I’ve been listening in on a lot of conversations about Mike Pence’s decision not to eat alone with another woman.
They covered all sorts of territory: Can men and women have close relationships? Does being “above reproach” mean maintaining your reputation at any cost or doing the right thing no matter who’s looking or not looking? Are all male/female relationships one hop, skip, and a jump from adultery? Is it reasonable to fear a loose women might try to destroy your career?
I grew up in a culture where male/female friendships were frowned upon, where I felt uncomfortable with a dad driving me home after babysitting his kids, where this Billy Graham rule of never being alone with a person of the opposite sex made perfect sense. I’d never thought all the way through the implications of a man making this “rule” his own, and I’d never heard the stories I did during these conversations — men moving their desks outside of an office to avoid sharing it with a woman; women never getting mentorship or advancing in their field because they could never privately meet with their male supervisors; women awkwardly listening in as a husband dialed his wife: “Hey, I am in the car with another woman alone right now — just so you know.”
Many women shared how demeaned, sexualized, ignored, excluded, and distrusted they felt when men declined to meet with them one-on-one for business, mentorship, or friendship.
One of the big reasons men follow the Billy Graham rule is protect themselves against the end of their careers and reputations because of rumored misconduct.
My take on it is this: I get wanting to protect yourself from false accusations.
I’m a teacher, and we have rules about being alone with students, particularly in a bathroom, both to protect against child abuse and to protect teachers from false accusations that could destroy their career and reputation. We don’t have that rule because teachers feel like they couldn’t control their sexual urges around children; it’s mostly for reputation’s sake.
A safeguard designed to protect both children’s well-being and teachers’ reputations seems reasonable. Likewise, a safeguard designed to protect both the well-being and the reputation of two people of the opposite sex seems reasonable to me.
But where I would take issue with that sentiment is if it began to interfere with one’s work or to exclude women from networking, mentorships, or just plain doing their jobs.
Not all women are temptresses waiting to seduce a man. The Billy Graham rule came about not because he lunched with a trusted female co-worker but because a naked woman broke into his hotel room. A woman building a professional relationship over a lunch outing or discussing company business over a coffee break is not remotely similar to a woman lounging nakedly on a hotel bed.
It comes down to this: Not all one-on-one meals or conversation with someone of the opposite sex are sexual in nature. Honestly, I would be a little offended and shocked as a woman if a man refused to meet with me one-on-one in a public place to discuss business, or to provide private counseling as a pastor or psychologist.
It would be like a woman saying, “Sorry, but I don’t meet privately with men in case they sexually assault me.”
That shows an egregious lack of trust and respect, in my opinion.
Yes, sexual assault happens. Yes, adultery happens. And yes, they happen mostly by people you know and trust. Reasonable safeguards against those things may prevent those realities from occurring. But reducing a professional partner or client to their genitalia and sexual urges and then fearing them because of it — that is not a reasonable safeguard.
I can’t speak personally about this situation. I’ve never had a man tell me, “Sorry, but I don’t meet with women alone.”
But I think about all the great conversations, relationships, and mentorships I’ve developed both personally and professionally with men. My college experience — the most transformative four years of my life — would be drastically different if my guy friends refused to grab lunch with me, just the two of us, or if my male professors wouldn’t meet with me in their office unless their wife was present, or if a priest was uncomfortable discussing my spiritual questions without a chaperone, or if my counselor turned me away because he didn’t want to be alone with a female behind closed doors.
I would be more broken, less educated, less well-rounded, lonelier, and missing out on a huge part of the college experience. I owe much of my education, spirituality, and quality of life to amazing male friends and professionals. I cannot imagine having that taken away from me because of an irrational fear that I would try to seduce them over lunch.
Part of working in a co-ed professional environment means working closely with those around you, even if they’re the opposite sex — and that includes developing relationships and maybe breaking bread together.
I think there are ways to be prudent about one’s reputation and opposite sex relationships — meet in public places, keep the door open, have a window in your door, etc. — while still having meaningful professional relationships with one’s female clients, co-workers, and peers.