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Appropriate/Inappropriate Touching:
The Ethics of the Joe Biden Kiss of the Back of Lucy Flores' Head

Rick Garlikov

I want to examine both the reported account Lucy Flores gave of what she considered to be Joe Biden’s inappropriate touching of her while he was Vice President and his reported response, along with the reported responses of two others, because I think those accounts and responses can be instructive as we unevenly lurch forward (or hopefully forward) toward better and more fair treatment of women and toward more reasonable relationships between men and women.   I quote both Ms. Flores and Mr. Biden extensively, because I want to analyze what they said or wrote as quoted from news sources, whether it is accurately what they said or not, and whether it is actually what they meant or might otherwise state differently now, or not.  I realize that as responses unfold, one might want to clarify or amend a previous statement, but I thought that what each of them is reported here to have said or written is indicative of the general issue and articulately represents how different people might see it, even if either one of them amends these comments later.   

Ms. Flores, from her essay in The Cut:

“In 2014, I was the 35-year-old Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in Nevada. The landscape wasn’t looking good for my party that year. There were no high-profile national races to help boost turnout, and after the top candidate bowed out of the governor’s race, ‘None of the Above’ ended up winning the Democratic primary.

So when my campaign heard from Vice-President Joe Biden’s office that he was looking to help me and other Democrats in the state, I was grateful and flattered. His team offered to bring him to a campaign rally in an effort to help boost voter turnout. We set the date for November 1, just three days before election day.

“In a state as large but sparsely populated as Nevada, it takes nonstop travel to connect with all its residents. You’re lucky to get properly fed, much less look properly coiffed as female candidates are often required to do. I was exhausted and short on time, so decided to not to wash my hair the morning of the rally. I sprayed some dry shampoo in my hair, raced off to the Reno airport, and flew back to Las Vegas.”

  “As I was taking deep breaths and preparing myself to make my case to the crowd, I felt two hands on my shoulders. I froze. ‘Why is the vice-president of the United States touching me?’”

“I felt him get closer to me from behind. He leaned further in and inhaled my hair. I was mortified. I thought to myself, ‘I didn’t wash my hair today and the vice-president of the United States is smelling it. And also, what in the actual fuck? Why is the vice-president of the United States smelling my hair?’ He proceeded to plant a big slow kiss on the back of my head. My brain couldn’t process what was happening. I was embarrassed. I was shocked. I was confused. There is a Spanish saying, “tragame tierra,” it means, “earth, swallow me whole.” I couldn’t move and I couldn’t say anything. I wanted nothing more than to get Biden away from me. My name was called and I was never happier to get on stage in front of an audience.

“By then, as a young Latina in politics, I had gotten used to feeling like an outsider in rooms dominated by white men. But I had never experienced anything so blatantly inappropriate and unnerving before. Biden was the second-most powerful man in the country and, arguably, one of the most powerful men in the world. He was there to promote me as the right person for the lieutenant governor job. Instead, he made me feel uneasy, gross, and confused. The vice-president of the United States of America had just touched me in an intimate way reserved for close friends, family, or romantic partners — and I felt powerless to do anything about it.

“Our strange interaction happened during a pivotal moment in my political career. I’d spent months raising money, talking to voters, and securing endorsements. Biden came to Nevada to speak to my leadership and my potential to be second-in-command — an important role he knew firsthand. But he stopped treating me like a peer the moment he touched me. Even if his behavior wasn’t violent or sexual, it was demeaning and disrespectful. I wasn’t attending the rally as his mentee or even his friend; I was there as the most qualified person for the job.”


This picture, taken at the event, accompanied the article.

“The day of the 2014 rally, speakers gathered and took photos before going
on stage.  Flores (right) is pictured with [Eva] Longoria [co-founder of the
Latino Victory Project] and Biden before the uncomfortable encounter.”

Mr. Biden’s response (from was:

“In many years on the campaign trail and in public life, I have offered countless handshakes, hugs, expressions of affection, support and comfort. … And not once — never — did I believe I acted inappropriately. If it is suggested that I did so I will listen respectfully. But it was never my intention.

“I may not recall these moments the same way, and I may be surprised at what I hear. But we have arrived at an important time when women feel that they can and should relate their experiences, and men should pay attention, and I will.

“I will also remain the strongest advocate I can be for the rights of women. I will fight to build on the work I’ve done in my career to end violence against women and ensure women are treated with the equality they deserve. I will continue to surround myself with trusted women advisors who challenge me to see different perspectives than my own….  And I will continue to speak out on these vitally-important issues where there is much more progress to be made and crucial fights that must be waged and won.”

Mr. Biden offered a further statement after a second woman accused him of similar behavior:

“Today, I want to talk about gestures of support and encouragement I’ve made to women and some men that have made them uncomfortable.

Social norms are changing. I understand that, and I’ve heard what these women are saying. Politics to me has always been about making connections, but I will be more mindful about respecting personal space in the future. That’s my responsibility and I will meet it.

 “In my career, I’ve always tried to make a human connection — that’s my responsibility, I think,” he continued, explaining that he often will “shake hands, hug people, or grab men and women by the shoulders and say, ‘You can do this.'”

