I have to admit it: I’ve had a long-time crush on Joe Biden. He’s smart, charming, handsome, and has a sense of humor I find appealing. I mostly agree with his politics. I love the work he’s done fighting against domestic violence. But here’s what I don’t like…..he’s also quite grabby.
If you look at pictures, there he is, almost always touching someone he’s with….women, family, kids, other men, coworkers, constituents, even the former President of the United States.
When I was growing up, there were Bidens everywhere: the uncle who kissed you on the lips, dads in the neighborhood who touched your waist, men who grabbed your butt or brushed up against you, the boys who would run up behind you and pull up your skirt. Grabbiness with women was as ubiquitous as smoking, and pretty much everyone smoked back then.
Growing up as a girl in the 70s and 80s we learned that our bodies were something for men to touch or comment on. We were taught we should be flattered by attention, men were being protective or chivalrous or they were making us “feel pretty”. That if a man told us to smile, he was trying to brighten up our day. That calling us “sweetheart” or “beautiful” instead of our name was totally fine, even if it was your teacher or your boss.
Being desired by men was a goal society taught us girls we should all aspire to. If we expressed a sense of unease at being touched, we were told we were being too sensitive. “That’s how Uncle So-and-So is,” adults would tell us. “He doesn’t mean any harm.”
In the 70s and 80s we also used insults like, “stop acting so gay,” and “you’re being retarded” and a variety of words we now consider to be offensive slurs against other groups. Using those words were harmful to others, although like a grabby uncle, we didn’t mean any harm. Eventually public sentiment turned and people started to understand that while harm wasn’t necessarily intended, it was happening. The impact became more important than the intent, and rightly so. And most of us learned to not use those words.
Over the past few years we are finally starting to talk about the harmful impacts of men’s behavior towards women. Women are looking back at experiences that under today’s lens would be called sexual assault, or sexual harassment, or at least inappropriate. And as we look back with the wisdom of age and today’s understanding of trauma, it can be super triggering for many of us. And enraging.
To paraphrase a famous movie line, we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.
I read these stories about men who claim to be progressive, like Biden or Franken or Sanders, and they’re glaringly not progressive on listening to women.
It’s disappointing to me how as these things come to the light, and women are saying “hey, that caused me harm”, the response isn’t, “I’m sorry I harmed you” or “I’m sorry my actions caused discomfort”. Instead it’s things like, “that’s how he is”, or “things were different back then” or “she seemed OK with it at the time” or “I didn’t mean anything”.
I’ve written before about men’s obliviousness. My essay “Women’s Fear and Men’s Obliviousness” was one of the most popular posts on this blog, and many people have shared with me how it resonated with them — or opened their eyes to things they hadn’t thought about before.
When I hear Joe Biden or any of these other public figures say “I never acted inappropriately” it’s infuriating to me. They’re oblivious. I realize that they likely never intended harm, and I realize that it wasn’t considered inappropriate at the time, but we know better now. Just like we know we shouldn’t smoke cigarettes or use racial slurs, we know we shouldn’t grab women.
And yet it continues. I was at a public event last year where our mayor, who identifies as male, and our county chair, who identifies as female, were both speaking. The host of the event introduced the mayor, and when he came up to speak, the host shook the mayor’s hand. Later the host introduced our county chair, and when she came up, that same host hugged her. I was angry at that display of blatant sexism. I was appalled that he felt it was OK to touch a female politician like that, particularly when he didn’t treat the male one the same way. Yet I’m sure that if I went to the host and said something like hey, this is a public event and the females are not here for your grabby hands Mr. Host, he’d be “confused”, maybe a bit angry that I would accuse of him of something. He’d be totally oblivious.
It’s one thing to be oblivious when you honestly don’t know something is a problem, but it’s another thing, an unacceptable thing, to be oblivious when people are telling you. Willful ignorance is a problem.
Men, we are making you aware of the problem now. Joe Biden, we are telling you something is a problem for us. Stop talking and listen. Accept the fact that whether you agree or not, whether you intended harm or not, your weird casual touches are unacceptable to us. We don’t like it. We don’t want it.
I get it, we didn’t tell you this back then, but we are telling you now. It’s not OK to be everyone’s charming grabby uncle anymore. To quote an old Georgia Satellites song, “Don’t hand me no lines and keep your hands to yourself.”
Stop being oblivious to our discomfort.
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