These moments all add up to hold women back.
“Affectionate” is the word people keep using.
Former Vice President and presumptive presidential candidate Joe Biden “is extremely affectionate, extremely flirtatious in a completely safe way,” Mika Brzezinski said on Monday’s Morning Joe.
“It would be really unfortunate if we got rid of everybody who was just an affectionate kind of person,” said Joy Behar on The View.
Biden himself said in a statement that while he has “offered countless handshakes, hugs, expressions of affection, support and comfort” over the years, he never believed he was acting inappropriately. In a later statement issued on Wednesday, he pledged to “be more mindful about respecting personal space in the future,” while also saying, “I’ve always tried to make a human connection.”
But there’s something crucial missing from the narrative that Biden is just an affectionate guy. The behaviors of which he’s been accused — kissing one woman’s head, rubbing noses with another woman, and a variety of other instances of touching captured on camera over the years — don’t constitute sexual assault, and some say they were not sexual in intent. But such behavior can still have a pernicious effect on women, a constant, low-level distraction that can hold women back in their work and in their lives.
“It does matter and it does affect us,” said Lucy Flores, who wrote at the Cut last week that Biden kissed her on the back of the head at a campaign event in 2014, told Vox. “You’re constantly navigating and changing your own behavior in order to avoid those kinds of situations.”
After the Access Hollywood tape was released in 2016, showing Donald Trump bragging about his ability to grab women “by the pussy,” Amanda Taub of the New York Times wrote about sexual harassment and assault as a kind of tax on women — something that costs us time, energy, and money, as we’re forced to choose between defending our bodily autonomy and keeping peace with the men upon whom our careers often depend.
The idea applies here too:A kiss on the head may not seem severe, especially as the #MeToo movement has revealed countless reports of violent sexual assault. But such kisses add, little by little, to the tax that women pay for existing in American society.
“If you’re spending time and energy and emotion working to avoid a harasser or a specific environment, you’re not going to be putting that time toward your career,” Amy Blackstone, a sociology professor at the University of Maine who has studied the effects of harassment, told Vox.
So when we evaluate allegations like the ones against Biden, it’s not enough to ask whether the behavior involved was criminal, or whether it was meant in a sexual way. We should also be asking whether it contributed to an environment that is still, even in the #MeToo era, dragging women down.
Defenders of Biden say he had good intentions. But effects matter too.
Stories — and photos, and video — of Biden being “handsy” have been around for years, as Vox’s Matt Yglesias notes. But his reputation for excessive touching started to get more attention on Friday, after Flores, a former Nevada state lawmaker wrote that, in 2014, then-Vice President Biden came up behind her, smelled her hair, and planted a kiss on the back of her head.
The incident happened, Flores writes, as she was about to take the stage at a rally, where she’d be campaigning for lieutenant governor of Nevada. Afterwards, “I wanted nothing more than to get Biden away from me,” she wrote. “My name was called and I was never happier to get on stage in front of an audience.”
Meanwhile, on Monday, Amy Lappos told the Hartford Courant that Biden had grabbed her by the head and rubbed noses with her in 2009. “It wasn’t sexual,” she said. However, she told the paper, “There’s a line of respect. Crossing that line is not grandfatherly. It’s not cultural. It’s not affection. It’s sexism or misogyny.”
Many defenses of Biden have centered on the claim that he never intended to make sexual advances toward women. “I am sure that somebody can misconstrue something he’s done,” Brzezinski said. “But as much as I can know what’s in anyone’s heart, I don’t think there is bad intent on his part at all.”
Biden himself said in a statement that “not once — never — did I believe I acted inappropriately. If it is suggested I did so, I will listen respectfully. But it was never my intention.”
And for some, that’s enough. “Biden’s saying, I didn’t intend to make anyone uncomfortable but I’ll listen & learn,” tweeted NBC News analyst Mimi Rocah. “If respectful statements like that aren’t welcomed, we’re just encouraging the Trump double down & smear approach.”
On Wednesday, Biden added that “social norms have begun to change,” and that he would be more mindful of his actions in the future. “But I’ll always believe governing, quite frankly — life, for that matter — is about connecting with people.”