“Whether they’re women, men, young, old — it’s the way I’ve always been, it’s the way I try to show I care about them and I’m listening,” Biden explained of his gestures and mannerisms.

Continuing, the former vice president — who helped launch the “It’s On Us” social movement, which raises awareness against sexual assault and encourages bystander invention — noted that hundreds of people have come to him and “reached out for solace” to get them through personal tragedies and situations.

“I’ve always thought of politics as connecting with people,” he explained. “Now it’s all about taking selfies together.”

 “Social norms have begun to change, they’ve shifted, and the boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset and I get it. I get it,” Biden continued. “I hear what they’re saying. I understand it and I’ll be much more mindful. That’s my responsibility and I’ll meet it.”

Though Biden said he’ll always believe “life is about connecting with people,” he finished by vowing to be “more mindful and respectful of people’s personal space.”

“I worked my whole life to empower women,” he pointed out. “So the idea that I can’t adjust to the fact that personal space is important, more important than it’s ever been, is just not thinkable. I will.” (

First, Mr. Biden’s intentions, though relevant to his character, are not relevant to whether his actions were wrong or not.  People, even good, decent, kind people, can, and often do, wrong things with good intentions, and that is probably at least part of the point of the old saying “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”  Moreover, from FindLaw, malicious is intent is not necessary for the crime of civil battery, which is described as follows (and I have left in the links to other FindLaw explanations for those who want to know more about the relevant concepts):

A battery is an intentional tort, as opposed to an act resulting from negligence. The elements to establish the tort of battery are the same as for criminal battery, excepting that criminal intent need not be present. The elements of civil battery are:

1.       Intent (not criminal intent to cause injury, necessarily, but intent to commit the act)

2.       Contact (non-consensual contact with the individual or his/her effects, such as clothing)

3.       Harm (the battery caused actual harm meaning physical, mental, or emotional, not limited to just physical harm)

For a tortuous battery to occur, the requisite intent is merely to touch or make contact without consent. It need not be an intention to do wrong and the wrongdoer need not intend to cause the particular harm that occurs. Non-consensual touching is all that is required.

Battery can be as direct as striking someone in the face with your fists or as indirect as setting a trap that harms an individual hours or days after it is set. Battery also can be unwanted sexual contact or other non-consensual touching that causes harm of some kind. Damages awarded in battery cases vary widely, depending on the seriousness of the injuries.

In the case of damages, the victim must be harmed in some manner, physically, mentally, or emotionally. The harm doesn't need to be severe; it can be as slight as a tap or an unwanted hug, but there must be harm. Damages can be assessed by a jury from there. Damages can be nominal, compensatory, or punitive.  (

Second, a reasonable act can be a wrong one; for example, betting a huge amount of money in a straight poker game on a hand of four kings, when someone else at the table happens to have four aces.  Now, whether Mr. Biden’s act was reasonable or not, and whether he should have known better or not at the time, it was nevertheless wrong, given that it offended Ms. Flores and was an unwelcome and nonconsensual contact.  Moreover, that was not just a capricious whim on her part but was because 1) she perceived such an act as reserved for intimates, 2) felt that it required a submission or deference to a power difference between the two of them, and 3) because due to accidental circumstances she was self-conscious about the cleanliness of her hair in that close a contact with someone else. 

Her explanation makes clear it was not just that it was Mr. Biden personally, but could have been any man (or possibly even woman) whom she did not know well or feel comfortable having touch her because of circumstances, not their particular repugnance to her.  She was not rejecting Biden as Biden, but as any person in the same (lack of) relationship to her.  But for some women, it could have been just personal about Mr. Biden in that they might not have minded someone else under similar circumstances doing what he did, but minded him doing it.  But in her case it was not personal, which ironically enough in the double meaning of “personal” is exactly what made it inappropriately too personal to her.  It was not personal at all in the sense of singling out only him as making it be wrong, but it was too personal in the sense of intimate for it to be done by someone she did not have a personal enough relationship with that would have allowed it to be appropriate to her.

  Given her explanation of all this, then in hindsight, he should definitely have known that by the time he gave his response, and at least at that time he should have offered an apology for what he could then call a regrettable but ‘unintended, offense’.  But there is more involved than that in regard to both of their stated positions.

In particular, Ms. Flores had already made it clear in the article, that she did not consider the act to be one of violence or sexual contact, and certainly not sexual assault in the sense of molestation or groping.  And she said this went beyond normal issues of relative power in the work place between men and women in general but was also, even more, about the power of his office against a less powerful individual, compounded by the fact he is a man and she is a woman, and by the further fact that he is a white man and she a Latina, that he is older and she young.  So for Mr. Biden to point out he has for a long time has opposed violence against women and has been an advocate of equality is irrelevant, and misses the nature of the offense, which was not one of violence but one of unwanted and perceived inappropriate contact in a situation where she perceived herself, reasonably, to be at a considerable power disadvantage. 

