The intersection of hugging and consent

Lucy Flores was among the first women to come forward this year and object to Joe Biden’s unwanted physical contact in the form of hugs, shoulder rubs and kisses on the head. Since it’s considered impolite to point out that she was a Bernie Sanders staffer and remains in his corner, we should probably offer the benefit of the doubt and simply consider the charges she’s brought forward on their own merit. But right from the beginning, it was a struggle to define precisely what those charges were. With the conversation having largely moved on, Flores was back in the news this week with a new editorial at Buzzfeed. She attempts to describe how the entire discussion about Biden’s handsyness quickly went off the rails and left her feeling as if her complaints weren’t being framed correctly or taken seriously enough.

When I decided to come forward with what it felt like to be on the receiving end of Joe Biden’s inappropriate behavior, I knew I would face criticism. I didn’t anticipate that my truth would be so easily manipulated and distorted.

I intended to describe what it was like to be inappropriately touched by a powerful man who would likely declare his presidential candidacy. Instead, I watched as the conversation about my essay, published in the Cut, morphed into a simplistic — and misguided — discussion of hugging in America. I had made it explicitly clear that I didn’t consider Biden’s unwanted intimate touching to be sexual in nature and his behavior to be harassment or assault…

I have repeatedly said that I suspect part of the reason Biden’s inappropriate behavior is not taken seriously is because this kind of behavior, while considered wrong by most people for a very long time, hasn’t been exposed or debated in a public way before.

Flores goes on from there to reset the definitions of the actions under discussion. As she states in the excerpt above, she took pains to clarify that Biden’s actions were not, in her opinion, any sort of sexual assault or harassment. Instead, she wants us to understand that Joe Biden’s uninvited hugging, shoulder rubbing, head kissing and hair sniffing are “wrong and unwanted.”

I have some questions for Ms. Flores and those who come to her defense, but first, we need to agree on a couple of definitions of the terms involved in this discussion.

When saying that Joe’s actions are “wrong and unwanted,” half of that conclusion is fair enough. Using the word “unwanted” is acceptable because each individual is responsible for defining what they want or don’t want. “Wrong” gets a little dicier. Humanity has struggled with the whole concept of right and wrong since the beginning of recorded history. And there’s clearly a line between wrong and “illegal.” We have communally decided which human actions are so unacceptable that they need to be defined as crimes and merit punishment by the government.

So have we seen any actions from Joe Biden that might qualify as being illegal, even if they do not (as Flores herself says) rise to the level of sexual assault or harassment? You have to sink fairly far down the list of applicable crimes before you even get close. The nearest I believe we could find is simple battery. It’s a commonly understood term and is generally treated as a misdemeanor. It’s defined as follows: “The unauthorized or unlawful use of force to the body of another person which results in physical injury or offensive touching.”

Normally a battery charge will result if you punch someone, slap them or slam them to the floor. (Think of your typical bar fight.) You would be hard pressed to find a jury that would find a hug or kiss on the head to constitute a “use of force.” Similarly, saying that might reasonably be expected to result in physical injury is dubious at best. The gray area is found in the term “offensive touching” but applying that to a hug opens the door to arrests for accidentally bumping into someone’s arm on the subway. With all of that said, I don’t think Joe Biden will be arrested any time soon.

I apologize if all of that seemed rather dry, but as I mentioned above, we need to cover that ground before posing the question I have for Lucy Flores and her supporters. Here it is: What exactly are you accusing Joe Biden of?

It’s an important question because we’re in the early stages of a heated battle to determine who will face Donald Trump in the general election next year and possibly be the next president. Are you conflating Joe’s actions with the overarching conversation surrounding the #MeToo movement, suggesting that his actions should disqualify him for high office? Because if so, you seem to be doing a serious disservice to all of the women who actually were sexually assaulted or harassed. And if you’re not making this into a Me Too moment, what exactly are we talking about?

I came from a family where hugs and kisses on the cheek or head were always the norms upon arriving at or leaving someone’s house. I married into a similar family. And even if such interactions prompted a feeling of “ugh” in your internal monologue, you generally did it anyway. (“You don’t want to give your mother-in-law a hug? What kind of person are you?”) Some people find it offputting while others either don’t care or even welcome that human contact as a sign of affection. Different strokes for different folks.

When it comes to non-family members, it’s definitely fair to define your personal space if you’re not a hugger. When someone approaches you (particularly somebody with Joe’s reputation for physical contact) you have options. When you see him leaning in with his arms outstretched you can easily take one step back and politely say “sorry. I’m not a hugger” and reach out to grasp his hand for a handshake. Did Lucy Flores even attempt this upon her first, fabled encounter with Biden? Not that she’s told us. If you tell someone not to hug or kiss you and they push their way in over your objections and do it anyway, you have a legitimate complaint. (And possibly even a simple battery claim.) If you say nothing and don’t correct their behavior, how are they to know they’ve crossed a line?

The alternative explanation is that Flores would like to redefine casual social interactions the same way some people want to redefine dating. This is the “consent” topic that she raises. While nobody should get physical with someone they are dating over their objections, we hit the wall of preposterous extremes when people began insisting that men stop and ask permission at every stage of a session of making out. (Can I hold your hand? Can I kiss you? Can I touch your breast?) Talk about ruining the atmosphere. How about simply making sure that men understand that no means no and as soon as the woman utters that word the romantic portion of the evening is over?

Similarly, is this what Flores wants to impose as a test in casual greetings? Is everyone supposed to go down the line, one by one, and say “Do I have permission to give you a hug?” If someone is obviously moving in to hug you, a simple response of “I don’t do hugs” is all that’s required. We don’t need to turn every incident of social interaction into a court case.

These are the questions I’d like to hear Lucy Flores address. Because a cloud of suspicion has settled over Joe Biden at this point and it’s clearly being done in such a way as to suggest he’s in the same category as perpetrators of sexual assault or harassment. Joe Biden may be kind of “creepy” at times, but no more so than your aunts and uncles who do the same thing. If you don’t want to hug him, tell him. I get the impression that he’d respect your wishes if you spoke up politely.