culture Theology

Harvey Weinstein vs Billy Graham

In Ross Douthat’s weekend op-ed on the lecherous Harvey Weinstein, he makes, in passing, what I think is a very important point:

If liberals want to restrain the ogres in their midst, a few conservative ideas might be helpful.

First: Some modest limits on how men and women interact professionally are useful checks on predation. Many liberals were horrified by the revelation that for a time Mike Pence avoided one-on-one meetings with women not his wife. But one can find the Pence rules too sweeping and still recognize that life is easier for women if their male bosses don’t feel entitled to see them anywhere, anytime. It would not usher in the Republic of Gilead if it were understood that inviting your female subordinate to your hotel room, Weinstein-style, crosses a line in a way that a restaurant lunch does not.

Consistent readers of this blog may remember the Pence controversy to which Ross refers. It was over something that has been called in evangelical life “the Billy Graham rule,” named for the evangelist’s self-imposed mandate that he would not meet alone with another woman without his wife present. After it came out that Vice President Pence practiced a similar mandate, the internet exploded with accusations of sexism, Puritannery, and unfeeling obliviousness to the career struggles of women. Some of those accusations, in fact, came from evangelicals, who lamented such “sexualizing” of male-female relationships.

Would the Billy Graham rule have prevented exploitation like that seen by Harvey Weinstein? To answer that, we might do well to hear the words of one of Weinstein’s victims:

In 2014, Mr. Weinstein invited Emily Nestor, who had worked just one day as a temporary employee, to the same hotel and made another offer: If she accepted his sexual advances, he would boost her career, according to accounts she provided to colleagues who sent them to Weinstein Company executives. The following year, once again at the Peninsula, a female assistant said Mr. Weinstein badgered her into giving him a massage while he was naked, leaving her “crying and very distraught,” wrote a colleague, Lauren O’Connor, in a searing memo asserting sexual harassment and other misconduct by their boss.

…Ms. Nestor, a law and business school student, accepted Mr. Weinstein’s breakfast invitation at the Peninsula because she did not want to miss an opportunity, she later told colleagues. After she arrived, he offered to help her career while boasting about a series of famous actresses he claimed to have slept with, according to accounts that colleagues compiled after hearing her story and then sent on to company executives.

Emily Nestor was looking for a business meeting. She found sexual harassment instead. That speaks far, far more to Weinstein’s character than anything or anyone else. But is it really “sexist” to think there’s a problem deep in the equation when a female employee feels professionally obligated to meet a powerful male executive in his hotel room? And does one unnecessarily “sexualize” male-female dynamics by suggesting that powerless females are more vulnerable to powerful males in the absence of tangible, navigable rules?

I understand where BG rule critics are coming from when they regret that male-female relationships in the church are subjected to sexual scrutiny, at the cost of authentic friendship and/or professional respect. That’s a valid concern, and we ought to be sensitive to it. Elders and male professionals don’t get to hide behind “wisdom” or “discernment” as a way of muting input from women or avoiding transparency. Nor should Christians aspire to mincemeat spirituality that is so highly gendered it results in a bifurcated church community (“Men, you do life with men, and women y’all go off and have your Bible study too”).

But the Harvey Weinsteins and Bill O’Reillys of the world are reminders that women in subordinate positions to men often feel pressured into closeness, and that this pressure almost always serves male libido and ego more than it serves women. If women often do not have the professional/economic leverage to afford rare or nonexistent access to male leadership (and I think that’s often true), how much less do they have leverage to refuse a meeting or a conversation because of uncomfortable circumstances?

The weakness of rules is that they don’t always take into account mitigating circumstances and can fail to meet the needs of the moment. But the strength of rules is that you don’t have to impugn someone’s motives in order to enforce them. Rules are there even when the people come and go. Not meeting alone with a member of the opposite sex entails not meeting them alone in a hotel room. Seems reasonable to me–and I have a feeling it would have seemed reasonable to Emily Nestor.

By Samuel D. James

Believer, husband, father, acquisitions editor, writer.