Thursday, March 30, 2017

When Harry Did Not Meet Sally

A couple of years ago I confided to a married male friend that, even though I’d long since rejected the idea that cisgendered heterosexual men and women can’t be friends, I still worried sometimes about other people’s perceptions of my friendships. I know better than to think people will not make incorrect assumptions about my friendships with men, single or married, and I felt the need to tread carefully. I still assumed I would be considered “the other woman,” no matter that my friendships were platonic, open, and honest - nothing secretive about them. My friend was surprised that I would feel this way, and in a weird way that has helped me in the years since to stop wasting time or energy on the matter, to chalk these worries up to my conservative evangelical past and its resulting internalized sexism and self loathing. Of course some people might have their own ideas about my friendships, but so long as my friends, their partners, and I were all on the same page, why waste time worrying about what anyone else thinks? Unfortunately, the simple suggestion that “men and women can’t be friends” has darker implications, beyond my own day to day life.

This week’s flurry of hot takes about the fact that Mike Pence won’t eat alone with women other than his wife (a throw-back to the “Billy Graham rule”), and the number of people like blogger Matt Walsh who’ve defended the position, are a sad reminder that this belief is still prevalent, that it is anything but fringe. Some might laugh it off as an unimportant aside, but I would argue that rather it has everything to do with who we understand women to be and how they are (and will be) treated. That a married man like Matt Walsh cannot think of a single good reason to spend time with a woman who is not his wife tells me in no uncertain terms that he believes women are for sex, for reproduction, and for raising children. Full stop. He cannot imagine that half of his fellow humans have anything else to offer in personal or professional relationships. The caution against spending time with women is framed as a matter of avoiding situations of compromise or suspicion, which on its surface might seem harmless enough - but what that means, specifically, is that women are a source of suspicion. Always.

Coming off the controversy around Tim Keller over the last couple of weeks, as a woman and particularly as one who studies and writes about theology, who teaches and preaches and may hopefully one day be a pastor, I am hyper aware that this kind of misogyny is alive and well even among mainline and some so-called liberal Christians. Others with closer ties to Princeton and the Presbyterian church have written with nuance and heart about that situation, so I don’t feel the need to add to their work (though you should absolutely click those links and read it). Rather I want to point out that the resurgence of these ideas, indeed the fact that those who aren’t as familiar with the religious right are learning for the first time that people think such things, has everything to do with this brand of misogyny becoming mainstream.

Perhaps you think people are being alarmist when they reference The Handmaid’s Tale in relation to the current administration's ideas about women. But these conversations about women and friendship, about whether there is such a thing as “debate” with someone who doesn’t think women can preach, have everything to do with who counts as human, and all the civil and religious liberties that go along with it. If women are only for sex and reproduction, if women should be avoided as temptresses, their bodies carefully controlled, it is not a far leap to the handmaidens Margaret Atwood imagined. Inherent in Walsh’s question, posed as a response to the outcry about Pence’s statement, is the belief both that women’s bodies are for sex and that women exist for men, but that even in existing for men they only offer their bodies, not their whole selves. “Why,” he seems to be asking, “would I spend time with a woman, if not to sleep with her? Therefore I should not spend time with her, lest I be tempted to cheat on my wife.”

I meet with married men alone all the time, as professional women must. As a writing tutor for graduate students in a divinity school, I simply couldn’t do my job if I didn’t. I meet with them in a dull beige office, a professional context, to offer my expertise on theological writing. It is not nearly as sexy as men like Walsh seem to think it is. In fact, it’s quite boring. We mostly talk about commas, active versus passive voice, nouns, verbs, and when it’s appropriate to use “I” in academic writing. Not exactly fodder for anyone’s fantasies.

I also meet with colleagues and former classmates to talk about our careers. I meet male friends for coffee, or for drinks after work, to talk about our lives, our relationships, about books and music and ideas - about many of the same things I share with my women friends, in fact. I cannot speak for them, but I would wager that these men benefit from their friendships with me in many ways. I shouldn’t have to say this next part, but I will: I don’t want to sleep with any of them. And despite what Walsh would have us believe, it is far from “normal” to insinuate that it’s bad for men to make friends with women. It’s disturbing and misogynist and deeply unchristian. It tells me much more about his preoccupation with women’s bodies as sexual objects than it does about anything else.

I hope I can avoid sounding trite in turning here to Galatians 3:28, a verse in some sense both over and underused to discuss the truth that we are neither male nor female but are rather one in Christ. When I read this passage I hear two things: one, a divine reality that in Christ we have been made one, our differences not erased but woven together, freed from oppressive categories; and two, the call to embody that truth by doing the difficult work of making it true in our lives and communities. Make no mistake: it is work. Change is not inevitable on this or any other matter.

