Last week a Washington Post article revealed that Vice President Mike Pence never eats alone with a woman other than his wife, and will not be at an event where alcohol is served unless she’s there too. Conservatives praised this arrangement for helping the couple keep their commitment to each other and avoiding the appearance of scandal. Liberals mocked it as indicative of yet another Republican who wants to control other people but who can’t control himself without resorting to extraordinary measures.
I can’t imagine living under Pence’s restrictions. Lots of work gets done over dinner – I dine with professional and religious colleagues on a regular basis, and many of them are women. While my wife comes to some of our CUUPS circles, she isn’t interested in Pagan conferences and retreats. I frequently travel with friends and some of them are women. The fact that we share a hotel room doesn’t mean we’re having an affair – it means we follow the same spiritual path and we like splitting travel expenses. That some people think otherwise (and worse, some of those people are Pagans) amazes and annoys me.
Two years ago I contributed an essay to an anthology titled Pagan Consent Culture – Building Communities of Empathy and Autonomy. In it I said:
A culture of consent keeps the Pagan concepts that sex is natural, right, and good, and that the human body is beautiful and wondrous in all its many forms. It adds one and only one qualification, but that qualification is an absolute requirement: each person must give their consent, and that consent must be free, clear, informed, and unambiguous.
Consent culture is more than “no means no” and “yes means yes,” though these concepts are critically important. Consent culture means we value each person’s sovereignty and integrity more than we value having sex with them. It means we value colleagues and co-workers for their professional skills, not for their potential as sex partners. It means we value keeping our commitments to our partners and respecting the commitments others have made to their partners more than we value some new sexual encounter.
Consent culture says that sex is great, but there are things that are far more important than sex.
Marriage: one size does NOT fit all
Every relationship is different and all successful couples sooner or later figure out what works for them.
I have a friend who says the secret to their long-running marriage is the freedom to have short term affairs. I’ve never tried that, but I don’t think it would work for me. I’m fine with monogamy. I’m not fine with clingy, possessive, jealous monogamy – I couldn’t be in a long-term relationship with someone who got upset because I had dinner with a female friend.
Part of consent culture is negotiating the boundaries of a relationship. It’s learning to articulate what you need and what you want, and it’s responding to the needs and wants of your partner (or partners, in the case of a polyamorous relationship, with which I have no experience and therefore will not comment on). Needs and wants change and it’s not just OK to re-negotiate the boundaries from time to time, it’s absolutely necessary. But the time for re-negotiation is before you make changes, not after your partner catches you in bed with a neighbor.
So if Mike and Karen Pence’s dining restrictions work for them, I’m happy for them.
Men have to work with women exactly as they work with men
A lot of business gets done over dinner, particularly at high levels where the work day never really ends. What happens if an aide to the Vice President says “the proposal you wanted is done, let’s talk about it over dinner”? If the aide is male, business goes on. If the aide is female, business comes to a halt. That makes it much less likely Pence will hire female aides. That’s not fair to the women applying for those jobs, and it’s not fair for the country to be deprived of their service.
As Vice President, Mike Pence is President of the Senate. What if there are sensitive negotiations in process and Senator Susan Collins (Republican from Maine) needs a private meeting with him? Will Pence allow his marital restrictions to keep him from doing the work he was elected to do?
In a consent culture, Pence would see Susan Collins first and foremost not as a woman but as a United States Senator concerned with the people’s business. He would do business as Vice President to Senator and I am virtually certain that would occupy the entirety of their meeting. The same would be true when working with aides, advisors, other members of government, and ordinary people.
If a man can’t work with women in the same way he works with men, he can’t do his job. If he can’t do his job, he shouldn’t be in that job.
Avoiding sex scandals
Let’s be honest – this isn’t just about Mike Pence’s noble efforts to keep his promises to his wife. The public loves a good sex scandal, particularly when it involves socially conservative politicians who like to legislate other people’s morals.
On the other hand, the public didn’t care very much about Donald Trump’s affairs, failed marriages, and sexual harassment. Hypocrisy – not infidelity – is the greater sin.
Still, Pence is a conservative politician from a conservative state. Photos of him with an unidentified woman would be used by political opponents to say “see, he’s a liar and a hypocrite – vote for me instead!”
In a consent culture, people would see a man having dinner with a woman and assume they both like the food at that particular restaurant. Maybe they’re talking business. Maybe they’re old friends.
If dinner really was a prelude to sex, they’d assume everyone was good with that – including the absent spouse(s) – because that’s how people behave in a consent culture. And so nobody would care about something that was none of their business… unless you happen to collect pictures of Vice Presidents eating dinner.
Fixed gender roles inhibit honest friendships
There are many reasons why marriages end in divorce. One of the most common is expecting your spouse to be things they can’t be. “You complete me” and “you’re my everything” may sound romantic, but they’re horribly unrealistic. No one person can be all that to anyone – expecting it is a recipe for failure.
Traditionally, people were expected to get their sexual and romantic needs filled through their spouse… except for rich men, for whom having a mistress or three was OK. The rich have always played by different rules than ordinary people. Other relationship needs were supposed to be filled by friends of the same gender.
But that assumes everyone of the same gender has the same wants and needs. What if none of your same-gender friends are interested in something that’s important to you? My wife doesn’t want to go to Pagan gatherings with me, but if I limit my choice of traveling companions to men, I’ll end up going alone much of the time. And some of my women friends will end up not going at all. That doesn’t help anyone.
A consent culture recognizes that people are different and fixed gender roles don’t work for everyone. Let’s treat people as individuals and not try to shove them into pink and blue boxes.
This is what patriarchy brings
Consent culture would make Mike Pence’s life so much easier. He could have dinner with who he wants and who he needs to do business with and questions of sexual impropriety would never come up.
But Mike Pence is a product of patriarchy, a culture run by men for men, where women are viewed first and foremost as objects to be possessed, protected, and controlled. A culture where gender non-conformity confuses men (“I need to know on sight if you’re someone I can have sex with, even if I’m not supposed to have sex with anyone but my wife”) and therefore must be outlawed. A culture that fears gay men will treat patriarchs the same way patriarchs treat women.
Mike Pence is a product of patriarchy and he has a long track record of using his considerable power to preserve and expand patriarchy in the United States. I hope and pray he serves one term as Vice President and then fades into obscurity, but unless we replace patriarchy with consent culture, another Pence-like politician will take his place.
Patriarchy is the disease. Consent culture is the cure.