I have always had more female friends than male ones. Back when I was a wee tyke in Sunday school — 5 years old, maybe? — I chose to join the girls’ Torah trivia team instead of the boys’. I didn’t feel like a girl (not that there would have been anything wrong with that), I was simply more comfortable among girls.
I’ve noticed that the close male friends I have had tend not to be stereotypically masculine. Like me, they’re relatively sensitive, intellectual, loquacious, not especially interested in sports and otherwise slow to engage in conventional heterosexual male behavior (commenting aloud on women’s looks, being competitive, eating lots of meat, etc.). They don’t adhere to traditional gender roles. Several are gay or transgender.
I think this situation arose and remained in place for three reasons: 1) I was always a person who exhibited more stereotypically feminine traits and behaviors than the average heterosexual male; 2) I was bullied as a child, almost exclusively by boys, so I abhor toxic masculinity and don’t feel safe around it; and 3) I’m simply not in the habit of making/having male friends, so it’s somewhat awkward for me to establish such friendships at this point. The first two of these factors were/are beyond my control. The third isn’t, and I’d like to get better at making and keeping male friends.
Coming from this background, I found much to think about — and, let’s be honest, joke about — regarding Mike Pence’s 2002 statement, which recently resurfaced in the media, that he does not, as a matter of personal policy, dine alone with women other than his wife. The hullabaloo surrounding this revelation brings to mind the phenomenon of Orthodox Jewish men who refuse to sit next to women on flights. It also made me think of a paper I wrote in college about the introduction of co-ed dorms at Oberlin, my alma mater, and what an outcry that caused. (Some parents of students wrote angry letters to the college; others simply transferred their kids to another school.) Several think pieces observed that Pence’s predilection might not harm others if he weren’t vice president, but since he is, his dining doctrine has real effects on people who deserve better.
When I first learned about the Orthodox Jews, my point of view reflected my irreligiousness: It’s fine to avoid touching women who are not your wife or daughters, but don’t expect total accommodation from commercial airlines. It’s fine to be shomer negiah, but that isn’t the airlines’ problem. If they’re able to work it out so you can fly, awesome. If not, by all means, stay true to your religious convictions, but you may end up traveling by train. Similarly, if you can’t have a one-on-one meeting with a woman who isn’t Karen Pence, maybe don’t be vice president?
What boggles my mind is that a man of such sterling character as Mike Pence, a man who safeguards his marriage by avoiding the juicy temptation of co-ed dining, can so gamely play second fiddle to a man who lamented, as recently as 12 years ago, that he “couldn’t get there” with a married woman he pursued. I imagine many VPs over the years have had to practice vigorous mental jujitsu to reconcile the cognitive dissonance of working for a man of questionable morals. Perhaps what really irks me is that most presidents haven’t worn their amorality — and toxic masculinity, and bullying behavior — so plainly on their sleeves. And perhaps never has such a foul-mouthed lout been paired with such an upright schoolboy type. It’s a very strange state of affairs, no pun intended.
Because I’ve spent my life negotiating the highly rewarding and, yes, sometimes confusing territory of male-female friendship, I have to wonder whether the benefits of Pence’s dinner rule really outweigh the drawbacks. I think the Oberlin co-ed dorm story has something to teach us here. In that situation, parents expected chaotic sexual debauchery, but the actual result, overall, was better mutual understanding between men and women. I can’t help but imagine that Pence is cutting himself off from a part of the human experience that would help him be a better public servant, and likely a better person.
The ostensible goal of Pence’s dining delimitation is to avoid not only the possibility of hanky-panky but the possibility that a woman could accuse him of it. To me, our sexist society is the real baddie here, not dining a deux with a dame. Pence, a conservative evangelical, is working from an Eve-as-temptress template as old as life on earth, if you believe the Bible.
The underlying assumption that women might accuse a powerful man of something he didn’t do isn’t entirely divorced from the realm of possibility. However, as Olga Khazan notes in the Atlantic, “the way to overcome that problem … is not to monastically order room service every night of your business trip. Instead, it’s to normalize men and women interacting professionally, in a non-sexual way.” The idea that spending time alone with a woman is a minefield merely reinforces another harmful, inaccurate notion: that false or exaggerated accusations of sexual impropriety are common. They are not.
At Oberlin, nearly a half-century ago, plenty of parents, alumni and trustees feared that putting men and women in the same residence hall would result in heedless promiscuity and all of its presumably heinous consequences. Despite so much consternation on the part of so many, the college took a risk, made history and helped correct a tenacious, and sexist, bit of conventional wisdom. Especially at the highest levels of government, acting on a less fearful, more optimistic view of human nature is a risk well worth taking.
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