NEW YORK ― More than a year ago, Alyssa Milano posted on Twitter what would become a viral request, asking people to reply with the words “me too” ― the name of an awareness campaign founded a decade earlier by activist Tarana Burke ― if they had ever experienced sexual harassment or assault.
In a watershed moment, tens of thousands responded to share their stories, as did Milano herself.
Now, she wants to figure out how to welcome the accused back into society.
“We can’t just put everyone aside,” Milano told HuffPost on Tuesday at the Safe Horizon Champion Awards Gala in New York, where she was an honoree for her activism. “We have to figure out what it looks like when people re-enter the workforce that have been accused.”
Earlier this month, the actress defended former Vice President Joe Biden after allegations emerged that he had touched women inappropriately. The first account came from former Nevada Assemblywoman Lucy Flores, who, in an essay for New York magazine’s The Cut, said Biden placed his hands on her shoulders, smelled her hair and kissed the top of her head during a 2014 campaign event. Since Flores published her story, seven more women have come forward, sharing similar accusations of touches that seemed to cross the line between professional and intimate.
However, Milano remains firm in her support for Biden, and praised his response to the allegations.
“We all have to question our interactions and if they make people feel uncomfortable, and I think he’s willing to put in that work,” she said of the former vice president, who is widely expected to announce a 2020 presidential campaign at some point. She added that society can’t simply cut off those who’ve behaved badly, “especially people that have done such amazing things for the country.”
“We just have to keep encouraging them to learn and we have to keep teaching,” she said, “and hopefully that behavior will change.”
Milano made clear she was not seeking to invalidate any woman’s story about Biden, and said she’s made the same case for rehabilitation regarding “people that were accused of much worse offenses.” An element of the Me Too reckoning, she emphasized, is that “eventually we have to figure out how to re-invite people back to this circle and be part of the solution.”
Last week, Biden addressed the allegations in a video, saying that “the boundaries of protected personal space have been reset, and I get it,” and vowing to “be much more mindful.”
However, Burke didn’t buy Biden’s mea culpa as genuine, slamming his remarks just after they appeared online.
“It’s not that people become more ‘sensitive’ over time as Biden suggested,” Burke tweeted. “It’s not just about personal space or intention ― it’s about bodily autonomy, it’s about power and leadership.”
Accusations against Biden have forced Me Too’s allies to assess how much weight they’ll give to various transgressions. But Milano believes social banishment is the wrong answer.
“I think it’s a more realistic approach to say, this person needs to make a living, has certain things that they’re good at, and how do we re-invite them back into the communities that they hurt in a way where they are more educated on what we need, but also where people that felt their abuses feel more protected?” she said. “And I think the first step to that is having people that are saying, ‘I’m willing to learn, I’m willing to listen, teach me.’ And I think that’s what Biden is trying to do, is learn.”