Vice President Mike Pence was roundly ridiculed when it was revealed that he makes an effort never to be alone with a woman who is not his wife, but the policy is looking less prudish and more sensible as accusations of sexual misconduct against powerful men proliferate.
Accusations first surfaced last month against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and have since reverberated through Hollywood, the media and government at every level. On Wednesday, Matt Lauer, a longtime host of NBC’s “Today,” and Minnesota Public Radio’s Garrison Keillor were fired by their respective organizations amid accusations of improper behavior.
Joseph Backholm, president of the Family Policy Institute of Washington, said the spate of sexual misconduct accusations makes it “increasingly obvious that we need to re-evaluate our boundaries.”
“It goes without saying that you don’t have to establish the rules that Mike Pence has established in order to behave appropriately at all times,” Mr. Backholm said. “But the world would be a much better place and much less complicated if everybody conducted themselves like Mike Pence does.”
The “Pence rule” is a variation of the personal conduct policy popularized by the Rev. Billy Graham, who refused to travel, meet or dine alone with a woman. In addition, the vice president does not attend parties where alcohol is served without his wife by his side.
Feminists have criticized the Pence rule as a potential barrier to women’s advancement in the workplace, although there is no evidence to suggest that women who worked for Mr. Pence were held back by the rule.
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Critics also have mocked the vice president for a presumed lack of self-control — as if the rule were necessary to treat women with respect or remain faithful to one’s wife.
“Offering the Pence rule as a solution to male predation is like saying, ‘I can’t meet with you one on one, otherwise I might eventually assault you,’ ” Katelyn Beaty, editor at large for Christianity Today, wrote in a New York Times op-ed. “If that’s the case, we have far deeper problems around men and power than any personal conduct rule can solve.”
Jay Richards, research professor at The Catholic University of America and executive editor of the conservative news website The Stream, said the Pence rule is a reasonable response to the dramatic social changes that have torn down the boundaries between the sexes over the past half-century.
The entry of women into the workforce since World War II, followed by the sexual revolution and the erasure of well-established sexual mores, has left men and women with little guidance as to how to interact in the workplace, Mr. Richards said.
“We now find ourselves trying to kind of create rules after discovering fallout from these dramatic social changes,” Mr. Richards said. “It’s not as if Pence’s rule is written in stone; different people have different rules that are similar to this. But I know many Christian organizations and Christian ministries that have rules more or less like Mike Pence’s in place for all employees.”
In addition to guarding against infidelity and other sexual misconduct, Mr. Richards said, the Pence rule preserves the reputations of all parties involved.
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“It’s as much or more about preserving the reputations of himself and other women,” he said. “A simple guardrail is absolutely reasonable if you want to prevent the rumor mill from starting, let alone even worse sexual transgressions.”
While the vice president strives never to be alone with a woman who is not his wife, the spate of sexual misconduct accusations shows how far some men will go to be alone with women they intend to take advantage of.
Mr. Weinstein commonly arranged to have private business meetings with aspiring actresses in his hotel rooms. The women said he would appear dressed in only a bathrobe. Mr. Lauer reportedly installed a secret button under his desk that would allow him to lock the door to his dressing room without leaving his chair.
“This afforded him the assurance of privacy,” Variety reported on Wednesday. “It allowed him to welcome female employees and initiate inappropriate contact while knowing nobody could walk in on him, according to two women who were sexually harassed by Lauer.”
Mr. Richards said there are simple remedies to ensure the Pence rule does not lead to an unfair playing field in the workplace. He said bosses can treat male and female staffers equally while abiding by personal conduct policies.
“If you’re going to take a male colleague to lunch and you’re a male boss, don’t take him alone,” he said. “Also include your female colleagues. And if you’re going to have a Christmas party, include all of your colleagues together. There are simple ways to work around that.”
By living within established boundaries, the vice president is protecting the most important women in his life, Mr. Backholm said.
“In Mike Pence’s life, every woman wins. His wife wins, his daughters win,” the Family Policy Institute president said.