 It is potentially or possibly reasonable for him not to know in advance that his intended affectionate gesture of calming support, (if that is what it was), or even intended ‘fatherly’ calming support would be counterproductive and offensive, but by the time he responded to her explanation, he should have known better, and instead of saying “And not once — never — did I believe I acted inappropriately. If it is suggested that I did so I will listen respectfully” he should have said something more like “And until now, I never realized that might be offensive to someone and inappropriate.  I see now that it can be, may have been in the past, and in fact in this case was, and I offer my sincere apology to Ms. Flores and to other people who have been offended by such actions on my part.”  “Listening respectfully” is not sufficient; hearing, understanding, and acting decently and appropriately on that understanding is what is required, beginning with genuine contrition for the act itself, regardless of the intention and regardless of his own perception of what he was doing.

Third, it is important for Mr. Biden to understand Ms. Flores’ gender and ethnic heritage does make her understandably self-conscious in any platform dominated by white males.  However, Ms. Flores needs to understand as well that such self-consciousness is more likely to stem from just being different from the majority present, and not because they have or display any gender or racial bias to cause that.  Just being different can make one extremely self-conscious and feeling like everyone is looking at you with disapproval or hostility even when they are not.  If you mistakenly wear formal clothing to what turns out to be a pool party, you will be the self-conscious “odd one out”, even though (and because) you are the best dressed person there. My students in an all black classroom at a 90+ percent black college pointed out that when they are among white people, they can sense discrimination and discomfort because normally they are vastly outnumbered in mixed race company since they will have gone to a predominantly white area, whereas “white people do not come to where black people are the majority”.  For a moment, I thought that made sense, until I remembered that I was white and came to their area all the time, and was there right now with all of them.  When I held up the backs of my hands and arms and then pointed to my face and said “What about me here.  I’m white and you all are black, aren’t you?”  Their mouths dropped open and the young woman who had made the point they had all concurred with, about being outnumbered, blurted out “But you are not white; you are Rick.”  And I said it was exactly my point that no matter where they are, they need to think of themselves as being just themselves – a person like any other person – not as being a different color or having some other irrelevant difference they have from the other people in the particular group they are in at the time, if those people have done nothing to display racial bias or intolerance. 

They also pointed out as discriminatory the rude behavior toward them in a particular store, which I happened to be familiar with, and I explained that if they went to the store and watched the same staff interact with white customers, they would see just as rude behavior because the workers in those stores were unkind and even mean to everyone.   They were equal opportunity jerks.  The mistreatment they received from those people was wrong, but was not necessarily, and perhaps not even likely, racially motivated.  One cannot take mistreatment toward oneself or similar persons with the minority characteristic as discriminating unless they see it does not occur toward people without that characteristic.  That being said, it is highly likely that, as Mr. Biden says, he has put his hands on the shoulders of men he was trying to encourage, though it is probably also true he is not likely to have kissed the backs of their heads, but only because straight men don’t show generally show affection in that way to grown men, even in their families unless they are especially physically demonstrative that way, but a woman might kiss a man on the cheek or on the forehead or back of the head without that being condescending or offensive.

So self-consciousness as a minority in a majority white gathering, particularly as a young, new political candidate trying to win favor, is normal, but that means the individual and the group both need to understand it is normal and try to minimize its effects, if not prevent the feeling of self-consciousness altogether.  That requires understanding.  And unfortunately, in the political event under discussion, even if we assume that Mr. Biden was genuinely trying to make Ms. Flores feel welcome and not self-conscious and sincerely reasonably thought he knew how to do that successfully based on his own limited perspective, his actions had the opposite effect, given her equally reasonable, but also oppositely skewed or limited perspective.

Fourth, I want to now discuss the ethics of the issue of inappropriate touching or other inappropriate behavior, particularly, but not only, of men toward women, because the issue itself is going to continue to be problematic unless satisfactory ways can be found to prevent and/or remedy it. 

I say this because although there is one extremely easy remedy, it is an unsatisfactory one.  That unsatisfactory remedy would be for people never to touch anyone else ever without clear consent.  Ironically, Joe Biden, obviously a physically demonstrative, affectionate person was succeeded in the office of Vice President by Mike Pence, who is categorically opposite, and who will not do anything he can avoid doing that would even give the appearance of inappropriate behavior toward women, because he will not interact with them any more than necessary, even to the extent of denying them equal access to him that he accords men.  And while he seems to fear the appearance of heterosexual impropriety, apparently the thought never crossed his mind that someone could charge him with homosexual impropriety during a private meeting, which would probably be a worse charge for him in light of his and his supporters’ overt disapproval of and disdain for homosexuality.   But people with overt disapproval of behaviors have hypocritically participated in them, so if Mr. Pence is concerned with the appearance of propriety, he should not be alone with men either for the same reason he will not be alone with women.

Equally ironic is that the President Mike Pence serves a President who has previously openly admitted to, and in some detail, bragged about groping women he finds attractive whenever he has the opportunity he thinks he can get away with, and whose public comments and not infrequently alleged private behavior seem to indicate no particular respect for women in general, though to be fair, he shows little respect for men in general either, but more respect and less disdain than for women.  That is not irrelevant to the ethics of gender relationships and the issue of unwanted touching, because while it is true that people tend to view and describe the same behavior in different ways, usually being more charitable toward their own instances of it or what they deem acceptable, there are clearly some improprieties to all but the most morally insensitive and blind.  

