Politics & Policy

In the Age of Sexual Misconduct, How Is Mike Pence a Problem?

Mike Pence at the first 2016 presidential campaign debate, September 2016. (Reuters photo: Mike Segar)
The ‘Pence rule’ and its variations reflect an accurate view of human nature.

A funny thing happened on the road to common sense, rationality, and respect for women. Mike Pence somehow became a villain again.

In the month since the New York Times and The New Yorker exposed Harvey Weinstein as one of America’s more grotesque sexual predators, we’ve seen the sad reality that sexual misconduct knows no ideological or religious boundaries, and we’ve now understood that it’s far more widespread than many (men, at least) ever knew. Women are describing the workplace as a minefield, and some industries (entertainment and politics) seem to be particularly rife with abuse. What’s a person to do?

This brings us back to Mike Pence. As was famously explained in a Washington Post profile of Karen Pence, the vice president doesn’t dine alone with women or attend events where alcohol is served without his wife by his side. It’s a variation on a limitation that’s extraordinarily common in Christian circles — particularly in high-profile Christian ministries — and it’s not that different from limitations outlined by none other than the Left’s favorite American writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates. Here’s Coates writing powerfully in The Atlantic:

I’ve been with my spouse for almost 15 years. In those years, I’ve never been with anyone but the mother of my son. But that’s not because I am an especially good and true person. In fact, I am wholly in possession of an unimaginably filthy and mongrel mind. But I am also a dude who believes in guard-rails, as a buddy of mine once put it. I don’t believe in getting “in the moment” and then exercising will-power. I believe in avoiding “the moment.” I believe in being absolutely clear with myself about why I am having a second drink, and why I am not; why I am going to a party, and why I am not. I believe that the battle is lost at Happy Hour, not at the hotel. I am not a “good man.” But I am prepared to be an honorable one.

Put me with Pence and Coates. I also have rules. I’ll have lunch alone with female colleagues, but in more than 20 years of marriage, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve had dinner alone with a woman not my wife. And I’ve managed that without ever disadvantaging or discriminating against any woman I worked for or with. I have other rules as well. For example, I travel quite a bit, but when I’m traveling alone I don’t eat or sit at bars — especially hotel bars — unless there is no other place to sit.

I have those rules not because I think that without guardrails I’m going to assault someone, but because I understand human nature and because I respect women. I don’t want any woman to feel like I’m putting her in an uncomfortable or compromising position. This may come as a surprise to critics of the Pence rule, but there are quite a few women who don’t want to dine alone with male bosses. There are quite a few women who believe that dinner (especially with drinks) is unnecessarily intimate and that business can be conducted in the office or with other colleagues present.

But don’t tell that to Pence’s critics. This week Christianity Today’s Katelyn Beatty took to the pages of the New York Times to write “The Christian Case Against the Pence Rule.” Given her intelligence and theological knowledge, I was surprised to see this paragraph:

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. 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.” If that’s the case, we have far deeper problems around men and power than any personal conduct rule can solve.

No, no, no. Let’s break this down in the simplest terms possible. The Pence rule (or its variations) arises from an accurate view of man’s fallen nature. In this context, it means three things.

First, when men and women are alone — especially at night, especially with drinks — there is a far greater chance of mutual or one-sided attraction (not assault) than when they’re in groups or in professional settings. Even if they don’t intend the attraction. Even if they’re happily married. If you doubt this reality then, well, I don’t know what to tell you. Spend any time in professional settings, and you’ll understand that workplace attraction happens, and when it happens it tends to happen not in the midst of conference calls but rather in those settings that get far more personal and less professional.

Second, variations of the Pence rule protect both sides from reputational harm. It’s a simple fact that observing a married man alone at dinner with a woman other than his wife can start tongues wagging, and it’s also a fact that leaders of Christian ministries have often had to take extreme measures to protect against intentional sabotage of their reputations. I know leaders who never travel alone in part because of actual past hostile attempts to place them in compromising positions (with photographic evidence). If we should understand anything in 2017 it’s that our politics is vicious and poisonous. The more high-profile you become, the more careful you should be.

Third, surprise, surprise but there are actual predators out there, and women who operate under some version of the Pence rule gain an additional layer of protection. Moreover, corporate implementation of the rule is like a flashing sign that says, “This workplace aims to be safe and professional.”

Beatty says, “All the people I know who keep the rule are men.” This is yet another puzzling statement. Every Christian ministry I know that imposes the rule on its employees does so without regard to gender, and these are ministries that employ multiple powerful women. In fact, almost every powerful Christian woman I know keeps a version of the Pence rule.

But here’s where critics of the Pence rule have a point. If you’re in a position of authority, you should endeavor to create a workplace where equal opportunity is evident and gender-based favoritism is absent. It is unfair to take Luke out for dinner and never take out Laura. The better approach is to keep business matters in business settings, and that includes when it’s late and folks need to eat.

It’s getting wearisome to see a public debate that calls out human failings without grappling with human frailty.

It’s getting wearisome to see a public debate that calls out human failings without grappling with human frailty. Those of us who fully recognize human frailty are far more likely to avoid human failings than those who blunder through life thinking people “should” act respectfully, only to find out — time and again — that they don’t and won’t. We can ask and expect that people behave better, but we should also know and understand that many people won’t. True sexual predators don’t give a flying flip about cultural norms, and no amount of “awareness” will make them better people.

So why not expect that businesses will erect safeguards? Why not take greater comfort in those people who actually understand that man is fallen and broadcast that men and women won’t be placed in uncomfortable situations at work? If Christian conservative Mike Pence and atheist progressive Ta-Nehisi Coates can both see an obvious truth, I wonder whose view of the sexes is “broken.”

Finally, let’s at least be honest enough to understand that everyone draws lines. I daresay that even some of the loudest critics of the Pence rule have their own standards. Will they meet alone in hotel rooms? Especially after the Weinstein revelations? I’m not arguing that the Pence rule should be the dogmatic norm (after all, my personal rules are slightly more liberal than his), but if professional America doesn’t start erring on the side of caution in the relationship between the sexes, it will broadcast loudly and clearly that it has learned nothing over the last month, and what has happened before will all happen again.


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