Thank you for your and your husband’s service, and for your explanation of events in the famous photo. But, with all due respect, you seem to totally miss the point:
- At the pictured event, Biden was acting in his professional capacity as Vice President of the United States. As such, his PHYSICAL contact (beyond a warm handshake) with the wife of one of his soon-to-be employees was not compatible with the obligations and duties of his professional role. It was therefore inappropriate workplace behavior.
- Yes, certainly, take ownership of your story. But the swearing-in of a Secretary of Defense isn’t “your” story. It’s the people’s story. It’s an official act of government performed by elected and appointed government officials, with friends and family in attendance as guests. Such events are but one small part of the professional workplace of such officials. The family members of government employees don’t get to decide what is/is not appropriate professional behavior at such events. Nor do they get to absolve such employees of inappropriate behavior by framing professional events or official acts of government in personal terms. (See #4 for the dangers of doing so.)
- Your consent in this matter is irrelevant. As is Biden’s intent. The Vice President engaged in inappropriate physical contact with the wife of a professional colleague while performing his professional duties. And he did it at a highly public event where he had an opportunity to model appropriate behavior (between employees and the family members of their coworkers; between women and men in the workplace) for the hundreds of thousands of people who saw the video and picture. That was a failure on his part. One that he’s repeated many, many times…
- The confusion between the professional and the personal is the hallmark of abusive and sexually inappropriate behavior in the workplace, where male supervisors or coworkers exact personal sexual favors in exchange for professional employment, promotions, assignments, and raises. At root, it is this confusion that enables the abuse of power. Biden has a history of confusing the personal and the professional — inappropriately touching women while performing his professional duties — and that should concern us.
- Biden never seems to engage in inappropriate physical contact with men: whether citizens, coworkers, employees, or the family members of coworkers. He does not ‘accidentally’ touch their genitals or buttocks, give them lingering hugs, place his hands on their shoulders from behind, breathe into their hair, or kiss the tops of their heads. And that’s because he knows such intimacies are inappropriate. Yet, he has repeatedly engaged in this kind of behavior with women. Which only demonstrates that he possesses the requisite knowledge and self-control. He knows better and has the proven ability to behave otherwise, he just chooses not to. And that’s because, in his workplace (the U.S. Federal Government) he views women differently than he views men. For him, women are the acceptable objects of inappropriate workplace touching and men are not. And that’s a red flag we should not ignore.
- Finally, there’s the question of your very presence at the event, in the front of the room, in proximity to the Vice President. So far as I can tell, the event was not about your election or appointment to any position in federal government. Yet, wives of political appointees are expected to appear in this quasi-official capacity during nomination hearings and swearings-in; to ‘stand by their man’ as he heroically achieves. The habitual subjection of women to these kinds of demeaning support roles further blurs personal/professional boundaries and elevates heterosexual relationships to a normative ideal to which all Americans are subtly encouraged to aspire. I don’t blame you for this. It’s (heteronormatively) conventional. I’m sure no one consulted you and, had you objected, you would have been ignored or shouted down. But had you been seated in the audience, with other guests and family members, the entire situation — the blurring of the personal and professional; the inappropriate touching of a coworker’s spouse; the photograph documenting such — would never have occurred. Interrogating the gender and sexual ideological underpinnings of these kinds of events would go a long way to eliminating opportunities for inappropriate touching between employees and coworker’s spouses.
I’m a lifelong Democrat and voted twice for the Obama/Biden ticket. But for all the reasons above, I will not be supporting Joe Biden as the Democratic nominee for President in 2020.
We already have a Groper-in-Chief in the White House. We don’t need another one….
Michael J. Murphy, MA, PhD, is Associate Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Illinois. He is the author of many book chapters, and encyclopedia and journal articles. Most recently he edited Living Out Loud: An Introduction to LGBTQ History, Society, and Culture (Routledge, 2019). He lives in St. Louis with his husband.