It would be a mistake to allow what is acceptable to be determined by either what is the least sensitive to the natural feelings of many or by what is oversensitive to those of a few.  It is as much a social or moral transgression to avoid the emotional needs of some as to invade the personal space of others.  People who want or need to be shown spontaneous and genuine affection should not be denied it.  People should neither be required to be as cold and standoffish as Mr. Pence, which would lead to a sterile, lonely world, nor permitted to be as grabby as Mr. Trump claims to have been.  And the behavior of civilized, affectionate people, as Mr. Biden claims to be, should become more fine-tuned in general and more in tune with the likes, dislikes, and sensibilities of the people they seek to show affection, or to comfort by touch.  One should be able to show affection properly to those who want and appreciate it, avoid doing so to those who do not, and perceptive and sensitive enough to distinguish between them.

And there need to be, and generally are, reasonable ways to discern that before mistakes and offenses occur.  Those reasonable ways should not require witnessed signatures on formal legal consent forms prior to any personal conversation or affectionate behavior, because that would lead to the same cold, sterile environment that a total prohibition of possibly offensive comments or touching of the most oversensitive person would cause. 

In the middle 1970’s when sexual harassment in the workplace became talked about, I changed my behavior, no longer offering or giving a neck and shoulder massage to women who said their necks were killing them from typing all day, no longer making comments with sexual innuendo, or making facial expressions to react when others accidentally made one, etc.  After the second or third day, female colleagues were asking me what was wrong, and when I explained I was just trying to be respectful of them as pointed out in the news, they told me to cut it out and go back to being the me they liked and never had considered to be disrespectful.  For us, that was a much better atmosphere.  They didn’t want the sterile environment other women were advocating.  They, of course, didn’t want to have to be vulnerable to unwanted comments, inappropriate touching, undesirable familiarity, or to improper advances, but they didn’t feel it was necessary to make everyone have to be silent and distant in order to avoid that.   Most people don’t misbehave intentionally and there are often various ways to address those who do.  Any accidental overstepping is often immediately apparent by at least the embarrassment or discomfort it causes, apologized for, easy to get over, and seldom repeated.

Although there can be a misunderstanding about whether someone is inviting and would relish a neck and shoulder massage at their typewriter or whether someone on a date or during a private conversation is leaning in for a kiss or wants to be caressed in a possibly romantic situation, there are signs that should be sufficient in general without having to sign a contract and enlist witnesses or a notary whose testimony would hold up in court.  And although I firmly believe in having honest conversation about what each persons’ expectations of any relationship or intimacy in it are, prior to acting on any, even mutual desires, and although I firmly believe that one should not accept the consent of anyone one thinks might be deluding him/herself, I don’t think that should go so far as legalistic consent forms, which may in fact be too permanent and carved in stone in case the person changes their mind later and has no way to withdraw the signed consent.   It is better for people to be more sensitive to people’s wishes at the time. 

Normally one doesn’t make certain kinds of jokes or comment until there has been some sign they will be acceptable or appreciated.  Normally in seeking a kiss, one doesn’t just suddenly and surprisingly instantaneously plant one’s lips on another persons’; one gets close to a degree and then waits for the other person to accept the kiss or to pull away.  In offering a hug, one generally steps forward and extends one’s arms to the side in an expectant hugging gesture and waits for the response about whether to proceed or not.  Even in giving a sideways hug (i.e., putting one’s arm around someone’s back on their shoulder, while standing next to them facing the same direction as they are) one tends to wait for acceptance of the initial gesture with indication it is okay to ‘pull them in embrace toward you.  I myself am not a fan of frontally hugging mere acquaintances because I consider that an intimate act, even when it is just the “Hollywood hug” of touching only as little of upper bodies as is possible while keeping the rest of one’s body at a distance; and if given opportunity to indicate acceptance of the hug, I usually do not grant it, but say “Thank you, but I am not keen on hugging face on.”  However, I don’t mind a sideways hug.

Moreover, some of this is a purely personal preference even apart from social norms.  Once when I was in the university infirmary, most of the nurses came into the room early in the morning and just told you to wake up because they had to change the sheets before the doctor arrived for rounds.  It was not a pleasant way to be awakened, particularly if you were ill or in pain from an injury and had finally been able to fall asleep.  But there was one older nurse who was a really sweet lady who woke me from my sleeping on my stomach by rubbing my backside with her hand outside the covers.  I thought that was the nicest way to be awakened in the morning, though I am sure plenty of people, even other men, would probably not want a stranger to wake them in that way.  She either sensed I would like it or did it in such a way that I had the opportunity to resist if I wanted to.  I did not consider it sexual or inappropriate at all, but merely kind and comforting, and let her know that I liked and appreciated it.

However, I also consider the behavior of Mr. Biden not to be as totally harmless or innocent as he claims, in that the placement of his hand on Ms. Longoria in the photo seems quite clearly and knowingly inappropriate even to a fifteen year old boy, and because there are times where someone’s pushing the display of affection seems plausible to construe as a fishing expedition to check women for potential further responsiveness or willingness to accept more intimate behavior – as in guys who supposedly claim to playfully flirt, and claims to “mean nothing by flirting” -- unless you want to take them up on it.  So I do not accept his protestations of innocence or benevolent intent in all the cases he refers to, though they were likely that way in many or most of them.

