As women find their voices to say I am not OK with this, men will have to do the introspective work of turning that entitlement into respect.
I have to hand it to my partner. He called Joe Biden’s conduct with women months ago, long before Lucy Flores, Amy Lappos, Caitlyn Caruso, and D.J. Hill publicly shared their experiences. “I feel like something is off,” my partner told me a few times. “It’s just a hunch. Not rape or assault, just inappropriate touching or something like that. He’s a product of his time.” I shook my head. “I can’t see it,” I said. “He’s so in love with Jill.”
My response to my partner’s hunch is important. Defense of Joe Biden’s behavior generates from the idea that the #MeToo movement is going too far, eating our own, and otherwise calling for a head on a platter. I do not believe that this behavior makes Joe Biden a certifiable Bad Person or a Bad Husband. I believe that he is one of many men who grew up in the slap-your-secretary-on-the-ass era and that the shifting of certain norms, such as what constitutes appropriate conduct, will likely be harder to accept for men like him. This does not excuse Biden’s behavior, but it does give us context for it.
What interests me most about the Biden stories is the public pushback against them. Much of this pushback, as was the case when the Aziz Ansari story was published, has to do with gatekeeping. It is about telling women how they should feel. You are allowed to be angry about being raped, or being abused. You are not allowed to be angry about a man placing his hand on your thigh or kissing you. The implication? That you, a woman, should feel fortunate that it wasn’t an assault or a rape. And that your gratitude should be paid through your silence.
Women understand the distinction between inappropriate, invasive behavior and assault. The problem is that we can’t get the people telling us to calm down or regulate our feelings to take the latter seriously, either. If this were true, I would not have been told years ago that I was overreacting to a former friend getting thrown out of a nightclub for digitally penetrating a girl without her consent. If this were true, the boys who went to that club wouldn’t have hooted and hollered about what a fun night they had at her expense. Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter. Women understand how it feels to be dismissed from the narrative of boys being boys. We understand it because we have lived it.
Invisible to the outside world are the running inventories of violations and dismissals that women carry around every day. Countless instances of unwanted groping. Innumerable cat calls. Several times being followed home by strangers; ducking into public areas or making phone calls or carrying mace for safety. Two male faculty members making inappropriate advances at work. Two times being fondled while sleeping. One sexual assault. One sexually abusive relationship. We are continuously adding to these lists. We do not need to be told which of these are minor irritancies, which will likely make us feel uncomfortable and small for a day, and which will require years of mental health services just to keep going. We are more than aware of our responses to these situations, and our responses are valid.
The takeaway from “grey area” experiences like Lucy Flores’ is not that men should swear off women altogether or give up interacting with us when their intentions are good. As I scrolled past multiple “How are men supposed to compliment women anymore?” posts on my newsfeed, I thought of a meeting I had just come from where a male committee member very sweetly told me, “By the way, your dress is phenomenal!” I was delighted, thanked him, and moved on with my day. I suspect that feigning ignorance about what constitutes appropriate behavior is really about something else, like not wanting to make the effort to assess situations or read social cues. When a man that I am good friends with gives me a kiss on the cheek or a warm hug, I feel happy and safe. When a man that I only know professionally puts a hand on my leg or badgers me to go out to dinner, I feel irritated and disrespected. If men are sincerely wondering how to approach women in this moment of #MeToo, they should practice mindfulness toward others and work on their social intelligence. Is this behavior appropriate given the situation and our relationship? Would I touch another man I didn’t know well in this way? Am I genuinely complimenting her outfit, or am I sexualizing her body in that outfit?
Joe Biden is not a monster. Joe Biden is a man who needs to be better at assessing boundaries, and after his video on “being more mindful [of] personal space” aired yesterday, I hope he will do this. “Only he knows his intent,” D.J. Hill said, “But norms are changing now, and if something makes you feel uncomfortable, you have to feel able to say it.” Stories like D.J. Hill’s matter because they reveal the male entitlement inherent in the entire spectrum of misconduct, from a handsy colleague to a terrorizing abuser. As women find their voices to say I am not OK with this, men will have to do the introspective work of turning that entitlement into respect.
Chelsea Cristene is an international student adviser, English professor, and graduate student based in Washington, D.C. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, The Establishment, and MamaMia, and has appeared on HuffPost Live. Find her on Twitter.