The internet is abuzz this week after this Washington Post profile of the second lady, Karen Pence, revealed that Vice President Mike Pence maintains a policy of never dining alone with another woman or attending an event with alcohol without his wife.
Simultaneously, in our neighbor to the north, the University of Regina is inviting students to attend a mock-Catholic confessional, complete with a confessional booth, to confess to the sin of hypermasculinity. The flyer states, “We have all reinforced hypermasculinity one way or another regardless of our gender! Come and share your sins so we can begin to discuss how to identify and change our ways!” The event is sponsored by Man Up Against Violence, which aims to “challenge mindsets and behaviors with regard to the social construction of masculinity and its relationship with violence.”
These two occurrences lead one to wonder: What’s a man to do? If he refuses to recognize the ways in which his male tendencies may be a threat to women, he must confess. But if he does recognize the risks, and takes steps actively to avoid making poor decisions, he’s ridiculed. Not every couple needs to abide by the strict standards of the Pence family. But since when does a public figure going above and beyond for the cause of decency mean he must be subject to public scorn?
People don’t usually plan to make bad decisions
Now certainly, a man can avoid being boorish without having to take the extra precautions of complete transparency in his every interaction with women. A married man can enjoy a dinner with another married woman, a single man can enjoy a drink with a single female friend, or any combination thereof, without falling prey to the sin of “hypermasculinity.” However, we all know that appearances also matter, as does the possibility of “he said, she said” when something happens behind closed doors, whether in a campus dorm room or a congressional office.
But beyond this, the real admission of the Pence situation is that people seldom plan to make poor decisions in advance. It’s easy to see how a close, often private relationship in the hypercharged world of Washington can lead to bad choices. It’s the story of far too many public figures. Yet it’s worth noting that this isn’t a struggle faced only by our nation’s politicians. In 2012, it was the left’s own Ta’Nehisi Coates who wrote:
I’ve been with my spouse for almost 15 years. In those years, I’ve never been with anyone but the mother of my son. But that’s not because I am an especially good and true person. In fact, I am wholly in possession of an unimaginably filthy and mongrel mind. But I am also a dude who believes in guard-rails, as a buddy of mine once put it. I don’t believe in getting “in the moment” and then exercising will-power. I believe in avoiding ‘the moment.’ I believe in being absolutely clear with myself about why I am having a second drink, and why I am not; why I am going to a party, and why I am not. I believe that the battle is lost at Happy Hour, not at the hotel. I am not a ‘good man.’ But I am prepared to be an honorable one.
Shouldn’t feminists be thankful for considerate men?
Coates isn’t just admitting here to trying to curb his desires in an effort to be faithful. He’s admitting he actively changes his circumstances in advance, to avoid reaching a point where he needs to curb his desire. It’s a reminder that each of us need to figure out a system that works best for our circumstances. What that looks like for each relationship and profession will be different.
You would think that these same feminists who decry the sin they’ve dubbed “hypermasculinity” would be grateful for the efforts of men who set guardrails to avoid falling into temptation. As far as I can tell, Coates’ admission drew no ire. But apparently if one’s personal version of that seems too strict or out of step with modern convention, it can’t be appreciated for its efforts to combat the problem. A fine bit of hypocrisy for the side of the political aisle obsessed with not passing judgment over an individual’s consensual relationship arrangements.
At the end of the day, we’re all asking men to ensure they act like gentlemen. To avoid using their masculinity in a way that harms women, holds them back or puts them down. We’re asking for a man to know himself and his baser human tendencies, and understand how to go above and beyond to avoid giving into them. It’s a tall order, particularly as this hypermasculinity is a thing the campus organizers claim men may not even realize they are committing. We want a man’s actions to be reasoned and clear-headed. We should appreciate men who think carefully about what that means, and put in the effort to create a system that works for them.
I want my son to be a gentleman, too
There’s an interesting conversation to be had about whether Pence’s policy puts women on his staff at a disadvantage—after all, it’s hard to imagine having a chief of staff with whom you can’t ever have a closed-door meeting. But Pence has a history of employing women in senior posts, and women I know who have worked for him have gone on to amazing careers. So while the Pence rule may on its face have benefits and potential risks for female staff, those risks are manageable with care. Perhaps we can give the benefit of the doubt to a man so dedicated to careful stewardship of his most important female relationship, and assume it’s possible that he treats his female staff with a similar level of courtesy.
As the mother of a young son, I want him to think through these questions, to be the gentleman who never parades his masculinity harmfully, treats women with respect and sets himself and the women around him up for success. I doubt in his case it will need to look exactly like the Pence’s arrangement. But I do want to impress upon him the importance of figuring out these dynamics with his future partner in a healthy way.
Given the left’s competing messaging this week, I’m at a loss for what they would have me teach him. What would satisfy their confused vision of masculinity’s proper role in society? How to curb its baser tendencies?
Perhaps I’ll teach him in Coates’ own words: “These are compacts I have made with myself and with my family… I tend to think those compacts work best when we do not flatter ourselves, when we are fully aware of the animal in us.” And then I’ll tell him about the lengths to which another good man went to avoid awakening the animal in him.
Image by Gino Santa Maria