But I also believe Ms. Flores overstates the case when she refers to his behavior as “blatantly inappropriate” making her “feel gross, … and confused”, touched her “in an intimate way reserved for close friends, family, or romantic partners”, and that his behavior was “demeaning and disrespectful”.  The fact she doesn’t like it doesn’t make it demeaning, disrespectful, or as intimate in the way she characterizes it or even perceives it.   It was an unwanted act, and that is sufficient to make it wrong, but not sufficient to characterize it as being obviously reprehensible or demonstrative of a serious deficiency of either character or awareness by the offender.  And given that at the time she was particularly conscious about her hair not having been freshly washed, it is understandable she may have felt extremely self-conscious about his either smelling her hair (which is creepy and inappropriate if that is what he did – “Mr. Vice President, would you like me to cut some of my hair and give it to you in a locket so that you can still and often smell it when we are no longer in such close proximity and you are back in Washington?”) or misperceiving that was what he was doing when he may just have breathed too loud too close as he was leaning in to kiss her on the back of the head.  While his behavior toward her was inappropriate given her perspective on her circumstances, it was not “blatantly” inappropriate.

But by the time she wrote the essay for The Cut, it seems to me she should have realized she might have been overreacting to her self-consciousness both about her hair and the power of his office in considering his behavior that egregious instead of considering him to be simply physically demonstrably and inappropriately ‘affectionate’ in a way that called only for a simple admonishment or moving away, even slightly, or clearly shunning his touch.  Whatever the feelings and beliefs either of them had at the time of the act, should not necessarily be the same ones they had by the time she was composing her essay and he was composing his response.  Perspective gained by time and distance for her, and by her article for him, should have made them both more reasonable in how they view the act and what they then wrote and said about it.

People face all kinds of unexpected socially disconcerting, awkward, disagreeable – even intensely disagreeable -- situations; part of growing up is learning how to deal with them appropriately.  Even men are often faced with dealing with glad handing, back slapping, disgusting good ole boys whose hands they don’t want to shake and whose crude, opinionated, bigoted, or gossipy comments or unfunny jokes they don’t want to hear.  Even women can put men into unnecessary and uncomfortable social situations that may be difficult to know how to respond to the first time.  A fairly common one is being able to tell a desirable woman who is clearly making herself available to you that you find her most attractive and would have been interested in pursuing a further relationship if your circumstances had been different, but that you were not in a position to do so now.  Most men don’t know just to say that the first time or two they are unexpectedly faced with the situation.  Sometimes it is appropriate to put an offender in his or her place with a serious rebuttal or a sarcastic satirical reply, and sometimes to politely just voice not sharing that view or wanting to comply with the behavior, or sometimes just to ignore them as itself being a sign of disapproval to anyone with any sense.  Not everyone can have the kind of barbed, affectionate arguments as did Winston Churchill and Lady Nancy Astor, who were great friends but political opposites, often to the point of exasperation as in the famous exchange where Lady Astor finally said during one heated argument "Sir, if you were my husband, I'd poison your tea."  To which Churchill replied: "Madame, if you were my wife, I'd drink it!"

In her novel, Emma, Jane Austen wrote about a relatively minor infraction by an otherwise good friend of Emma’s who was in foul humor at the time and who said something -- in complaint about their having to attend a party they were on their way to -- that Emma could have done without his expressing because she was looking forward to attending: “she had resolution enough to refrain from making any answer at all. She could not be complying, she dreaded being quarrelsome; her heroism reached only to silence. She allowed him to talk, and arranged the glasses, and wrapped herself up, without opening her lips.”  But it was the sort of thing that at another time in a better state of mind for both of them, having had time to formulate an appropriate chastisement of him, she should have delivered it.  Ignoring undesirable behavior at a given time does not require permanently condoning it or never condemning it.  So if a behavior needs to be addressed, but it is not right to do it at the time, then it should simply be addressed as soon as reasonable afterward.

As to making a firm, but witty, sarcastic comment at the time, although it could not have been expected, it would have been really cool if Ms. Flores had been able to respond to Mr. Biden by saying “I would have loved you to kiss me, but I didn’t just wash my hair.” in parody of the great Bette Davis line for deterring the pursuit of a social norm by an amorous suitor.

That will still leave, within the boundaries of clearly recognized decency, differences of opinion about the propriety or acceptability of touch or other acts (such as speech).  (Some people, for example, dread the times in church where everyone is instructed to hold the hands of the people beside them.  They don’t want to hold a stranger’s or mere acquaintance’s hand.)  In terms of speech, I find it really difficult to ask people typical kinds of social questions about their lives, because it seems to me like trying to pry.  Instead I prefer to state unusual observations or ask more meaningful personal questions that most people won’t ask or say.  For example, if someone is in a wheelchair, they generally would like to be asked what happened to put them in it, rather than your ignoring it or acting like it didn’t matter to you.  It matters to them, generally.  When one woman, in a wheelchair at a wedding answered that she had multiple sclerosis, I just said “Oh, that is a pain in the ass, isn’t it?”  And she thought about it a second and then lit up and said “That is exactly what it is.”  I knew she was likely not in pain and that she probably felt like she could do things but couldn’t get her body to do them, and that it was probably more just simply frustrating in a weird way than anything else, at least at that stage of the disease. 

