Here is a story I think about at least once a month. Years ago, a date and I were talking about the lessons our mothers had imparted upon us in preparation for the romantic world.
Mine: Always tell someone where you’re going, and with whom. Bring your phone. Bring cash for a cab. Watch your drink. If the situation becomes threatening, yell “fire,” not “rape,” because passersby are more likely to take you seriously. Don’t be afraid to scratch or kick if it comes to that.
My date’s: Be careful. If you’re alone in a room with a girl, nothing would stop her from making up a story about what happened.
Then we laughed. Moms.
Last week, I wrote about a Mississippi politician who had refused a female journalist’s request to shadow him on the campaign trail, unless she brought along a male colleague as a sort of chaperone. The protocol, he said, came from his faith: Robert Foster had a policy of not being alone with any women other than his wife. I wrote about how I saw this policy as harmful — a way of sexualizing a standard and purely professional interaction, and a system that prevented women from having the same career opportunities as men.
A lot of the readers who showed up in my inbox agreed with me, but a lot of them didn’t. A lot of them thought Foster had been not only justified, but wise. Days later, I’m still wading through those emails, thinking and rethinking, as I hope we’re all doing all the time — thinking and rethinking, trying to make sense of the world.
Nearly without exception, Foster’s supporters approved of his protocols not out of respect for his faith and marriage vows — the reasons the candidate had provided. Rather, they provided a far more pessimistic rationale, which Foster himself had never hinted at. These readers explained that men should not ever be alone with women, because there was a good chance that women would falsely accuse them of sexual assault.
Many cited the #MeToo movement. Their biggest takeaway from #MeToo was not that powerful men have been harassing women with impunity for decades, but rather that conniving women are inventing false stories to deliberately take down men’s careers.
Statistics on false sexual assault accusations are muddy and hard to parse. In studies, researchers have come up with numbers ranging from 2 to 10 percent. But, they note, most sexual assaults go unreported — in part, because victims fear they’ll be accused of making things up — so the percentage of false accusations is actually much lower.
At any rate, my inbox was full of readers who believed they had identified the true epidemic: lying women.
“Men must now protect themselves,” one reader asserted, citing Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh as an example of a man she felt had been wrongly accused.
“I love my wife and daughters, but they plot, scheme, deceive and generally try to manipulate me toward their goals,” wrote one man.
A male attorney explained in his email that his firm had a policy, when it came to business travel, of booking separate flights and hotels for its male and female associates. Not separate rooms. Separate hotels. It was the only way, he said, to “eliminate any chance for a credible accusation of inappropriate sexual behavior.”
Hearing this anecdote, it’s hard to feel anything other than despair — for the lawyers absurdly emailing one other from separate Boeing 737s, for the corporation who believed that, so long as half the team flew Delta and half flew Southwest, they had fulfilled their leadership duties. If Marie Antoinette were alive, this is no doubt the solution she would have come up with: Let them eat room service, at the Hilton down the road, far, far away from the female attorneys at the Marriott.
But some readers wrote from places of deep and genuine confusion — a desire to do the right thing, and uncertainty over what the right thing actually was.
These readers had gathered from #MeToo that some women truly had been targeted in private meetings with their male bosses. So, wasn’t the best solution to avoid meetings between men and women entirely? Make sure there were no misunderstandings or misinterpreted actions? They’d absorbed the concept that they were supposed to “believe women,” but wouldn’t it be easier if they didn’t have to believe anybody, because the meetings didn’t happen at all?
This is what women asked for, was the punitive message again and again. This is the only solution they’ve left us with.
Several readers intimated that Foster’s mistake had been to make his policies public. They personally already quietly followed the practice of never being alone with women, they just didn’t announce it out loud.
These men came across as sincere. They came across as kind. And all I could think about were all the women they might have quietly decided not to hire, just to spare themselves the headache. Or all the women they currently work with, who must have tried to set up business lunches, brainstorming sessions and status updates, only to be rebuffed again and again.
Is it my performance? they must have wondered. My personality?
No, dear. It’s your voice, and the fact that your male colleagues are afraid you’re going to use it to tell lies about them.
Generally, I believe the world is infinitely complex and doesn’t come with easy answers. But in this case, there really are such easy answers to some of these concerns.
There are easy answers that come in the form of blanket policies. Bosses who are worried about the appearance of impropriety could have a blanket policy that they only conduct one-on-one meetings in the conference room that has glass walls. It would apply to both male and female employees — after all, men can be victims of harassment, too.
A candidate with a personal faith-based policy like Foster could arrange that all media interviews are conducted with a press secretary or other staffer in the room — a common practice many politicians have already employed for decades, which has the primary benefit of ensuring there are no arguments over quote accuracy.
There are so many easy answers that come in the form of kindness and respect for all people in the workplace. Why choose the answer that punishes primarily women? Why choose the answer that presumes that women in the workplace aren’t to be trusted, that perpetuates every backward stereotype?
Ladies and gentlemen — and specifically, the ladies and gentlemen in my inbox — if your “solution” involves holding back someone else’s career, rather than asking yourself to think creatively for a minute or be uncomfortable for a second, then it’s not a solution. It’s a painkiller. It’s a painkiller that temporarily masks the symptoms of an ill society, while the infection steadily gets worse.