A few years ago, while covering a Breitbart party at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, I introduced myself as a reporter to Dog the Bounty Hunter. Immediately, and without warning, he ran his fingers through my hair and said, “You’ve got some beautiful hair.” I was at first stunned, and then angry, and then frustrated with my inability to express that I was angry. I wrote about it at Jezebel (as did New York Magazine), dismissed it as a part of the bizarro-world nightmare that is reporting on conservative spectacle, and moved on.
I’ve been thinking about this moment a lot in the days since former Nevada assemblywoman Lucy Flores detailed how Joe Biden violated her personal space when he smelled her hair and kissed her on the back of the head at a campaign event in 2014. While the circumstances and contexts were different, I could still see myself in Flores’s story. It was upsetting to realize just how comfortable a man I did not know felt invading my personal space, and conversely, how uncomfortable I felt in asserting my right to defend myself, to flick his hand away or say, “Don’t touch my hair.”
It’s a familiar experience for so many women; one in which a man is a little invasive, a little too familiar. In the scheme of bad things that someone might do, it’s also so mundane that many of us might not even be able to articulate what’s wrong about it as it’s happening. But that doesn’t mean it’s okay. As Flores said in a recent interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Biden’s actions showed “a lack of empathy for the women and young girls whose space he is invading, and ignores the power imbalance that exists.”
After Flores came forward, another woman in Connecticut, Amy Lappos, shared a similar experience: At a political fundraiser in 2009, she told the Hartford Courant, Biden “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,” she said. “It wasn’t sexual, but he did grab me by the head.”
None of this is exactly revelatory. Biden’s a-little-too-close, too familiar behavior has been long documented, but ultimately dismissed, as Joe just being Joe.
Biden’s response to Flores’s allegation was respectful, but noncommittal. “We have arrived at an important time when women feel that they can and should relate their experiences, and men should pay attention, and I will,” he said in a statement.
Other responses from journalists and liberal public figures have been less muted. While Flores is saying something incredibly specific, and asking for something incredibly specific in response, her experience is getting distorted into the “MeToo run amok” narrative. The Washington Post reports that “there is a palpable sense that Democrats overreacted and that Franken was a victim of too high a standard,” and a similar fear now looms over Biden. On “The View,” Whoopi Goldberg said that “Joe is a hands-on kind of guy,” and suggested that Flores was wrong to not say anything to the Vice President in the moment. Joy Behar, meanwhile, said it would be “really unfortunate if we got rid of everybody who’s just an affectionate kind of person.”
Others, meanwhile, have risen to Biden’s defense, as if to say that because Biden treated them with respect, he couldn’t possibly have crossed another person’s boundary. Actress Alyssa Milano, who has been a vocal supporter of the MeToo movement and encourages her followers to believe women who come forward with such experiences, wrote on Twitter: “I am proud to call Joe Biden a friend. He has been a leader and a champion on fighting violence against women for many years, and I have been fortunate to accompany him to events with survivors where he has listened to their stories, empathized with them, and comforted them.”
“That’s who Joe Biden is—a warm, generous individual who believes its on all of us to pay attention to women’s stories and experiences,” she continued.
This is exactly what Flores is pushing back against: Not just Biden’s actions, but the larger culture that values a man’s perceived good intentions over a woman’s actual discomfort. “I think really speaks to the fact that when behavior isn’t considered ‘serious enough’ for society, for America, it’s very easy to dismiss it,” Flores told Tapper. “Never do I claim that this rises to the level of sexual assault or anything of that nature. 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.”
Our political and justice system is poorly equipped to handle what Flores is asking for: difficult conversations about men’s sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, even in non-sexual contexts. The systems deal with binaries: guilty or innocent, good or bad, right or wrong. Flores is asking for an acknowledgement and reckoning with the creepy, unwanted behavior that falls somewhere in the middle, in which political leaders like Biden adopt higher standards of personal and professional conduct that go beyond whether behavior is criminal or not.
The question is not whether Biden should disappear from public life and end his presidential bid, or whether Biden is a really good guy to most women most of the time. Instead, Flores and Lappos are asking for an acknowledgement of conduct that doesn’t rise to the level of sexual assault, but is nevertheless demeaning, diminishing, and commonplace. To ignore them, or bog their stories down in a reactionary, bad faith interpretation of what these women have asked for—no one is advocating excommunicating Joe Biden, here—misses the bigger point: that we live in a culture which routinely values men’s intentions over women’s experiences, and here’s another small way in which that happens. There’s an easy fix for the problem Flores raises, and it’s not solved by getting rid of Biden. It’s solved by acknowledging, collectively, that Biden should do better, and the women around him deserve that.