Why I Have My Version of the Billy Graham Rule

By George Yancey Published on April 6, 2017

As you’ve heard, Mike Pence has came under fire lately for letting it be known that he follows the “Billy Graham rule”: He won’t have a one-to-one dinner or any private session with any woman other than his wife. For this he’s been accused of sexism, for denying women the same access to him that men have. For my part I think his private decisions regarding his own marriage are his own business.

I have my own version of the Billy Graham rule. I am willing to have a meal out with a woman as long as we’re in public, but I won’t be in a room by myself with any female other than my wife or another family member. During office hours I’ll close my door if I’m talking with a male student who requests it, but not with a female student. I know other male professors who follow the same policy.

I’ve realized that my only defense against false accusations is to make sure that I am never alone behind closed doors with a woman.

Depending on who you ask, Pence’s version of the rule is intended to prevent either the appearance of adultery or the actual sin. That’s not the reason for my own rule. I may be naïve about my own weaknesses, but I have no fear that I am going be unfaithful to the wonderful woman who is my wife.

No, I developed this rule long ago when I saw what was happening to men in academia who were accused of sexual harassment. They had no defense. No one would believe them. Once there was a time when women who reported sexual harassment were either ignored or disbelieved. It is good that this new attitude toward men corrects that error. But it goes far beyond that. It’s an overreaction.

I’ve realized that my only defense against being falsely accused is to make sure that I am never alone behind closed doors with a woman. I want to be sure there’s always someone in earshot whose witness can overcome the “guilty until proven innocent” standard.

This caution has been proved wise more than once since I implemented my rule. Rolling Stone ran an unsubstantiated campus rape story. Their eagerness to publish that report did not arise in a vacuum, but in an academic atmosphere where male defendants are guilty until proven innocent. Likewise, the Duke lacrosse team’s alleged rape case was made worse by academics who jumped to conclusions.

Men have lost confidence in due process, both in the court of law and in the court of public opinion.

Does my policy mean that male students and co-workers have access to me that females do not? Perhaps. I think I’ve made it work well for my female students and peers. Still, it could be that men have slightly easier access to me than women — and that it’s a little easier for them to work with me because of that. But my concerns for my own safety are reasonable, so I do not regret having or keeping this rule.

I wouldn’t want to revert to the days when women’s accounts of sexual assault would be dismissed without a hearing. They need due process. So do men. Sometimes the accused are innocent. Men have lost confidence in due process, both in the court of law and in the court of public opinion.

If our caution disadvantages women, then let’s work together to create an atmosphere where no one is automatically believed or disbelieved when there’s an accusation of sexual harassment. We need to give both the accuser and the defendant equal weight, and take all evidence into account. And we certainly need to return to “innocent until proven guilty.”

A saner approach to sexual harassment accusations would do a lot more to help women get the mentoring they need than any attempt to force change by using charges of sexism to stop men from employing some version of the Billy Graham rule.

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