Joe Biden is Proof That #MeToo Isn't Just About Sexual Harassment

When many Christian Americans went to Church this past Sunday, they heard a story from the Gospel of John in which the Pharisees, in an effort to discredit Jesus in front of his followers, brought a woman before him who had committed the sin of adultery. The Pharisees reminded Jesus that any woman who commits adultery must be stoned to death according to Jewish Law, and then asked Jesus what he would do with her. Jesus thought for a moment as the crowd looked on, and then replied, “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her.” One by one the crowd departed until only the woman was left. Jesus, who had stopped paying attention, suddenly realized they were along, and asked her, “has no man condemned thee?” She replied, “No man, my Lord.” To which Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.”

The relevance of this story to our political moment is uncanny, to say the least. At its core, the story is about the power men have traditionally held over women. As recently as 2016, a man who gropes women could be elected to the highest office in the land, and continue to stay in power. That is the way things have always been: men treat women how they please, and women deal with the consequences. Until recently, the idea that a man should be reprimanded for making sexual jokes in the workplace, let alone fired from his job, was seen as overkill. If a woman complained, she was seen as a troublemaker. 

That began to change sometime in previous few decades. The shift in mores has followed naturally from the empowerment of women in the workplace that began in the 1960s. In many ways, the #metoo movement is just the next rung up the ladder of equality that women have been climbing since they won the right to vote in 1920. As the #metoo movement and the revolution of female sexual empowerment are maturing, their effects have rippled into every corner of American society. From dating to sports, from comedy to Universities, from the military to politics, American women are learning that is okay, at long last, to assert personal sovereignty over their bodies. That men cannot figuratively stone them to death.

The distinction between the sexual empowerment revolution of the previous decades and the #metoo movement is difficult to see, and in many domains, the overlap is complete. But there are a few instances where the distinction between them is important to discuss. The controversy surrounding Joe Biden’s hair sniffing embraces is probably the most prominent example so far of a #metoo moment not infused with the charge of sexual misconduct, where male sexual aggression is clearly not at play, and as such, Biden’s embraces serve as an interesting case study for defining the core message of the #metoo movement: women have every right to control their bodies — not only in sexual matters, but in all matters, including in matters concerning well-intentioned violations of physical space. 

That is not to say sexual violations do not haunt the edges of the stories about Biden’s hugs and sniffs. As platonic as Biden meant his embraces to be, and it is clear that he meant no harm by his almost fatherly hand-on-the-shoulder you-can-do-it-kiddo power moves, the fact that he felt so easy about touching strangers leaves many questioning whether there are still more sinister aspects yet to come to light. The connection between the Biden embraces and sexual embraces is arguably not a tenuous one. It is a plain truth that for many survivors of sexual assault, such unexpected physical contact can remind them of their trauma. But one need not be a survivor to recognize the possible intentions of such touching. After all, many men have utilized power to create opportunities for physical contact with women. Remember, the first words out of Billy Bush’s mouth when he and Donald Trump stepped off of the Access Hollywood bus were, “How about a little hug for the Donald?” That is one of the sleaziest utterances in recent American politics, outdone only by Trump’s famous comments just moments earlier about his proclivity to touch women without permission. After the embrace, in case there was any ambiguity regarding the sexual nature of the interaction, Trump said, “Melania said this was ok.” Any woman who has ever had a creepy boss or uncle or similar male figure in their lives will recognize immediately the dangerous connections between the Biden embraces and real sexual power moves. 

But again, Biden’s embraces are clearly not sexual in nature. They are not even clearly power moves (at least, it is clear that many of the Biden embraces are not power moves). For example, there is little comparison between Trump’s rib-rattling hand yanking that he forces people to endure when he goes in for a handshake. In contrast, Biden’s embraces are meant to encourage and build up the recipient’s confidence. The Biden embrace has more in common with the time former President G.W. Bush gave Germany’s then chancellor Angela Merkel a playful shoulder squeeze. (It should be noted that the incident, which was almost certainly not meant to be sexual in nature, sparked a debate over sexual harassment in the U.S. with Democratic politician Martha Whetstone expressing outrage. She told the San Francisco Chronicle: "You could use the clip as part of a teaching video on sexual harassment. You'd show people and tell them: 'Nobody in a position of authority should do something like that'.")

If we accept that Biden’s embraces, and kisses, and sniffs are not sexual in nature and that at least some of them were not meant to be power moves insofar as they were not meant to intimidate, then what were they? The most likely answer is that they were simply poorly judged fatherly hugs. Several prominent women in politics agree with that assessment. Former Sen. Jean Carnahan of Missouri was one of the first to come to Biden’s defense, tweeting that “It was his empathy and encouragement ... that gave me strength to meet each day. Yes, I sometimes got a shoulder pat or even a head kiss. Joe has a deep desire to share in the lives of others.” Across the aisle, similar sentiments were expressed by Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who said Biden is “just a warm, affectionate person.” Feminist leader Gloria Steinem also had nothing but praise for Biden, saying in an email to The Associated Press that “I think women are more than smart enough to know that a) Joe Biden is who he is and hugs everybody, b) this was minor compared to most sexual harassment.” But she immediately added: “We all need to get to a place where bodies are private property and not to be touched without permission.”

