Loading icon

Rejecting the Baseline: let’s not just accept that people have to deal with sexual harassment

News & Features | April 22, 2019

Cw: Sexual assault, suicide

Over the past several weeks, eight women have spoken out about their experiences with Delaware Senator and former Vice President Joe Biden. The potential 2020 presidential candidate has received criticism for overstepping boundaries and behaving inappropriately towards the people—particularly women—with whom he interacts as a politician.

Lucy Flores, a former Nevada assemblywoman, led the recent charge in calling out Biden’s behavior on March 29 in The Cut, where she detailed her encounter with Biden during a political rally in 2014. She was the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in Nevada. He was the Vice President of the United States. While they were standing backstage at the rally, Flores said that she “felt him get closer to me from behind. He leaned further in and inhaled my hair. I was mortified… He proceeded to plant a big slow kiss on the back of my head… I was embarrassed. I was shocked. I was confused.” Flores continues to describe her feelings during the interaction. “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.”

Flores’ essay gained near-instant momentum and backlash. Several other individuals who had endured uncomfortable interactions with Biden came forward to tell their own stories. On April 1, Amy Lappos, a freelancer in the nonprofit sector, told the Hartford Courant that Biden had inappropriately touched her in 2009 at a political fundraiser. “He put his hand around my neck and pulled me in to rub noses with me,” she recalled, “When he was pulling me in, I thought he was going to kiss me on the mouth.” Before her public announcement, Lappos posted about the incident anonymously on the Facebook page Connecticut Women in Politicsostensibly fearing the repercussions she might receive for making a more public statement concerning Biden’s behavior.

The following day, two more women, Caitlin Caruso and DJ Hill, told The New York Times about Biden’s inappropriate behavior towards them. Caruso, who was 19 at the time of the incident, described Biden resting his hand on her thigh, “even as she squirmed in her seat to show her discomfort.” The incident occurred during a sexual assault awareness event at the University of Nevada, where Caruso spoke out as a survivor. Caruso did not report Joe Biden’s behavior at the time, explaining that “it doesn’t even really cross [her] mind that such a person would dare perpetuate harm like that.”

On April 4, The Washington Post published an article with the stories of Vail Kohnert-Yount and Sofie Karasek, who both reported distressing interactions with Biden. Kohnert-Yount, a former White House intern, reported that “[Biden] put his hand on the back of my head and pressed his forehead to my forehead while he talked to me. I was so shocked that it was hard to focus on what he was saying.”

Karasek’s interaction with Biden occurred in 2016. She appeared in a group of 51 sexual assault victims who were invited on stage for an Oscar performance that Biden had introduced. Karasek said that she met Biden after the ceremony and shared a personal story involving another friend who had experienced sexual assault and ultimately succumbed to suicide. Biden grabbed her hands and “lean[ed] down to place his forehead against hers,” a moment captured in a widely circulated photograph. Karasek said she “appreciated Biden’s support but also felt awkward and uncomfortable that his gesture had left their faces suddenly inches apart.”

Biden has issued two statements regarding these allegations. The first was released two days after Flores’ essay was published on Twitter. The statement was humble, but notably failed to assume any direct responsibility for the allegations and lacked an actual apology. “In many years on the campaign trail and in public life, I have offered countless handshakes, hugs, expressions of affection, support and comfort. And not once—never—did I believe I acted inappropriately. If it is suggested I did so, I will listen respectfully,” Biden stated.

Tufts junior Han Lee, co-head of education and outreach for Tufts Action for Sexual Assault Prevention (ASAP), responded to Biden’s first statement via an email to the Tufts Observer, stating, “Biden’s situation in particular, I think, raises a lot of interesting questions about how we discuss consent and sexual assault/harassment. Biden’s case… is focused solely on the determinants of sexual harassment. While this discussion may have some merits, I also think we should be discussing the elements of power and disrespect that comes into play in these situations.”

This observation is important to consider both in Biden’s statement, as well as the dominant media narratives surrounding the allegations. By insisting that he was unaware that his actions caused harm, Biden reveals the very power that he holds in his interactions. According to Lee, “Whether or not you deem his actions as innocent, a kiss on the cheek or a massage without consent are performances of power. Essentially, Biden claims access to these bodies and these actions are invasive and ignorant to a person’s level of comfort… The underlying message is always: If I let him do this, what more might he ask for?”

Biden’s actions are simply the tip of the iceberg; they hint at much larger, intricately embedded power structures. And these stories are by no means exceptional. People deal with workplace harassment and sexual misconduct daily, across all occupations. An online survey launched in January of 2018 by the nonprofit Stop Street Harassment found that 81 percent of women and 43 percent of men have experienced some form of sexual harassment during their lifetime.

Biden and his supporters have both claimed that his intentions in the interactions in question were always good, and that he is simply a victim of shifting generational views on sexual misconduct. In a two-minute video released on Twitter on April 3, Biden acknowledged that “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.”

