Toxic Culture: The “Pence Rule”:  Protective or Antediluvian Behavior? 

By Karetta Hubbard, Lynne Revo-Cohen, Gwen Crider, and Dr. Chris Kilmartin

In March, 2017, the Washington Post published a feature on Karen Pence, wife of Vice President Mike Pence. The revelation in the article that received the most attention was that Pence will not go out to dinner with women unless his wife accompanies him. In the days that followed, the “Pence Rule” got a good deal of play in both social and mainstream media. Some comments were supportive, and others ridiculing.

Later that same year came the parade of sexual harassers finally being held accountable, and the #metoo movement gained prominence and momentum. Then, in the predictable backlash to #metoo, a recent poll showed 70% of respondents stated that they believed that false reports of harassment were a serious, or at least a significant problem. In fact, some men said that a man should never meet alone with a woman, and one theory as to why is that the Pence Rule was to protect against the danger of false reports. Remember, this is not about a particular woman, who may have given reason not to trust her, it’s a blanket rule about all women.

Is it that Pence made the Rule because of the fear and overestimation of the likelihood of a false report? A word about the wild overestimation of false reports of sexual harassment and assault: let’s acknowledge first that it would be a horrible thing to have somebody report that you engaged in serious misconduct when in fact you have not. It does happen, but ask yourself this: when have I, or anyone I know, lied and said that someone has victimized me because I was embarrassed by my sexual behavior or wanted to gain some sort of advantage or revenge? I’ll bet that the answer is zero at minimum and one at maximum. The conservative estimate is that there are more than 60 unreported incidents for every unfounded report; which is the bigger problem? People have even used the inflammatory term witch hunt in the #metoo backlash. But the difference between a witch hunt and a hunt for sexual harassers is that witches do not exist.

Myths do not have to be completely false in all circumstances. The importance of a myth lies in how it functions. In this case, the false report myth operates to make disbelief of the woman as the default option. Anybody who has ever made a sexual harassment or assault complaint knows what a heartrending decision it is and that they have to muster all the courage they can find to begin the process of holding an offender accountable. They also know the intense pain of not being believed when they tell of the trauma they experienced.

Another possibility is that the Pence Rule was Karen’s idea. Maybe she doesn’t trust him, which may or may not be his fault. Or, another theory is that the behavior is used to protect a less-powerful woman from the discomfort of being in the company of a powerful man. Respectful behavior, which we strive for, is that acting like a decent person, that is to listen and learn what it feels like to be a woman in a male-dominated world, especially if he might consider women devious and untrustworthy?

However, back to the rest of the Pence Rule that garnered less attention, he revealed that he will also not attend an event where alcohol is served unless his wife is there too. Hmmm, might he lose his judgment if he has a couple of drinks and gives in to some sexual temptress who has also had a few?

But, it is unclear how the presence of his wife would prevent a tipsy Pence from coveting, or worse? One can certainly covet in one’s home, office, or dreams. So, maybe he believes that he’s so attractive that women would find him irresistible?

If the occasion is purely social, one need not feel obligated to have dinner or drinks with anyone whom you don’t feel comfortable around, or with anyone whom you think might be uncomfortable around you. However, if there is business being conducted at these events, as there often is, the problem with the Pence Rule is that you are denying access to a group of people who belong to a protected class, and that’s discriminatory. Conduct business in businesslike fashion with women. See them as human beings and colleagues rather than as mere sex objects.

The cultural belief underlying this mistrust of self is the conception of male sexuality as a runaway train–predatory and indiscriminate. This gender stereotype places women in the sexual gatekeeper role; she’s got to stop him because he can’t help himself. If this is the reason for subscribing to the Pence Rule, consider that you don’t trust yourself to act like a respectful human being in this circumstance.

Two indisputable facts: first, the vast majority of men are not harassers, and second, the vast majority of harassers are men. One of the keys to solving this problem is to make sure those men who respect women speak out. It is important to amplify the healthy voices.

NewPoint Strategies is a nationally recognized consulting firm assisting companies and organizations manage High Risk EEO issues./i>The preceding is based on Kilmartin, C. T. (2017). Male allies to women. In J. Schwarz (Ed.), Counseling women across the lifespan: Empowerment, advocacy, and intervention. New York: Springer.

Top photo: Bigstock

About KHubbard LRevo-Cohen CKilmartin GCrider (22 Articles)
Since 1984, the founders of NewPoint Strategies, Karetta Hubbard and Lynne Revo-Cohen, have built a strong reputation for delivering extremely effective prevention training in high-risk issues such as sexual harassment/assault. Contributing Author and Lead Consultant, Chris Kilmartin, Ph.D, Emeritus Professor of Psychology from the University of Mary Washington, is an expert in Sexual Harassment and Assault Prevention, specifically Male Violence Against Women, and Gwen Crider, a diversity and inclusion strategist with over 20 years of leadership experience in non-profit and private sector organizations.