Lucy Flores. Amy Lappos. D.J. Hill. Caitlyn Caruso. Ally Coll. Sofie Karasek. Vail Kohnert-Yount (SFS ’13).
Over the past two weeks, these women have shared their stories of how former Vice President Joe Biden, a well-respected politician who is reportedly considering a run for president, touched them inappropriately. These women — a political candidate, a congressional aide, a writer, a college student, a staffer, a sexual assault survivor and a White House intern — have stories that we as men need to listen to.
Over the course of his almost 50-year career, Biden has stripped these women of their agency not only through nonconsensual touching, but also by refusing to apologize and taking control of the public narrative. Over the past two weeks, Biden and his allies have minimized and discounted the allegations against him, defending his political image instead of listening to these women. His defense provoked online vitriol against these women, associating them with right-wing trolls and questioning their credibility.
Biden and his supporters want to talk about his 2020 campaign, but these women’s stories demand our attention. We must listen to these women and respect their agency, their stories and their bodies. Biden, generally regarded as popular and characterized as the “friendly uncle” of national politics, demonstrates that all men participate in the structural conditions that take control away from women.
Flores, a 2014 candidate for lieutenant governor of Nevada, recalled Biden smelling her hair and giving her a kiss on the back of her head in a March 29 essay published in The Cut.. She explains that she wanted to get away from Biden to the point that being called onstage was a relief. When Kohnert-Yount was a White House intern, Biden “put his hand on the back of [her] head and pressed his forehead to [her] forehead,” she said in an April 4 interview with The Washington Post. Kohnert-Yount was uncomfortable and embarrassed, “even though it was intended as a compliment.”
Biden’s actions are symptomatic of a patriarchal system in which men do not feel the need to ask for consent before touching women. When we as men do not recognize that women have and deserve agency over their own bodies, we open the door to tolerating sexual misconduct. The result reinforces white male power and privilege under the same system that oppresses women.
We can’t dismiss the fact that Biden sponsored the Violence Against Women Act and started the “It’s On Us” campaign to end college rape. There are certainly more violent perpetrators in the highest national office. Biden has not been accused of sexual assault, but his reported misconduct must still be acknowledged and discussed: These women are telling their stories in resistance to a patriarchal society that tells men we do not need active consent to touch women.
By refusing to apologize, Biden demeans the experiences of these women and countless others who share the same experiences. Instead, he cites “changing social norms” as the reason for his commitment to changing his behavior toward women. He is wrong. Our commitment as men to respect the bodies and agency of women should not be a reaction to the #MeToo movement. Rather, Instead, men must use these movements to educate ourselves and re-evaluate how we treat women in our lives. Affirmative consent-seeking can seem difficult or awkward — asking for a hug might feel counterintuitive to some — but respecting female agency is central to dismantling our patriarchal sociopolitical structure.
Recognizing female agency takes time and effort. It starts with apologizing for past wrongs, but it does not end there. We must make the conscious effort to get involved in movements against sexual harassment and assault. This takes learning and informing ourselves about how we can change our actions. It takes empathizing with, listening to and learning from women.
We are male-identified members of the Sexual Assault Awareness Month planning committee. We are part of the movement against sexual violence and we recognize that we constantly need to check ourselves and actively work to respect the agency of the women in our lives. We invite the Georgetown community, especially the men, to join us in this work.
Larry Huang is a senior in the College. Glen Waters is a sophomore in the College.