On the other hand, I once unintentionally infuriated a woman by not kissing her on the lips but instead kissing her on the forehead when she leaned in for a kiss at the end of an otherwise spectacular first date.  We had seen a great movie, which led to meaningful conversation about deeper things in life,  and I really liked her, but it occurred at a time in my life, during college, just when I had promised myself no longer to “make out” with a girl on a first date just because she seemed willing to.  I had asked the previous girl who was interested in making out why she was willing to do that.  I never considered myself particularly attractive, and I didn’t know what these women found appealing in me.  She said she was impressed that I cared what was on her mind, instead of trying to seduce her.  She said the standard date was to be taken to a 9:00 movie, get pizza or burgers afterward, and then have to fight the guy off or firmly resist going back to his place or taking him to yours.  Each date was a battle.  And it was really refreshing and arousing, she said, to be asked to an early movie with substance, like foreign films at the time, so you had time to talk about it and to get to know each other through extended conversation in a public place afterward, which was my idea of what a date should be like.  But I considered that in some ways to be much less personal than the women did.  And though I thought it normal for me to want to kiss them, it didn’t seem personal enough to me that they should want to kiss me just because I was interested in what they had to say.

So in keeping with my newfound idea of not ‘taking advantage’ of any girl because she responded to having her mind respected, when a surprising moment came that this one girl wanted to kiss without my having done anything to initiate or invite that, and without any reason to expect her to do it, I tried to show affection by just kissing her on the forehead, which she seemed to take as a humiliating act of condescending rejection on my part, and nothing I wrote to her afterward by way of explanation of why I did it and how much I really liked her could convince her to talk with me or see me again, despite her girlfriends telling her that she should and that they would love to have met a guy that didn’t try to make out with them on the first date.  While women have the right to decline any advance or to stop any romantic or sexual activity already in progress, they don’t always accord that same right to men without anger or outright hostility.

But differences of expectations and desires about touch or speech don’t necessarily need to be criminalized nor made matters of litigation in civil court when they are not reasonably known to be problematic by the offender.  Even some clearly wrong behavior, like being stood up on a date, is not necessarily best addressed or remedied by calling the police or initiating a lawsuit.  Involving the legal system in a matter can be a disproportional response in some cases or make the matter or its consequences even worse, not to mention that it would be cumbersome or impossible for legislators to list, and people to memorize, every possible or imaginable morally wrong that is easily recognized and proved as such if it does occur.  Not every breach of etiquette or social convention, and not even every moral infraction needs to involve law enforcement or civil court.  It is better to handle many wrong acts more privately or personally.  And mature people should be able to do so and should have their complaints taken seriously and remedied.  And on the other hand, serious enough moral offenses should be able to have legal remedy even if not previously specified by law because there was no previous anticipation anyone would commit them.  One should not be able to get off on the technicality that there was no law against this obviously disrespectful, mean, cruel, and/or stupid act.

So, although an initial, unintended breach of a personal boundary should not necessarily be a legal matter, that no long applies once someone has made clear that certain comments or acts are seriously unwanted, which someone should be able to do in a reasonable way.  After that, the offender should be held accountable, even legally if necessary, for understanding, appreciating, and honoring their wishes and not persisting in or repeating the unwanted behavior.  Again, we are talking about within reason, so that one is not arrested or litigated for trying one more bad pun six months later to someone who one has forgot finds puns annoying or who mistakenly thinks, in a triumph of hope over experience, that this one will amuse them.  In other words, the offense would have to be in some reasonable way serious and not just a minor annoyance or irritation offered with good intentions.  

The point Mr. Biden makes about social norms, and their changing, however, is only relevant, even if true, to whether his behavior was reasonable or not, not to whether it was right or not.  If Ms. Flores did not want to be kissed on the back of the head by someone she barely knew, that is her prerogative regardless of what the norm is or what other women might generally accept or even enjoy.  What is reasonable, however, does depend on what most people by far would want or at least find acceptable in that situation in that cultural situation.  A social or cultural norm can determine what is reasonable, but not necessarily what is right.

However, often a claim of changing social norms is not really about ethics or morality changing, but about more people finally recognizing what was right or wrong in the first place.  And, it is not likely that it is the norms about being touched, spoken to, or treated by men in centuries old ways which are changing, but the norm of having to silently tolerate it by those who do not like it.  Today, in the wake of the “MeToo” movement, women are more comfortable speaking out against unwanted behavior, but the behavior was just as unwanted when they were afraid to speak out.  In fact, once the “MeToo” movement began, it was widely hailed as being about time, and that there were plenty of professions still to be exposed as bastions of male impunity and license for the wrongful treatment of women.  So, even if in the past the act would have met a social norm of the time, or even today if it meets a social norm, it still would have been, and would be, wrong for him (or anyone under the same circumstances and with the same lack of relationship) to have done it, or to do it, if the woman did not, or does not, want him to. 

