Unpacking the Billy Graham Rule, Especially for Political Candidates

Last week news broke that Rep. Robert Foster, who is running for governor in Mississippi, denied ride-along access on the campaign trail to a female reporter, Larrison Campbell, unless she had a male colleague join her. Foster based his refusal on a promise he made to his wife that he would “never be alone with another woman he wasn’t related to under any circumstance, be it in an office, a farm or a truck.”

Rep. Foster is not the first politician to reference such promises, also known as “Billy Graham rule,” named for the evangelical leader who was a strong proponent of this vow never to spend time alone with a woman other than his wife. A couple of years ago, news circulated about how Vice President Mike Pence had similar practices of not eating a meal alone with a woman other than his wife.

At first glance, it may seem noble and an act of loving commitment that a husband would respect his wife by honoring wishes that he never be alone with another woman. Yet the basis of such an agreement illustrates rape culture and its continual use perpetuates dangerous premises that contribute to violence in our society. Moreover, its use by political candidates and others in the workplace reinforces gender inequality and discrimination.

The notion that men and women cannot exist in a space without a sexual encounter occurring continues false narratives of women as sexually-charged vixen who constantly seduce men. It also perpetuates the idea of men as powerless and unable to control themselves as they “fall victim” to the wiles of sexually-charged women. Moreover, an agreement between husband and wife suggests a lack of trust between the two individuals. No part of these stereotypes illustrates a healthy relationship.

At 2017 Women’s March in Los Angeles, group of men holding a sign that says, “Men of quality respect women's equality.”

At 2017 Women’s March in Los Angeles, group of men holding a sign that says, “Men of quality respect women’s equality.” Photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash

Foster also rationalized that in the age of the #MeToo movement, it is “safer” to keep to his promise so that he cannot be falsely accused of sexual assault because his opponents are looking for any signs of impropriety to use against him in the campaign. False accusations are exceedingly rare although the idea get lots of media attention. It’s far more common that sexual violence goes unreported than it is that false accusations of violence are lodged.

It’s time that we shift from a culture in which (potential) victims are told to watch out for themselves and take precautions to avoid violence to a culture in which we focus on correcting the conditions that prompt perpetrators to commit violence. The onus should not be on the would-be victim to act or dress a certain way as they move around in society. Rather, would-be perpetrators should have the tools needed to control their actions.

Beyond these personal relationships and whatever agreements Foster and his wife have, Foster is running for public office. Excluding women from participating in the work around him is detrimental to gender equality. Women will be left out of important conversations, unable to seek or possibly even know about job opportunities, excluded from positions of power, and face reduced earning potential. All of this repeats the cycle of gender injustice.

Excluding women from participating in the work around him is detrimental to gender equality. Women will be left out of important conversations, unable to seek or possibly even know about job opportunities, excluded from positions of power, and face reduced earning potential. All of this repeats the cycle of gender injustice.

The Action Alliance envisions a world filled with healthy relationships and free of violence. To move closer to this vision, we’re calling out and correcting faulty assumptions society holds of how people exist and interact, and we’re working to help breakdown rigid gender norms. Learn more about primary prevention at: http://vsdvalliance.org/prevention/about-primary-prevention

Feature image: At 2017 Women’s March in Los Angeles, group of men holding a sign that says, “Men of quality respect women’s equality.” Photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash


Elizabeth Wong is the Coalition Development Director for the Action Alliance. She is committed to building relationships that advance social justice and equality.

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Building a Culture of Consent in Virginia

These past few weeks in Virginia politics have not been easy. It started with a manufactured scandal surrounding Delegate Kathy Tran’s bill that would have repealed harmful TRAP laws on abortion access, including 24-hour waiting periods, requirements to obtain multiple layers of physician consent, and requirements that second-trimester abortions take place in a hospital. Soon after this, Governor Ralph Northam’s 1984 yearbook page surfaced featuring people in blackface and KKK attire. Just a few days later, Attorney General Mark Herring, who had joined in the chorus of statements urging for the resignation of Governor Northam, also admitted to donning blackface. And now, two survivors have bravely come forward to share their accounts of being sexually assaulted by Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax.

As these painful conversations continue to play out, the Action Alliance has released several statements, calling on advocates and social justice allies to address the injurious legacy of racism and white supremacy in Virginia and to seize these public conversations on sexual violence and harm as opportunities to ground ourselves in a collective mission of building a culture of consent and disentangling our accountability processes from that of the criminal justice system.

