Mike Pence and False Chivalry

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By Jennifer Downey

In 2002, Mike Pence told The Hill that he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side, either. – The Washington Post

I’m writing this at a coffee shop, slouched at an outdoor table with my iced chai, my dog, and my laptop. The guy at the next table is maybe 15 years my junior. Shit, maybe even 20, judging from the still-raw skin around his forearm tattoo. He told me he liked my dog, and leaned down to pet him. I thanked him and joked that I’m quite fond of him, too. We had a short laugh and he sat an adjacent table to poke around on his phone. He saw me. He sees me. But what does he see when he sees me?

Back in high school, I had a boyfriend who told me, after I smacked his arm for ogling another girl’s breasts and wondering out loud how much higher up she could hike them without risking a bra strap blowout, that there is no sense in pretending guys don’t look at girls “that way.” It was primal, he explained, even evolutionary—a built-in mechanism designed to aid in the survival of the species. “Tits, ass, legs, face,” he said, counting off on his fingers the four parts guys–all guys, he insisted—judge, and in what order. “It’s a continuum,” he went on. “If the tits are good, the ass matters a little less; if the ass is good, the legs matter a little less; and if all three are good, the face matters a little less.”

Charming boy that he was, he assured me that I was a home run. All four of the parts that made me slightly less than human were above average. The little parts that connected them—wrists, shoulders, spine—didn’t seem to be part of the equation. I liked him, more than he liked me. He was a DJ at Buffalo State College’s radio station. He used words like continuum. I was still in high school. We weren’t dating exclusively, but I wished we were.

“I could tell you what girls want to hear, but you’re smart enough to handle the truth” he said. I felt as much flattered as flattened. He had just told me I was pretty and smart—or had he said I had nice tits and should just keep quiet and be cool when he checked out other girls? He had somehow managed to compliment me and objectify me with the same words. But I wanted him to like me as much as I liked him, so I didn’t challenge him.

Instead, I stored that new piece of information—the fact that guys were little more than strutting peacocks with large enough cerebral cortexes to carry on conversations designed to convince their girlfriends to go on the pill so their built-in mechanism designed to aid in the survival of the species wouldn’t result in accidental reproduction—in the part of my brain that reminded me to wear flats when we went out so I wouldn’t appear taller than him. He claimed to be five-ten and I claimed to be five-eight, but we both knew we were a pair of five-niners—too tall for a girl, too short for a guy. That was something I knew for sure.

There are many things I knew for sure at sixteen that I find ridiculous at forty-six. But I still don’t know what the millennial dog-admirer at the next table sees when he sees me. Am I temptation personified, or do I remind him of his mother? When he leaned over to pet my dog, did he check me out on the way back up? Did he count them off: tits, ass, legs, face? He thinks my dog is cute, but does he think I’m cute? And what if he does? How much of this is mine to deal with?

These days, I eat most of my dinners with my six-two husband, and most of my lunches in the break room at work. I wonder if Mike Pence ever spent time in an office with a communal break room. It seems like every place I’ve ever worked has had the same setup—fridge, microwave, sink, dish drainer, a sign reminding us that Cinderella married Prince Charming and will no longer be available to clean up after us, a few café-style tables and chairs. Sometimes I eat alone while reading a book. Sometimes a coworker will be there, and sometimes that coworker will be male. Sometimes we’ll chat while I polish off my Lean Cuisine.

I wonder if Mike Pence ever chatted with a female coworker in a communal break room. Does it not count if there were other people in the room? Then I wonder if he ever sat next to a woman on an airplane and silently ate his first-class meal while she ate hers. Does it not count if they didn’t speak? Then I wonder if he ever petted a 46-year-old, five-nine woman’s dog before plopping himself down at the table adjacent to hers at a coffee shop to poke around on his phone. Does it not count because they were at different tables? Where does Pence draw the line? Is it a continuum? Table, solitude, conversation, intent?

No matter how he deals with airplane food and break rooms, at the end of the continuum sits the thing Mike Pence won’t engage in: a meal at a table alone with a woman who isn’t his wife—a real dinner complete with linen tablecloths, wine, food, conversation, and maybe even a bit of human touch over the bread basket. Mike Pence doesn’t do that, and that’s good. He respects his wife, in the same way my long-ago boyfriend respected me by telling me I was smart enough to handle the truth. Mike Pence is chivalrous, in the same way my boyfriend was being chivalrous by assuring me I was a home run. Mike Pence doesn’t want to cheat on his wife. He avoids situations in which he’d be tempted to do so. And that’s good. Isn’t that good?

Let’s count them off. Table: no. Solitude: no. Conversation: no. Intent …

Right. There it is.

Mike Pence presents himself as gentlemanly, as a good husband who can’t bear the thought of betraying his wife. His words and actions come across as kind and well-meaning, but only until you go deeper. Like my wrists or my spine, the little parts that connect Pence’s words—adverbs, conjunctions, emphases—don’t seem to be part of the equation. Mike Pence doesn’t want to betray his wife, but he puts his wife in charge of whether or not he betrays her.

There are unspoken assumptions built into Pence’s self-imposed–and wife-imposed—rules. One is that if he dines alone with a woman, he will be tempted to have sex with her. Another is that whoever this assumed temptress is, she’d be okay with that. Another is that even if she wasn’t okay with that, it wouldn’t matter because her very presence—let’s count them off: tits, ass, legs, face—was the source of the temptation.

It’s a continuum: solitude, intent, temptation, assumed consent. And Pence doesn’t want to go down that road, so he brings his wife, whose name is Karen, but whom he has admitted to addressing as “Mother” (oh, Freud, stop screaming in my head) with him. She keeps him in line just by being there, at his request, if not his insistence. A wanton woman would have to get through Mother to tempt Mike Pence’s admittedly weak flesh—especially weak, it would seem, if he’s knocked back a few, or if she has.

Karen Pence—Mother—keeps Mike Pence in line. Mike Pence doesn’t keep Mike Pence in line. That’s a problem. Pence’s Mother-knows-best mentality brushes up against the idea that if women drape themselves in thick, black cloth with a bit of mesh hiding those come-hither eyes, then men will be able to go about their business of running the world without having to deal with the constant temptation women cause. That’s a fancy way of saying good women won’t get themselves raped. That’s a fancy way of saying women are responsible for the actions of the men around them.

The millennial at the next table might have leaned down to pet my dog as a way of counting off the four parts of me that make me slightly less than human: tits, ass, legs, face. He might not have. Maybe he just liked my dog. Maybe he deemed me too matronly to fall anywhere on the continuum. Maybe he wanted to fuck me. None of that is my concern. All of that is his to deal with.

Mother keeps Mike Pence in line. Who keeps you in line?