There's A Name For Joe Biden's Behavior Toward Women

The former VP may have good intentions in his interactions with women, but that doesn't excuse potentially harmful behavior. Benevolent sexism can help us understand both of these things.

In the days since former Nevada state Assemblywoman Lucy Flores wrote about an uncomfortable run-in with Joe Biden, at least three more women have come forward with similar accounts. Flores says that the vice president touched her shoulders, leaned in to smell her hair and kissed the back of her head during a campaign event in 2014. It left her feeling “uneasy, gross, and confused,” as well as “powerless.”

A second woman, Amy Lappos, told The Hartford Courant on Monday that during a 2009 political fundraiser, Biden grabbed her behind the neck and pulled her in to rub noses with him. And yesterday, Caitlyn Caruso and D.J. Hill, both recounted incidents of uncomfortable and unasked for touching by Biden to The New York Times. (Other women, including former Biden staffers and Stephanie Carter, the wife of former Defense Secretary Ash Carter who was captured in a 2015 photograph with the former vice president touching her shoulders, have spoken out in support of Biden.)

None of these woman are alleging sexual assault or harassment. None of them had filed a complaint at the time. And none of them had said anything publicly — until now.

“Hearing Biden’s potential candidacy for president discussed without much talk about his troubling past as it relates to women became too much to keep bottled up any longer,” Flores wrote, adding that Biden’s behavior toward her and other women “shows a lack of empathy for the women and young girls whose space he is invading, and ignores the power imbalance that exists between Biden and the women he chooses to get cozy with.”

Crossing that line is not grandfatherly,” said Lappos. “It’s sexism or misogyny.”

In response to these stories, Biden offered a public statement through a spokesperson: “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. I may not recall these moments the same way, and I may be surprised at what I hear. But we have arrived at an important time when women feel they can and should relate their experiences, and men should pay attention. And I will.”

“Benevolent sexism is the carrot, hostile sexism is the stick that keeps women in their place.”

- Peter Glick, psychologist and professor at Lawrence University

The Biden allegations have kicked off a discussion among women about gendered behavior that may be violating and invasive despite its benevolent intentions. Why should we care about it? How much should we care about it? Do a person’s intentions matter when evaluating this kind of behavior? And what additional significance does it take on when that person is considering a run for president of the United States?

On social media, legions of women for whom it has become second nature to brush off the casual crossing of boundaries in professional settings told their stories. CNN commentator and “Signal Boost” host Jess McIntosh tweeted a story about a judge who made a habit of commenting on how she dressed and whether it flattered her body when she worked as a court reporter.

I didn’t realize how badly it messed me up for years,” she wrote. In Flores and Lappos, we saw ourselves.

But despite the seeming ubiquity of these kind of experiences, it still remains difficult to evaluate their significance ― especially within the context of a presidential race, one that will ultimately mean facing off against President Donald Trump, an overt misogynist who has bragged about grabbing women “by the pussy” without their consent. After all, Biden is no Trump. He co-authored the Violence Against Women Act. He launched the It’s On Us initiative. He routinely gives speeches about preventing sexual assault on college campuses and by all appearances has demonstrated genuine care on these issues.

Peter Glick, a psychologist and professor at Lawrence University, sees a throughline between Biden’s overly familiar behavior toward individual women and the way he has positioned himself as a protector and champion of women: benevolent sexism.

Glick, who along with Princeton University professor Susan T. Fiske first coined the term, explained that benevolent sexism reconciles men’s desire to maintain positive, interdependent relationships with women while also maintaining male dominance and power. Thus, women are cast as inherently weaker creatures in need of protection, and their male protectors get to play the hero.

Women are wonderful, so long as they stay in their more traditional roles and are supportive toward men, and are not a challenge to men,” said Glick. “The other way I put it is, benevolent sexism is the carrot, hostile sexism is the stick that keeps women in their place.”

