on the mike pence dining option, and why feminists are expressing criticism

on the mike pence dining option, and why feminists are expressing criticism March 31, 2017

In the flurry of debate arising about Mike Pence’s rules for association with women other than his wife, a few interesting topics have emerged that have nothing to do with the Pences or politics or their marriage. Media bias may be an issue in the backlash against Pence, yes, but for many of us who have expressed concerns, it’s not about Pence per se.

True, his rules are not my rules, and if someone told me I needed to adopt them, I would find them both ridiculous and hampering. A working woman sometimes has occasion to meet with men. A woman in academia probably has a number of male friends, too. In fact, I would venture to suggest that mature, developed personhood involves an array of friendships with people of different sexes, ages, and backgrounds. Sometimes you meet a friend for coffee. Sometimes your friend is male. Sometimes you attend a function with alcoholic beverages. There you may converse, debate, banter, and prevaricate, and strangely enough this does not lead to sex, nor even to the desire for sex. The suggestion that such encounters might be occasions for licentiousness introduces an element of impropriety that was never there before the suggestion was made – just as the “modesty police” introduce an element of impropriety by treating female bodies as sexual objects. Everything was correct and human, until the perv – ahem, I mean prude – came along. And yes, sometimes people cheat. But the occasions for this are not going to be eliminated by eradicating any possibility for social one-on-one.

But, again, this isn’t about Pence.

The issue I have is with those such as Matt Walsh and a host of his internet echoes, who have accepted that what Pence expressed as a personal choice should be normative, or even required, for all couples. Here’s why.

  1. It presupposes that men are predatory. If you think a man can’t meet with a woman one-on-one without being driven to lechery, you must think men are indiscriminate sex-fiends. If you’re a man and think this, perhaps you yourself are an indiscriminate sex-fiend, but you shouldn’t project your own weakness onto other men who may be sexually ethical, sexually finicky, sexually tepid, uninterested in women, or otherwise ill-disposed towards indiscriminate sex fiendishness.
  2. It reduces women simply to sexual objects. If men can’t meet with women without suffering temptation, this means women are being regarded on the ontological level of, say, a beer that tempts an alcoholic. Understandable, to protect an alcoholic, not to have beer around him, but women are not beer, nor any other sort of beverage, and one can’t justly and humanely excise women from society, as one can nix the alcohol from the beverage menu. Though, sadly enough, for much of human history, that’s exactly what was done: bring in the wine, boot out the women.
  3. It presupposes that the only relationship possible between men and women is of a sexual nature. And this presupposition, especially, frustrates me, because from a very young age I have had deep, personal, and enjoyable friendships with the opposite sex. My first best friend was a boy. In my teens, as a ranch girl, I spent much of my working hours with men. Getting two philosophy degrees meant my academic peers were mostly male. Of course, once in a while, there was a crush or a romance along the way, but that’s natural and normal for the age. As one gets older, one develops, increasingly, the capacity to form rich asexual relationships, and to cherish a wide variety of associates whose perspectives and humor make life more interesting.
  4. It discounts the whole element of consent. I have, on several occasions, encountered the phenomenon of a man keeping a woman at what I consider to be an inappropriate and awkward distance, in order to “protect his marriage.” But how could his marriage be threatened by proximity to another woman, unless a) he just assumes that the other woman will be willing; or b) the threat is already there in his inability to be happy with his wife? If a man refuses to meet with me because I might lure him away, I find this insulting. It is insulting for him to reduce me to a sex object, insulting for him to so discount my capacity for consent as to assume that we would simply fall into each other’s arms, as soon as his rigid, manly control disintegrated before my sensual wiles.
  5. It accepts a professional world in which it is possible for a man to rise to one of the highest levels of career success without ever having to meet one on one with a woman. Now, flip the script here: what if I, as a woman, embarked on an academic career with such a rule in mind regarding men? It would be absurd, because every single academic adviser I ever had – every single thesis director – every single dean, department head, or university president – was male. If I have a business meeting or a job interview it will almost certainly be with a man. A rule like Pence’s, if taken as normative, would guarantee a granite ceiling of male privilege through which no woman could ever hope to break.

Now, several people have said that it is hypocritical to take issue both with Trump’s pussy-grabbing and with Pence’s dining rules – as though it’s a trend to attack right-wingers, whether they’re being predatory or chivalrous.

Several have said that those who criticize Pence are hypocritical in having given Bill Clinton a pass for much more egregious sexism (note: all my Pence-criticizing feminist friends are even harsher on Bill Clinton. It’s great what intellectual independence can do!).

One comment even suggested that women be offered a choice between Pence’s rules for segregation, versus Bill Clinton’s type of one-on-one. As though this were the only reality available for men: avoid women, or coerce them into giving oral pleasure. Of course, for women, if this were our only choice, we’d probably take the Pence Option. But we’re savvy enough to know this dichotomy ridiculous, except for in the case of fellows we’d rather not spend time with, anyway.

Again let me reiterate: I do not have a moral issue with Pence’s rules: his marriage, his business. And yes, it is important for couples to create whatever boundaries are necessary, for the flourishing of their marriage and protection of their family. The parameters of these boundaries will differ from one couple to the next.

But I do think that a culture with accepts Pence’s rules as normative is actually no less sexist than the one that accepts Trump’s locker room talk as natural. In fact, the two cultures are the same. If you think that just grabbing them and kissing them is the natural male way to act, you’re left with either the Trump Option or the Pence Option – Bad Sexist or Good Sexist. Evil Knight who Captures Damsel, or Good Knight that Rescues Her. Sure, the Good Knight is a better character, but speaking as a Damsel, I’d rather get on my own horse and just ride out of the paradigm.

(In the meantime, based on certain comments on the internet, I know now whom NOT to dine with)

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