One Way to Prevent Sexual Misconduct

The flood of allegations about sexual misconduct is, at its least, a teachable moment, especially for men. Many are anxious about whether they have crossed lines in the past and confused about how they should proceed in their workplace relationships with female bosses, colleagues and subordinates.

There’s no question that the lengthening list of men accused of sexual misbehavior represents a breakdown of Cooperative Wisdom. Because sexuality is so intimate, genuine cooperation in this part of our lives leads to a profound sense of flourishing. Sex between partners who value and respect each other affirms the essential cooperative principle: I do this. You do that. Both of us thrive in ways that simply aren’t available to us as individuals.

Sexual misconduct violates this cooperative agreement in a deeply personal way because one person (usually he) insists on objectifying or maneuvering another person (usually her) for personal gratification without regard for what matters to the other person. This ability to coerce one person into giving up something of value is a symptom of the vast imbalance of power that persists between the sexes. Some powerful men harass, grope, molest, or rape simply because they can get away with it. Women are often unable to make them stop in the moment, and the very real fear of repercussions keeps them from taking corrective action in the aftermath.

Until now. Something has shifted. The people who hold up half the sky are speaking out about sexual coercion in all its many forms. And they are gradually gaining the support of men who appreciate the power and durability of relationships in which benefits are truly mutual.

The Risks of Shut Down

As we point out in Cooperative Wisdom, most people–men and women, powerful and weak–want to do the right thing most of the time. And they spontaneously seek out and cultivate relationships in which benefits are truly mutual. This is true of sexuality too. Most men and women find partners who take a loving interest in making sure both of them are satisfied, sexually and in other ways, as the relationship progresses. When relationships are grounded in respect and compassion, they are more likely to be sustainable because both parties flourish.

Because the inclination to cooperate to produce such mutual benefits is so deep, there is considerable distress when it breaks down. The public has been genuinely shocked by the sheer number of men who have used their power to impose their sexual will. And we should be genuinely grateful to the women who have had the courage to speak about experiences that have been unspeakable for too long.

There is also fear that the vulnerability men now feel will lead them to shut down professional relationships with women. The Mike Pence Rule—never meet alone with a women other than your wife—creates very real risks of excluding women from mentorships, travel, one-on-one meetings and other opportunities for professional development.  It also deprives projects and relationships of insights women more regularly provide.

Our Alternative to the Pence Rule

Fortunately, men and women can interact respectfully in the workplace, and we offer our collaboration as evidence. When we started the meetings that would lead to Cooperative Wisdom, Don was a recently retired professor and Carolyn was a writer who had returned to school to get her Master’s degree. We met in a seminar Don taught, a situation in which the professor inevitably has more power than the student.

Don had already thought, at length, about how to use that power wisely in relation to students. As a professor of ethics and philosophy of religion at Bowling Green State University, he knew students who engaged with the subject matter of his classes often wanted to discuss very personal questions. With the understanding that opening up to a professor could involve risk, he deliberately arranged his office so the desk faced the wall opposite the door. Students who consulted with him sat closer to the door. The arrangement made it clear, without words, that the student controlled the decision about whether to leave the office and would make the decision about whether the conversation was private enough that the student wanted the door closed.

By the time we met, both of us were experienced collaborators. We were also in long-term marriages. If we were going to fully explore the principles of Cooperative Wisdom, we knew we would share personal stories and feelings not only about issues but also friends and family members. Inevitably, some of those stories would evoke painful memories and unresolved feelings, and the compassion of the collaborator would bubble up. The natural expression of that compassion might be physical—reaching out to clasp a hand or put an arm around the other person’s shoulder.

All this would be real and heart-felt, but it could be confused with sexual expression. In one of our earliest meetings, Don addressed this ambiguity directly by saying, “We are developing a collaboration AND we intend to respect our spouses and sustain our marriages. We need to make it clear right now that we will honor both of these values. We will affirm our partnership, but our collaboration will not become sexual, and we won’t do anything in this relationship that disrupts our marriages.”

Carolyn remembers that conversation vividly because it was so different from what she had encountered before. “I didn’t realize how much effort I had put into parsing the intentions of men in my professional life,” she says now. “Because that conversation clarified values and removed uncertainty, my usual feeling of wariness lifted, and our conversations became deeper and more productive.”

For Don, the conversation wasn’t as memorable because he had developed standard procedures for working with graduate students. “Whenever there is an imbalance of power in a relationship, the privileged person has a choice,” he observes. “You can be coercive to get something that the other person wouldn’t willingly give. Or you can exercise proactive compassion. When you think about vulnerability and take steps to minimize it, you win the trust of the other person and magnify the prospects for collaboration.”

The Obligations of Power

Both of us believe this model offers genuine insight into situations in which there is an imbalance of power between men and women. Moral philosophers from Confucius to Aristotle agree with Don that magnanimity is the special duty of the powerful. Anyone who happens to be in the fortunate position of having more resources has an obligation to use those advantages to assuage the threat that coercion will be used to undermine what matters to the less powerful. The approach is nicely summarized by Brookings fellow, Ben Wittes, who tweeted “I confess I practice something close to the polar opposite of the Pence Rule. My rule is this: meet with women alone all the time—up to and including in situations that might typically raise eyebrows—and conduct yourself in a manner so above reproach as to not raise eyebrows.”

In Cooperative Wisdom, we write about King David, one of the earliest sexual predators. Having bedded and impregnated the wife of one of his soldiers, David tries to get her husband, Uriah, to sleep with her in order to cover up his illicit action. Uriah honorably declined the pleasures of sex while he was on active duty, so David orders him sent to the front lines where he is predictably killed. In the Bible, the prophet, Nathan, calls David out for behavior that violates the reciprocity undergirding the cooperation that makes human interaction successful.

Something similar seems to be happening in our culture. Men who have taken advantage of their power are being called account, not by a male prophet, but by women newly united by the idea that what matters to them cannot be denied, dismissed or diminished. This seems like a moment when Cooperative Wisdom can and should reassert itself as a guiding principle.

Men, in particular, have the opportunity to deploy the social virtues by asking tough questions about their workplaces: Where do women feel vulnerable and how can that vulnerability be mitigated? What are our values with regard to sex and how can they be integrated into our interactions? What risks are we willing to take to create workplaces in which everyone is able to contribute because they feel safe and valued?

Clearly, there are ways in which people who have power can and should engineer environments to make it clear that coercion need not be a worry. Whenever the powerful minimize risk and provide assurances that exploitation is not the goal, they increase the prospect of flourishing in professional as well as personal relationships. That’s Cooperative Wisdom in action!

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