The #MeToo movement has been a welcome and necessary force in American society. It’s part of a long overdue process that begins to put women on equal footing with men. It not only makes clear that the most blatant sexual harassment is unacceptable but that more subtle behavior that shames or alienates women in the workplace and in broader society won’t be tolerated, either.
However, the very nature of the movement makes it prone to abuses and the public should be wary of accusations that come with political fallout. The term “trust but verify” comes to mind. Not every touch is sexual harassment, even if it might not be exactly appropriate. As the rules change, we shouldn’t hold people in contempt for behavior that was acceptable just a few year ago but that is no longer acceptable today. Intent is the difference.
Joe Biden is clearly a guy who invades people’s personal space. He’s been doing it his whole life. Sometimes, that invasion includes touching women in ways that he mistakenly sees as affectionate or comforting, but is really uncomfortable for the recipient. Sure, it’s cringe-worthy but it’s not malicious and it certainly shouldn’t be disqualifying in a run for the presidency, at least not just for the behavior itself.
I’ve watched a bunch of videos and photos of Biden’s behavior. He’s clearly not trying to assert some sort of authority and his touches certainly aren’t sexual in nature. On the contrary, Biden thinks he’s offering support or comfort, regardless of how misplaced his affection might be. Putting him in the same league as sexual predators or even people who use sexual innuendo as a means to assert control or superiority is misguided and damaging to the movement.
Be clear, I’m not here to encourage people to support Biden. There are plenty of reasons to oppose him, not the least of which is that he will be 78 on inauguration day 2020, but to put him in the same league as sexual harassers is not okay. His intent was benign. Accusing him of sexual harassment does as much damage to the validity of the #MeToo movement as it does to the former Vice-President.
We need to be careful where we want this movement to go. Last week, I met with two women at different times and places. Neither do I know well. Throughout our conversations, both women touched me repeatedly, putting their hands on my forearm or knee as I sat on a barstool. Neither woman was making any sort of sexual advance or trying to make me feel uncomfortable. Instead, their actions seemed more like unconscious habits meant to build familiarity.
I’ve met people like this all my life and rarely felt uncomfortable even as relatively unfamiliar people entered my personal space without my encouragement. We both understood the nature of the contact, even though we never discussed it. I don’t think they should alter their behavior. It’s neither threatening nor done with inappropriate intentions, but, in today’s environment, as a man, I would never emulate it. Though I’m not a very touchy person, it feels a bit like a double standard.
With the #MeToo movement, the rules of society have changed. Men should now refrain from physical affection unless women indicate that it’s okay. People like Joe Biden need to learn and heed these new rules. However, they shouldn’t be punished for behavior that was done without malice or ill-intent before those social norms changed. Intent should be the measure of accountability. Without some measure of intent, we run the risk of discouraging even the most harmless expressions of physical affection. That would make a sad society.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >