Enjoy your prohibition! On Mike Pence’s weird rules

I have taken particular joy in the jokes surrounding Mike Pence’s refusal to eat dinner with a woman other than his wife. This is because I grew up in an evangelical Christian culture where such rules were very much in force — to the extent that they didn’t even need to be talked about. In fact, it is only the Pence controversy that made me consciously aware of how pervasive they were, and the experience has been like recognizing a pun for the first time in a phrase you’ve been repeating for decades.

The rule is that every male-female relationship tends toward possession — marriage being the logical endpoint, though dating is supposed to operate by the same logic. (By the way, to the women I dated while I was still processing all this: apologies for the weird possessiveness.) There is a felt pressure to stake a claim (one must “officially” be on record as being attracted to some member of the opposite sex at all times) and any interaction between your possession and another potential rival is a challenge. There is a certain egalitarianism in this, insofar as women are supposed to be just as possessive and suspicious. The ideal order of operations is to get married and then express the ultimate possession through having sex, but if the latter occurs first in an irreversible way (i.e., pregnancy), the order can and must be reversed.

My dad shared with me a tendency to prefer the company of women, and in retrospect I realize that this caused a degree of uncomfortable joking. Everyone realized that he wasn’t a threat, hence joking rather than hostility — but potential friendships were definitely thwarted. People, including family members, even joked around about his relationship with my aunt, i.e., his own wife’s younger sister whom he had known since she was a very young high schooler.

What is the purpose behind such norms and prohibitions? In retrospect, I believe it was actually to incite heterosexual desire. By making hetero-eroticism omnipresent, dangerous, and perpetually endangered, it aimed to introduce a certain drama and intensity to the ostensibly “natural” course of things. The difficulty, of course, is that a form of desire sustained by the danger of transgression is not going to be very functional once the prohibition is lifted — hence the proverbial decline in sex drive among married couples. The network of prohibitions remind you that your possession is never fully secure and hence that your claim must be perpetually renewed, but more importantly, the implication that you will attempt to have sex with everyone you take to Panera Bread after work reminds you that you are supposed to have these dangerous desires and must channel them in the appropriate directions. Without the prohibition to lust after another man’s wife, they would forget to lust after their own.

8 thoughts on “Enjoy your prohibition! On Mike Pence’s weird rules

  1. I grew up in Wheaton, IL, during the 90’s. At that time, by contrast homo-erotic relationships were very much encouraged. Sports such as wrestling, football, etc. we’re the norm. Weekend sleepovers and close intimate relationships with same- sex (rather than hetero sexed) peers were not only encouraged, but expected and praised. Sure, heterosexual marriage was also expected, eventually. But now that I think about it, it was also an achievement to overcome such explicit homoerotic pleasures. If anything, during the 1990’s heyday of Wheaton Bible Church and College Church, heterosexual relationships threatened the pleasures of homoerotic relations.

  2. I don’t see the problem. Marriage vows are pretty explicit (“to have and to hold”) and people not okay with that sort of mutual “possessiveness” are able to *not* take vows, especially these days.

    In addition to interesting psychosexual reasons, here are some other possible reasons:
    1. his wife would prefer he didn’t take other women to dinner, and he loves his wife
    2. he doesn’t want to tempt fate; casual friendly relationships will always seem more fun/easier than a marriage during a difficult time; aka he doesn’t have a naive, radical libertarian view of free will
    3. he doesn’t want to “give the appearance of doing evil”

    All of these reasons are available to an atheist, and are compatible with his politics being clearly evil.

    It’s remarkable how the several dour boozy 40-something divorcées I know have weighed in this week on why his stance deserves ridicule.

  3. Yes, my background to some extent too. I note though that Pence relates it to the Billy Graham Rule of not being alone in the company of any woman other than his wife. Hilary Clinton famously got him to meet with her alone , but in public. While Graham was trying to positively deal with his own moral standing Pence appears to be objectifying his wife by putting a fence around her. I don’t agree with either, but I see Pence’s stance as negative objectification.

  4. LK your opinion is fine and all but the post is oddly hostile. I’m glad i’m not one of your boozy 40 year old pals.

  5. Adam: I mean that I judge the rule to be prudent if it’s motivated by the kinds of reasons I listed.

    cruth01: I’m talking about people who fell into disastrous affairs now ridiculing married people who are trying to do the right thing.

  6. My friend Janice pointed out another angle: if at any point she as a women said she could not be alone with a man, it would be impossible for her to have worked these past 20 years.

    This heterosexual purity agenda is actually just patriarchy.

  7. I’ve read through most of your works on violence- some of the quite recent ones such as the Spencer and Milbank writings were massively intriguing to me. I resonated with your criticism of the modern liberal’s fetishization of peace and passivity. Would you ever consider compiling some of your thoughts on the topic into its own dedicated post? I’d love to see your opinions on the intersections of Zizek and Malcom X and the like in relation to the purposed use of violence. Thanks for writing what you do!

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