Caitlyn Caruso always felt weird about the time she met Joe Biden. In April 2016, after Caruso shared her story about being a sexual assault survivor at an anti-rape event with Biden, she was seated with him at a table backstage. Caruso, who was a college student at the time, said the vice president placed his hand on her thigh long enough to make her uncomfortable.
Caruso is one of several women who’ve gone public in recent days with stories about Biden making them feel uneasy. (A Biden spokesman did not respond to Bustle's detailed request for comment for this article.) A long-simmering discussion about the former vice president’s behavior toward women in public settings came to a boil after a politician from Caruso’s home state of Nevada, Lucy Flores, wrote an essay for The Cut that described Biden giving her an unwanted kiss and smelling her hair at a political event. Several sexual assault survivors-turned-activists tell Bustle that there's always been tension within their advocacy community around Biden’s interactions with women, and they’re only now publicly sharing concerns they’ve voiced amongst themselves.
“I think that a lot of people are scared to say something because he is so big in the survivor world, he is so big when it comes to funding survivor organizations,” Caruso, now 22, tells Bustle. “It’s almost like there is this unspoken rule, you can’t go after Uncle Joe.”
This week, Biden vowed in a video posted to Twitter that he would be more respectful about personal space going forward. He did not apologize to the women who’ve said their encounters with him made them uncomfortable. Since Flores’ essay, women who’ve worked closely with Biden, including former staff, lawmakers, and friends, have said that they find his affectionate style “endearing” and that he uses physical touch in attempts to make others feel comfortable. These defenders also noted that Biden was instrumental in pushing for new protections of campus rape victims, has condemned men accused of serial predation, and was the force behind passing the Violence Against Women Act.
Yet in interviews with Bustle, nine survivor activists said that concerns among their community about Biden’s behavior were an “open secret,” and that they frequently spoke amongst themselves about how uncomfortable they had been in interactions with him — but they never knew what to say or do about it. He was not only vice president of the United States, but a champion of their cause, and they were young adults who struggled to understand whether his interactions with them were normal.
“It’s not cut and dry,” Sage Carson, a survivor activist who attended the University of Delaware, in Biden’s home state, tells Bustle. “It’s not simple, but it’s uncomfortable, it’s demeaning, and it’s patronizing.”
Carson was among 50 sexual assault survivors who joined Lady Gaga on stage at the 2016 Oscars for a performance of a song written for a documentary about campus rape; Biden introduced the group. Carson recalled that she was overcome with emotion after the performance, and still in tears when she went backstage.
“[Biden] saw that and grabbed the back of my neck and started speaking to me, and was very physically affectionate,” Carson says. “He was very close and didn’t ask if we were comfortable.”
Another woman who appeared onstage at the same Oscars event, Sofie Karasek, told the Washington Post that when Biden pressed his forehead against hers in an attempt to console her, she found it awkward and uncomfortable. A third woman at the Oscars gathering, survivor-activist and podcast host Wagatwe Wanjuki, tells Bustle that Biden held her hands for “an uncomfortable” amount of time when she met him there.
Vail Kohnert-Yount, who was a White House intern in spring 2013, said in a statement first reported by The Washington Post that Biden once introduced himself to her in the West Wing, then put his hand on the back of her head, pressed his forehead to hers, and told her she was a “pretty girl.” Three people tell Bustle that Kohnert-Yount told them her account of her encounter with Biden shortly after it happened. Two of them were fellow White House interns.
“I was embarrassed that he commented on my appearance at work, even though it was intended as a compliment,” Kohnert-Yount, now a 28-year-old Harvard Law student, said in the statement, also shared with Bustle. “I was worried that colleagues would think I was unprofessional, even though I was just trying to follow directions. I was wondering if this was normal workplace behavior, even though he was the second most powerful man in the country and I was a student intern. But women are taught to laugh these things off, so that's what I did.”
Cable news pundits and Democratic operatives have suggested that women are coming forward for political reasons, as Biden prepares to launch a presidential campaign. But multiple women tell Bustle that they were motivated to say something now in part due to Biden’s recent comments about his role in handling allegations of sexual harassment against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Several survivor-activists said that after watching Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination hearing a few months ago, it’s been harder to brush back their concerns that Biden, as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991, failed to call witnesses to Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations against Thomas, and did not intervene to halt insensitive questioning of Hill.
At a recent event for It’s On Us, a national campus sexual assault awareness campaign, Biden addressed Hill in a speech: “To this day, I regret that I could not come up with a way to get her the kind of hearing she deserved, given the courage she showed by reaching out to us.”
“It’s easy for us to idolize our progressive allies, but Biden put Anita Hill through hell and has still not apologized,” Caruso says. “I think he forgets he was the chair of the hearing and he actually could have done something.”
Wanjuki tells Bustle that it “feels like betrayal” to see Biden duck responsibility for how he handled Hill’s hearing.
“Has he been doing all this work to make himself feel better,” she says, “or has he been doing this work because he truly understands it?”
None of the women who spoke with Bustle say they think Biden should be banished from public life. Instead, many say that Biden should listen carefully to this wave of criticism, and that the public should allow for a nuanced discussion about his interactions with women.
“Joe Biden's heart may be in the right place, but we have to ask more from our leaders,” Kohnert-Yount tells Bustle. “We need Joe Biden to set a better example, and we especially need the people around him to ask that of him.”