How to Not Talk About Uncomfortable Shoulder Rubs

Some pro-tips on how to do better…

It was bound to happen. Eventually, a woman would come forward and describe just how uncomfortable she was made to feel by former Vice President (and still-officially undeclared 2020 candidate) Joe Biden. If the story did not come from Stephanie Carter—the spouse of former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter—in whose ears Biden whispered while vigorously massaging her shoulders, then it could have come from the teenage daughter of Delaware Senator Chris Coons, who visibly cringed before the cameras as Biden forced a kiss on her. Both women have since told the press that the images suggesting visible discomfort were misleading and that Biden was not being inappropriate in that moment. But last week, Lucy Flores, a former Nevada Assemblywoman, admitted that one particular interaction with Biden made her deeply uncomfortable. In a piece for the Cut, Flores explained that she was about to go on stage at a 2014 campaign event when she suddenly felt the Vice President behind her:

I felt him get closer to me from behind. He leaned further in and inhaled my hair. I was mortified. I thought to myself, “I didn’t wash my hair today and the vice-president of the United States is smelling it. And also, what in the actual fuck? Why is the vice-president of the United States smelling my hair?” He proceeded to plant a big slow kiss on the back of my head. My brain couldn’t process what was happening. I was embarrassed. I was shocked. I was confused. There is a Spanish saying, tragame tierra,” it means, “earth, swallow me whole.” I couldn’t move and I couldn’t say anything. I wanted nothing more than to get Biden away from me. My name was called and I was never happier to get on stage in front of an audience.

If these events are true, and thus far Biden has not denied them, then Biden’s behavior is deeply troubling. It should go without saying that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity, and this includes having their autonomy and physical boundaries respected. And while we should all be doing our part, people with higher degrees of political power and authority over others bear a particular responsibility to apply this principle, precisely because their position of power makes it that much more difficult for people with less power to come forward when harmed. As I previously wrote for Current Affairs:

There are many reasons why victims of sexual harassment or assault often come forward late in life, if ever. There’s the fear of having to face a person who’s already put you in a frightening situation at least one time before, by hurting you or threatening to hurt you. There’s embarrassment. There’s anxiety about not being believed or, worse, of being blamed for what was done to you. There are economic reasons: having to earn a wage to survive may mean keeping quiet to avoid jeopardizing a primary stream of income. Sometimes, too, a victim may feel a lingering, twisted sympathy for the perpetrator, leading them to decide that they don’t want to cause their abusers “unnecessary” harm—to their reputations, their family life, or whatever else they have at stake—however little the abuser deserves that kind of mercy from them. It may be this latter concern that’s prevented me from denouncing my own abusers by name for so long.

It took Lucy Flores almost five years to bravely speak out about the embarrassment and disappointment she felt after this encounter with Biden. Days after Flores came forward, a woman named Amy Lappos told the Hartford Courant of her own disturbing exchange with then-Vice President Biden. “It wasn’t sexual, but he did grab me by the head. He put his hand around my neck and pulled me in to rub noses with me,” Lappos said. “I thought he was going to kiss me on the mouth.” Depending on whether Biden finally jumps into the race, it may yet take other women (or men) longer to share their own negative experiences at the hands of Uncle Joe. For all we know, stories may yet emerge about other 2020 candidates as well.

If the public responses to Flores and Lappos are any indication, we still have a lot of work to do in terms of how we process these allegations. In the interest of doing better, here are some pro-tips for all of us.

Just because it didn’t happen to you …

I could see why now would seem like the perfect time for you to recount your own perfectly appropriate encounter with Joe Biden. You would not be the first to have this instinct. When Dr. Christine Blasey Ford accused Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of drunkenly attempting to sexually assault her while they were teens, 65 women who claimed to know Kavanaugh in high school penned a letter to the Senate stating: “For the entire time we have known Brett Kavanaugh, he has behaved honorably and treated women with respect.”

Here’s the thing: The fact that a person’s touch, in a wholly different context, did not make you personally uncomfortable says literally nothing whatsoever about whether this person has ever made another person uncomfortable. Renate Dolphin learned this lesson the hard way. After she had already signed the letter in support of Kavanaugh, Dolphin was informed through a New York Times report that several pages of Kavanaugh’s yearbook referred to the Justice and his fellow football teammates as “Renate Alumni,” implying that  she had slept with the Georgetown Prep boys as a teenager. It turns out that just because Dolphin recalled only pleasant exchanges with Kavanaugh did not mean that Kavanaugh was only capable of being pleasant towards her. Regrettably, her name would forever be on the letter to the Senate.

The reality is that people make calculations about whose hair they smell, whose ears they blow their hot breath in, whose cheeks or mouths they force kisses onto, or whose shoulders they massage unprompted, whom they respect and whom they do not. They choose how they do it and when, and choose whether they care to learn if these interactions are welcome. The fact that you were only the recipient of touches that felt respectful to you does not automatically invalidate the fact that, while you were not present—but frankly, also possibly while you were present—the same person touched another in a manner that made them feel embarrassed or unsafe.

