Women in the United States live in a continuum of sexual violence. We are constantly on alert to prevent it, coping with it when it happens, and dealing with it after it happens to some degree. ALWAYS. Little girls are sexualized by grown-ass adults from the minute a pink sticker is slapped on their cot that says, “It’s a girl.” Little girls are forced to hug and kiss relatives that are strangers to them (yes, boys too), not to play when they’re dressed up to look pretty, that “prettiness” is the apex of their value, and that any unwanted attention they might receive is being directed at them because they are either too pretty or not pretty enough.
By the time most girls reach sexual maturity in this country, they have already been so thoroughly exposed to sexual assault and harassment that they have developed fine-tuned coping and de-escalation techniques. Deflective laughter. A flirtatious touch. Self-deprecation. These techniques come with costs, mostly in terms of lowered self-esteem and heightened self-consciousness, but up to and including self-harm, eating disorders, and promiscuous behaviors that put the teen girl in some form of control over what she sees as the inevitable sexual advances on her body.
By the time we reach adulthood, we have learned exactly how much we can take, and no matter how uncomfortable everything up to those red lines can be, we STILL frequently permit people to tread on our boundaries. Why? Because boundaries are dangerous. saying “No” to men is dangerous. Saying “No” to men gets you stalked, assaulted, fired, black-listed, demoted, transferred, stalled, failed, bullied, and often with further reaching emotional consequences. So we have acclimated ourselves to behaviors that make us uncomfortable because we see them as safer than saying, “No.”
Even suggesting that this behavior is inappropriate is dangerous. We are so thoroughly gas-lit about our own lived experiences when it comes to sexual harassment that we expect to be told our experiences didn’t happen, or if they did, we misinterpreted them. The interpretation doesn’t matter. If you were made uncomfortable, you were made uncomfortable.
So when your very own uncle touches you in ways that make you a little anxious, you smile and you give him a kiss on the cheek so you can pull away and move on faster and without incident.
Or when your boss tells you how glad he is- FOR YOU, of course- that you lost your baby weight, you smile and thank him.
Or when the Vice President of the United States sniffs your hair or trails his hand down your back, even a Vice President of the United States who is known to be physically demonstrative with his own (male) boss, you don’t say anything because telling the Vice President of the United States that you didn’t want him to touch you and his closeness to your body makes you uncomfortable is HARD. Everything you’ve learned about men, men in power, power structures, and your own relative place in them tells you that this is one of those boundaries it is safer to have violated. What could the repercussions be for a newly minted politician with ambitions, telling Uncle Joe that she was uncomfortable with his touching her?
Could he have ruined her political career? Yes. Absolutely. Would he? Well, based on his treatment of Anita Hill, it wouldn’t be an unsafe assumption.
To the best of my knowledge, nobody is accusing Joe Biden of sexual assault, just of being too “handsy’ with just about everyone. Is it a crime? Probably not. But it’s also one part of the continuum of sexual harassment that women deal with, every single one of us, throughout our lives. And now that we’re FINALLY discussing sexual harassment as a reality, yes, this kind of unwanted touching has a place in the conversation.
You should always be clear on boundaries before touching somebody in an intimate way. (Note I say “intimate,” and not “sexual,” but obviously in a sexual way as well.) And the greater the imbalance of power, the more cautious you should be when exercising any sort of power over another person’s body.
While a small-town politician could go a long way by being physically affectionate, the relative power deficit between them and their constituents is not comparable to the power dynamics when the Vice President of the United States is involved.
And because I know somebody is going to say something, a quick note on the timing of these revelations: It doesn’t matter. The timing of disclosures does not matter. Even if it’s politically motivated, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that it’s factual, and it should be discussed. What matters is that every single person who has ever seen Joe Biden going politicking knows that he’s handsy, and that nobody should feel anxiety over being touched against even unspoken objections by somebody with near absolute potential power over them.
“Joe Biden touched me and it was fine,” and “Joe Biden is a hugger and I like that” are not ringing endorsements, that’s proof he doesn’t ask about boundaries, notice boundaries, or consider the impact of the power dynamics inherent in his role as even FORMER Vice President of the United States. Hell, it wasn’t okay for a Senator, either.
So if we don’t begin with the very basics of gendered respect, if we don’t start with the simplest of uncomfortable gestures by explaining when they are or aren’t appropriate, we doom our ability to create real growth and change from #metoo. If a man with power over a woman, any amount of power (and there is a power deficit inherent in every interaction), can touch them without their consent and never know it makes them uncomfortable, where does it stop? If women continue to tolerate men stepping over their boundaries, discarding those boundaries remains often the safest way to exist in a space with men who don’t see them.
But if we ALL tell ALL people who overstep our boundaries that their behavior makes us uncomfortable, then hopefully those people will never progress to overtly harmful behaviors. That is to say, a man who gets away with coming up behind female employees to give them unwanted shoulder massages won’t believe those massages are wanted, assume there is reciprocated romantic interest, proposition their employee, and then punish them for a rejection.
We should be able to say, “Joe Biden shouldn’t be trailing his hands down anybody’s back he doesn’t genuinely know appreciates the gesture,” and leave that as a statement of common sense.
*FYI, I adore Joe Biden. I think he’s an amazing human being who has been through things I don’t dare to imagine. He genuinely inspires me. I have a deep appreciation for his work on the Violence Against Women Act, and his efforts to combat campus sexual violence. THAT SAID, I am also deeply ashamed of him for his behavior regarding Anita Hill, and I believe he has not taken the eye that he has open to the world of sexual violence and harassment as it exists and turned it towards himself.
Read more about #metoo grey areas here: Aziz Ansari and Passive Aggressive Rape Threats
Read my most recent post here: Living with Depression and Learning Self-Care
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