Conservatives will not stop pushing the ‘Pence rule’ as a solution to sexual harassment

Instead of telling people not to masturbate in front of their coworkers, conservatives suggest men avoid women.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence speaks during a news conference at the Republican Governors Association annual conference Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2015, in Las Vegas. CREDIT: AP/Chase Stevens)
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence speaks during a news conference at the Republican Governors Association annual conference Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2015, in Las Vegas. CREDIT: AP/Chase Stevens)

As stories of powerful men masturbating in front of women, forcibly kissing and groping women, and forcing teenage girls’ heads into their crotch have gained national attention, it’s sparked widespread conversation about how to prevent sexual harassment and assault.

The solution seems obvious: The best way to prevent sexual harassment and sexual assault of women and girls is for men not to sexually harass and assault women and girls. But conservatives appear to be less interested in finding ways to teach men how to co-exist with women, who comprise 47 percent of the U.S. labor force, than discussing how best to avoid women altogether.

In particular, conservative writers are increasingly focused on the “Mike Pence rule,” pointing out that Vice President Mike Pence does not eat dinner alone with women who are not his wife and does not go to events where alcohol is being served when his wife is not present. Pence first revealed this detail in a Washington Post article published in March.

On Friday, the National Review published a piece with the headline, “In the Age of Sexual Misconduct, How is Mike Pence a Problem?” The writer, David French, insists that this rule is not about suggesting that men will assault women if they are alone with them — but, as he continues to lay out his argument, he refers to the motivations behind the rule as “an accurate view of man’s fallen nature.”

French argues that people are sometimes attracted to each other in professional settings, regardless of their marital status. He doesn’t explain why those people, regardless of their gender or marital status, can’t be expected to exercise judgement. French also ignores the reality that men are capable of harassing other men and women are capable of harassing other women. Do men never meet with other men alone? Must bisexual people always have a third party present when meeting with anyone they work with?

French goes on to write that abiding by such a rule “protects both sides from” reputational harm, suggesting that high-profile men must always worry about women lying about them.

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.

What starts tongues wagging is not the actual fact of a man and women sitting alone together. It is the perpetuation of heterosexist assumptions about how men and women must interact and the misogynistic idea that men cannot be interested in the friendship, intellect, or skills of women.

The fear that people are carelessly making allegations against men out of bitterness or simply or for fun looks pretty silly when you consider the risks people take in reporting harassment.

As part of a 2016 survey, women told Harvard Business Review they were worried about retaliation from their harasser or the organization they work for if they reported. Women have a lot of reasons to ignore or downplay harassment, whether it happens to them or someone else because it seen as the price women have to pay for excelling in a male-dominated workplace, according to HBR.

French’s third reason for supporting the Pence rule is to protect women against “actual predators.” French writes, “Moreover, corporate implementation of the rule is like a flashing sign that says, ‘This workplace aims to be safe and professional.'” I’d argue that an alternative and far more productive way to flash a sign that a workplace aims to be safe and professional is by reminding its employees of its sexual harassment policy, asking for feedback and questions on that policy, and considering ways to strengthen that policy.

When men write about fixes such as the Pence rule, they forget that there actually is existing research on the subject of sexual harassment and none of it suggests that men should stop meeting with women. Experts on organizational psychology say employers need to have clear policies on harassment, provide assurances that this reporting harassment will not be retaliated against, and explain what retaliation is, give employees confidentiality of complaints, if possible, and explain to employees how to report harassment.

But French is not alone in his focus on the “Pence rule” in the midst of sexual harassment allegations. In October, former deputy assistant to President Donald Trump, Sebastian Gorka, tweeted the alleged instances of sexual assault and harassment that dozens of women say Harvey Weinstein committed could have been avoided if Weinstein simply didn’t meet with women one-on-one at all — referring to Pence’s rule.

At the time, several male journalists joined in to say they supported the Pence rule as well.

Josh Barro, a senior editor at Business Insider, argued the problem was office happy hours that “blur the lines between business and leisure.” Politico labor editor Timothy Noah said companies should take a “small, practical step to limit sexual harassment” by making it a fireable offense to hold a closed door meeting.

Women and men responded to Noah to tell him that this step was neither small nor practical. When people pointed out that someone may want to talk about an issue privately with a colleague because it is a sensitive matter, Noah said the solution was to speak quietly. When taken to this conclusion, it becomes clear just how absurd the “Pence rule” is in practice.

Not only is it absurd, but it is also deeply harmful to the careers of women in the workplace. When men avoid women for fear of looking “improper” or for fear that they can’t control themselves, they deprive women of opportunities to gain sponsors in their careers and to build better working relationships with colleagues and supervisors.