Whereas hostile sexism is easy to point out and thus organize around ― see: the Women’s March in the wake of the 2016 election ― benevolent sexism is far more subtle, and the intentions behind it are often more complex. Because the perpetrator of such sexism often has a subjectively positive interpretation of his or her actions, it makes it that much more difficult to identify and critique in a productive way.

“It’s really that good intent, or this positive glow that we give to benevolent sexism, [that] makes [it] a lot more difficult to call out,” said Glick. For example, Biden may have seen his hugs and nuzzles and hair kisses as positive extensions of his care for women both personally and professionally.

But Glick told HuffPost that research has shown that benevolent sexism can cause real harm. Speaking generally, Glick said such behavior can subtly undermine women, suggest a lack of confidence in their skills and can raise their self-doubt. Glick has even found that “when you remind women of benevolent sexism, they’re less likely to seek social change.” The opposite is true of hostile sexism. (Historically, benevolent sexism has been used to justify numerous policies that disempower women, from restricting the vote to restricting abortion access.)

“When you move through the world with the knowledge that you’ll have to contend with even well-intentioned men violating your boundaries, and you'll have little recourse when they do, it’s exhausting. These small indignities are difficult to talk about, so for the most part, they go unnamed.”

The “subtle undermining” that Glick described is a dynamic that Flores explicitly articulates in her essay. “Even if his behavior wasn’t violent or sexual, it was demeaning and disrespectful,” wrote Flores. “I wasn’t attending the rally as his mentee or even his friend; I was there as the most qualified person for the job.”

When you move through the world with the knowledge that you’ll have to contend with even well-intentioned men violating your boundaries, and you’ll have little recourse when they do, it’s exhausting. These small indignities are difficult to talk about, so for the most part, they go unnamed. Thanks to Flores and Lappos, we can start to name them.

With Biden, there is the additional reality that his paternalism is paired with a political career that suggests he has blind spots when it comes to the lived experiences of women and people of color. He routinely groups “women and children” together in his public statements, and his record on issues of abortion access and criminal justice have raised red flags for some on the left.

In 1974, shortly after he became a senator, Biden told the Washingtonian that he believed the Supreme Court had “gone too far” with Roe v. Wade. “I don’t think that a woman has the sole right to say what should happen to her body,” he said.

Since then, his record on abortion rights has been a mixed bag. Although he maintains that he strongly supports a woman’s right to choose, he has also supported various legislation over the years that would have restricted funding for abortion care and research, and allow states to roll back abortion rights. “I still vote against partial birth abortion and federal funding,” Biden wrote in his 2007 memoir, “and I’d like to make it easier for scared young mothers to choose not to have an abortion.” A spokesperson recently told The New York Times that Biden is a supporter of Roe who has fought to protect abortion rights.

The former vice president has also faced sustained critique over his unwillingness to take responsibility for the damage wrought on Anita Hill when she testified in Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation hearings. At the time, Biden was the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“She was taken advantage of. Her reputation was attacked. I wish I could have done something,” Biden said at the Biden Courage Awards just last week. Even now, when he speaks about the hearings, he employs language that suggests that he felt a desire to protect Hill, without acknowledging that what she really needed was a fair hearing, not a knight in shining armor to whisk her away from it all.

As Rebecca Traister put it in New York Magazine, Biden, despite his support for women in certain respects, “has provided liberal cover to anti-feminist backlash, the kind of old-fashioned paternalism of powerful men who don’t take women’s claims to their reproductive, professional, or political autonomy particularly seriously, who walk through the world with a casual assurance that men’s access to and authority over women’s bodies is natural.”

Biden is considering a run for president, which would make him one of the most powerful people in the world. This makes his history of benevolently sexist behavior not only fair game, but essential to discuss.

“Why should we talk about it?” Glick said, when I asked him that question. “Because 20 years of research has shown the really surprising and insidious ways that benevolent sexism actively undermines women and actively suppresses resistance to gender inequality.”

If Biden truly intends to listen to women and reckon with what he hears, now seems like the time to start.

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