February 5, 2013: Thanks for all the cool comments and discussion, but I can’t keep up with the moderation demands right now. Comments on this entry are now closed.
Yesterday I saw this Tweet. The piece linked there asks the question: “Can married women have straight male friends?” and suggests that friendships between straight men and straight women can be very difficult, partially based on a study about how some men and women might view their friendships differently:
Recently a study published in Scientific American stated that women are much more likely to be able to keep male friends platonic, while men have a harder time. The article states that these friendships are masked by a cover-up of sexual impulses by one of the parties. It said that men were far more attracted to their female friends and assumed their female friends felt the same, when they didn’t. Females were far less attracted to their male friends, and they, too, assumed that the male friends felt the same as they did. So, when it comes to male/female relationships, there are a lot of mixed signals going on from both sides.
First order of business: Studies like the one linked in the article are descriptive, not prescriptive. “This happens sometimes” does not mean “This happens sometimes, and therefore you should ______,” though they are nearly always presented that way by headline writers. “This happens sometimes. Scientists studied it in a way that fits into my preconceptions and anxieties. Therefore you should ____.” ==>A trend piece is born.
Sometimes, inevitably, we become attracted to our friends. They are awesome people, we are awesome people, and like attracts like. I do not see why this is a gendered issue. Attraction causes tensions in straight-lady/gay-lady friendships, too, right? And straight-man/gay-man friendships?
Should you become attracted to your friend of any gender, ask yourself:
- Is this person in a committed relationship that does not include room for me?
- Do I want to speak up about my feelings and see if they are returned?
If your friend is single or might be interested in you, and you want to speak up and see what happens, say “Friend, would you maybe like to try dating and see if we’d be good at it?” and see what they say. Real friendships are not irrevocably ruined by such honesty. I swear.
If your friend is happily committed elsewhere, and/or you don’t think it’s a good idea to act on an attraction for whatever reason, having the attraction does not have to doom your friendship. Having an attraction does not mean you have to do anything or say anything about it. Someone else’s attraction (or possible attraction) to you does not obligate you to do or feel anything in return. Even if such attraction is rare for you, you’re not the only two members of your species. Go ahead and have your secret PANTSFEELINGS. Then, when you see your friend, do not mention these feelings, hint at them, Firth them, probe for or exacerbate cracks in their current relationship, send FEELINGSMAIL, or give weird extra-long hugs where you smell their necks.
We talk a lot here about boundary-setting; this is a case for boundary-having. Feel whatever you feel! Then set boundaries with yourself about how you behave towards your friends. You could even say “I need to take a little break from hanging out to work out some weird feelings I’m having, sorry to make it weird, I’ll see you in a month or two” if you had to, and your friends would understand. Survive the temporary awkwardness, and stop imagining “attraction” as this mystical force that exists outside of human decisionmaking.
I am also confused as to why the writer seems to equate male friendships with “male attention.” This is one of the saddest sentences I’ve read in a while:
I find it easier to get my other needs met from my girlfriends and the male attention I get outside of that is restricted to the few men that still try to pick up on me in the grocery store.
Even if you buy the frankly terrible assumption that “male attention” is some kind of abstract need that women have in the first place, all “male attention” is not created equal.
My best friend from film school is named Zach. Zach is the kind of talented that means that someday you will all line up to buy tickets to the opening nights of his movies and talk about them in breathless, excited tones the way you now discuss your fondest artistic heroes. He is also fiercely loyal, honest, sensitive and considerate, a great listener, a generous collaborator, and effing hilarious. He moved away about a year ago, and I miss him pretty much daily.
I do not think that my friendship with Zach has ever included the kind of “male attention” one finds in grocery stores or, say, riding the Chicago Transit Authority. Full attraction disclosure: Once I walked into a show where his band was playing and thought “Whoa, that bass player is really ho-….I mean, my friend Zach is really good at playing bass!” If he ever had a similar passing thought of “Whoa, that disheveled teacher is really ho- I mean, my friend Jennifer is very good at explaining stuff” I do not know. If he did he sensibly kept that shit to himself like a grownup.
For anyone to try to tell me that one of the best and most productive and rewarding relationships I have ever had with a human being could possibly live or die by some pseudo-science about misplaced pantsfeelings, or put it in the highly dubious “ego-feeding” category of grocery store flirtations is beyond insulting. What a sad and reductive view of what human beings are to each other.
