Joe Biden has been keeping his hands to himself in the early weeks of his campaign. Politico published an extensive analysis of Biden’s demure body language throughout his first week on the trail, noting several instances in which the former vice president apparently demonstrated restraint:
At his first public event, a rally last week in Pittsburgh, Biden took the stage and kissed his wife, Jill, then offered a simple handshake to the woman who introduced him. In other instances, Biden for the most part appeared to take pains to keep his hands in plain sight.
In Monticello, Iowa last week, Biden entered an ice cream shop, shook hands with a male diner and commented “you got a grip, man ” but that was perhaps the most notable physical interaction.
These stories, and Biden’s behavioral adjustment, are a response to the fact that, since March, at least six women have said publicly that former Vice President Joe Biden invaded their personal space and touched them inappropriately—accounts that support a long documented history of Biden’s overly familiar behavior with women.
“Never do I claim that this rises to the level of sexual assault or anything of that nature,” said Former Nevada Assemblywoman Lucy Flores, who alleged that Biden kissed the back of her head and smelled her hair at a campaign event in 2014. “What I am saying is that it is completely inappropriate... and that is something that we should consider when we are talking about the background of a person who is considering running for president.”
“I want him to change his behavior. I want him to acknowledge that it was wrong,” Flores said, “And I want this to be a bigger discussion about how there is no political accountability structure within our political space, either for instances in which women feel that there was inappropriate behavior, or more serious allegations of sexual assault.”
What Flores and the other women said they wanted, and why they came forward, was to generate an honest dialogue about boundaries and gendered behavior. To date, Biden, an early frontrunner in the Democratic presidential primary, has offered neither. Instead, he has demurred from offering a real apology and has proceeded to joke about touching women. Biden has painted himself as a compassionate guy who’s just not able to express empathy anymore because of political correctness.
When prompted for an apology on The View recently, he said, “Sorry this happened. But I’m not sorry in the sense that I think I did anything that was intentionally designed to do anything wrong or be inappropriate.”
Like the Politico piece, much of the coverage of Biden’s campaign has also run with this false dichotomy that pits Biden’s good intentions against a woman’s discomfort. On The View, co-host Joy Behar lamented that it would be “really unfortunate if we got rid of everybody who’s just an affectionate kind of person,” and Abby Huntsman suggested that the Me Too movement had gone too far. “I’ve had concerns about the Me Too movement from the beginning, about getting to this place where you can’t have normal interactions with each other,” she said. These concerns, however, are a willful distortion of what the women who came forward have said. It’s not that Flores and the others are against hugs, compassion, or empathy—it’s that those actions are misplaced when coming from a powerful politician on the campaign trail. Biden’s actions were invasive and inappropriate given the contexts in which they happened: often with women he did not know, with women he knew only in their capacities as survivors of sexual violence.
And the women who talked about their experiences with Biden described actions far more intimate than hugging. Former White House intern Vail Kohnert-Yount said that, upon introducing herself to Biden, he put her hand on her head, pressed his forehead against hers, and told her she was a “pretty girl.” Writer DJ Hill said that Biden ran his hand down her back at a 2012 fundraiser. When Sofie Karasek, a survivor’s rights advocate, met Biden backstage at the 2016 Oscars, she was uncomfortable when “he leaned down, took my hands and put his forehead to mine.” Nine survivor advocates told Bustle they had “concerns” about Biden’s behavior and were “uncomfortable” in their interactions with him. These are very different things from a chaste hug when you come on stage after someone has introduced you.
The imperative is on Biden to be able to discern the lines of consent and where his actions fall. Yet there is a powerful narrative that treats Biden’s newfound restraint as punitive and difficult. “For Biden, though, reining in his self-described ‘tactile’ politics isn’t necessarily a simple matter,” Politico writes. “His warm persona and relationships built over nearly a half-century in politics often draws expressions of affection from people he meets at events.”
To make the supposed difficulty of discerning these boundaries, Politico reports on interactions where Biden does hug people, and they like it (because they had consented upfront):
As Biden approached two teen-aged girls, he hugged one and snapped photos with her and her friend. Afterward, the young woman said she didn’t mind the hug; caught in the thrill of the moment of seeing the former vice president to Barack Obama — she asked him for it.
“I just wanted a hug,” a beaming 16-year-old Eleanor Wachtel said. “It made my day.”
On Sunday at the close of the service at a South Carolina Baptist church, while Jill Biden stood nearby exchanging hug after hug, the former vice president himself stood for some time with his arms to his sides, merely shaking hands of congregants.
In one exchange, a male congregant moved to hug Biden — and Biden didn’t hug back, instead stiffening one of his arms. As Biden moved toward the exit of the large venue, a woman powered toward him — and the two engaged in a warm embrace.
The issue isn’t, and never was, Biden hugging people. The issue is: don’t be overly intimate or fucking sniff women’s heads, particularly when you don’t know them. It’s really not that hard.