At overnight camp one summer, a male counselor I had never met lifted my long hair to his nose, smelled it, sighed that my hair smelled good, and asked if I had just washed it. Duh, I had not washed my hair. It was summer camp! I was about eleven.
I was not used to anyone smelling my hair, not even relatives. I assumed this guy twice my age was a friend of my family’s. This did not make sense, but it was all I could come up with.
A few other campers witnessed the hair sniffing, and they stared at me, baffled. A boy asked me if the counselor was my father. This was a stab in the dark. I tried to act casual, as though it was normal for a grown man to smell my hair, because I believed the counselor was my friend. Otherwise, why would he take this liberty with my hair?
As we all learned recently, hair sniffing is a thing! In 2014, Nevada Assemblywoman Lucy Flores ran for lieutenant governor. Vice President Joe Biden attended a campaign rally for her and other Democratic candidates. While Ms. Flores waited to go on stage, Mr. Biden came up close behind her. He put his hands on her shoulders, smelled her hair, and kissed the back of her head. When Ms. Flores wrote about this last month in The Cut, Mr. Biden defended his innocence. He explained that he touches people to “connect” with them.
There is no such thing as connecting with professional associates by putting your mouth on the back of their head on the first day of making their acquaintance. It is preposterous to claim otherwise. Demonstrative campaigning means firm handshakes and back-slapping. Maybe an arm around the shoulders or a well-timed face-to-face hug. There is no sneaking up and kissing the back of a candidate’s head in demonstrative campaigning.
Mr. Biden did not smell and kiss Ms. Flores because of his style of politicking. He did it because he wanted to. She is young and beautiful. Her hair is pretty and her skin is pretty. He wanted to touch her and kiss her and smell her, so he did, like a preschooler snagging a cupcake when it’s not time to sing happy birthday yet.
Maybe Mr. Biden thought he was flirting with Ms. Flores, expecting her to smile or laugh. Or maybe he didn’t think that far ahead. He just wanted to touch her, so he did.
When I read Ms. Flores’ account in The Cut, I still had high hopes for Mr. Biden. We have all done things that should be water under the bridge. In the 80's, I once pinched an acquaintance on the thigh when I shouldn’t have. But the difference between me and Joe Biden (besides that I have never been Vice President and I would never cross examine Anita Hill) is that I admit I pinched the guy because I thought he was cute. I thought I was being flirtatious, but in hindsight I realize you can’t just walk up to someone and put your hands on them. I’m not going to say, “that’s just how I am” or “I didn’t know he might not want to be pinched.”
I am very disappointed with Mr. Biden’s wishy-washy apology. He says he has never intended to be disrespectful. This is a strange thing to say. A burglar doesn’t intend to offend you. He just wants to take your stuff. When the burglar is caught, it does not help if he says, “I did not mean to hurt your feelings.” The fact is, the burglar entered your home uninvited, and now your MacBook Air is missing. Whether he meant to offend you is not the question. This is a classic case of “I’m not sorry I did it. Just don’t be mad.”
It is frustrating to read that Mr. Biden regrets making some people “uncomfortable.” This puts the onus on women, as though Mr. Biden’s conduct was impeccable, but some of us are too fragile to handle his vigorous magnetism. Really, it’s not that women are sensitive. It’s not a misunderstanding. It’s a misstep.
I expected Mr. Biden to be a grown-up and take responsibility. This would mean acknowledging that he and Ms. Flores did not have the kind of relationship where you kiss each other’s hair. And that this kind of transgression is a pebble in the shoe of women’s equality. Instead, Mr. Biden says he is sorry he did not “understand more.” He says the “boundaries of protecting personal space have changed.”
Mr. Biden did not invade Ms. Flores’ space. Invading someone’s space means getting too close to them or negligently brushing against them. Mr. Biden surprised Ms. Flores from behind, put his face in her hair, “inhaled” it, and kissed it, while holding her shoulders. This is not her “space.” This is her body.
The boundaries around protecting personal space have not changed. There is no past in which government leaders like Lucy Flores welcomed stealthy nuzzling from strangers as they were about to give a speech. The feeling of being man-handled was always the same. What has changed is that in the past there was no reckoning for men who thought they were above the rules, and now there is.
Mr. Biden announced last week that he is running for President. All I can think of is the sound of the mostly-male audience laughing when Biden joked that he had permission to hug the male union president at the conference of electrical workers, six days after Ms. Flores published her piece. That sound hurts.
If Mr. Biden gets the Democratic nomination, I am going to have to vote for him on November 3, 2020, but he has to earn my vote. First things first, he needs to own his role in (unsuccessfully) trying to break Anita Hill. If he gets cracking on that, he should still have enough time to get real about the touchy-feelies. Joe Biden needs an honest fresh start, so we can vote for him without such a heavy heart.