After last week’s revelations about media mogul Harvey Weinstein’s history of alleged sexual harassment, public figures have come out with a variety of reactions, from the sympathetic to the downright callous. But few were as pointed as the critique of Sebastian Gorka, former deputy assistant to President Trump, who invoked the so-called “Pence rule” to argue that Weinstein’s behavior was preventable.
The “Pence rule” made headlines earlier this year when a Washington Post profile of Karen Pence cited a 2002 interview stating that Vice President Mike Pence makes it a point to never dine alone with a woman who is not his wife, or attend events where alcohol might be served without her there.
Despite now being associated with the vice president, the “rule” was originally attributed to popular televangelist Billy Graham and is common among evangelical circles. Pence was widely criticized on the left, on the grounds that the rule was condescending — assuming that men could not control themselves around a woman — and had the potential to hold back female colleagues, who, like their male counterparts, benefit from informal networking and relationship building with superiors and potential mentors.
But by Gorka’s logic, had Weinstein lived by the same rules, he would not have been able to perpetrate his alleged unethical and potentially criminal behavior.
Gorka’s words reflects a certain smugness among right-wing critics, who see in “liberal" Hollywood’s tacit acceptance of an accused serial harasser (who donated lavishly to Hillary Clinton, no less) a hypocrisy that invalidates liberals’ criticism of Donald Trump, whose propensity for behavior that might be considered sexual assault has been well documented. It is, though, a fair criticism: Particularly with Weinstein, left-leaning outlets, activists, and celebrities have long tolerated, among their own self-congratulatory ranks, behavior that they would immediately decry if perpetuated by a Republican or the religious.
But Gorka’s invocation of the Pence rule is disingenuous at best. Insofar as the Pence rule “works,” it isn’t because the men who follow it are necessarily secret harassers, ready to prey upon the first unfortunate woman to find herself alone with them. It works, rather, because Pence is a politician, a highly visible figure, and because the avoidance of “temptation” doubles as avoidance of the appearance of scandal. The subtext of the Pence rule — like so much “anti-harassment” office training — is that upstanding, honorable men avoid creating situations that might be misinterpreted by supposedly hysterical, unstable women, or else contorted by someone looking for a quick payout. As Claire Cain Miller puts it in an article for the New York Times, “[Men] worry that one accusation, or misunderstood comment, could end their careers.”
It is an understandable position for a male politician to take, as well as a time-honored one. Back in the days of ancient Rome, then–high priest Julius Caesar famously divorced his wife, Pompeia, after a would-be lover snuck into a women’s-only festival to attempt to seduce her. The seduction failed, but Caesar cast out his wife anyway, saying that “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.” Regardless of the truth of the matter, it was more important to Caesar to avoid even the possibility of being seen as a cuckold than it was to make a decision based on the truth about his wife’s behavior.
Likewise, the Pence/Graham rule can effectively ensure that the men who make a public point of following it are likewise “above suspicion.” The rule preserves their reputation, not so-called female virtue, and functions on appearances, not fact.
But we shouldn’t mistake the rule’s efficacy for unselfishness. It is a completely self-serving maxim, designed to protect men against women, and not the other way around. It does little for the women whose careers are stymied by a lack of access to good mentors and peers. A system in which private male-female interaction is treated as an automatic “red flag” is one that penalizes women for existing. In these scenarios, women may be more protected from harassment — just as their male counterparts are more protected from the specter of spurious allegations — but they are likewise barred from interactions that might benefit them professionally. Meanwhile, their male colleagues and superiors would suffer no such professional backlash, especially since men in the entertainment industry already tend to have powerful positions.
Sure, had Weinstein taken it upon himself to follow the Pence rule, it is true he probably would not have had opportunities to harm his alleged victims during meetings and audition-type scenarios. But plenty of other decisions Weinstein might have made — say, not harassing women — would have had the same effect.
After all, the Graham/Pence rule cannot be enforced broadly at an industry level: To mandate segregation of men and women in the office would be both ridiculous and probably illegal. At most, it can be a personal decision, one upheld for reasons of either ethics or optics. But if it is, in fact, a personal decision, it is no more or less personal than, say, the decision not to harass or assault women in the first place, a decision that can be undertaken regardless of how many private professional interactions a man has with those women.