The Pence Rule and Blunt Solutions to Complex Problems

The flood of recent stories of men sexually harassing and assaulting women in the film and media industries is leading men to do what they do when faced with a problem: explain to everyone else how to solve it. And they're coming up some wonderful solutions, summarized by Gaby Del Valle for The Outline:

Politico editor Timothy Noah tweeted making closed-door meetings a “fire-able offense” would be a “small, practical” way of reducing workplace sexual harassment. Federalist co-founder Sean Davis similarly suggested that more men should follow the “Pence rule,” i.e., that they should refuse to meet alone with any woman for any reason, unless their wife is present.

I can understand why someone would be attracted to these kinds of rules. I was raised with an evangelical sexual ethic. There is an accurate, brutal logic to them. A man probably won't rape somebody if it's impossible to physically be alone with them. Sure. I guess your rules works.

Do people advocating for these rules think they're solving the actual problem though? These rules would be blunt instruments, merely attempting to remove men's opportunity for poor behavior, not the impulses and rationalizations that lead to the behaviors. These rules restrict the opportunity for men to rape and harass, but they also restrict the opportunity for women to achieve good work and develop themselves professionally. Not good enough.

There's another thing though. Advocating for these rules betrays a few darker things about how you think.

First, you don't trust yourself: you might not want to ever be behind a closed door alone with a woman because you know you are likely to behave poorly. Second, you don't trust women; you think a woman might falsely claim sexual assault against you and there's no way to prove your own innocence.

Third, you have no idea what sexual harassment and assault actually are. The minds of men have become so clouded by the dominance of masculinity in professional culture that they have no idea what behavior is appropriate or not. They think inappropriate behavior can only possibly happen behind a private closed door. So instead of developing an understanding of what it means to actually care about and respect women, they decide it's easier to just take the doors off the hinges. Figuring out how to not be a monster is too difficult, so they choose the bluntest possible solution.

To a lot of men, the Pence rule sounds so wonderfully reasonable and smart. It removes all doubt, all possibility. Every interaction with a women has a witness, often your own wife. Men think this kind of thing is clever, elegant even. You took a massive and complex problem, and reduced the solution to exactly one hard rule. But there's no elegance here. The complexity of women's needs wasn't worth the effort to truly understand. And if truly understood, the amount of smaller, more difficult and specific changes would be too much of a burden to bear. So instead men choose to offload that burden to women. Women have to professionally hindered by a lack of privacy and a lack of access. Women have to be your watchdog to make sure that you don't harass others. Women have to report you and suffer the consequences.

Men need to stop solving problems with bluntness and claimed elegance. If the problem is us harassing and assaulting women, we need to solve the actual problem, not just develop another hack to avoid accepting any personal responsibility for it.