Years ago, I went on a bus trip from Melbourne to Noosa with my grandma. I was 19, it was a diabolical nightmare, and while at 89-years-old she’s had the good fortune to forget every single detail—and even gaslights me each time I mention it as though this is the fanciful delusion I’d choose—I still occasionally wake in a cold sweat remembering the details.
Apropos of nothing somewhere near Port Macquarie, my grandma turned to me and said, ‘We’re not a very affectionate people, the Rosewarnes, are we?’ Not the only zinger from the trip that I remember two decades on—being chastised for not removing my earphones so that I could marvel at the Hawkesbury still feels fresh—but that remark was the journey’s existential standout.
The Anglo side of my family are definitely not touchy-feely folk. I’d realised this of course, long before my grandma said anything: Mum’s side of the family are the touchy/feely/yelling/thrashing/writhing Italians—I’ve always known the difference.
When it comes to personal space, the stoic Cornish half of me always wins out. I’ll never initiate physical contact with you. The gates will be well and truly akimbo if we’ve built affection into our friendship, or if we’ve fornicated and I’ve shaken the shackles of standoffishness, but I’m not going to touch you first.
I’ve been dwelling on the recent accusations about him encroaching on the personal space of female colleagues.
In a recent New York magazine article, Lucy Flores claimed that at a 2014 campaign rally Biden kissed the back of her head. Flores also noted that his behaviour was neither violent nor sexual. The second accuser, Amy Lappos, a congressional aide, claimed Biden rubbed his nose against hers. Again, Lappos considered Biden’s behaviour as weird, sure, but not sexual.
Like every news item I’ve ever been obsessed with, this one is a superb clash of my interests—on this occasion, subjectivity and semantics, safe spaces and sexual politics.
Since the birth of MeToo, we apparently now only have one language—nay, one phrase—to talk about anything to do with male/female interactions, in the workplace or, frankly, anywhere else. Of the multitude of problems with the free-flowing use of the hashtag, is the sloppy consideration of all behaviour as pretty much equivalent. And so Biden kissing a woman on the head immediately gets framed as yet another MeToo moment and worthy of all the hashtag gravitas and liberal hand-wringing, regardless of the accusers unambiguously flagging that their experiences weren’t sexual.
Predictably—as our zeitgeist now dictates—Democrat presidential candidates have been quick to seize on the story as a way to brand their campaigns as ones with the highest level of probity, while also showcasing that if there’s anything progressives are skilled at, it’s eating each other alive. So of course we have to listen to Beto and Bernie compliment the bravery of the ‘victims’, and of course Kamala Harris unwaveringly believes the women.
But what exactly are we believing them about?
And this is where the story gets extra fascinating.
The media wants to present this as a MeToo-esque calamity because the template is already well-established, the connotations and consequences comprehended, and because the frame helps to caricature Biden as the old guard candidate who perhaps isn’t quite woke enough for a 2020 run. Not only does such packaging ignore that neither Flores or Lappos are alleging harassment, but it taps into what I consider an increasing social calamity where an individual’s one-off feelings of discomfort are considered worthy not only of attention but somehow necessitating a public mea culpa.
When did feeling of discomfort become so frightening? So damaging? We’re not, after all, talking about harassment or violence or assault, but the disruption of equilibrium for under a minute.
I’ve written about this previously in the context of university trigger warnings and the ever louder demands for ‘safe spaces’. Why, culturally, have we become so preoccupied with ensuring that we all feel perfectly level and happy every single second of our lives? Am I alone in my yen to want to stretch the parameters of my emotions? I deliberately seek out movies and music that fuel my melancholy. I consciously read books that unsettle, hurt, enrage and revolt me. I knowingly have relationships that challenge my sensibilities. (And my patience). In what world is it imaginable—let alone even slightly desirable—to predict how every interaction will feel?
My second reaction to the story is a tad more complex. When you listen to Biden talk about hugging his colleagues and, equally, when you hear some of his colleagues talk effusively about being hugged by him, evident is that Biden has a genuine interest in consoling and comforting. Biden’s life has been impacted by more than his fair share of devastation—having to bury not one but two children—so I can imagine that more sharply than most he knows the power of kind words and a tight embrace.
But here’s where it all gets tricky.
The fact that I won’t grope you unless a) I know you want it and, b) you’ve groped me first with suitable fervour, are qualities I’ve inherited from the Rosewarne side of the family. Also inherited from them is a tendency to try to use humour to disarm. Whereas Biden might—historically at least—have hugged you if he thought you could benefit from it, I’ll similarly offer up something ‘hilarious’. My bawdy sense of humour, sarcasm and general smart-arsery combined with my genuine—if often ham-fistedly executed—belief that I’m ‘helping’, means I very much understand the friction between intent and the unpredictability of reception.
The ABC building in Melbourne has a series of bizarre security gates that—should two people attempt to pass at once during the brief parting of the Perspex—the interloper will be maimed. Once, while waiting my turn to go through, I watched a man think he could outsmart the system and dash through before the gates closed. He was wrong; he got chomped. He looked so thoroughly humiliated so I said, ‘don’t worry, you didn’t really need that penis, did you?’.
The other day I was in an Uber. I’d been lecturing all afternoon which had formed the basis for my small talk with the driver. At one point he asked whether, as a political scientist, I had any political leanings. ‘Well I have a vagina and I’m an academic who isn’t self-loathing,’ I said, ‘so I lean very left.’
We have two examples here where I was just ‘being myself’—being true to what I find funny and my notions of levity and small talk—all while potentially making these two men feel uncomfortable. In their cases they actually seemed perfectly fine—the castrato and I shared a laugh afterwards, and the Uber driver spent the remainder of our trip ranting about The Muslims—but on both occasions it could have gone in a very different direction. (And, hell, maybe it will when one of them pens a New York magazine article). Entering a situation thinking you are making a moment better only to find it’s interpreted completely differently is, to be honest, completely bloody devastating.
I unquestionably want a society where women feel comfortable calling out harassment. Calling out bad behaviour. Calling out mistreatment and abuse and discrimination. But I also quite like a culture where we’re a gaggle of free-thinking individuals with our own quirks and predilections and ways of navigating the world. I like when people have the capacity and, truth be told, the chutzpah, to shock and disgust and bewilder me.
I was in a meeting recently, where a much older male colleague had heard me on the radio the day prior and sidled up and said, ‘I love hearing you say “penis” on the radio.’ I’m quite entertained that his nonsense regularly catches me off guard and appreciate that I always get an anecdote from our interactions. Recognising and responding to real episodes of hurt and humiliation is important. Equally too is the resilience and nous to distinguish between feeling temporarily unsettled and being traumatised.
This isn’t a call for people to toughen up: we’re human and we most certainly should grieve and rage and bemoan accordingly. But not every minute of personal upset is worthy of international attention, nor is there always remedy or recompense for individual offense. Equally, while being mindful of evolving social mores is important, I’m not sure being shamed into becoming a safe and sombre automaton is the answer either.
Lauren Rosewarne is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Melbourne. Her tenth book Sex and Sexuality in Modern Screen Remakes will be published later in 2019. She can be found at www.laurenrosewarne.com.