After several women said publicly that Joe Biden touched them and made them feel uncomfortable, the possible 2020 contender issued an apology—and a disclaimer. "I'm sorry I didn't understand more. I'm not sorry for any of my intentions," he said on Friday, according to the New York Times. But as he took the stage alongside the president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers that same day, he told the crowd, "I just want you to know I had permission to hug Lonnie."
This remark, along with another comment about being allowed to touch people, has diluted the promises Biden has made to be "more mindful" of changing social norms, according to Nevada politician Lucy Flores, who accused Biden of giving her a "a big slow kiss" in an essay published last month in the Cut.
"It's clear Joe Biden hasn't reflected at all on how his inappropriate and unsolicited touching made women feel uncomfortable," Flores said in a tweet on Friday. "To make light of something as serious as consent degrades the conversation women everywhere are courageously trying to have."
There are many reasons why Biden's jokes—well-received by the largely male crowd in Washington, D.C., according to the Times—have sparked ire among women online. Feminist groups, college students, and activists have worked for years to make affirmative consent a pillar of conversations about sexual harassment and assault. And yet, as research shows, men in particular have not embraced the concept. To hear this issue reduced to a joke on the national stage strips this conversation of important context.
As Kate Wheeling and I have previously written for Pacific Standard, the myths surrounding sexual assault and harassment are persistent, despite evidence that few rape allegations are false, and far more go unreported. There are similar misconceptions about consent, which does involve giving "permission," but means a whole lot more. (One university's definition is "a knowing, voluntary, and mutual decision among all participants to engage in sexual activity" given by clear words or actions.)
In an April of 2018 story for Pacific Standard, writer and activist Kitty Stryker, author of Ask: Building Consent Culture, wrote: "In the consent workshops I've attended, body language has been sadly under-discussed. ... Learning your partner's non-verbal cues can be as important as listening to verbal ones."
Some studies suggest that straight men overlook or misinterpret negative non-verbal cues as evidence of consent to sexual activity. A 2017 study in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence examined how 145 straight, white college men perceived consent in "dating scenarios" with women. The results were dismal: Many of the men assumed a woman's sexual desire was evidence of her giving consent; others were more likely to "perceive higher levels of consent" if they had previously had sex with the woman. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those who believed rape myths and had "rape-supportive" attitudes were also more likely to perceive higher levels of consent. All of this is to say that the men found ways to infer consent, no matter the situation—or, as Vice concluded in its write-up from this time, "Men still don't know how consent works."
Pacific Standard previously reported that this could be due to "confusion" surrounding consent. But there's plenty of evidence that men who claim not to understand consent know better. "Young men also can and do display a sophisticated understanding of subtle verbal and non-verbal means of communicating sexual refusal," wrote researchers in a 2007 study on the social psychology of consent. They concluded that most men who argued they had "insufficient knowledge" about consent often did so "in order to explain the occurrence of rape."
So, even as men profess to understand consent in their jokes and apologies, there's a real fear that they might willfully ignore non-verbal cues, or conflate sexual desire with consent in practice.