As a statewide voice on issues of sexual and domestic violence, the Action Alliance works for a radically different future where survivors are met with compassion and respect and where public conversations on harm focus on reparation and healing and on the need to invest in sexual violence prevention.

Committing ourselves to sexual violence prevention and building a culture of consent

In the age of #MeToo, we as a society are finally grappling with what community accountability might look like for those who do harm and the importance of believing survivors. These are long overdue and critical conversations to have. However, what this age of reckoning and justice-seeking also calls on us to do is to explore the nuances of cultural norms that might nurture a future in which every person has the knowledge and skills necessary to practice informed, ongoing, and enthusiastic consent. This is the antidote to sexual violence and we believe every human is deserving of experiencing healthy and joyful sexuality, centered in pleasure.

Wood word yes on a grey background

If healthy, violence-free relationships are our collective desire, then the conversation around harm can shift to focusing on how we might channel that desire into building a world in which these healthy, violence-free relationships and interactions are the norm. Here are just a few ideas for how we might call on our neighbors, families, communities, and policy leaders to invest in the prevention of sexual violence and build a culture of consent:

Provide opportunities for consent education and healthy sexuality to be taught early, often, and in multifaceted and developmentally appropriate ways in our families, schools, and communities.

Call on policy leaders to invest in sexual violence prevention and promote thriving communities in which healthy sexuality and healthy relationships are core values.

  • Ask policy leaders and stakeholders to provide schools with the resources they need to teach Family Life Education/Sex education effectively.
  • Review Virginia’s Family Life Education curricula and talk to teachers, administrators, and students about whether this education is consistent with over 30 years of research + best practices in behavior-change and health promotion.
  • Support every community in the Commonwealth having access to sexual violence prevention programming. Currently, only 6 communities in Virginia are funded by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention for this life-saving work.
  • Call on policy leaders to support funding for community-based Sexual & Domestic Violence Agencies to build and sustain prevention programming. There are no dedicated state funds for the prevention of sexual violence in Virginia.
  • Ensure that policy leaders are investing in accessible healthcare, including preventative care, for all Virginians.
  • Pay attention to whether your policy leaders are crafting and supporting tax and employment policies – like broadening paid family/medical leave and earned income tax credits – that support healthy families.

Right now, violence, harassment, and oppression are all around us. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Families and communities have the power to support transformative pivots in our culture. We can discuss these nuanced and difficult topics (like consent) with friends and neighbors, with our children, and with relatives. And we can commit ourselves to dismantling practices and norms that sustain a current culture of silence, shame, and avoidance on these topics giving way to a future in which wholeness, health, and consent are the new norms.

We at the Action Alliance have a compelling vision for a world where all of us thrive. We believe this better world is possible. We believe we are the ones we’ve been waiting for to make this future happen. We choose all of us to be a part of this future.

We seek a radically hopeful future where:

  • individuals are free and have what they need to reach their full potential;
  • relationships, families, and communities are healthy, equitable, nourishing, and joyful;
  • government, institutions and systems are rooted in equity and justice;
  • all decisions are grounded in whether they will benefit our future descendants, as well as our beautiful, sustaining earth.

With your help, this vision for a radically hopeful future – where sexual violence does not exist – really isn’t too distant.

For more information and resources on our work to prevent sexual violence in Virginia, check out TeachConsent.org, learn more about our statewide prevention projects, and support the Building Healthy Futures Fund.

Both images: Adobe Stock


Jonathan Yglesias is the Policy Director at the Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance where he works with a team of advocates, movement minds, attorneys, and passionate policy nerds to coordinate the Action Alliance’s public policy efforts on behalf of survivors, sexual and domestic violence agencies, and communities in Virginia seeking to improve the prevention of and response to sexual and domestic violence. He also likes memes and baby animals.


Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call 804.377.0335

I’m Dreaming of a World Where Everyone Feels Safe Outside

Trigger warning: descriptions of street harassment.

“The first time I was catcalled, I was 11-years-old. Every day after school, I walked less than a block away from the bus stop to my house. One day, a man pulled up beside me in his car and rolled down the window and asked how old I was. When I didn’t answer, he told me not to be shy and that he was just having “a little fun”. I remember my heart starting to race – so fast that it felt like it was gargling in my throat.”Faith Brar

In fourth grade and walking by an apartment building. Nine years old and walking with her grandmother. Twelve years old and walking the family dog. Nine years old, walking out of McDonald’s. Six to seven years old, going to a bathroom. Eleven years old and at school.

