The recent accusations by four women that former VIce President Joe Biden touched them in an inappropriate manner that, while not sexual, nonetheless made them feel uncomfortable underscores the complexity of relationships between men and women, particularly in a changing society.
Politicians “press the flesh,” quite literally — patting you on the back, reaching for your hand, moving in for the photo op, picking up your baby for a kiss. Few have done this better than Biden. He is, as his name suggests, a guy named Joe — one who despite the occasional gabby gaffe can be counted on to roll up his sleeves and wade into the working class. It is the whole reason he was selected to be the running mate of President Barack Obama, who was considered too cerebral, too aloof, too other.
But as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — a woman of almost Elizabethan discretion — noted shrewdly: “He has to understand in the world that we’re in now that people’s space is important to them, and what’s important is how they receive it and not necessarily how you intended it.”
Much has already been made about Biden being out of touch with our #MeToo era. Many remember his lack of sympathy toward Anita Hill, when she accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment in his 1991 conformation hearing for the United States Supreme Court. But I think this is more complex than some old white guy who now says he gets it. Men may reach out and touch women as a gesture of dominance in many situations, though I don’t think this is what Biden was doing. But men also touch women, oddly enough, as a way not only to ingratiate themselves with women but to use that ingratiation as leverage against other men.
Remember that for millennia, men have been locked in a power struggle not with women — who had no power — but with other men. How has that struggle played out? How do men rise in the hierarchy? They need a buffer. They need good will. They need to build their psychological capital. Who provides all this? Women.
This is not to suggest that men have not sexually harassed and assaulted women for those same millennia — or that the seemingly affectionate, paternalistic pressing of the flesh isn’t annoying to those on the receiving end, Pelosi’s point being well-taken. But rather that the male desire to ingratiate themselves with women as a kind of leverage over other men has been hard-wired to the point of being unconscious. I don’t think Biden thought he was being exploitative any more than President George W. Bush did when he snuck up behind “Angie” — German Chancellor Angela Merkel — at a conference and squeezed her shoulders. I think they thought they were just being playful, fun and charming.
We now have a different view of the world, one that may prove to be no country for old men, at least when it comes to running for president (although sexual piggishness has certainly not hurt President Donald J. Trump). But I would hate to see us become a country of people like Vice President Mike Pence, who won’t be alone with a woman.
Touch can be an important, necessary form of communication. I think of one of my doctors putting his hand on my arm after surgery, which let me know immediately I was going to be all right. And I think of the story New York City historian Kenneth T. Jackson told of riding a bus the evening of 9/11. As he passed a weeping young woman, he patted her shoulder in a gesture of comfort and solidarity.
In the new rules of engagement, common sense needs to prevail.