The Pence Rule & Sharing Our Narrative on Our Terms

As the fallout from the scandal facing film executive and professional slimebag Harvey Weinstein continues, I’ve seen more and more blogs, articles, tweets, etc. suggesting two harmful narratives.

  1. That the “Pence Rule” could have prevented many of the sexual assault instances that have surfaced.
  2. That it is the onus of women who have shared their sexual assault experiences to fix the problem by naming names and outing men.

First, I’d like to take issue with the term “Pence Rule”. For those of you who are unfamiliar, the Pence Rule is a rebranding of the Billy Graham Rule, which basically entails vowing never to be alone with a woman (other than one’s wife) for any reason whatsoever as a means of avoiding sexual impropriety. The reason I take issue with the Pence Rule moniker is not because I think the rule is flawed at best (which I do); the reason I take issue with the Pence Rule title is that I think that the concept should still be referred to as the Billy Graham Rule. Billy Graham is the architect and the OG of woman avoidance. Billy Graham has been refusing to associate with women longer than Mike Pence has been alive. Regardless of how I feel about the actual rule, I just don’t think Pence has been in the game long enough to deserve having it be renamed on his behalf. The last thing we need is yet another guy, hungry for political power, chipping away at Billy Graham’s legacy; that’s what Billy Graham’s son, Franklin, is for. The Billy Graham Foundation has lost much credibility in exchange for Franklin Graham’s thirst for political power; the very least that we can do is let Billy Graham keep the Billy Graham Rule title. Franklin Graham is destroying and politicizing his father’s legacy well enough on his own that we don’t need Mike taking the Billy Graham Rule title away too. (One of Franklin Graham’s most recent appalling partisan acts includes tweeting in support of Roy Moore, a senate candidate who is accused of raping several young women, including a girl who was only 14 at the time.)

Another reason I take issue with the Pence Rule title vs the Billy Graham Rule is that I’m actually okay with the Billy Graham rule in the context of Billy Graham. What I mean by this is that avoiding women in the context of the public or private sector workforce (Pence) has very different consequences than it does in the religious context (Graham). If men refuse to be alone with women in professional working scenarios, it likely has a career-limiting effect since men still hold a vast majority of positions of power in both the public and private sector. If individuals in positions of power are more available to men than they are to women, it yields men an unfair advantage. This is far less important in religious contexts, and perhaps limiting career opportunities for women in ministry contexts is covered under religious freedom of expression rights.

Regardless of whether it is your intention or not, if you are in a position of power, having separate rules for men and for women will absolutely affect women’s careers in a negative way.

Some of the most amazing advice and pivotal career moments and opportunities I’ve experienced have involved sharing a meal or riding alone in a car with a male colleague. Regardless of whether it is your intention or not, if you are in a position of power, having separate rules for men and for women will absolutely affect women’s careers in a negative way. I have no problem with you implementing a Pence Rule for women as long as you don’t give men an unfair career advantage by not applying the same guidelines to them. So much of business happens over lunches, while traveling, etc; it is unfair to rob women of these opportunities if men are afforded them.

With that said, having Billy Graham-type rules in evangelical contexts is not without consequences. According to the U.S. Congregational Life Study, churches are 61% female and 39% male. Despite these statistics, having women on church staffs is pretty rare. It is not uncommon for a church with a large pastoral staff to have one woman on staff who is responsible for “Women’s Ministry” or something of that nature. If you think about it, that amounts to charging one staff member with the responsibility of discipling 61% of the congregation. In most cases, however, the Women’s Ministry leader isn’t even a staff member; it is often a voluntary position. Given the lack of women on pastoral staffs, Pence-type approaches can lead to women receiving inadequate pastoral care. I’m not saying that pastors should have closed door meetings with women, but I do think that there needs to be a plan for pastoral care that doesn’t leave the responsibility of a majority of the congregation squarely on the shoulders of one woman who is likely a volunteer. I definitely don’t see a need for pastors to dine alone with women in their congregation, but I don’t think they need to run from them. There are pastors who won’t even hold a conversation with attractive women after church. If you find yourself treating women like they are sirens ready to trap you, perhaps pastor is not the role for you. I don’t think the answer to avoiding impropriety is treating women like temptresses and avoiding them at all costs; I think the answer is treating women like the image-bearers that they are. If you can’t have a normal conversation after church or pray for a woman in your congregation without having creeping feelings or behaving erratically, perhaps you should find another calling.

Although I’ve created quite the bleak picture here, have no fear, I’m not without solutions. One does not need to avoid women entirely to avoid sexually assaulting them. One needs only not to be a sexual assaulter. It’s kind of simple. I don’t avoid stores to avoid petty larceny. I simply go to target and don’t steal stuff. It’s not terribly complicated. If it is that complicated for you, you should probably work on that. The problem is yours and not that of the women with which you work. If you are in a position of power in the public or private sector your means of coping with your issues should not negatively affect women’s career opportunities. If you really feel the need to Pence rule women, please be intentional about how you implement it such that it is equitable to women in the workforce.

In Part 2 of The Pence Rule and Sharing our Narrative on Our Terms, Korin will delve into the real-life limitations of the Pence Rule’s effectiveness in protecting against sexual assault on a personal level as well as speak about the agency that must be afforded to victims of sexual assault to share on their terms. Come back next week!