There have been many silly controversies since the election but perhaps none sillier than lunch-gate. To be fair, no one is actually calling it that but quite a few people on the left seem unable to grasp Vice President Pence’s commitment to his wife. Specifically, he refuses to eat alone with women other than his wife and won’t attend events featuring alcohol unless she is there.
All of this is based on a Washington Post profile of Pence’s wife Karen published earlier this week. The story offers this tidbit which has set off a string of Gorillas in the Mist-style takes from a number of progressive authors:
The Pences were married in a Roman Catholic church in 1985 but later became evangelical Christians.
In 2002, Mike Pence told the Hill that he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side, either.
Here’s Paul Waldman at the Washington Post arguing that Pence isn’t much different from Muslims who insist women wear a full body veil at all times in public:
Let’s take just a moment to consider this pair of rules Mike Pence has for himself. He obviously thinks that every interaction he has with a woman is so sexually charged that it’s only safe to be around them if there are other people there, too. Unless someone might be drinking, in which case even the presence of a crowd isn’t enough to prevent…something from happening. There’s little distance between that perspective and that of the ultra-orthodox Jews who refuse to sit next to a woman on an airplane, or the fundamentalist Muslims who demand that women be covered head to toe to contain the unstoppable sexual allure that renders men unable to control their urges.
This pretty much consolidates much of the reaction from the left to this micro-story. Every bit of this seems written to intentionally misunderstand Pence’s views, to compress things that are in no way alike into a false similarity and to mock Pence without even pausing to think about the issues. Let’s go through this bit by bit from the beginning:
He obviously thinks that every interaction he has with a woman is so sexually charged that it’s only safe to be around them if there are other people there, too.
Is this obviously what Pence thinks? No, in fact, it’s a complete misstatement of what Pence thinks. Nowhere does Pence suggest that “every interaction” he has with another woman is sexually charged. On the contrary, the premise of this whole controversy is that Pence draws a line at being alone with another woman for a purely social occasion, i.e. a meal. That means there are a whole host of public situations which are not at all sexually charged. And even when it comes to private meetings, Pence never suggests that every such encounter would necessarily be “sexually charged.” The Atlantic took a look at what Pence actually said to The Hill back in 2002:
The Hill article gives more context on how the Pences were thinking about this, at least back in 2002. Pence told the paper he often refused dinner or cocktail invitations from male colleagues, too: “It’s about building a zone around your marriage,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a predatory town, but I think you can inadvertently send the wrong message by being in [certain] situations.”
The 2002 article notes that Pence arrived in Congress a half decade after the 1994 “Republican revolution,” when Newt Gingrich was the speaker of the House. Several congressional marriages, including Gingrich’s, encountered difficulty that year. Pence seemed wary of this. “I’ve lost more elections than I’ve won,” he said. “I’ve seen friends lose their families. I’d rather lose an election.”
This isn’t about Mike Pence thinking every interaction with a woman is sexually charged. It’s about setting boundaries that prevent him winding up in a sexually charged interaction like some of his predecessors in Congress clearly did. Returning to Waldman’s article:
Unless someone might be drinking, in which case even the presence of a crowd isn’t enough to prevent…something from happening.
A year or so ago the left’s big issue was “rape culture.” The premise of this was the disturbing number of sexual assaults against women taking place, especially on college campuses. There have been ongoing disagreements about the exact extent of the problem but one thing which frequently arises as part of the discussion is alcohol as a complicating factor in many situations. Sometimes it is very clear a man took advantage of a heavily inebriated woman, but in other cases both parties were so intoxicated at the time that it’s unclear exactly what happened.
My point here is not to suggest a return to prohibition or to blame college women for assaults against them by predatory men. My point is only to suggest it is not at all ridiculous to notice that many of these borderline (or over the line) cases involve alcohol and social situations (like frat parties). There’s a reason that the drunk hook up at the office Christmas party is a cliche. Pence’s decision to avoid such situations entirely may seem puritanical to some but it might just as arguably be seen as a smart way to avoid trouble.
There’s little distance between that perspective and that of the ultra-orthodox Jews who refuse to sit next to a woman on an airplane, or the fundamentalist Muslims who demand that women be covered head to toe to contain the unstoppable sexual allure that renders men unable to control their urges.
Little distance? A man who chooses not to go to dinner alone with a woman other than his wife is the same as someone who demands this of all women in public?
I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that there is, in fact, a big difference between someone who sets guidelines for their own private behavior and someone who demands every woman be covered head to toe in public or face a beating. In case it’s not clear, it’s the difference between Mike Pence choosing not to ask a woman he works with to a private dinner and this:
I’m not saying that Mike Pence’s view should be everyone’s view, but it’s his decision to make within his own marriage. And so long as he is choosing to regulate his own behavior in a few specific situations, he’s not at all like those who demand others accommodate their beliefs in public.