Mike Pence’s Dinner Rule Is Only the Beginning

Last week the media went bananas over news that Vice President Mike Pence refuses to dine alone with any woman who is not his wife. But this information wasn’t new (it had been reported before), and it wasn’t the least bit surprising. I grew up in a conservative evangelical home and church community, and contact between men and women was often approached with a great deal of concern.

Many evangelicals hold a particularly low view of men’s ability to control their sexual drives. Women are instructed to cover up so that men will not be “tempted” with their eyes. Friendships between teenage boys and teenage girls are frequently scrutinized and viewed as inherently sexual. Christian schools and summer camps frequently segregate boys and girls to prevent contact.

Check out Pensacola Christian College’s student code of conduct:

—Male and female students may not be together in secluded locations, including behind the residence halls, in parking lots, empty classrooms, or any other secluded areas. This includes going to and from the Print Shop, PCA, or St. John Chapel.

—Physical contact between men and women (including non-students) is not allowed on or off campus.

—Men should not be in the women’s parking areas, and women should not be in the men’s parking areas.

—Because of congestion in the academic buildings, men and women use indicated elevators and stair towers.

—Students who are off campus in a mixed group  without approval, without an authorized chaperone, or in a residence or hotel room of a person of the opposite gender, are subject to being suspended or dismissed from the College. This policy includes being off campus with someone of the opposite gender who is not a student.

Note that none of these rules apply only to couples who are dating or otherwise involved. Instead, they apply to all contact between male and female students. Take that in for a moment: Evangelical concern about sexual impropriety goes so far that schools like PCC require men and women to use different stairwells to prevent any chance of private contact between members of the opposite gender.

This goes way beyond work-related meals, such as those affected by Pence’s personal rule. Many evangelicals (particularly very conservative evangelicals) do not believe that women should work outside of the home. This is partly because they believe women’s place is in the home caring for the children, but it is also because they believe it is dangerous for men and women to work together. Even those who have pragmatically accepted that many women will work outside of the home continue to express concern about the potential for sexual impropriety at the office.

As many writers pointed out last week, rules like those Pence follows contribute to a culture of sexism that holds women back in the workforce. After all, if a (male) boss is conformable around his male employees but standoffish around the female ones, because of concerns about the appearance of sexual impropriety, women will likely be comparatively overlooked when it comes to promotions or raises.

For women working in male-dominated professions, the problems with such rules (whether stated or de facto) are especially severe.

Evangelicals defend their rules over male-female contact by arguing both that male-female contact leads too easily to sexual involvement (which evangelicals believe should only occur within marriage) and that married individuals’ contact with the opposite gender can lead to them having affairs and ultimately getting divorced. in fact, these individuals sometimes argue that divorce rates have increased because of a purported increase of contact between men and women in the workplace.

I have a problem with the assumption that men and women cannot be just friends, or just coworkers. I also have a problem with the idea that marriage is so fragile that it must be protected by imposing absolute limits on extramarital male-female contact. If the only thing holding your marriage together is never being alone in a room with another person of the opposite sex, there is already something wrong with it.

Perhaps these ideas are a relic of a past where men and women were so socially segregated that male-female contact typically only occurred in a romantic or sexual context. Or perhaps these ideas reflect a sexism so severe that men are incapable of interacting with women as fellow humans. In either case, the rules become the symptom of a larger problem, rather than its solution.

Evangelicals often accuse liberals of sexualizing everything, but it is evangelicals who imbue any and all male-female contact with automatic sexual implications.

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