Several women have accused potential presidential candidate Joe Biden of inappropriate touching. Invading someone’s space isn’t necessarily sexual harassment – but we should still talk about it.
I’d like to share with you the results of a study conducted in 2015 by an esteemed group of evolutionary psychologists. Keen to investigate how people felt about physical contact with other human beings, researchers at the University of Oxford and Aalto University in Finland presented more than 1,300 men and women from five countries with ‘maps’ of the human body. They then asked the participants to colour in where they would be comfortable with being touched by various kinds of people – ranging from a romantic partner to total strangers.
What the researchers found will likely be unsurprising to most women. Men were generally far more comfortable with physical contact from strangers than women, claiming that they wouldn’t be alarmed by a female stranger touching any part of their body (including their genitals). Women, in contrast, were happy to receive physical contact from friends of all genders – but did not like the thought of a male stranger touching anywhere on their body apart from their hands.
“We interpret touch depending on the context of the relationship,” the study’s lead author Professor Robin Dunbar told The Telegraph at the time. “We may perceive a touch in a particular place from a relative or friend as a comforting gesture, while the same touch from a partner might be more pleasurable, and from a stranger it would be entirely unwelcome.”
I share the details of that study not just because they’re interesting, but because they seem strikingly relevant to a debate currently raging in the States (and thus – because events in the US tend to have a ripple effect – around the world). Over the last week or so, Joe Biden – anti-sexual assault campaigner, Barack Obama’s beloved vice-president, and a man widely believed to be gearing up for the 2020 presidential race – has been accused of inappropriate touching by multiple women. Many of these women have explicitly stated that they never felt as though they had been sexually harassed by Biden. Instead, they want to talk about something far more nuanced: the tendency of some men to invade women’s personal space, particularly in the workplace, and how uncomfortable and disorientating this can be.
First up was former Nevada assemblywoman Lucy Flores, who wrote an essay for The Cut describing events she said took place before a campaign event in 2014. As Flores was preparing to go onstage to address the crowd, she said Biden approached her from behind and placed both hands on her shoulders. “I felt him get closer to me from behind. He leaned further in and inhaled my hair… [and] proceeded to plant a big slow kiss on the back of my head.”
As often happens in situations like this, once one woman had spoken out, others swiftly followed. Former congressional aide Amy Lappos told a Connecticut newspaper that Biden reached for her face and rubbed noses with her during a fundraiser in 2009. In a statement to The Washington Post, Vail Kohnert-Yount said that when she was a White House intern in 2013, Biden “put his hand on the back of my head and pressed his forehead to my forehead while he talked to me… I remember he told me I was a ‘pretty girl.’”
Writer DJ Hill told The New York Times that the vice-president put his hand on her shoulder and then started dropping it down her back when she met him at a fundraising event in Minneapolis in 2012. Caitlyn Caruso, a former college student and sexual assault survivor, said that Biden rested his hand on her thigh and hugged her “just a little bit too long” at an event on sexual assault at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in 2016.
In describing their encounters with Biden, many of these women used similar language. Flores said she was “mortified”, “embarrassed” and “confused”, and described feeling paralysed with shock. Hill said Biden moving his hand down her back made her “very uncomfortable”. Kohnert-Yount said she “was so shocked” by Biden touching his forehead to hers “that it was hard to focus on what he was saying”.
But most of them also emphasised that they are not out to ruin Biden’s reputation or career. Hill acknowledged that she didn’t know what Biden’s intentions were, while Kohnert-Yount said she actively believes his intentions were good. “I do not consider my experience to have been sexual assault or harassment,” she added. “But it was the kind of inappropriate behavior that makes many women feel uncomfortable and unequal in the workplace.”
Similarly, Flores told MSNBC: “I don’t believe [Biden had] a bad intention. I’m not in any way suggesting that I felt sexually assaulted or sexually harassed. I felt invaded. I felt there was a violation of my personal space.”
Flores felt her story had been “dismissed as if it’s just Biden being Biden, no big deal,” she continued. “It is a big deal.”
To an extent, it seems that these women’s stories are just evidence of “Biden being Biden” – but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of discussion. Many of Biden’s friends and colleagues have observed that the 76-year-old is a notably tactile person. On the podcast Pod Save America, former Obama speechwriting director Jon Favreau described Biden as “an affectionate guy who is unusually touchy to both men and women… and had no bad intentions”.
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House, said that Biden is “an affectionate person, to children, to senior citizens, to everyone”. In a video posted on social media in response to the women’s allegations, Biden said that shaking hands, hugging people and grabbing people by the shoulders was how he has always “tried to show I care about them and I’m listening”.
Several women have also shared stories of Biden being physically affectionate towards them in a way that made them feel supported, rather than uncomfortable. Erin Bilbray, a former Democratic congressional candidate from Nevada, told The Washington Post that Biden had kissed her on the head before an event in 2014, and she considered it a “very nurturing, supportive action”.
Others, like the actress and #MeToo advocate Alyssa Milano, have pointed out Biden’s long history of working with sexual assault survivors as evidence of his support for women (although others are more sceptical, remembering how he handled Anita Hill’s sexual harassment claim against a prospective Supreme Court judge in the Nineties).
But here’s where we should return to that Oxford University study, which shows that nobody has a rigid, one-size-fits-all attitude towards physical contact. That’s why the Biden issue is complicated, and why advice like that offered by Pelosi – who suggested Biden should keep his distance by pretending that everyone has a cold – won’t always be helpful. How or whether we want to be touched by another person depends on a myriad of overlapping and intersecting factors, from our personal relationship with them (are they our friend? Our boss? A famous politician?) to where we are (you might be happy for your partner to be touchy-feely with you at a party, for example, but you’d probably hate them to do it in your office).
So some women won’t mind if the vice-president kisses them on the head. But many others will feel legitimately unsettled when a powerful man enters their personal space without invitation. That is particularly true given that an estimated 81% of US women have experienced sexual harassment, with 38% having been sexually harassed in the workplace. Biden might not be a deliberate creep, but it’s no woman’s fault if she doesn’t know that for sure.
For many women, how uncomfortable they feel around a man will also be coloured by his apparent obliviousness. It is frightening to know that someone’s deliberately trying to upset you, but it’s awful in a different way when a person crosses your boundaries without even noticing. And their sense of outrage will be exacerbated by the fact that, although Biden is supposedly tactile with everyone, no men have yet come forward with stories about him kissing them on the head or smelling their hair. That honour, it seems, was reserved for women.
In his video addressing the claims against him, Biden said he would “adjust to the fact that personal space is important”, and “be much more mindful” about how he behaved in the future. It remains to be seen whether these women’s stories will dent his popularity if he does decide to run for president. But if they have caused just one man to think twice about invading women’s personal space, it will have been worth it.
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