bad Sexual Encounters Don't Need to Be Rape to Be Unacceptable
- A Note to Survivors Who Aren’t Ready to Share Their Sexual Assaults