That being said, there can be changes in ethics over time if the psychology of what is acceptable, and therefore reasonable to expect people to accept, changes with the advent of claims about it which may not have been true when initially stated, but become true as they are repeated and gain approval or at least tolerance, whether reasonably or not.  This works in both directions – making some behaviors more acceptable and others, less.  If, for example, the “MeToo” movement makes the next generation of women repulsed by behaviors previous generations actually liked, then that would be a change in a norm, and is perhaps what Mr. Biden meant by it.  On the other hand, the so-called sexual revolution of the 1960’s and 1970’s, over time, made some sexual behaviors accepted that were previously not only prohibited, but were rightfully scorned and are not in people’s actual best long time interests apart from giving pleasure (sometimes) at the time.  So although, for example, the acceptability by many today of Tinder hookups for sex would have been unthinkable and reprehensible to most women in the past, many women (and even many men) today find it far less enjoyable or fulfilling than they expected because of its lack of intimacy or of even any personal connection at all.  So although the social mores or norms about sexual or other behavior change over time, the real ethical issues in sex or other things don’t necessarily change with them.

Insofar as what Mr. Biden did was generally socially acceptable (if done by someone not repulsive or objectionable in the correct actually affectionate, and not creepy or exploratory flirting manner in pursuit of inappropriate intimacy of some sort, even if not sex) with the right intention of support, it would have been reasonable, even if wrong because one would not necessarily have reason to think it offensive, even if it might be.  But any individual can dislike a behavior whether that behavior is a norm or not, and whether it is one few people would have any reason to know was intrusive and unwelcome before being told.  But after being told it was unwelcome, one should apologize for having done it, and avoid doing it again in that same way.  But there is more to this than just that, and that involves a bigger problem.

However, first, even if the behavior met a social norm, there should be no shame or embarrassment in, nor repercussions for, saying even at the time that it was unwanted, or for politely resisting it (If able to anticipate it) or politely, even if firmly, reacting adversely to it.  I understand social pressure and its power, and the fear of openly resisting it, but when Ms. Flores said about Mr. Biden’s unwanted behavior that she “felt powerless to do anything about it,” she could have tried just saying “I’m sorry, but I don’t like being touched like that or being this physically close to someone I just met.  It makes me uncomfortable.”  And he should have then immediately stepped back and said, “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize.  My apology, please.”  While it may take recognizing the natural social awkwardness of saying something to Mr. Biden in that situation and of resisting an ostensible display of affection (even if Ms. Flores had perceived it to be that), one should be able to overcome (such) social awkwardness, and it should not take any great courage to ask someone to stop an unwanted social behavior -- not any great courage for an adult, and certainly not for anyone running for a high public office where far greater resolve is expected, and where uncomfortable honesty in far more disconcerting circumstances with far more intimidating people, is required to be delivered with firmness and tact for important matters.  In other words, Ms. Flores should not have felt powerless, even if simply embarrassed about having to deal with it.

The bigger problem is that it is difficult to know when a particular behavior that is generally acceptable may be personally undesirable or even offensive to someone or may be perceived to be.   And it defeats the spontaneous and affectionate nature of the act to have to explicitly ask permission, and makes the situation even more awkward.  It would, it seems to me, be better to lean in for a kiss after that sort of romantic pause and look, and give the person opportunity to draw away than to ask them for permission to kiss you, which would be even more embarrassing for them to have to say “no” or they “would prefer you not kiss” them.

And sometimes it is logically impossible even to ask without risking being offensive or inappropriate by asking.  Asking someone permission to ask them out on a date is essentially no different from asking them on the date, and it would be inappropriate, for example, for a supervisor to ask an employee if it would be okay to ask in the same way it would be inappropriate just to ask her or him out.  Insofar as there is undue pressure to accept the date, there is the same undue pressure to allowing the question to be asked.  An old joke about this sort of thing is “If I ask you to marry me, will you say ‘yes’?” responded to by “If I say ‘yes’, will you ask me?”  But it would not be funny if an inquiry about the propriety of an that is properly done with permission was itself a moral or legal offense.  If asking permission for an act that many would willingly grant is itself impermissible, then much will be lost that shouldn’t be.  Just as some acts are reasonable or unreasonable to initiate, so are some permissions proper or improper to seek.

Now, in any given culture, there are typical conventional or even natural ways to seek and to give consent without having to do it explicitly verbally.   As pointed out before, one can approach a kissing posture slowly and gently, giving the other person time and comfortable, respectable opportunity to draw back or change position altogether and basically decline the kiss.  There are all kinds of signs, speech, and movements to show the other person one’s desires to touch or be touched, or to say or hear risqué comments, while giving them the opportunity to accept or avoid them without embarrassment.  Even in the Biden/Flores case, where it might seem there was no way for him to telegraph his intention in a way to give her opportunity to decline it without incident or stress, that is not true.  When he put his hands on her shoulders, he should have felt her tense up or at least not relax or respond affirmatively, or he could have slowly leaned in to give her a chance to pull away a bit or be accepting of a likely kiss on the back of the head.  Even in first touching her shoulders, he could have done it very lightly at first, rather than clasping them.  And when she first felt him put his hands on her shoulders and perceived him to sniff her hair, she should have essentially shrugged off the overture to reject it.  But even without her doing that, which may have been too much to expect, given the surprise and the circumstances, he should have recognized from even a non-reaction, that she was not comfortable or accepting of his touching her.  

