We have all been there. A sweaty hand shake that lasts forever. Aunt Margaret’s aggressively red lipstick kisses. The airplane seatmate who falls asleep on your shoulder.
It’s all about the overlapping circles of a Venn diagram. It’s where consent meets comfort and intentions.
It’s easy to make this about Joe Biden, because he’s the guy people are talking about. He’s the guy several women are claiming made them uncomfortable, and there is certainly the photo evidence to back it up.
It shouldn’t be news to anyone. Late night comics have been pointing it out for years. But here we are, learning about it like it’s the first time while everyone from the Democratic National Committee to President Trump waits for the former veep to make an announcement about a 2020 primary campaign he is already winning in early polling.
Consent isn’t a Biden issue. It’s a grandpa issue and a boss issue and a guy-who-sits-next-to-you-on-the-bus issue. And despite the hype, it’s not even a male versus female issue. It’s a human question of setting our limits and making them known, because you can’t hold someone responsible for crossing a line you didn’t paint.
My husband died in 2015. I went back to work a week later. On that first day, I went to a court proceeding where the district attorney stopped what she was doing and came over, giving me a big, long hug and patting my face.
I have never been so uncomfortable in my life. My nerves were already frayed. I was just trying to make it through the day. And now the defense had every reason to question my credibility after this inappropriate show of familiarity.
But that was my fault, not the DA’s. I didn’t step back from the hug. I didn’t distance myself. I didn’t say no to the kind of behavior I would have appreciated from a close friend. While perhaps she should have known better, I can’t put it all on her when I didn’t draw my line in the sand.
I’m not victim-blaming myself. I’m acknowledging my own responsibility.
Consent is a two-way street. It is offered and received. If it is going to be honored, it has to be delineated.
And if consent matters, and the comfort level of the recipient matters, then the intentions of the offender have to matter, too. A court acknowledges this. Intention can be the difference between an accident and a crime, and a misdemeanor and a felony.
Washington Post editorial writer Molly Roberts argued that intentions aren’t important — that while Biden has said he never meant to make anyone uncomfortable, what is important is how women have received his actions.
“And that should be the beginning and end of the conversation,” Roberts wrote.
She’s half right. It should start a conversation but not finish it.
Yes, when we are talking about our personal boundary lines, that should be it. We all get to draw our own perimeters. You may go this far and no more. Beyond this place there be dragons.
But the problem is that once we interact with other people, things get complicated and our boundaries intersect like those Venn diagrams. We have to defend our borders, respect each other’s and find a way to be comfortable together.