Why Didn’t Lucy Flores Say Anything When Joe Biden Kissed Her Head?

Lucy Flores Biden Belatina
Photo Credit @LucyFlores twitter.com
Credit: BELatina/BrandStar

When I read Lucy Flores’s essay in New York Magazine this weekend, my first thought was, “Here we go again.” I dreaded the polarizing debate that would play out over the following week, the one in which the public is expected to choose sides; to pore over facts, excuses, and apologies; to question motives and cast doubt; to victim blame and vilify. Her account brought to my mind all of the times that I’ve been in situations that were non-threatening, not necessarily sexual, but definitely paternalistic. Why do we feel like we can’t directly respond to unwanted physical contact, comments, or attention, even when it’s not sexual or threatening? Why do these stories continue to be published as media bombshells, rather than resolved in private?

I’ve cringed through my share of uncomfortable, inappropriate scenarios, and have even actively played a role in condoning them; it’s not unusual for me to go out of my way to make sure that everyone involved is completely comfortable — everyone except for myself, that is.

Many years ago, working as a waitress, I had a 70-something-year-old man refer to me as “Honey.” This was not an unusual occurrence, and it honestly was not high on my list of concerns considering all of the other sexist or obnoxious things that can happen over a full day of work in the service industry. But I remember this incident in particular because the customer asked me immediately afterward if I was okay with him calling me Honey.

I genuinely hadn’t been offended by his pet name for me — and, anyway, I had food to run — but his question stunned me. The gears in my head started turning: Did he really want to know, or was this a rhetorical trap that I’d seen lain so many times, a situation where my answer was ultimately irrelevant?

If I said yes, call me Honey, I felt that I would have been allowing him to recede back into his generational inability to adapt to my era and my reality, the one where referring to women as Honey is not okay. (As Nancy Pelosi said this week about Biden, “[He] has to understand in the world that were in now… what’s important is how they receive — not necessarily how you intended it.”) After all, I couldn’t stand when men of my generation called me Honey, so why give this older guy a pass?

If I said no, that his question had actually made me realize that I’d rather have him just call me “Miss,” I felt like I would be initiating a debate that I had little interest in taking on — or worse, casting an unnecessary shadow over the pleasant lunch date he was having with a friend. Plus, the prospect of two older men mansplaining to me that I was being too sensitive was not a risk I was willing to take. Would that even happen, though? Was I not giving them the benefit of the doubt that any stranger deserved?

All of this internal dialogue was not happening in real time, but was a series of split-second deliberations informed by my previous experiences with men, influenced by how I had been raised to not make a fuss. It was all coming to a head as I was being put on the spot to say yes or no in a confrontation I would normally have avoided. Was it okay for this stranger to call me Honey or not?

Instead of saying yes or no or even giving myself time to think, I said with a shrug and a sweet smile, “I’ve been called worse.” It got the two guys to laugh, and I remember at the time feeling a huge sense of relief, like I had won that moment of my life: I patted myself on the back for sort of sticking up for myself without making it weird for anybody.

Looking back now though, I am baffled that I didn’t have the nerve to respond honestly and directly, for worrying more about the repercussions of my response. It didn’t have to be a big thing. I could’ve just said what was on my mind, especially since the customer had literally asked me what I thought. Yet, when the moment came, I could barely bring myself to give him an answer.

I think about Lucy Flores who had much more at stake than a tip or an awkward moment. She was seconds away from delivering a campaign speech, receiving unsolicited physical interaction from one of the most powerful men in the country. No one asked her whether she minded getting kissed on the head. I imagine myself as Flores, waiting backstage, and I know exactly why she couldn’t say anything then, because I know that I wouldn’t have either.

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