In the face of a landslide of sexual misconduct allegations against public figures, some men have come to a backwards conclusion — men should never be alone with women.
Fox News senior analyst Brit Hume became the latest person to float this as a solution to the country’s sexual assault problem, when on Thursday night, he tweeted, “Mike Pence’s policy of avoiding being alone with women other than his wife looking better every day, though widely mocked when it first became known.”
Reaction was swift and brutal. Journalist Soledad O’Brien retorted: “If you’re a man who can’t be alone with a woman and not grab her or rub up against her, you probably shouldn’t be around any people, ever.”
O’Brien’s was one of many comments taking down Hume. Others accused Hume of perpetuating toxic masculinity, the set of male behaviors predicated on normalising sexual violence and victim blaming women.
“Pence’s behaviour presupposes the presence of women is responsible for male misconduct, and that men cannot or should not change their behaviour, which is infantilising to men as well as women,” wrote Matthew Chapman, a politics writer at the left-leaning site Share Blue.
The comments all refer to a March Washington Post profile on second lady Karen Pence, which revealed Vice President Mike Pence never dines alone with women who aren’t his wife.
The Pences indeed faced widespread criticism for this bizarre marital agreement, and for good reason.
As several people pointed out at the time, the panic over Pence being alone with a woman suggests a fear that he might behave inappropriately if left unchaperoned.
It also suggests men and women can never just be acquaintances, friends or even business associates — it assumes any interaction between men and women has some kind of sexual subtext to it.
New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum suggested an alternative: “It seems simpler to just not sexually harass people,” she wrote.
In the post-Harvey Weinstein climate, that assumption has morphed into the belief that if men are left alone with women, they will inevitably sexually harass or assault them.
The suggestion that men can’t be left unattended with a woman also buys into the cynical notion that men can’t control their sexual impulses; that men are reduced to their base instincts, and those instincts are often to violate women in some unspeakable way.
This belief belies a dangerous gender stereotype, but worse, creates an opening for men to make it even more difficult for women to succeed in the workplace.
If men aren’t allowed to be alone with women, they can’t have business lunches with women, have closed-door meetings with them or even take a smoke break with their female colleagues, all things that can be crucial to professional advancement in any industry.
This kind of blanket policy suggests it’s women who must pay for men’s transgressions. Women must continue to lose out on promotions, miss out on the chummy happy hours their male colleagues have long enjoyed and fade into the background, all in the name of safeguarding themselves against sexual misconduct men can find no better way to prevent.
And this kind of exclusionary behaviour isn’t just unsavory; it can be illegal.
“Employers are also not permitted to base employment decisions on gender-based stereotypes — including the stereotype that women are temptresses, or incapable of having purely professional relationships with male bosses or co-workers,” Joanna Grossman, a sex discrimination lawyer, wrote in Vox in March.
She explained that women are protected against this kind of workplace discrimination by Title VII, which rules that employers “cannot set the terms and conditions of employment differently for one gender than for the other.”
“This includes any aspect of the relationship between employer and employees —extending to benefits like equal access to the employer,” Grossman added.
Sexual misconduct happens in many different contexts — not just late at night in hotel rooms or in one-on-one meetings with superiors.
The accusations against Senator Al Franken (Democratic-Minnesota) perhaps prove this point best: When he allegedly groped television anchor Leeann Tweeden’s breasts, there was someone around to take a photo.
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