Joe Biden’s Hands-On Lessons: When Affection Turns Icky

Poor Joe. Yet a fourth woman has alleged that former Vice President Joe Biden behaved inappropriately toward them. There is speculation that these allegations could not just tank Biden’s run for the 2020 presidency, but destroy his career.

Personally, because I agree with many of Biden’s political views, I think it would be a shame to see his career crash and burn in this way.

Privately, I’m disappointed in Biden, because it appears that he’s yet another entitled, older, powerful guy facing nasty consequences of behavior-unbecoming at best, and disgusting at worst, with regard to women.

Biden’s been called clueless, and I can see why. The wince-worthy stuff he does, lips nearly in a woman’s ear as he whispers; hands around female colleagues’ waists as he stands behind them for photos; Biden’s hands grasping a woman’s head as he kisses it – all that’s been in full public view. Photographed for all to see for all of time. He knew he was doing it. The women knew he was doing it. Everyone knew he was doing it.

His behavior became part of his story, of who he was: hands-on, tactile Joe Biden. Psst. Ladies, keep your distance.

Biden’s lifelong reputation for being touchy-feely with women has been fodder for comedians, cartoonists and writers long before these four women came forward with their allegations. All the while, Biden’s legendary icky actions were – and continue to be – justified by his defenders as “overly affectionate” and even grandfatherly.

Pardon me if that’s not the kind of affection I’d want anyone to show my grandchildren, thank you.

Here’s my suggestion for guys like Biden who have difficulty keeping their hands off women: Don’t touch a woman (other than your wife or partner) or talk to a woman or behave with a woman any differently than you’d touch or talk to or behave with a male acquaintance, friend or colleague.

Fact: If one person is being overly affectionate, you can bet there’s an uncomfortable person on the receiving end of those unwanted affections, whether the giver is a respected, upstanding politician, a Match.com date gone bad, or a drunken aunt slathering a kid with sloppy smooches.

Fact: Sometimes, overly affectionate is just a more veiled way of saying sexual harassment.

Starting from about age 12, I experienced all kinds of unwanted “overly affectionate” behavior from men.

My overly affectionate foster father liked to pin me on the floor with his knees on my shoulders as he tickled me, copping feels over my body the entire time, saying that I must like it, because I was laughing.

Slight segue here about tickling. I always told my kids, as my mother told me, that tickling is taboo. Now, my grandchildren hear the same thing from me. They know that I don’t think there’s anything funny about tickling.

Segue over.

In high school I worked as a teacher’s aide for an overly affectionate man who, in addition to giving unwanted shoulder rubs, once slid his hand up my shirt and over my stomach, saying if I didn’t want him to touch me I shouldn’t have been showing off my bare skin (as I stood on a ladder and stapled snowflakes to a bulletin board).

In college, when I made an appointment to meet with an overly affectionate male instructor in his office to see about making up a missed test, he shut the door, closed the mini-blinds, then positioned himself in a chair inches from mine, legs splayed open, as he talked about my upcoming blue book test, touching me occasionally on the leg, shoulder and arm, for emphasis, I guess.

And I used to be friends with a couple that included an overly affectionate guy whose wet mouth-on-mouth kisses while saying hello and goodbye – in full view of his smiling wife – along with THE longest full-body hugs, was one of the reasons I crossed them off my friends list and never looked back.

That’s just my tiny sample from a lifetime of overly affectionate experiences, but this is not a Me-Too column.

Did those experiences ruin me? Obviously not. Did they scar me? Yeah, a little. But in a way, the scars served as reminders for future encounters with overly affectionate men, reminders for tricks to avoid unwanted advances from those hands-on guys. Sometimes the tricks worked, sometimes they didn’t.

I’m not unique. Every woman I know has her own list of stories about being hurt by men who behaved badly. These women haul around their own sacks of tricks for dealing with overly affectionate men. Women have been passing on those skills to their daughters, nieces and granddaughters since the beginning of humanity.

So far, there are no allegations that Biden raped anyone. So far, there are no allegations of overt sexual advances, stained blue dresses, drugging, breast-fondling, ass-grabbing, or presidential-level pussy-grabbing.

Do I believe that Biden’s unwelcome, creepy, lingering kisses on the top of a female colleagues’s head are grounds to shit-can a man’s entire career? No, sir.

But if this controversy ends up being the nail in Biden’s career coffin, does that coffin have a silver lining? Yes, ma’am.

The silver lining is that if Biden’s career is over, it makes room for younger, more enlightened men and women to step into the political arena.

The silver lining is that these embarrassing Biden stories offer yet another opportunity for men to finally get it, to understand that unwelcome words and unwanted touching and unwanted sexual innuendos are not merely overly affectionate, the key word is that they’re unwanted, at which point that behavior oozes into the arena of harassment. The silver lining is this conversation offers yet one more chance for men to realize that unwanted physical behavior by men can make women feel diminished, to make women feel as if we have to take whatever a man’s doing to us, whether we like it; whether we want it or not. And here’s the understatement of 2019: that’s not OK.

Just as important, the silver lining is that this dialogue offers another chance for women to change our behavior, too; to stop relying on thick scars and satchels of avoidance techniques to thwart some men’s bad behavior. The silver lining is it’s a brand new day and a brand new opportunity for women to change our tactics, for us to be more blunt, to be more bold and to be more clear about what we feel and what we want.

Stop that! I don’t like it. 

That’s a good start, and yes, I know that in some camps, we’ll be called bitches for talking like that, for making a scene, for not just smiling and letting it go. But unlike before, we women need to try something new when a man is behaving in a way that makes the hair stand up on the back of our neck. We can say something, we can do something, we can identify exactly what we don’t like and why. Right now. Not years from now, but in the very moment the unwanted action happens. We can say when a man’s behavior makes us feel slimed and shitty. No matter who they are: politicians, teachers, colleagues, employers, celebrity chefs, acquaintances, and yes, even overly affectionate grandfathers.

That’s what I’m teaching my grandchildren. Maybe their generation will be the one that finally gets it.

Joe Biden? I don’t believe he’s a bad man. I do believe he’s a well-meaning but clueless man stuck in a previous, sexist century who may end up as collateral damage in the 21st century war of the sexes.

Whether Biden stays or whether he goes, I think we’re all the better for it. We all win because we get yet another chance to know better, and one more chance to do better.

Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded A News Cafe in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain holds a Bachelor's Degree in journalism from CSU, Chico. She's an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She's been featured and quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Slate. Bloomberg News and on CNN, KQED and KPFA. She lives in Redding, California.

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