Last week, Lucy Flores, a Democractic lawmaker from Nevada, penned an op-ed for the Cut claiming that former vice president Joe Biden had touched her inappropriately while she was campaigning for lieutenant governor. Flores wrote that Biden approached her from behind and smelled her hair before kissing her on the back of the head. Shortly thereafter (as we have come to expect with these cases), a woman named Amy Lappos chimed in, telling the Hartford Courant that Biden had rubbed noses with her at a 2009 fundraiser. Since then, two other women have come forward with allegations of inappropriate touching from Biden, including a 22-year-old woman who claims Biden rubbed her thigh and gave her a lingering hug after she told him about her experience as a sexual assault survivor.
To be clear, the women leveling these allegations against Biden are not accusing him of illegal or even borderline abusive behavior. As Tessa Stuart wrote for Rolling Stone about Flores and Lappos, “neither woman is accusing him of a crime — they’re engaging prospective voters in a broader conversation about what constitutes appropriate and acceptable behavior. (In response, Biden has issued a statement saying that while he believes he is not guilty of inappropriate behavior, he will “listen respectfully” to women’s claims.)
Biden is widely considered to be a Democratic frontrunner in the 2020 election (despite the fact that he has not formally declared his candidacy), and the allegations have become a topic of contentious debate. Many on the left have condemned Biden’s alleged actions, criticizing Democratic establishment figures for failing to call out his touchy-feely behavior (indeed, Biden’s lingering hugs, whispers, and back-rubs have long been an integral part of his #brand, to the degree that they’ve served as listicle fodder). Others have come to Biden’s defense, claiming that his alleged actions are being widely misinterpreted by overzealous #MeToo bandwagon-jumpers and that his alleged behavior is a product of a different era, a time when old-school male politicians were encouraged to be touchy-feely and emotive as a means of telegraphing relatability and warmth toward potential voters.
@joebiden is way touchy-feely. Can make some feel uncomfortable. He needs to stop it.
But pls get back to me when +15 women say he sexually harassed them, or he boasts of grabbing a woman’s kitty-cat, or he pays hush-money to a stripper who reminds him of his daughter. I’ll wait.
— Ana Navarro-Cárdenas (@ananavarro) March 30, 2019
But what’s interesting about the debate around the allegations aren’t the particulars of the argument posed by the “protect Joe Biden at all costs” camp, but rather, the source. By and large, older establishment liberals, particularly women, have been most vocal in their defense of him. And their argument seems to be predicated on the idea that Biden’s alleged behavior, while somewhat more demonstrative than that of the average politician, does not constitute sexual harassment, let alone sexual assault; nor is it egregious enough to merit punishment.
Take, for instance, the response from California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who told Politico on Monday that Biden is “a warm, tactile person. He reaches out and he touches and it’s like this and that. It’s hardly sexy. It’s a new thing that people have been affronted by it. Over 25 years I’ve never seen that before.” Or the statement from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who told reporters that while Biden “has to understand that in the world we’re in now people’s space is important to them,” that she did not think his behavior was “disqualifying” in terms of hurting his chances for election. (Again, Biden has not announced his candidacy.)
Pelosi: "Biden has to understand that in the world we're in now is people's space is important to them."
— Laura Barrón-López (@lbarronlopez) April 2, 2019
To an extent, this line of debate is to be expected from old-school, establishment Dems like Feinstein and Pelosi, who have clear-cut reasons for standing behind a peer like Biden. But their refusal to outright condemn his alleged behavior is also representative of a generational gap in the #MeToo movement, between those who take quote-unquote “less egregious” violations seriously, and those who do not. Although the allegations against Biden are not of a criminal or even overtly sexual nature, they still involve the issue of consent, and whether or not a man invading a woman’s personal space qualifies as a career-ending transgression.
This generational gap is not specific to the political realm; indeed, there is substantial data to suggest that a chasm exists between the views of older and younger women across the board. A BuzzFeed survey in partnership with Ipsos, for instance, found that while 42% of people between the ages of 18 and 34 said that the #MeToo movement changed the way they thought about consent, only 29% of people over the age of 55 agreed. Similarly, while 64% of people between the ages of 18 and 34 said that women who accuse men of sexual assault and harassment should always be believed, 38% of people over the age of 55 said the same. An NPR poll found a significant gap between older and younger respondents who agreed with the statement that the #MeToo movement had gone too far, while nearly half of older Americans said they didn’t understand what crossed the line in terms of sexual harassment.
While these survey results didn’t differentiate between older and younger women specifically, anecdotally, many younger women report a stark contrast between their own views and the views their mothers and grandmothers share on the movement. In a Time piece on the so-called #MeToo generational divide, a 25-year-old woman says that “the women in my generation have been drawing a much harsher line for anything they consider even slightly inappropriate,” while her mother is quoted as saying that she believes Gen Y and Gen Z feminists like her daughter “are losing the high ground and allies through their absolutism.” Similarly, when discussing the allegations against Biden with her mother, a friend told me that her mother had responded “exactly the way I thought she would”: by saying, “’I think men of that age just do that and don’t mean it to be weird or sexual'” (essentially, the Feinstein/Pelosi school of thought toward inappropriate workplace conduct).
None of this is to say that older feminists should be condemned for not being as well-versed in the language of sexual politics than their younger counterparts; nor is it to say that young feminists should take a less hard-line approach against questionable behavior. But it is undoubtedly true that there is a generational divide between older and younger women when it comes to issues like sexual harassment and assault, and that this divide becomes more pronounced following reports of breaches of consent that are more subtle or less overtly violent in nature, particularly if they involve beloved figures on the left like Biden or former Sen. Al Franken (who had his own vocal defenders on the left following accusations that he had groped multiple women, one of which was supported by photographic evidence of him grabbing a woman’s breasts while she was sleeping.)
Take, for instance, the fallout to a Babe.net story published last year, which claimed that comedian Aziz Ansari pressured a woman for sex on a date. The response was explosive, in part because it was so clearly at odds with Ansari’s reputation as a token Woke Male Feminist, but also because many establishment feminist figures simply did not believe that his actions were egregious enough to merit discussion — or, worse, that opening up the discussion of sexual misconduct to encompass less valorous but not overtly violent or criminal male behavior was doing the larger battle against sexual assault a disservice.
Nowhere was this generational divide more apparent than when 50-year-old HLN host Ashleigh Banfield accused Babe.net of jeopardizing Ansari’s career over what amounted to be nothing more than “a bad date”; in response, the journalist who wrote the story, Katie Way, called Banfield a “burgundy lipstick bad highlights second-wave feminist” whom “no one under the age of 45 has ever heard of.” As a result of this less than dignified public spat, the focus on the Ansari story shifted from the comedian’s alleged behavior to girl-on-girl fighting on the left — and Ansari’s career has emerged relatively unscathed.
And this, in the end, may be the ultimate — and unfortunate — byproduct of the #MeToo age gap. When women on the left are too busy quibbling over what does and doesn’t constitute appropriate behavior, and when we spend the bulk of our time constantly drawing and re-drawing lines in the sand, it may very well prevent us from performing the task at hand: holding men accountable for their behavior, regardless of where, precisely, it falls on the moral spectrum. Whether he’s a touchy-feely guy or not, or whether he’s a suitable candidate for the presidency or not, there are three things that matter about Biden’s alleged behavior: that it is not unique to him, and is in fact shared by men in cubicles and conference rooms and campaign events and luncheons everywhere; and that it made some women uncomfortable. Anything else is just hair-splitting.