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Why the Allegations Against Joe Biden Don't 'Cheapen' the #MeToo Movement

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Juliette Virzi, The Mighty’s mental health editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

Former Vice President Joe Biden is the latest politician to be accused of acting inappropriately towards women — and people have been quick to say his accuser has taken #MeToo too far.

On Friday, Democratic politician Lucy Flores penned a personal essay for New York Magazine describing an interaction she had with Biden while campaigning for lieutenant governor of Nevada in 2014. She claimed that before her speech at a campaign rally, Biden came up behind her, put his hands on her shoulders, smelled her hair and kissed the back of her head.

In the piece, she wrote:

I had never experienced anything so blatantly inappropriate and unnerving before. Biden was the second-most powerful man in the country and, arguably, one of the most powerful men in the world. He was there to promote me as the right person for the lieutenant governor job. Instead, he made me feel uneasy, gross, and confused.

Biden addressed the allegations in a statement on Sunday, though many have noted he did not apologize.

“In my many years on the campaign trail and in public life, I have offered countless handshakes, hugs, expressions of affection, support and comfort. And not once — never — did I believe I acted inappropriately,” he said. “If it is suggested I did so, I will listen respectfully… We have arrived at an important time when women feel they can and should relate their experiences, and men should pay attention. And I will.”

On Monday, a Connecticut woman named Amy Lappos also came forward, claiming Biden had touched her inappropriately while she was volunteering at a political fundraiser in 2009.

“It wasn’t sexual, but he did grab me by the head,” Lappos told The Harford Courant. “He put his hand around my neck and pulled me in to rub noses with me. When he was pulling me in, I thought he was going to kiss me on the mouth.”

As you might have expected, opinions on the news have been split. Some have decried the accusers as “attention seekers.” Others have said the allegations make light of the real trauma sexual assault survivors have faced. Some have fiercely defended Biden, citing his track record of advocating for women in the past.

If you’re feeling conflicted, you’re not alone. Here are three things to keep in mind about the allegations against Joe Biden.

1. If we’re jumping to say, “It wasn’t sexual assault!” — we’re missing the point.

Flores hasn’t positioned her experience as an example of sexual assault, nor did she say anything about #MeToo in her essay for New York Magazine.

In fact, Flores told MSNBC, “I’m not in any way suggesting that I felt sexually assaulted or sexually harassed. I felt invaded. I felt that there was a violation of my personal space.”

Just because Flores’ experience wasn’t sexual assault or outward harassment (or arguably even part of the #MeToo movement at all) doesn’t mean it’s not worth discussing. Our first priority shouldn’t be deciding if her experience was “significant” enough to be taken seriously. This situation is an opportunity to talk about the nuances in how we define appropriate versus non-appropriate behavior — especially when there is an imbalance of power in the mix.

As Flores said in her piece:

I’m not suggesting that Biden broke any laws, but the transgressions that society deems minor (or doesn’t even see as transgressions) often feel considerable to the person on the receiving end. That imbalance of power and attention is the whole point — and the whole problem.

2. Flores deserves respect — regardless of how you feel about her allegations.

You don’t have to agree with the way Flores chose to share her experience to treat her with respect. There is a way to express a difference in opinion on how to handle these allegations without resorting to calling her a “liar” or “attention-seeker” or “male career assassinator.”

Though Flores said she would not support Biden in the primary because of her experience, not everyone holds the same opinion. When asked if he thought this incident should disqualify Biden from the 2020 race, Senator Bernie Sanders respectfully shared a differing opinion. He said:

I think that’s a decision for the vice president to make. I’m not sure that one incident alone disqualifies anybody, but her point is absolutely right. This is an issue not just the Democrats or Republicans — the entire country— has got to take seriously. It is not acceptable that when a woman goes to work or is any kind of environment, that she feels anything less than comfortable and safe. And this is an issue the entire country has got to work on.

3. Your story matters.

In the wake of news like this, it can feel disheartening if you’ve been considering opening up about your experience with sexual assault, harassment or simply feeling uncomfortable with a social exchange.

Human interactions can be messy, and it can be hard to wade through tricky situations like this. But opinions on this particular news aside, we need to do a better job of engaging with nuance when it comes to allegations. The reality is, if you’ve ever been made to feel unsafe or uncomfortable, your story matters and you deserve support.

If you need to take a break from the news, or you find it triggering, please take care of yourself. If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need a place to talk, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

Split header image via Lucy Flores and Joe Biden Facebook pages

Originally published: April 2, 2019
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