Steinem’s comment seems to nail the core meaning of this incident for most voters in America. Though the #metoo movement began as a campaign against sexual violence and sexual harassment, it has now morphed into a movement about the nature of physical proximity between bodies, whether in sexual or non-sexual contexts. Women more than ever now feel empowered to claim their right to require consent to be touched. The Biden embrace example is a helpful clarification of this message for all critics who may be confused about what exactly the #metoo movement is meant to achieve. Regardless of his intentions, Biden’s mistake was that he violated one of the core tenants of Liberal humanism, namely the sanctity of one’s inalienable right to protect, preserve, and control one’s own body. As Laura Kelber, 61, a Democratic voter and a screenwriter in New York, pointed out, his intentions are not the point. “It’s not OK to demean and invade women’s space,” she said. “It’s totally offensive and inappropriate.”

The conundrum that faces Biden now is a tricky one. If he runs for President, as he has been hinting he will do for months now, then he will have to answer for these actions along the campaign trail. No candidate wants consent issues to dominate their campaign, but for Biden, that reality seems inescapable now. And the danger for Biden is unique, given his playfulness and off-the-cuff glibness that can sometimes offend more than endear him to voters. A few days after the controversy started to grab media headlines, Biden addressed the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers conference in Washington. As he took the stage, he hugged Lonnie R. Stephenson, the union’s president. “I just want you to know I had permission to hug Lonnie,” he said, and the largely male crowd burst into laughter. Again, a few minutes into his remarks, Mr. Biden spotted children in the audience. After welcoming them to the stage, Mr. Biden wrapped his arm around a young boy. “By the way, he gave me permission to touch him,” he said, to laughter. “Everyone knows I like kids more than people,” he added. 

While Biden may have meant these remarks to lighten the mood surrounding the recent allegations, they came off as insulting and disrespectful to many onlookers. “Biden’s consent joke is a clear indication Biden doesn’t get it and doesn’t take the voice of the women who have come forward seriously,” said Amy Lappos, who told The Hartford Courant that Mr. Biden had crossed “a line of respect” at a 2009 fundraiser in Connecticut. Lucy Flores, a former Nevada assemblywoman who published an essay that described Mr. Biden touching and kissing her inappropriately at a 2014 campaign event, wrote on Twitter: “It’s clear @JoeBiden hasn’t reflected at all on how his inappropriate and unsolicited touching made women feel uncomfortable. To make light of something as serious as consent degrades the conversation women everywhere are courageously trying to have.” Tarana Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement, tweeted that Mr. Biden’s making light of the controversy was “disrespectful and inexcusable.”

Biden will have to watch out for such gaffs if he wishes to surmount this controversy on the campaign trail. The irony here is that Biden has an opportunity to turn the weakness into an advantage. If he can demonstrate to voters that he has the ability to change on this issue, at the age of 76, then he could convince voters that he would be a champion of the next phase of the #metoo movement. After all, one of the common criticisms of the #metoo movement is that it has not shown men a clear path to redemption. The major problem this poses for men who have violated the tenets of #metoo in the past is that they are held to account for their transgressions regardless of their personal growth on the issue. This worry is behind the common refrain of the accused that the controversial incidents “happened so long ago.” Almost every man who has been caught up in the #metoo purges over the past few years for incidents that happened long ago use that defense, from Kavanaugh to Tucker Carlson. One underlying question behind that excuse is about forgiveness, change, and the potential for human growth. Whether or not one agrees with the accused that they have in fact grown beyond their previous selves, evolved into more noble creatures, and are now worthy of public forgiveness, the #metoo movement has yet to define what standards would need to be met in order for any hypothetical transgressor to find absolution. 

There seems to be something of relevance here in the mystery of the story of Jesus from this past Sunday, as well. There are two big questions that theologians puzzle over from this story. The first is this: why did the Jews forgive the woman? The story says that they did so because they saw her transgressions as their own. The second big question is the following: Why did Jesus forgive her? That is a more complicated question and one about which much ink has been spilled, although most thinkers say that the answer has something to do with God’s mercy. But a third and central question of the story that is less often recognized is the following: why should the woman forgive the Jews? That is the question the #metoo movement must deliver on in order to fulfill its promise of liberal humanism.

If Biden can overcome this current scandal, he could not only argue that he understands the problems of the #metoo era from a unique angle, as a previous transgressor, but that he can show America how to complete the project of reforming the ideals that cause much of the problem in the first place. Biden could integrate this story into his overall life story, which is, after all, where the authenticity of his brand as a politician comes from. Such a message could be a winner if he contrasts it well with Trump’s abhorrent disrespect for women. That could be a way forward for Biden’s candidacy. By embracing the #metoo movement, he could turn the Biden embrace into a strength. If he does run (and perhaps he should not, but if he does), let’s hope he finds a way to lead the nation to a brighter, more consensual, future.

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