Joe Biden touches people. A lot.
He's always been this way, and he's made no attempt to hide it. Google "Joe Biden touching" and you'll get a page full of pictures, mostly of Biden touching women, but also a few of him with his hands on or his arms around men. There have been occasional efforts by right wing commentators to make an issue of his tactile approach to politics, but they've never taken hold, as there has, apparently, never been a "victim" willing to ascribe any untoward intent to Biden.
Never until now, that is--and even now, it's not Biden's intent being questioned.
In the last few weeks, several women who've been the object of Biden's affection have come forward to say it made them feel uncomfortable. This is borne out by some of the images in which it appears women are gritting their teeth and tolerating the attention. Those who complain don't accuse Biden of making advances on them, or of groping them in a sexual way, and Biden has not denied any of their stories, though he has thus far issued only a "sorry you didn't like it" sort of apology. He clearly sees nothing wrong in what he's done throughout his political career.
Neither do the politicians of both parties coming to his defense (our perverse president being the notable, and unsurprising, hypocritical exception), nor most commentators. A week ago I watched Bill Maher and all his Real Time guests attempting to minimize the harm, going so far as to imply that any of these women could simply have brushed Biden off with a polite "no thank you" to his hugs and nuzzles. I've seen commentary by feminist pundits expressing the same thought.
And yet there's something huge missing in all these defenses of a beloved elder statesman who appears likely to seek the Democratic nomination to challenge real-life molester Donald Trump in 2020: we're not talking about an ordinary guy getting handsy with a colleague or neighbor. Joe Biden became a U.S. Senator in 1973 at the age of 30, and held that position until 2009, when he became Vice President. As affable and avuncular as he may seem, Joe Biden is a man who held enormous political power for nearly half a century, and now seeks to become the most powerful human being in the world. There are few human beings in existence who are his peers. That puts any American he touches, woman or man, with the exception of the president (and there are plenty of pictures of him embracing Barack Obama), at an extreme disadvantage.
Biden defenders I've read or seen are, themselves, people with enough power and confidence that it's hard for them to imagine simply tolerating unwanted physical affection. That was the case with everyone on Bill Maher's panel: men who, like Maher, enjoy prominence as entertainers and political influencers; a woman who's been a corporate executive and is herself now a political influencer; and Chelsea Handler, a comedian whose stock in trade is poking fun at powerful people. None of these people need fear suffering consequences from rejecting the attentions of a man like Joe Biden.
That's not true of the women who have complained, though. There's a significant power imbalance between a then-Vice President and Lucy Flores, a Nevada state legislator seeking a statewide office. Flores said Biden had touched her in "an intimate way reserved for close friends, family, or romantic partners--and I felt powerless to do anything about it."
The key word there is "powerless." Throughout history, women have had little or no power in their dealings with not just powerful men, but all men, and it was not until the last century that this imbalance began to shift. Today, women in the Western world enjoy more freedom and power than any have experienced since the beginning of human history--and yet they're still at a disadvantage, as the 2016 Presidential election demonstrated, when one of the worst men in America defeated a bright, capable, experienced woman, in large part due to the revulsion conservative men felt at the thought of having a female in the Oval Office. That result, especially in the context of a misogynist like Donald Trump becoming president, triggered the "Me Too" movement. Across America, women spanning the political spectrum came forward to tell their stories of being sexually abused by powerful men, and these men began facing consequences. Careers were ended over incidents far less harmful than what Trump boasted about on the infamous "Access Hollywood" tape.
The accusations against Biden have to be viewed in this context. Again, none of the women coming forward has attributed any malicious or sexual intent to his practice of tactile politics. What they have expressed is that they felt trapped into permitting him to embrace and fondle them when they would have preferred a warm handshake. It's not just that it's hard to say "no" when the Vice President comes in for a hug: when you're a woman, you've had to put up with this for your entire adult life. There have always been men with more power who would react badly to rejection, and might well retaliate by damaging or even ending your career. Until much too recently, they could do it with impunity, cooking up an acceptable reason for passing over a woman deemed unfriendly for a promotion, choosing not to renew her contract, or some other punishment that skirts non-discrimination rules.
By most criteria, I belong to a highly privileged class of people: I'm 1) a man, 2) of Northern & Western European extraction, 3) a Protestant, 4) fairly tall and broad-shouldered, 5) with advanced university degrees. With all these advantages, it's hard for me to imagine what it's like to be part of a historically oppressed group of people--and yet, on occasion, I've found myself biting my tongue, saying yes to unreasonable requests because I know that to push back is to endanger my position as an employee. For all my caution, I've still found myself on the receiving end of unjust decisions that have kept me a probationary employee for all but one of my fifteen years in education; and now I'm facing yet another job change, again due at least in part to my reticence at questioning dictates from my supervisor.
Realizing that a tall, white, middle-aged, well-educated Protestant like me can still have to walk on eggshells to keep a job, and lose it anyway, is it any wonder that women who've been doing just that for all of their working lives are reluctant to say no to a hug from the Vice President?
Being a teacher--and, before that, a pastor--gives me another insight into problematic touch. In both professions, I've had to go through regular trainings on the ethics of touching and having intimate relationships with the people I serve, whether they've been adult parishioners or juvenile students. Administrators deliver these trainings in large part as protection against accusations, cautioning us to avoid situations that could be interpreted in any way as inappropriate. Best not to touch at all, they tell us, and thus avoid even the semblance of iniquity. And yet, there's no getting around the fact that human beings need and want to be touched for a variety of reasons, and that there are things that can't be shared or taught without touch. As a music educator, there are times I have to touch a student's hands to make the adjustments necessary to play an instrument correctly. When I'm teaching dance, I have to touch a student to demonstrate the movements of the dance. There are also times when an inattentive and distracted student needs a light touch on the shoulder to get back on task, or a hurt or frightened child needs a shoulder to lean against for comfort. And when a child comes in for a hug, the last thing I'm going to do is reject it--though I will sometimes angle my body to make it more of a "side-hug."
There's a difference, though, between me and Joe Biden, and I'm not just talking about his much better record at keeping a job: I understand the power imbalance that exists between me and my students. I know I'm big, tall, and, when I choose to use it, have a voice that can stop an entire room of misbehaving children in their tracks. There's a built-in power imbalance there that I'm critically aware of throughout my work day. Keeping that in mind, I'm careful not to seek out opportunities to touch children who might misinterpret my intent, or for some reason might find touch unpleasant.
The Biden issue, which most of his defenders share, is simple cluelessness: holding positions of enormous power for most of his life, he is, and will always be, out of touch with what it means not to be powerful. Chastened by layoffs and job loss, I'll never forget what it is to be on the receiving end of an imbalance.
It wouldn't hurt Joe, then, to experience some rejection in this, his (hopefully) final bid for the presidency. Perhaps then he could spend his remaining years in a much less aggressively tactile retirement, accepting hugs rather than forcing them on unwilling victims.