Whenever news breaks that another man has been terrible (or allegedly terrible) to a woman and that he has, consequently, been plucked out of his job, some wise public figure observes that “the Pence rule is sounding pretty smart.”
After all, the real casualty in all this is men’s careers. The thing that is dispensable is the presence of women in public space. Therefore, steps must be taken. Solutions must be proposed.
Maybe the solution is that men and women cannot be alone ever again. Maybe the solution is no more parties. Maybe the solution is that before going to a one-on-one meeting with a woman, a man should have his ears stuffed with cotton wool, which will both make him immune to her siren song and make him feel that his ideas are more original.
The solution is to remove all women from offices. They are inconvenient, like potted plants – at first, fun and decorative, then merely depressing after everyone forgets to water them. The solution is to place a gag in all women’s mouths (this will at least stop the allegations, and if we do not know about them, we will not have to be sad that our idols have let us down).
Women should be locked in towers, from birth, if possible, with a dragon placed outside to discourage any men who might want to step into a room with them. They should be lulled to sleep and placed adrift in boats, where they will be out of range of any men whose careers might be harmed, and they will be able to dream pleasant dreams of taking part in the conversation and having fulfilling careers.
Or maybe the solution is that women should stop having dreams. Dreams are what get you into those rooms where you might destroy a man’s career in the first place.
Yes, as many commentators would have it, the problem is the damage allegations might do to men’s careers, not the invisible doors that are shut daily in women’s faces. Jessica Valenti puts it well: “That so many men think of sexual harassment as an issue of women’s hurt feelings rather than our ruined ambitions and careers is a huge part of the problem.”
It’s about men’s careers, and women’s feelings. Women who, in many cases, you haven’t even heard of. The fact that you haven’t heard of them is never counted in the toll harassment takes. That would be too alarming: the stories not told, the books not written, the perspectives on the world we never got to hear.
“Men fantasized about being him; women fantasized about sleeping with him (surely some of those men did, too). To an entire generation of aspiring television journalists, he represented the pinnacle,” says the book “Top of the Morning” about Matt Lauer in the Talk Show Wars. That’s right. Women could only want one thing, and that could not be to be Matt Lauer. Two people walked into a room and only one promising career was destroyed.
The Pence rule is the solution if you think the danger when sexual harassment allegations surface is that a man’s career may be ended, prematurely, by his own behavior. If women are permitted into rooms, men’s careers might be damaged. If women are not permitted into rooms, all that will happen is that women will not have opportunities, but, of course, women are something different than people. They’re a temptation, a distraction. Meanwhile, there is a nice man in a scarf to consider.
The Pence rule is a companion to the conversation we have with women about how to avoid “putting themselves in the situation.” It is the conversation with men about whom you can and whom you cannot invite to the ballgame. You must not go into a room with a woman, this song goes, for nothing good will come of it.
Either you are not safe because you’re not answerable for your own behavior (a frightening thought) or because women cannot be trusted (an equally lousy idea). It’s impossible to know what she will think happened! You remember vaguely showing her a body part of which you felt you were justly proud, and she remembers several months of workplace hell. Honestly, who can say?
And there is a career at stake. One. Yours.
So maybe we’d better send the women home, just to be safe.