Is Joe Biden's "Handsy" Behavior Really All That Bad? (Intention vs Impact)
The allegations against Joe Biden have people wondering: Are Joe Biden’s behaviors inappropriate?
This photo of Biden touching Stephanie Carter has been used as an example of Biden’s inappropriate behaviors. However, Carter made a statement that the encounter was just a close friend offering support. She did not have any problem with Biden’s behavior.
Many women like Carter have stepped forward to defend Joe Biden against allegations that his behaviors have been inappropriate and made women feel uncomfortable. Those defending Biden tell of positive experiences they have shared with him, comment on his character, and commemorate his work supporting violence prevention and women’s rights.
Like Carter’s view, many defenders of Biden say that they don’t see anything wrong with the behaviors he’s being called out for, such as shoulder touches, kisses, bear hugs, and close-proximity whispers.
Joe Biden responded to allegations, sharing (among other things)
he has never believed he acted inappropriately nor did he ever intend to act inappropriately or make anyone uncomfortable
he is surprised by the perspective he was inappropriate and doesn’t recall it that way
he’s glad women can relate their experience and will pay attention
social norms have changed and he will be more mindful
he then talks about his advocacy for violence prevention and women’s rights.
So what behaviors do the allegations suggest are inappropriate?
A quick Google search and if you hadn’t already known, you’ll find coverage of Biden’s “friendliness” from places like the New York Post, showing Biden’s history of having greetings involving shoulder touches, kisses, bear hugs, close-proximity whispers – enough that people have said it is “Biden being Biden” to even calling him “handsy” Joe.
Those who have covered the story have been quick to pull past photos of Biden having frequent physical contacts with women -- leaning close to women, laying his hands on their shoulders, and invading their personal space. Biden also has several video compilations of him making remarks about women’s appearances and joking about how women need to be safeguarded from men, otherwise as the saying goes, “boys will boys.” You can hear some of these cringe-worthy jokes that support rape culture here. or see another cringe-worthy moment of Biden trying to plant a kiss on the head of the daughter of Senator Christopher Coons here.
Amy Lappos said Biden grabbed the back of her neck, pulled her close and rubbed noses with her at an October 2009 fundraiser. Lucy Flores said Biden placed his hand on her shoulders, inhaled her hair, and planted a big, slow kiss on the back of her head at a 2014 rally. In a statement, Lucy Flores asks Joe Biden to change his behavior and acknowledge it was wrong. She said,
Women should have agency in their own personal space and on their bodies.
While Lucy Flores and Amy Lappos have commented that Biden’s behaviors may not be criminal or explicitly sexual in nature, it did make them feel uncomfortable and like he crossed “a line of decency” and “a line of respect.” Other women are stepping forward to share their experiences with Biden that have left them feeling uncomfortable, too.
When asking if the behavior is inappropriate, there has been an overwhelming response to look at Biden’s intentions. They say he’s a nice guy; they say he never meant any harm; they say his hugs or shoulder touches are harmless and not that big of a deal.
This is the problem: Intentions, reputation, and character aren’t good enough excuses for inappropriate behavior.
To answer the question, “Are Joe Biden’s behaviors inappropriate?” people are pointing to Biden’s intentions. But, instead of intention, we should be looking at impact.
After all, if I accidentally punched you in the face, did you still get punched?
The allegation isn’t that Biden has dark secrets, but that the behaviors we have seen through the media that were laughed off and brushed off should be taken seriously and seen as hostile to women.
That’s because regardless of Biden’s intention, it can have a devastating impact on those who are uncomfortable with his behaviors. It is also an issue of consent.
Most problems, including this Joe Biden controversy, starts in the gap between intention and impact.
We hear it all the time “I never meant any harm…” “It was never my intention…” “I am not sexist…” “It’s just the way I am…” “I was just a joke…” People attempt to deflect criticism about their oppressive language or actions by making conversations about their intention. Because if someone intended their action to be hurtful then they must inherently be bad – it becomes about what they are.
It should not matter if Biden is personally very well-liked or whether he meant to make them uncomfortable or how much of an ally he is for survivors of sexual trauma and the “Me Too” movement.
By making the conversation about whether the behavior was appropriate because of Biden’s intentions, we focus on the wrong people in the narrative. We forget that someone felt stuck and was and is upset, confused, and hurt.
Taking Biden – a white, cis-gendered male who is coming from a position of authority and power and privilege – out of the center of the conversation because it’s not about his intention (usually linked to what/who a person is), allows room for the person who was hurt to be in the center and ensures that the conversation is about how what he did hurts other people and further marginalizes or oppresses people.
What does the intention of our action really matter if our actions have the impact of hurting and further oppressing those around us?
In some ways, this is a simple lesson of relationships and respectful boundaries.
There have been times, that because of my trauma symptoms, my husband does something that appears silly or kind or even neutral in nature, but it left me feeling upset, triggered, and/or uncomfortable. While it helps to know that he isn’t being purposefully vicious and uncaring (intention), it doesn’t matter – because I was deeply hurting or uncomfortable due to his behavior (impact). Hearing he “didn’t mean to” doesn’t cut it. That doesn’t address the impact at all. Instead, I expect more: I want him to listen to my perspective, to validate my feelings, and to apologize. Because then I want to know that I won’t be placed in that uncomfortable position again because he is doing the work (reflecting and empathizing, or at least trying). It is my body, my personal space, my boundaries and I have a right for those to be respected – by my husband, a friend, a stranger.
I understand that people may not know how to do any better. It doesn’t matter. Once we know better, we may do better. And we must do the work to know better.
We need to ask ourselves what might have been or what might be the impact of our behaviors. And we need to step back and listen when we are being told that the impact of our behavior doesn’t match with our intentions or our perceptions of the circumstance or the way we view ourselves.
I stand with Lucy Flores and the other women who have spoken out and demanded more from Joe Biden. Biden’s behaviors were and are inappropriate not because of his intentions, but because of his impact.
This conversation is a call for accountability for Biden to recognize that he can do better. For him to listen, reflect, apologize (an actual apology for his behavior, without any caveats), and work to do better in the future.
If you’re wondering what Joe Biden could have done better (and still can do) or if you have wondered about your own intention vs impact conversations (we’ve all been there), here are 4 ways you might approach the conversation next time:
1. Believe the people who have been made uncomfortable by your actions: don’t deny their experiences
2. Acknowledge that you messed up and that you recognize you have work to do (which does express regard for both intention and impact). This means giving serious consideration to why the other person might feel that way.
3. Apologize for your impact
4. Commit to doing better
Being called out is not easy. But it can be a gift because it calls on us to rise up and do better – to align our values with our actions.
p.s. if you’re wondering how this conversation is also about consent or how Biden’s behaviors are oppressive (because they add to rape culture), stay tuned for the next blog post.