Christian author Katelyn Beaty recently published an opinion piece in The New York Times titled, A Christian Case Against the Pence Rule. In it, Katelyn critiques the gender-relations etiquette of Vice President Mike Pence. Pence prefers to avoid meeting one-on-one with women other than his wife. While I agree with Katelyn that this stance can be taken to a legalistic extreme, and that it can be impractical and even ridiculous in some situations, I disagree about the motives behind it and the message it sends to women.
Following the epic fall-from-grace of Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein, some Christians and conservatives have advocated that this Pencean etiquette be adopted as a cultural norm. While others on the left have accused Pence of being old fashioned, prudish, and even sexist, they can’t deny that it’s extremely unlikely he’ll ever be accused of a scandal if he faithfully maintains such stringent standards.
“The very same left-wing activists and Hollywood stars now running away from Harvey Weinstein were assailing Mike Pence for having a rule of not dining alone or taking meetings alone with women,” remarked Erick Erickson, a conservative commentator. “The media and the left savaged Mike Pence for his principled stand, but they will never run stories about Mike Pence sexually harassing women.”
As Katelyn points out, variations on The Pence Rule are common among Evangelicals. For example, back in the day, Pastor Billy Graham required himself and his team to avoid eating, traveling, or meeting alone with any women other than their wives. Was Pastor Graham ever entangled in a tawdry sex scandal? Nope. That’s not just because Pastor Graham had conservative manners though, but because he wasn’t a sexual predator. It should be noted that many men, even very high-profile pastors, still fall headlong into ugly sin. So, let’s take a closer look at manners, what they ideally mean, and how they should be interpreted.
1. The difference between gentlemen and pigs.
I agree with Katelyn that good manners won’t stop perverts. If we lived in an alternate universe where prudish rules were the norm, Harvey Wienstein would have been required by society and expected by women to never arrange to be alone with them. His grotesque sexploits would have been severely hampered. Many of his victims would likely have gotten the wind up sooner. Had he persisted with his proclivities publicly, he’d have landed himself in jail. However, we don’t live in that universe. We live in a world where people are stubbornly sinful, society trends toward moral decay, narcissism is reaching epidemic proportions, and there are a lot of evil people who get away with far too much because they’re rich and powerful.
Contrary to Katelyn’s stance though, I would say that this makes manly manners all the more mandatory. After all, good manners and considerate etiquette do make it easier for women to distinguish gentlemen from pigs. Wise and socially-savvy gentlemen understand that there are a whole lot of rotten creeps in the world. They take extra steps to make women feel comfortable. In the interest of putting a woman at ease, a gentleman might ensure that when he meets with her, it’s in a group setting, or he may make other provisions to make it clear that he’s not “coming on to” her. This is not misogyny, it is courtesy. It is not sexist or condescending, but thoughtful, humble, and respectful. A gentleman is not so proud that he assumes a woman should trust him.
2. Women aren’t mind-altering whores of Babylon. Men aren’t rabid sexaholics.
Katelyn says, “The Pence rule arises from a broken view of the sexes: Men are lustful beasts that must be contained, while women are objects of desire that must be hidden away.”
Katelyn has had unpleasant experiences with some very awkward men. I do not say that to cast doubt on her judgement. I myself have experienced similar situations. In her article, she recalls an instance when she met with two men who seemed to view her femininity as a threat to their reputations and integrity. They banded together to breakfast with her, and their brotherly solidarity as a safeguard against her gender was painfully graceless. In another instance, she shared the story of a female friend who injured her back on a business trip, but whose male coworker refused to enter her hotel room to pick up her luggage for her. That is ridiculous.
To be sure, when taken to this extreme, one wonders whether a man’s legalistic standards are mere religious hoopla, or a precautionary measure against predatory proclivities. Like the recovered alcoholic who avoids entering bars, do some men avoid being alone with women due to real and dangerous temptations? If so, such men should be encouraged to avoid eating, traveling, or meeting alone with women. However, I tend to doubt that this is the most common motivation behind such behavior.
Like Katelyn, I have encountered men, both Christian and non, who would exclaim along with Adam, “The woman made me do it!” You see, some men tend to blame women for their sexual sin problems. They view women as walking, talking, Pandora’s boxes of contagious wickedness and stupefying temptation. While some women are seductive and immoral, I have yet to meet a human being who is capable of mind-control. No matter how beautiful or conniving a female may be, a man’s sins are yet his own. He is not a dumb animal that reflexively succumbs to baser instincts of breeding and raping as soon as he’s alone with a woman. He has willpower, a brain, and buttons on his pants.
If a man avoids one-on-one situations with women because he thinks they’re going to transform him into a raging sex-maniac, he’s either an idiot or extremely dangerous. Either way, it’s best to avoid him.
3. A different conclusion.
“Offering the Pence rule as a solution to male predation is like saying, ‘I can’t meet with you one on one, otherwise I might eventually assault you.’” Katelyn says.
This is where Katelyn and I disagree. I don’t believe that The Pence Rule exists because Mike Pence thinks he’s a reckless pervert with an inner-rapist just waiting to jump out. I don’t think that Pence believes women should be hidden away in sitting rooms or underneath burqas. I don’t think Billy Graham felt this way either. True, there are some men who really do operate this way, but in the Western World and Biblical Christianity, they’re thankfully a fringe minority.
Katelyn concludes that, “The answer is not to ask women to leave the room. It’s to hold all men in the room accountable.”
I agree. However, I would postulate that the reason most men like Pence avoid meeting women alone is because they are holding themselves accountable. They are not asking women to leave the room or the workplace. Rather, they are providing their female counterpart with witnesses and advocates should she feel uncomfortable. They are ruling out the possibility that women need ever fear a he-said-she-said situation. If a woman is married, they are safeguarding her marriage by not giving her husband any reason to grow suspicious or jealous. For some, holding men accountable means ensuring that women need never worry about even the appearance of impropriety, or the possibility of unwanted sexual advances. This is not misogyny or sexism, and it should never be construed as such.
Featured Photo: A screen capture from the film, Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925), courtesy of the Library of Congress.