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?