In the recent spate of sexual misconduct allegations, many conservatives are commending the Pence rule, Mike Pence’s personal policy of never being alone with a woman other than his wife. Proponents of this rule love it for many reasons, without seeing why it is a terrible injustice to women. Here are the reasons they love it:
They believe it prevents men from being tempted to stray (or to cheat, to harass or even rape). But they equate the mere presence of a woman with “the hint of impropriety.”
Preventing false accusations, which only constitute 2-5% of rape allegations and usually have very little consequences (given that rape allegations in general have very little consequences).
But here’s why it fails:
It holds women back by barring them from opportunity.
It assumes cishetero harassment only.
It assumes men can’t control themselves.
It equates harassing and assaulting with infidelity, not with abuse of power.
It blames victims of sexual assault.
It assumes women are liars.
It is fear-mongering about unlikely scenarios.
The Pence rule will be familiar to many of you for its Mormon iterations:
- Missionaries not being allowed in a house if there is no adult man present (even though companions were originally put in place to prevent any potential issues).
- Some Mormon men refusing to give rides to women if they will be the only two people in the car.
- The “reasons” given to bar women & men from serving together on presidencies.
And yet those rules are conveniently forgotten when it comes to a bishop meeting with a woman or teenage girl behind closed doors alone. I blogged about this issue of treating all women as suspects and infusing normal situations with abnormal sexual tension here, and here. There are real world consequences to treating all women as potential victims, assumed liars or temptations to be avoided at all cost. Any way you slice it, that’s still objectifying women.
I was at a leadership retreat many years ago, and the person leading the session asked if I needed to be excused from the assignment that they were giving out that evening for religious reasons. I thought and thought and couldn’t think of any religious objection to the assignment. The instructor said my Mormon colleague had confided in him that he couldn’t do the assignment for religious reasons. I was stumped. I really couldn’t think of a single issue based on my understanding of our shared faith. I concluded he was just looking for an excuse to get out of the assignment.
When I got back to the office I asked this colleague why he had objected to the assignment. He kind of laughed it off and said it was because it was a group assignment with both men and women working together in the evening. I had a strange look on my face so he continued to explain that he had always been cautioned to stay away from mixed gender groups “just in case.” I pointed out that all of our employees were mixed gender groups, and he agreed maybe he was just being too cautious.
When men avoid working with women, women lose opportunities. I am forced to conclude with one of the Tweeters above that men who want to follow the Pence rule should recuse themselves from public life rather than barring women from opportunities. This is one example, albeit a subtle one, of conservative political attitudes coloring our Mormon culture. Jesus didn’t tell the woman at the well to get away so nobody saw him talking to a lone woman, and he entered Martha and Mary’s house without assuming they were hell-bent on seduction.
 Some women have reported that they have been asked very intrusive sexual questions in these situations. All it takes is one pervy bishop.