Jean Paul Sartre wrote a story about the self-deception of a girl on a date denying to herself any romantic intention while accepting holding the boy’s hand when he extends it to her.  To me, the boy would also be deceiving himself, if not totally unperceptive, if he could not tell the difference between the girl holding his hand with affection and holding it out of some perceived obligation not to be rude or hurtful.  If you are going to be affectionate in the way Mr. Biden claims to be, you had better also be sensitive to whether someone is appreciative and accepting, merely acquiescing, or feeling put upon, in the process.  If either acquiescing or feeling put upon, the gesture should go no further, and even a quick, brief, immediate apology might be in order for the initial overture.

And people should be able and willing to rely on that without the stupid sorts of excuses some  apparently give for clearly inappropriate behavior such as saying someone who had passed out in a drunken stupor “didn’t say ‘no’”.  And though nuances may be involved in distinguishing one kind of situation from another, such as the difference between being taken advantage of because one mistakenly drank too much and drinking enough to overcome one’s inhibitions in order to be more intimate, one should still be able to point to evidence for the consent, such as one’s having said they are drinking to loosen up or relax, knowing that it was a potential sexual situation.  The latter case is a case of consent; the former, not.

This sort of perception applies to ordinary, nonsexual situations too.  In the passage from Emma before, Mr. Knightley should have been able to tell he was making Emma uncomfortable just from her non-responsiveness to his complaining about having to go to the party.  The full passage was:

“The cold, however, was severe; and by the time the second carriage was in motion, a few flakes of snow were finding their way down, and the sky had the appearance of being so overcharged as to want only a milder air to produce a very white world in a very short time.

Emma soon saw that her companion was not in the happiest humour. The preparing and the going abroad in such weather […] were evils, were disagreeables at least, which Mr. John Knightley did not by any means like; he anticipated nothing in the visit that could be at all worth the purchase; and the whole of their drive to the vicarage was spent by him in expressing his discontent.

“A man,” said he, “must have a very good opinion of himself when he asks people to leave their own fireside, and encounter such a day as this, for the sake of coming to see him. He must think himself a most agreeable fellow; I could not do such a thing. It is the greatest absurdity—Actually snowing at this moment!—The folly of not allowing people to be comfortable at home—and the folly of people's not staying comfortably at home when they can! If we were obliged to go out such an evening as this, by any call of duty or business, what a hardship we should deem it;—and here are we, probably with rather thinner clothing than usual, setting forward voluntarily, without excuse, in defiance of the voice of nature, which tells man, in every thing given to his view or his feelings, to stay at home himself, and keep all under shelter that he can;—here are we setting forward to spend five dull hours in another man's house, with nothing to say or to hear that was not said and heard yesterday, and may not be said and heard again to-morrow. Going in dismal weather, to return probably in worse;—four horses and four servants taken out for nothing but to convey five idle, shivering creatures into colder rooms and worse company than they might have had at home.”

Emma did not find herself equal to give the pleased assent, which no doubt he was in the habit of receiving, to emulate the “Very true, my love,” which must have been usually administered by his travelling companion; but she had resolution enough to refrain from making any answer at all. She could not be complying, she dreaded being quarrelsome; her heroism reached only to silence. She allowed him to talk, and arranged the glasses, and wrapped herself up, without opening her lips.”

This passage also shows there can be variation of feelings even within a known, accepted social convention.  That was further expressed when later in the gathering a neighbor, Mr. Weston, arrived after a long business trip to London that day:

The whole party were but just reassembled in the drawing-room when Mr. Weston made his appearance among them. He had returned to a late dinner, and walked to Hartfield as soon as it was over. He had been too much expected by the best judges, for surprize—but there was great joy.  […] John Knightley only was in mute astonishment.—That a man who might have spent his evening quietly at home after a day of business in London, should set off again, and walk half a mile to another man's house, for the sake of being in mixed company till bed-time, of finishing his day in the efforts of civility and the noise of numbers, was a circumstance to strike him deeply. A man who had been in motion since eight o'clock in the morning, and might now have been still, who had been long talking, and might have been silent, who had been in more than one crowd, and might have been alone!—Such a man, to quit the tranquillity and independence of his own fireside, and on the evening of a cold sleety April day rush out again into the world!—Could he by a touch of his finger have instantly taken back his wife, there would have been a motive; but his coming would probably prolong rather than break up the party. John Knightley looked at him with amazement, then shrugged his shoulders, and said, “I could not have believed it even of him.”

Mr. Weston meanwhile, perfectly unsuspicious of the indignation he was exciting, happy and cheerful as usual, and with all the right of being principal talker, which a day spent anywhere from home confers, was making himself agreeable among the rest; and having satisfied the inquiries of his wife as to his dinner, convincing her that none of all her careful directions to the servants had been forgotten, and spread abroad what public news he had heard, was proceeding to a family communication, which, though principally addressed to Mrs. Weston, he had not the smallest doubt of being highly interesting to everybody in the room.

(Both passages are from

Adults should understand not everyone feels as they do, and they should be sensitive to when someone else does not.  Knowing it should be easy even when being aware of a specific instance of it is not.  But the latter can be helped by honest, but civil, perhaps even charitable or witty, responses from people that are being offended or made uncomfortable at the time, with the knowledge that sometimes people simply make social errors and should be allowed to and should simply be set straight when reasonable to do so.

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