Social norms are changing. I understand that, and I’ve heard what these women are saying. Politics to me has always been about making connections, but I will be more mindful about respecting personal space in the future. That’s my responsibility and I will meet it. pic.twitter.com/Ya2mf5ODts
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) April 3, 2019
Flores told Vox she was disappointed by Biden’s statement on Wednesday. “Cultural norms are not changing,” she said. “This type of behavior has always been inappropriate. We have just now reached a tipping point where women are feeling like enough is enough.”
In the statement, Biden makes the case that his physical conduct — he describes touches on the shoulder and hugs — has always been about bonding with people. But regardless of his intent, the effects of behavior matter. And the effects of Biden’s conduct, according to Flores, were real.
“Even if his behavior wasn’t violent or sexual, it was demeaning and disrespectful,” Flores wrote. “I wasn’t attending the rally as his mentee or even his friend; I was there as the most qualified person for the job.”
Biden, she said, “made me feel uneasy, gross, and confused.”
And then she had to take the stage and campaign. It was a moment when she no doubt had to bring all her skills to bear to make the best possible case before voters. And in that moment, she says, Biden failed to treat her as the qualified candidate she was.
“I am a professional,” Flores told Vox. To have a man “treat you as if you are just this frail woman who needs support, that in and of itself is degrading.”
Women are frequently assumed to be unqualified for their jobs and forced to prove their expertise again and again — Biden, in Flores’s account, was behaving in a way that played into those assumptions.
Imagine if, before she took the stage, Biden had shaken her hand and offered her words of encouragement — if she’d been able to approach voters feeling supported by the vice president, rather than having to shake off feelings of discomfort at a crucial moment in her political career.
Flores was able to move past the incident in the moment, she told Vox: “you move forward and you put it out of your mind and you process it later.” And maybe nothing about Flores’s race, which she eventually lost, would have been different if Biden had behaved differently. The effect of an individual small moment like the one Flores describes is hard to measure. But the fact that women have to deal with moments like that constantly, and men rarely do, perpetuates inequality.
Invasions of women’s personal space add up over time. And they hold women back.
“The burden of avoiding and enduring sexual harassment and assault results, over time, in lost opportunities and less favorable outcomes for girls and women,” Taub wrote at the Times in 2016. “It is effectively a sort of gender-specific tax that many women have no choice but to pay.”
Sometimes, the tax is obvious, like when a woman has to leave her job — or her entire field — to get away from a harassing boss. Research shows that sexual harassment in science and engineering contributes to women’s decision to leave those fields, Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute who has studied the gender pay gap, told Vox. And overall, women who are harassed are 6.5 times more likely to leave their jobs than women who don’t experience harassment, according to a 2017 study co-authored by Blackstone, the sociologist.
Leaving a job due to harassment can affect women’s earning prospects. In Blackstone’s study, the women who were harassed were significantly more likely to report financial stress two years after their harassment than women who were not harassed.
But sometimes, the tax accrues more subtly and slowly, in little moments that pop up again and again throughout a woman’s life.
“Whereas men can freely seize an opportunity, women must pause and weigh the costs,” Taub added, asking themselves questions like, “Is it worth accepting a professor’s offer for one-on-one research mentorship on the assumption that his interest in me is strictly academic?”
Asking oneself those questions takes time and mental energy that could be spent on other tasks — tasks men get to perform uninhibited. The constant need to worry about misconduct from men can result in opportunities turned down, or simply a feeling of exhaustion and self-doubt that can keep a woman from doing her best work.
“If you’re all of a sudden put on a project with someone you feel threatened by,” Gould said, “that’s going to affect your ability to be most productive or to be present.”
Women make about 81 percent of what men make in America today — black, Latina, and Native American women make significantly less than that. As Taub notes, women are less likely than men to make partner at a law firm, or to get tenure at a university. And although women won more seats in Congress than ever in 2018, they still make up less than a quarter of the legislature.
How much of that is due to the constant drag on women’s progress caused by men’s invasions of their physical space? It’s hard to know. But a great way to find out would be for men to stop it.