Men, Women, Dinners, and Access

I grew up in Fundamentalism with the phenomenon of men and women living under radically different holiness codes. One of the most notable, even to my young eyes, centered on the way men – especially married men – could not be in the room with a woman alone. For example, if the male church janitor was in the sanctuary cleaning up, it would not be considered appropriate for the church secretary (a woman, of course) to be the only other person left in the building.

When I was a teenager, my Christian school almost canceled a planned field trip because some parent of one gender canceled and that left only the opposite gender parent and I’m not really sure because even then it seemed weird to me that people were so worried about parents-without-their-spouses hitting the sack on the backside of a 711 or something.  I think somebody’s wife agreed to take a day off work to go on the field trip and protect the testimonies of all the parents involved.

(Man, if I’d been any more worldly-wise growing up, I would have raised several eyebrows at how often “testimonies” needed to be “protected.”)

When I was in college, my mom was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer and started a long march through chemotherapy. As a senior in college, I awoke one weekend to the nightmare that she’d had a stroke once the cancer hit her brain (or maybe it was the chemo; those particular drugs had a habit of triggering strokes) and had been rushed to the hospital. It was bad there for awhile, and I was 500 miles from home, and my parents didn’t really have the money to put me on a plane. So the youth pastor from my home church, a man whom I barely knew because he’d started working there after I went to college, graciously offered to drive down to Greenville from Western PA and pick me up for a quick weekend home to see my mom after she had brain surgery.  Problem was, he couldn’t be in the car with me for the ride home.  In Fundamentalism, that was a deal-breaker.  My agnostic, rock-band, techie brother agreed to do the ride-along job of chaperon, creating what must have been the Universe’s weirdest “buddy comedy road trip adventure” story of the year.

I’d pretty much called ‘bullshit’ on this whole paradigm when the head pastor of the church I attended in Greenville made a point in a sermon and then in a published article of expounding why, if he saw a single woman walking down the road in the pouring rain with groceries, he could not be expected to give her a ride. I don’t have a copy of the article and this was pre-internet, but someone on that side of the fence commented on the general gist of it in a post at TGC.

So this might explain how I went for years without any man touching me ever, even on the arm, even as a hug, even as a goodbye or hello, when I lived and worked and studied in Fundamentalist circles. It explains why, when I joined a PCA church in the early 2000s, I nearly jumped out of my skin when a guy would tap my arm as part of normal conversation. Took me years to retrain my body that human contact is actually healthy and good.

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Vice President Mike Pence made a splash in January when it hit the news that he refuses to be in a room with another woman if his wife isn’t present. A lot of people outside conservative religious circles guffawed, but many of us – especially women – rolled our eyes and said, “Here we go again.”

Many people wrote good articles about how this is a form of gender discrimination. I liked The Atlantic’s piece: “How Mike Pence’s Dudely Dinners Hurt Women.”  In a world where men still serve as gatekeepers to power, barring women from the room unless there’s a chaperon around isn’t protecting either of them from wrongful accusation. It’s just keeping women out of the chambers of power.

A friend of mine is studying science at a nearby, large, Research One institution that shall remain nameless. She is a senior PhD student in a STEM field, highly capable and respected by her colleagues.  If she needs to use a particular piece of equipment in another lab, the professor (a man) refuses to let women into his lab unless there are other people present.  Since this student cannot control others’ schedules, she has sometimes lost her slot to work with this critical lab equipment because there were no other people around to “chaperon” their time in the lab.  But it’s ok – some guy got to jump in and take her spot, since apparently religious conservatives are so opposed to LGBTQ+ people that they refuse to consider them when building these holiness codes.

What makes this so galling is the way her science department and university administration cannot see that this professor’s holiness code has become a weapon against women in STEM at that university.  Instead, she’s noted that people are stunned when she suggests anything but admiration for this man “who cares so much about his marriage that he refuses to be alone with any woman who isn’t his wife! Isn’t that chivalrous?! Isn’t it grand?!”

No. It’s legalism, if we want to parse this through the lens of Christian theology.  God never said “don’t be alone with another woman.” What He said was, precisely, “Don’t be an adulterer,” which Jesus intensified as “Don’t lust after another woman in your heart.”  You can’t cut your heart out of your body, guys, so you’re going to have to rely on the Grace of the Cross for your sanctification, not your own rules about who’s sitting in the office after hours. [Please don’t bring up “Let not your good be spoken about as evil.” Not the point of that passage. If we want to play the proof-text game, then let me remind you, “To the pure, all things are pure.” So get your damn mind out of the gutter next time you see a man and woman together in a professional setting.]

And from a professional, “business” viewpoint, it’s sexism. The primary victim of all holiness codes are the women. In the name of protecting something good (marital fidelity), the brunt of the work falls on the women – not to be present if there’s a man doing his job; not to dress in a way that a man finds provocative; not to be available lest he want to rape her. Oh, sorry, I forgot we aren’t talking about the Stanford swimmer-rapist. 

Things were simpler, I realize, when the only power brokers in the boardroom, the lab, the classroom, or the pulpit were white men. That 1950s demographic profile does remain in many conservative circles, but in general American experience, things have opened up for us ladies.   ….Kind of.  OK, barely….. 😉

But I wish more men were out there expressing the outrage they ought to feel when their religious structures reinforce the idea that sexuality and attraction are uncontrollable forces in the universe; that women are temptresses and men are faithless ever; that a man wants only sex from the women he’s around; that people’s ability to claim any ridiculous thing about your reputation trumps the Great Commandments should you happen to see a woman walking in the rain and you’re the only guy in your warm, dry automobile as you pass her.

As a woman who’s married (19 years and counting) to a man who’s nothing like that, I’m offended on my husband’s behalf that people not only think like this, they celebrate people who do.  I don’t feel any need to track my husband’s movements via his iPhone or think twice about what he’s doing with his genitalia where other humans are concerned. Why? Because he’s a decent human, and I trust him. It’s part of what Love means when I think about my marriage vows.

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You don’t get to close your lab “in the name of Jesus.”  You shouldn’t applaud people like Mike Pence who use a non-biblical standard of sexual “purity” in a way that locks women out of the halls of power. It doesn’t matter whether Pence “intended” for that to be the effect. It IS the effect his holiness code has on the women around him.

You shouldn’t cancel your kid’s field trip for the sake of your testimony. (Good grief, who ARE your friends, and why do you keep hanging out with them if they are going to scream nasty things about your reputation the minute you set foot in an automobile with someone of the opposite sex?)

You shouldn’t avoid doing the right thing – the kind and loving thing – because you’ve built yourself a big ol’ holiness fence to protect your personal reputation. Sometimes doing the right thing is going to look rather messy.  At that point, you can either love your holiness code or you can love the person you’re trying to help.  You can’t do both.