Last week I learned that titles like “Sexual Assault Prevention Training in the News” don’t grab readers. Maybe this week’s title will, and certainly one of the people to whom it alludes has spoken famously about grabbing.
Mainstream and not-so-mainstream media, from People and Cosmopolitan to The Washington Post and The Atlantic, have been crackling this week due to the revelation from a resurfaced 2002 Mike Pence interview that the only woman with whom Pence will dine alone is his wife, Karen Pence. (*Here are links to more coverage of this issue: The Guardian, Slate, and Canada Free Press.) As you know, Mike Pence was governor of Indiana and is now the Vice President of the United States. His level of world awareness and understanding of gender essentialism boils down to one word: cooties. Pence seems to believe that all women are temptresses and that he has limited ability to hold himself back from such temptation and infection. Therefore, he will not have a meal with any women who aren’t Karen (that’s a lot of women) and won’t hire women staffers with whom he would potentially have to meet alone in the evening hours (that’s all staffers). Jia Tolentino remarks in her The New Yorker article on the piece, “That Pence was able to do so speaks to an incredible level of inequity in the workplace; no successful woman could ever abide by the same rule. How could you sex-segregate a thrice-daily activity and still engage in civic life?”
(Pence with the only women with whom he trusts himself to interact) (http://canadafreepress.com/article/pences-dinner-arrangements-with-women)
What Pence is doing technically is not harassment, but discrimination. He is discriminating against all women and limiting their professional advancement because he is afraid that he will harass them. Actually, that gives Pence too much credit. I’m guessing he is just afraid that he is too weak not to have sex with all of these women who so obviously will be throwing themselves at him because he is so desirable.
Tolentino states that Christian evangelicals often invoke the “Billy Graham rule,” which, Tolentino writes, is a refusal to “eat, travel, or meet along with a woman” and which “stems from a story that the famous pastor told about walking into a hotel room and finding a naked woman, bent on destroying his ministry, sprawled across his bed.” While Tolentino appropriately detects some hyperbole in this account, it might be helpful to imagine the gender roles reversed. What if a famous woman minister returned to her hotel room after a night of preaching to the masses and found a naked man sprawled on her bed? I hardly think she would have the luxury of separating herself from all encounters with men in order to avoid scandal. This version of the story would likely have her limiting encounters with this individual man out of fear of assault, not out of fear of scandal. Of course, the Billy Graham rule also seems to limit contact with any non-Christians, thus violating Title VII based on not only gender, but also religion.
Pence’s ego drives the decision to discriminate, just as Trump’s drives him to harass and assault. (*See The New York Times’ transcript of Donald Trump’s comments about women.) As you can see, we have here not the Tale of Two Harassers, but a White House of virulently white, pro-Christian, pro-male men. Pence castigates women (limits hiring, work access, and promotion of women in high-level government) because he doesn’t trust himself, and Trump speaks of violating women because they are mere objects for his consumption. Again, Pence alienates women with a weird version of pedestal politics: his wife Karen is somehow pure through her singular connection to him, but all other women are just Biblical temptress bots. Trump alienates women by verbally and physically harassing them individually and en masse, thus training women to raise red flags around him, while also cementing their place as the non-hireables. These two powerful men distance those who are unlike them (non-white; non-man; non-Christian) and, in particular, privilege their power in the public sphere over everything else.
As I write in Gender Shrapnel, these behaviors have broad implications for people of color, non-Christians, and women as individuals and as members of specific groups. Individuals who experience the Pence-type discrimination and/or the Trump-branded harassment are limited in their horizontal movements, that is, their movement through the work day. These individuals won’t be invited to power lunches or golf games, where networking and decision-making take place, and they might have to actively avoid a harasser whose physical presence threatens, looms, and impedes work production. Discriminatory and harassing behaviors also suppress vertical movement, or the ability to advance in the workplace through good work, collaboration, and professionalism. Members of groups offered protections under Title VII law can sense themselves as further limited by a group identification (or, importantly, a perceived group identification) that is undervalued or even actively discriminated against. The Title VII protections are often difficult to enact, especially in conservative judicial districts in many areas of the United States. Nothing like having the White House be the beacon of bad (and illegal) behavior.
It was the worst of times; it was the worst of times.
(But at least we have late-night comedy and The Onion: http://www.theonion.com/article/mike-pence-asks-waiter-remove-mrs-butterworth-tabl-55661)