Perhaps you believe that responding to allegations against a person by sharing your own positive experience is at least harmless, and at most, a net positive because your story may balance out the public information about this person’s style of touching. You would be mistaken. The actual effect of your sharing is a net negative. Whether your timing is conscious or not, telling your story in the context of discourse about certain allegations casts doubt on the victim’s experience by suggesting that either the accused is simply not the kind of person who would ever cross boundaries (because they respected yours) or to imply that the victim is simply overreacting. The effect of the former is to excuse norms of behavior that perhaps we, as a society, would be better off changing while there is momentum. The effect of the latter is to send victims, or people offended by certain kinds of touching, the message that their discomfort should be suppressed. It also says, whether you intend it or not, that it is more valuable to protect the feelings of people who cross boundaries than it is to create a cultural and social environment in which others always feel safe to disclose harm or hurt they’ve suffered.

Just because it happened to you but did not make you uncomfortable …

But let’s just say you fall in the category of people who actually were touched by a person accused of inappropriately touching another person and similarly feel the urge to share. After Flores shared her experience with Biden, for instance, the father of a teenager tragically killed in the Parkland school shooting wrote of Biden: “He also put his hand on my shoulders. For me, it was a highly comforting and healing moment.”

Setting aside that a pat on the shoulder is wholly distinguishable from having your hair smelled and the back of your head kissed by a stranger (again: ew), I must reiterate that the fact that one person touched you in a way that felt fine is not even close to dispositive about whether this same person is capable of touching someone in a way that felt intrusive to them. Take Ted Bundy. Bundy was clearly able to show his wife Carole Ann Boone affection, so much so that when she married him in 1979, she believed him to be innocent of the crimes for which he was in prison. They even made a baby together! Yet, Ted Bundy also admitted to raping and killing several people, including little girls.

It’s an extreme illustration, sure, but the point stands. It is very common for abusive and/or boundary-crossing people to have some positive relationships amid their negative ones.

Just because it’s not rape …

Of course, it is essential for us to be able to discuss the wide range of inappropriate touching with nuance. Accusations have consequences, both reputational and criminal. So it matters that we be able to categorize harm by degree of gravity. Flores, for instance, did not suggest that the discomfort she felt was equal to being raped. On the contrary, her account is clear that the encounter was brief and limited to shoulder-touching, hair-smelling, and a kiss to the back of the head. No one in their rational mind should advocate sending Biden to prison, or  compare him to sexual predators like Harvey Weinstein (at least, not based on the information we currently have available). On the other hand, I am not convinced that Biden’s actions are so harmless that they deserve a hand wave of the sort expressed by AFT President Randi Weingarten last weekend:

As I suggested while pondering paths to redemption for persons accused of sexual misconduct in Current Affairs, a decades-long pattern of well-documented, unsettling handling of female bodies by a certain politician may require some reckoning—be it an apology, material expression of repentance, and even a soft form of punishment—before we can collectively move on. Certainly, powerful allies of Joe Biden do not get to referee when we as a society will have successfully dealt with the accusations from Flores and Lappos. While we should all be driven by pure principles, it would be wise to distrust the wealthy and privileged at the height of election season, when demonstrating loyalty could open doors to the White House. Instead, I suggest we take cues from the very people who have claimed to be at the receiving end of the harm in question. And while Flores’s and Lappos’s opinion are not the end of the matter, taking into account their satisfaction with the ultimate resolution can show that our society takes Biden’s actions towards these two women seriously, even as the allegation fall short of sexual assault or rape.

Just because you hate Bernie Sanders …

If your first reaction to Flores’s story is to believe that Bernie Sanders made Lucy Flores lie about being kissed on the back of the head by a man who has been videotaped smelling women’s hair since the dawn of C-SPAN, then you may be too far gone for this piece to be of any use to you. However, in the slightest chance that you will receive this, hear me out:

Yes, women have agency. Yes, women have the right and ability to decide what makes them uncomfortable and what doesn’t without the help of another man.  Yes, women deserve to be listened to when they tell you that being touched in sensual ways without their consent makes them uncomfortable. Yes, women have the right to prepare for public discussion of how a particular incident made them feel so that they can speak to the matter eloquently.

I cannot believe I actually had to write any of this.

Just because you apologized, vaguely, to the press …

Finally, if you’ve messed up and are earnest about making it up to the person you harmed, think hard about how to apologize to them directly, and obviously, without causing them additional distress. If it makes sense, as it might between Biden and Flores, or say, Biden and Anita Hill, try picking up the phone, dialing your victim—preferably before dialing the Washington Post—and telling them that you are sorry and that you plan to learn from this experience. Not feeling so brave? Write them an email or a letter. But for goodness sake, do not for a minute pretend that a Twitter soliloquy assuring your peers that you are a Supporter of Women absolves you of your obligation to show your victim enough respect to apologize to them directly.

Frankly, this last point applies to all of us. Let’s do better.

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