In my more generous moments, I feel bad for people like Walsh. They miss out on so much that women have to offer. If they did have women friends, they might learn a thing or two, might even change their minds about some of their toxic theology, though I don’t hold out much hope for that. On the contrary, I would caution any woman to refrain from befriending men with such an evil perception of who they are, for fear of the emotional, spiritual, and physical trauma that too often results. Men like this will continue to subjugate women’s bodies and intellect, perpetuating cycles of abuse, and ultimately turning people away from the church, because of their distortion of the gospel. A distortion that currently resides in the White House, and will dictate policy for years to come. While stepping away from the proliferation of hot takes and internet controversy is important, sometimes it’s the small things like this that point to the bigger, scarier trends that affect us all.

Perhaps most scary to me is how easily moderate and liberal men dismiss women's responses to people like Keller, Pence, Walsh, and others. Have you so quickly adapted to this "new normal"? Do you really need to "hear both sides"? Do we really mean so little to you?


  1. Such a good post. Like you, I was struck by the presupposition of Pence's claim (and Walsh et al.) that women don't have professional lives that require them to meet one-on-one with men. You are also right that men who never develop non-sexual friendships with women will continue to see them as suspect, as objects rather than dynamic people with gifts, thoughts, emotions (beyond what women are stereotypically supposed to have). Thanks for your thoughtful response to such a troubling ideology!

  2. I have so much to say. First off, I agree with everything you're saying. I'm a pastor. My best friend since 7th grade is male. He is married. He and I hang out just like any same sex best friends would. Sometimes we're alone. Sometimes our spouses are with us. My husband counsels men, women, and couples. He doesn't really have any friends that are girls that he is closer to than I am, but he has, at one time or another, been alone with my friends and it's not a big deal. He did go to dinner with my sister once because I wasn't feeling well and I forced them to go without me. (My sister is the one who felt weird about it. I told her to stop being ridiculous and get her butt in the car) So, those are my personal practices and views. Now, we live in a small southern town. We are the only affirming, progressive church within 100 miles. There are pastors and other very conservative Christians in our town who are out for blood. They would LOVE for either my husband or me to "slip up" in a way that would damage our church and our ministry. While I could really give zero ***** about what they think, they do have the ability to start vicious rumors with very little to go on. I've seen them do it. We started our church from the ground up and our staff is like our family. We have a target on our backs and although we don't follow the "don't be alone with people of the opposite sex" rule, we do have to be aware of how others may interpret our behavior. So, it's not about not trusting women or men or each other. It's more about the other people wanting is to fail and their ability to ruin lives with gossip. I'm glad people are having this conversation. I wish things were different. I long for the day when folks see a man and a woman together and not automatically assume that they're a couple. ��

  3. A lady at my church described this incident:
    She is a (widowed) pastor's wife, and a couple women approached her one Sunday to tell her they'd seen her husband in the car with another woman.
    And Vi laughed it off. She knew the other woman - it was her. Wearing a wig because that's what you did sometimes.
    I had a male pastor friend (who dropped me when he got engaged).
    Before that he had a curfew for cars in his driveway because the ladies would "just check in" on the parsonage via drive-by.
    People can be nosy as hell.

  4. The reason that Mike Pence won't go out to dinner with an unrelated female is the same reason Muslim women wear hajibs and burquas. Do you suppose the traditional wear of women in Islam was designed and ordered for themselves by women to protect themselves from male interest? Hardly. It comes back to the same old story that you can still read in Genesis: woman as temptress, man as innocent victim. It's as untrue and stupid now as it was then. As a man who works in a female dominated industry (nursing), it has been and continues to be my honor and privilege to spend many hours a day in the company of women, working with them to accomplish goals and provide excellent service to our residents and patients. I have heard their stories, watched them struggle and persevere and both succeed and fail. Inevitably they get back up and move onward. The strength of character and the dogged determination I have witnessed from some of my colleagues is humbling. Mike is a fool for missing these things when he has the chance.

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  6. I think there has been quite a leap here to assume that because a man is unwilling to eat alone with women he is unwilling to develop friendships with them. He may have deep and lasting friendships with are simply aware he has a specific rule pertaining to a date-like context.

  7. Umm, we can't use the same "friends" word with the opposite sex. We just can't. No one would think twice about me going out to lunch or dinner alone once a month with my college-era (female) friend of 33 years. (I'm female. We're both straight.) But it isn't appropriate to go out with her husband alone. Once, for a particular reason, is okay. But repeatedly with the same person is not okay.

    My ex-husband started going out to lunch alone with a female co-worker on a regular basis. A neighbor saw them once and didn't tell me because he didn't want make assumptions or be gossipy. And then they joined a gym together and once, she drove an hour out of her way to pick him up at home and give him "a ride to the airport" when I was out of town. This would be harmless if they were both straight guys. But of course they were having an affair that he says started AFTER they spent a lot of time together. Wrecked both marriages.

    Needless to say, I'm not a fan of people spending time alone with members of the opposite sex. But I'm also appalled at a statement that a man sees no reason to spend any time with a woman other than his wife. This does indeed reveal an attitude that women are to be avoided because he might be attracted to one of them. Not okay, to put it gently.