Culture

The Pences' Prophylactic Approach to Infidelity

Sex doesn't always stay where we would like to neatly confine it.

Maybe they're onto something.

Photographer: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

I’m not sure what lesson I’m supposed to take away from the Washington Post’s revelation that Mike Pence does not dine with women alone, nor attend events where alcohol is served unless his wife is present.

Option A: That more enlightened people, with sound liberal values about sex and gender, have achieved such perfect rational control of their sex drives that they never find themselves attracted to colleagues, or falling into torrid affairs that began over a working dinner? No, wait, I’m quite sure that can’t be it.

Option B: That nice liberal people are OK with the evolution of such affairs, because hey, infidelity’s not a big deal? Maybe that is what some of the scoffers are saying, but I’m pretty sure that many of them would not be OK if their spouse came home and said “Oh, honey, by the way, I took my car into the shop, and I called the man about cleaning the gutters, and also, I spent a wild 12 hours in bed with Chris from accounting.”

Option C: That it’s weird to create structural guards against a temptation? Are we supposed to treat infidelity the way free solo climbers treat falls -- a risk to be sure, but one worth taking because safety precautions would be too cumbersome and dull? If so, I wonder what these same folks would say if Pence declined to attend alcohol-soaked events sans-spouse, not because he was worried about impropriety (or the appearance thereof), but because he was an alcoholic who wanted to be sure he never faced temptation without her stalwart support. I suspect they wouldn’t be complaining about his antediluvian views on Demon Rum.

Eventually Pence’s critics seemed to settle on two reasonable-sounding arguments: that his rule against one-on-one dining with females other than his wife would structurally disadvantage women in his office political network and that his rules for himself were actually sexist demands on his wife, requiring Karen Pence to give up her own career and act as a chaperone.

On that second point, I can say only that I remember when it was the height of bad taste to have any opinion at all about what went on in someone else’s marriage -- for example, whether Hillary Clinton or Huma Abedin should have divorced their husbands for their sexual indiscretions. Back then, women of Karen Pence’s age were presumed to be adults, fully competent to decide what they were willing to endure in the course of their marriage. They were even entitled to do so without the unsolicited advice of several million unlicensed freelance marriage counselors. Has that edict now been rescinded? Or did it only ever apply to the spouses of Democratic politicians?

The other objection is more serious.  Having once worked at a place where a lot of client bonding went on at strip clubs -- outings at which I would have felt unwelcome, to say the least -- I am fully cognizant of how these sorts of structural barriers can hamper a career. “If Pence won't eat with a woman alone, how could a woman be Chief of Staff, or lawyer, campaign manager …” asked Mother Jones editor Clara Jeffery on Twitter. “Would Pence dine with Ivanka? Or KellyAnne? Or are they too relegated to second class citizens … I don't know/care if Pences have weird hangups. I do care if women are being denied jobs and opportunities, and that some normalize this. Has Pence in his career had a woman high up in any campaign, administration, private practice, radio show or think-tank?"

These are reasonable questions. The thing is, they have answers. And those answers seem to include a fair number of female staffers doing things other than fetching coffee. Who do not necessarily think that Pence’s rules are holding them back.

That’s not to say that rules like this couldn’t create structural sexism: They obviously can. But the threat of this particular instance was instantly inflated to dire imaginary proportions without stopping to check the reality. Meanwhile, Pence’s critics busily played down or ignored the actual threats posed when politicians have affairs with people they meet through work. These affairs seem sadly common, on both sides of the aisle. And of course workplace affairs are unfair to the majority of employees who do not sleep with the boss. If you're on the alert for threats to workplace equality, you might give the Pences' rule a second chance.

So if we really needed to have a “national discussion” about the Pences' marriage, then the right question to ask was not “Could this potentially cause some harm to some woman’s career?” Any number of choices made by anyone powerful, like what hobbies and interests to pursue, may impact the ability of others to connect and network with them. Should powerful people be required to enjoy only hobbies that are equally favored by men and women?

The right question is: “Are the potential harms to women employees large enough, and sufficiently resistant to amelioration, that they justify overruling the politician’s interest in avoiding impropriety, or even the appearance thereof?” And the discussion that results seems much more likely to be fruitful than “Ewwww, yuck, patriarchy!”

I think people felt that Pence's rule was sexist because it violated a taboo that has been around since Women’s Lib: the ban on acknowledging that sex does not always stay where we would like to neatly confine it. We are supposed to tacitly assume that once we’re finally all educated to the right sexual norms, ambiguity and confusions will magically wither away, inappropriate relationships will never happen, and we’ll all live happily ever after.

In the real world, if you throw men and women together unsupervised, ambiguity and confusions and inappropriate relationships will happen. That's OK; the benefits of having both men and women in the workforce outweigh the risks. But it is not sexist to notice that in an economy once dominated by men, these risks grow along with women's sexual and economic freedom. Nor is it sexist for a man or a woman to want to limit exposure to temptation.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

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