Biden And #MeToo: Where Accusations Against Former VP Fit In The Movement09:36
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Former Vice President Joe Biden greets members of the audience after speaking to the International Association of Firefighters at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 12, 2019. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
Former Vice President Joe Biden greets members of the audience after speaking to the International Association of Firefighters at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 12, 2019. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Several women have come forward publicly to explain how uncomfortable former Vice President Joe Biden made them feel because of the way he touched them, sparking a dialogue about how the allegations fit into the #MeToo movement.

In a personal essay, former Nevada state legislator Lucy Flores described a 2014 encounter with Biden — who is expected to announce a presidential run soon — in which he came up behind her, touched her shoulders and then kissed the back of her head. At least three other women have said they were also made uncomfortable by Biden's physical actions toward them.

While the allegations against the former vice president are different than many other more serious ones regarding sexual harassment and assault, they still belong in the #MeToo movement, according to Terry O'Neil, executive director of the National Employment Lawyers Association.

"I think this is an incredibly important conversation for us to have nationally," says O’Neil (@Terryoneill), who is also the former president of the National Organization for Women. "I actually come at this from the perspective of employment law and from the perspective of really, truly eradicating discrimination from the workplace."

"Clearly that kind of behavior in the workplace is unacceptable," she tells Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson.

And although Biden may not be considered a predator, according to O’Neil, his actions still fall into a category of behaviors in which the person perpetuating them does not intend to be offensive, but the person receiving them is still offended.

"As a society, we need to hold both of those truths as truths," says O’Neil, "and that the more powerful person — and let's be clear, in America, white [and] male equals privilege — ... need[s] to step back for a moment and reflect that, 'What I send is not necessarily what you receive.' "

Interview Highlights

On whether the allegations against Biden dilute the #MeToo movement

"I don't think it dilutes it. I think what's important about the #MeToo movement is that it has lifted up ... that there are predators, who are known to be predators in some workplaces, who are protected by people in power, and that's a bad thing. That's the Harvey Weinstein, that's the Charlie Rose and those kinds of behaviors. But the #MeToo movement is powerful and broad precisely because it goes beyond that, and it actually forces us to have a conversation about why is it that women are subjected to this kind of behavior.

"One reason that that happens is because of stereotyped thinking about who gets to have sexual access to women. Predators like Harvey Weinstein think that [they] should have sexual access to women, that they don't have any right to say no or to have any control over their bodies — that's a predator.

"But then there is the people who on the basis of these stereotypes engage in jokes, and the reason we laugh at them as a society is precisely because the stereotype exists. Like for instance, a remark that a father needs to be very, very protective against this handsome guy on behalf of his daughter, well, the stereotype behind that joke, lighthearted remark is that fathers have sexual control over their daughters until they become adults, at which point husbands have sexual control over their wives. I mean, that's truly what's behind this, and the #MeToo movement has surfaced some of these conversations, and I think it's very healthy for us, our society, to begin dealing with those kinds of issues."

"I think that these national conversations are painful. ... That doesn't mean that it's OK to not have the conversation."

Terry O'Neil

On a video Biden posted to social media in which he says he will be more mindful about respecting people's personal space in the future, and the importance of deep listening

"The way it has to be done is the more powerful person has to listen and practice deep listening. Good for Joe Biden, by the way, for committing to be more mindful. Mindful is good. Deep listening is equally important, and he has to commit to deep listening. I'm an upper-middle class, white, cisgender, heterosexual woman. I need to remind myself constantly of the need for deep listening as well. So, it's not just, 'I've learned something, and now, I have it in my head that I've learned, and now, I'm going to behave accordingly.' I think it's also, 'I need to hear someone saying something that initially makes no sense to me, and I need to really try to understand why ... what she's saying makes sense to her but doesn't make sense to me.' It's really hard for privileged people to get there, but I applaud a stated intention of Vice President Biden to try to get there.

"I think it has to be more than, 'Yes, now, I've been informed.' It's got to be more, 'I am going to be listening in an ongoing way,' because guess what, not everybody responds the same way to the same behavior. [To] some women, it's just fine. [To] other women, it's offensive. It's uncomfortable. You can't just say, 'I'm going to be one way for everybody, because that's what I want to be.' You have to say, 'I will be in relationship,' meaning actually listening to different people who have different responses."

On whether she thinks it's appropriate that the allegations against Biden came out in a public way

"Yeah, I mean, I think that these national conversations are painful. I think that painful consequences happen when we have these conversations. We avoid, avoid, avoid, avoid, and then, poof, someone finally speaks out, and it kind of blows up in everybody's faces — that's a shame. That doesn't mean that it's OK to not have the conversation."

On whether she thinks allegations similar to those made against Biden will become more common

"I'm going again take this back to the workplace — one of the biggest problems with invading someone's boundary or invading their space is that it throws the person off, and she can't do her job that she went to that workplace to do. It's extraordinarily difficult to win discrimination cases in court. That kind of behavior might not rise to the level that courts demand in order to have any kind of legal accountability. But in the workplace itself, it is absolutely not OK for some people to be thrown off of their ability to do a good job because they're being made uncomfortable. So, that's why I see these conversations are extremely important. I think more and more awareness is being raised. So, I think these conversations are going to continue to happen, and I don't think it's going to be limited to candidates for office."


Ciku Theuri produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna. Jackson Cote adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on April 5, 2019.

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Jeremy Hobson Twitter Co-Host, Here & Now
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Jackson Cote Twitter Digital Producer
Jackson Cote is a freelance digital producer for WBUR and Here & Now.

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