I once had a dream that I was at the White House, wearing a fierce red business suit, engaged in some sort of Olivia Pope-esque intrigue. In the course of this dream, I encountered Joe Biden, and in this dream, he came close, gave me a toothy grin, and grabbed my ass. That’s where the dream ended…and I awoke…confused.
In untangling that confusion, I took inventory of the other feelings that were below the surface. I felt embarrassed, but also a little flattered, and maybe even a little turned on. But mostly, embarrassed, and sort of muted. Where had my voice been in this dream?
I’m thinking about that dream a lot lately. Because of my line of work, I consider Joe Biden a sort of godfather. He’s done a lot to ensure that colleges and universities stepped up to respond meaningfully to sexual violence. I’d hoped that would be one of his most enduring legacies. But it ain’t lookin’ good.
None of the women who has come forward to express her thoughts about an unwelcome touch from Joe Biden has characterized it as overtly sexual. Unlike my dream, there are no allegations of ass-grabbing. And while I do think it’s important to distinguish Joe Biden’s brand of “affection” from extreme forms of sexual violence, let us please acknowledge that there is a spectrum of behavior which runs from ecstatically consensual touching to brutal rape, and for some of these women, Biden’s touching fell somewhere on the ickier part of that spectrum. In the essential words of Samantha Bee:
It doesn’t have to be rape to ruin your life. And it doesn’t have to ruin your life to be worth speaking out about.
Lucy Flores has not alleged that Joe Biden raped her, or that he ruined her life. But her experience is worth talking about. In recounting her experience, Ms. Flores has described how profoundly embarrassed she felt, and how acutely aware she was of Joe Biden’s position of power. There she was, a powerful person in her own right, who was stunned into silence by an awkward, unnecessary gesture. I empathized. More than that, I recognized this experience as similar to handful of cringe-y moments I’ve experienced in my own life.
For me, the thing about these moments, when a powerful man squeezed my shoulder or rubbed my back, part of my brain has done a little threat assessment…could this touch mutate from affection to assault? Then I’ve taken stock of the politics…If I give voice to my discomfort and define my boundaries, will my assertion be respected or will there be reprisals?
All of these calculations are done in the mere seconds it takes to plant a long kiss on the top of someone’s head. In those seconds, I’ve felt a little stunned. But more than that, I’ve felt diminished. Reduced to and mindful of my body. Maybe this is the difference between Joe Biden’s affection with men and similar gestures with women. I won’t claim to know for sure, but I have a hunch that there’s a different sort of valence for men, or maybe no meaning attaches at all. But for women, it’s different. It just is.
I had some hope that Joe Biden might achieve some clarity about all of this. He said “I get it”. But he’s clinging to the intentions behind his behavior instead of truly acknowledging its impact. We’re to disregard the discomfort because he didn’t mean to make anyone uncomfortable. Well, fuck that.
Joe Biden has been a public servant for a long time, and he’s done some good and important work. And his transcendence of personal tragedy is breathtaking. For a lot of reasons, he’ll always have my heart, but now, for sure, he will never again get my vote.