The author’s anxieties and choices about who to be friends with are obviously her own to have. But I don’t respect this way of forming the question and am so tired of seeing it asked. Advice about how to be friends, find love, and have sex that relies on gender essentialism is so very, very bad for us.
When I was growing up, my mom fell into this trap, big time even though she is an amazing, driven, brilliant, career-minded feminist who brooks no crap from anyone. She was hyper-vigilant and worried about any time I spent with boys. Even though I played on a nearly all-male soccer team. Even though men made up more than half our family, not to mention being half of everyone on the planet so, not actually avoidable. I was not allowed to invite male friends over, or go to their houses, and the question was always “Will there be boys there?” She would say “It’s not that I don’t trust you, I just don’t trust them,” or “You never know what might happen” or “You don’t want to get a reputation.” I wanted to know – WHAT? WHAT MIGHT HAPPEN? I know that she was very afraid that I would get pregnant and derail my plans for education and career stuff, but beyond that she would never be specific, there was just this generalized fear and I had to live with it. When I mentioned any boy comma friend, there was a lot of probing to see if he was a boynocommaorspacefriend and sudden restrictions on where I could go. The weirdest thing is, it was also coupled with a lot of advice on how I could make myself prettier – gift subscriptions to Seventeen and Vogue, admonishments to wear more makeup and stop stealing my dad’s flannel shirts and wearing unfeminine stompy shoes. Message: Be pretty, or at least, prettier! So boys will like you and ask you to proms! But be very afraid of them and don’t spend time with them unless a parent is in-the-room supervising you!
Content note: Brief discussion of long-ago sexual assault below cut. If you want to skip that and go directly to a definitive answer about whether men and women can be friends, click here.
My freshman year in college, my mom’s worst fears about “what might happen” manifested, and a man raped me.
But you know who came to find me that night that I was drunk and had gotten separated from our group by someone sketchy? My guy friends.
You know who took me to the hospital and held my hand after a rape exam where the doctor invited a bunch of medical students into observe what collecting a rape kit is like without asking me if that was okay? Guy friends.
You know who always walked me home and made sure I got home okay after that night? Guy friends.
You know who lent me their class notes and studied with me and made sure I didn’t fall behind in my classes? Guy friends.
You know who hugged me and made me laugh and feel normal and like I could trust people again? Guy friends. One gave me his favorite Yoda action figure so I would always have someone to consult for wisdom and comfort. I carried Yoda in my pocket for the next three years and if I hadn’t lost him in a tragic pocket-lining-hole incident on the Czech-Polish border in 1995, I’d carry him still.
My ladies had my back too, don’t get me wrong. Both men and women made me a lot of sandwiches that year. BOTH men AND women, i.e. HUMAN BEINGS, took care of me and no one had to be afraid of each other or secretly in love.
My mom has esteemed colleagues, but I don’t know that she has any men besides my dad and her brother who she is emotionally close to. I think she came by her fears and views honestly as a reasonable byproduct of the upbringing she had in the 1950s and 1960s where it really was more usual for girls to be friends with girls and boys to be friends with boys (and LGBTQ people were totally invisible). I think next time we hang out I am going to ask her about friends, and friendship, and what she thinks about this stuff, but until then I will assume she’s happy with her choices.
As I am happy not living in the 1950s, or with 1950s expectations about who I am allowed to be friends with.
So my question, or I guess my frustration is: Who are these “Men are like ___, Women are like ____, you should probably worry” articles serving? Who are they targeted at? Who profits when we frame things like this, argue caution and worry, and cut ourselves off from each other? What possible end could be met or good created? Why are people invested in acting as if men and women are so radically different from each other, or so fragile, or that there is no benefit beyond sexual interest or “attention” (ugh) underlying our interactions? Why do people assume that attraction (and in this case, once again it’s male attraction that’s presented as being the important, insurmountable kind) is some powerful, mysterious force that automatically trumps everything about two people and their feelings and choices?
My life would be so much poorer if I bought into those anxieties. Wouldn’t yours? As one of my fellow “WTF?” Twitter brigade said yesterday,”To throw away the love and friendship of people based solely on their gender seems like a lonely way to go through life.”
In the hopes of fighting this particular strain of ignorance, I have created a new website, called CanMenandWomenBeFriends.com, dedicated to answering this question so that future generations can have a lasting, permanent answer to this question. Thank you for reading.