In response to Biden’s video, Karasek told The Washington Post that Biden “emphasized that he wants to connect with people and, of course, that’s important. But again, all of our interactions and friendships are a two-way street… Too often it doesn’t matter how the woman feels about it or they just assume that they’re fine with it.”

Tufts Sociology Professor Brett Nava-Coulter, who studies Policy and Inequality, responded to Biden’s claim about shifting social norms, stating: “People have made this generational claim… but we are now in the present day. He should not be unaware at this point of the fact that society has deemed these interactions inappropriate.”

The former Vice President is in a particularly salient position for exemplifying the way we deal with sexual misconduct today. Though he still has yet to officially announce his bid for the presidency, Biden already leads the polls among more than a dozen other Democratic candidates. This begs the questions: will he face consequences for his actions?

Senior Ross Kamen, who is from Biden’s home state of Delaware, weighed in on the prospect of consequences. “It seems like there is no public figure who has been forgiven,” he said. “We only see cases getting swept under the rug or people being publicly condemned and haven’t really come back.”

I think Biden is uniquely positioned to be one of the first people to just say ‘I’m sorry, I understand that what I did hurt people and I am willing to change’ and maybe people will be like yeah, we forgive you,” he continued. “But he hasn’t done that yet.”

In an interview with CNN, Flores stated, “I think it really speaks to the fact that when behavior isn’t considered ‘serious enough’ for society, for America, it’s very easy to dismiss it… Never do I claim that this rises to the level of sexual assault or anything of that nature. What I am saying is that it is completely inappropriate… and that is something that we should consider when we are talking about the background of a person who is considering running for president.”

Although Biden has vowed to learn from his actions, whether he will follow through remains to be seen. At a recent conference for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Washington, Biden joked about the controversy, hugging Lonnie R. Stephenson, the union’s president, and remarking as the crowd laughed, “I just want you to know I had permission to hug Lonnie.”

In response, Flores tweeted, “It’s clear @JoeBiden hasn’t reflected at all on how his inappropriate and unsolicited touching made women feel uncomfortable. To make light of something as serious as consent degrades the conversation women everywhere are courageously trying to have.”

Regarding this, Tufts Professor of Anthropology Nick Seaver told the Observer in an email that “the networks of trust and belief along which testimony travels don’t go everywhere—certain privileged positions are more likely to be believed than others. Similarly, people in certain positions are more likely to be sought out for their expert opinions.” He also cautioned that, as a White cis man himself, “I am not the ideal person to be weighing in on this issue!”

Indeed, recent events on Tufts campus exemplify the violence of undermining underprivileged voices. On April 1, the Tufts cannon was painted with the message “support survivors.” The message was written in white and green, representing Green Dot, a national organization which promotes proactive and reactive bystander intervention. The following day, a bright red scrawl reading “#MAGA” was spray painted over Green Dot’s message.

“The cannon incident drew a pretty visceral reaction from me,” Lee said. “It was a targeted incident derailing campus support for the survivors on this campus. The implication that Trump’s campaign motto sends, sprayed directly over ‘support survivors,’ is that what will make America great again is to ignore survivors, to not believe those who have the courage to share their narratives. It sends a message that this campus is not safe, that to be a survivor is to be a liar. For every anonymous forum post or cannon painting, there is a survivor who is afraid to report, afraid to publicly detail what has happened to them, who has to relive their trauma again and again, who is double-checking statistics because their words aren’t enough, whose agency has been entirely taken from them.”

Seaver and Lee’s comments highlight an overarching theme that underscores the emerging narrative between Biden and his accusers. Survivors’ voices are consistently drowned out in favor of defending and listening to people in power, and we can see this dynamic play out in the polarizing responses to the Biden scandal. On the right, Donald Trump has joked that Biden is a hypocrite who is being taken down by the very progressive policies that he has championed, remarking, “Welcome to the world, Joe. You having a good time, Joe? Are you having a good time?” On the left, Biden supporters, many of them women, have been quick to defend Biden, claiming the #MeToo movement has gone too far. Whoopi Goldberg downplayed Flores’ story, saying that “Joe is a hands-on kind of guy” on a segment of The View.

Lee argues that actions like this prove exactly how far the #MeToo movement still has to go. “We have to be thinking about the language that we’re using, the way we’re reacting to these cases,” she said. “This proves more than ever that survivors need support. This proves that sexual assault is not over, that it is not a crisis of the past. It is happening right here, on our campus, by the very people who are in your fraternity, who did a pre-O with you, who sit beside you in class.  The fight isn’t nearly over yet.”

Choosing to minimize survivor testimony to defend accused offenders of sexual misconduct, no matter the scale, actively perpetuates a damaging cycle of oppression which supports the status quo and resists progress. The Biden controversy has the potential to create a new precedent in the world of workplace harassment and beyond. It is time that we listen to the stories of survivors and allow them the space to heal without fear of backlash.

Please reach out if you need help or support. RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) is the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. Visit online.rainn.org to chat one-on-one with a trained RAINN support specialist, any time 24/7. You can also call the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE,online.rainn.org and rainn.org/es).