On Mar. 29, Democratic Nevada state legislator Lucy Flores published an article for The Cut detailing an uncomfortable experience she had regarding ex-Vice President Joe Biden, stirring up conversations about the Me Too movement, gender and power, and Biden’s possible presidential candidacy.
Flores writes in her article that Biden contacted her to help with a campaign rally in Nevada back in 2014. Just before she gave her speech, Flores says Biden came up behind her and placed his hands on her shoulders, then “inhaled [her] hair” and “proceeded to plant a big slow kiss on the back of [her] head.” Flores states that the encounter left her “uneasy, gross, and confused,” and that “even if his behavior wasn’t violent or sexual, it was demeaning and disrespectful.” She claims that the political and gender power differences between them made it impossible for her to confront him or report his behavior.
This is not the first time Biden has been criticized for his behavior towards women. The politician has a reputation for being “America’s creepy uncle,” a term coined in 2015 by an article for The Washington Post. Over the years, multiple pictures have been released of him hugging, touching or kissing other women. One such instance is a video clip of Biden massaging the shoulders and whispering into the ear of Stephanie Carter, the wife of the Ash Carter, who was the Defense Secretary at the time. While Carter spoke out to defend Biden’s behavior, his overly-tactile manner is described as an “open secret” among politicians.
In response to the article, Biden released a statement indicating that he did not recall the interaction in the same way Flores did, but that “men should pay attention” to women relating their experiences. He also promised to be more mindful in the future, then later joked about the situation in a speech at an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) in Washington, D.C. After hugging IBEW president Lonnie Stephenson, Biden said, “I just want you to know, I had permission to hug Lonnie.” Later, after putting an arm around the shoulders of a child who had joined him on stage, he added, “By the way, he gave me permission to touch him.” Biden also declined to apologize directly to the women who accused him of improper conduct. “I’m sorry I didn’t understand more,” he said. “I’m not sorry for any of my intentions. I’m not sorry for anything I’ve ever done.”
Lauran Whitworth, visiting professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, notes the importance of generational divides in Biden’s situation. “The issue is that consent culture hasn’t permeated that age group in the same way it has [the younger generation],” she said. Consent culture and the Me Too movement are relatively recent occurrences, which could affect how Biden interacts with the women around him. “I think there’s a real call from progressive circles for a culture change, and for younger politicians,” Whitworth said.
The Me Too Movement itself is also a point of contention in society, with some appreciating the efforts of the movement to empower women to report sexual assault, and others saying the movement has gone too far and caused people to be too lenient on what is considered sexual assault and who has committed it. Whitworth suggests that in it is less important to add Biden to the “laundry list of offenders” and more worthwhile to consider the broader impacts of what his behavior means about gender and power. “What we’re not talking about is what unites all of these situations, which is the differential power dynamics,” she said.
Of additional importance is considering how this will impact Biden’s possible bid for the 2020 presidential election. “Hearing Biden’s potential candidacy for president discussed without much talk about his troubling past as it relates to women became too much to keep bottled up any longer,” Flores writes. Progressives are calling for a younger candidate who is more in-touch with current politics like the Me Too movement, but others still see Biden as the best chance for removing Trump from office. Whitworth expressed that it may come down to whether or not Biden can handle the negative press in response to his refusal to apologize and jokes about consent. “I think there’s still time for him to apologize and acknowledge this,” she said. “It will be interesting to see how it impacts him moving forward.”