These are only some women’s stories about the first times they were catcalled. From as young as six years old, children and adults alike are subjected to street harassment every day. In fact, according to two online studies by Stop Street Harassment, at least 99 percent of respondents say they have experienced some form of street harassment — including but not limited to verbal comments, honking, whistling, leering, vulgar gestures, and stalking.

A ubiquitous problem, street harassment is a serious part of rape culture that normalizes unwanted, non-consensual sexual advances. Furthermore, it is a way for harassers to assert their “power and privilege over a public space,” thus further perpetuating a cycle of gender inequality. Street harassment leaves those targeted feeling unsafe, threatened, fearful, humiliated, and violated. And it’s not just the actual harassment itself, but as one writer describes it, “the fear of what might happen next is haunting.”

A little over a year ago, in May 2017, Pussy Division – a feminist activist group – put up “CATCALL CRIME SCENE” yellow tape around Philadelphia as part of a public art installation to raise awareness about street harassment.

“If our tape is inconvenient or annoying, then think of how inconvenient it is being chased by men and too scared to say no because we could get hurt or even killed,” stated Lara Witt, the group’s spokesperson.

Inconvenient is an understatement. According to a large-scale research survey conducted by Hollaback! and Cornell University, 72% of American women[1] reported taking different transportation due to harassment. Globally, the numbers are even worse. More than 76% of Argentinian women reported avoiding an area in their own town or city because of harassment. 80% of German women and more than 88% of Italian women reported taking different routes home because of harassment, 80% of Indian women reported being unwilling to go out at night because of harassment, and 80% of South African women reported changing their clothing because of harassment.

Not only does street harassment intrude into victims’ everyday lives, hindering their freedom and forcing them – instead of the harassers – to sacrifice their comfort and convenience for their safety, but it is psychologically damaging as well. According to a 2008 study of college women, street harassment was significantly related to self-objectification, which has been linked to depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Another alarming study of 297 undergraduate women found that objectification was associated with decreased sexual assertiveness, which was associated with an increased risk of sexual victimization. This means that frequent harassment can often lead to diminished sexual assertiveness, which can leave people at a higher risk of sexual assault.

Furthermore, unwanted sexual advances such as street harassment can be “insidiously traumatic,” according to a study published in 2014. As one writer stated, “every instance of harassment contains the threat of violence: what if I don’t respond the way the harasser thinks I should? Will he follow me? Will he pull me into his car? What if I see him again when it’s dark, or I’m alone, or he has friends with him?” This constant state of fear that harassment could escalate to assault or other forms of violence can have serious impacts on individuals’ mental health. It is also important to note that street harassment can be triggering for survivors of sexual violence.

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Source: https://everydayfeminism.com/2012/10/5-excuses-for-street-harassment-we-need-to-stop-making-now/

Street harassment is often done with a sense of entitlement – entitlement to comment on other people’s appearance and bodies, entitlement that other people and their bodies exist solely for the harasser’s “visual pleasure.” This same sense of entitlement – entitlement to sex, entitlement to someone else’s body – is one that can lead to sexual violence.

This month, France passed a bill that outlaws catcalling and street harassment, making them punishable with on-the-spot fines of up to 750 euros. While extra policing might not necessarily be the answer, as it can lead to unintended consequences that disproportionately harm people of color, it is reassuring to see a nation take street harassment seriously and attempt to put an end to it. There are various other ways to address street harassment, from educating others about its detrimental impacts to using the Hollaback! app to report instances of street harassment and let others know that you’ve “got (their) backs.” Regardless of how each individual chooses to address the issue, what matters is that we keep the conversation going and continue to raise awareness on the prevalence of this problem.

In our fight to end violence and inequality, there is no such thing as an unimportant or “small” issue. Every instance of oppression is one that ultimately feeds into a greater cycle of inequality and violence. If we want to see a world free of violence, that must be a world where threats of violence, objectification, and harassment are not brushed to the side – a world where everyone feels safe to go outside.

[1] The report did not address gender non-conforming individuals.

Featured image source: http://www.stopstreetharassment.org/2013/09/stwtskickstarter/


Maryum Elnasseh is a rising junior at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she is double-majoring in journalism and political science, with a concentration in civil rights. At the Action Alliance, Maryum has worked as the Real Story Intern since February, and this is her last post as an intern. We wish Maryum the best as she heads back to school!