comment post: friendships, "crushes," and heteronormativity

About a year ago, I had the pleasure of being interviewed by London-based journalist Rachel Hills for her forthcoming book, The Sex Myth (Simon & Schuster, 2014). Last week, she was in touch with some of us to ask a follow-up question about "boy talk." For those of us who grew into our sexuality desiring women, or who didn't identify as female, Rachel wanted to know what such "boy talk" girl bonding rituals felt like to us.

Here are the thoughts I sent in response.

when you do a Google image search for "sleepover"
you get a bajillion images like this (via)
What an interesting question you pose, Rachel!

I have several distinct-yet-inter-related thoughts and memories:

First, I did not attend gradeschool (I homeschooled until college). Because of this, I don't recall a lot of intense pressure to perform gender in the "boyfriend"/"crush" way in my pre-adolescent years. I remember pressure from my childhood friends to pick a "best friend" among them, and feeling confused about how to handle that without hurt feelings. I remember lots of gender play in terms of dressing up and playing princess and "runaway princess" (which usually involved setting up house together, as sister-princesses, in the "woods").

It's true that, apart from my younger brother and his little group of male friends, I didn't have male friends who survived much into gradeschool. When I was very young, I remember playing with the children in my mother's circle of friends irrespective of gender, but when those children started attending school the boys were definitely under pressure NOT to be friends with girls (and vice versa, I imagine), so we drifted apart. The boys I knew in the neighborhood were more casual acquaintances, and even then they tended to be identified as my brother's friends, even if we all played together outside.

Second, I remember being intensely embarrassed and upset when older people (babysitters, adult friends of the family) framed my relationships, celebrity interests, etc., as (sexualized) "crushes." I vividly remember in the 9-10-11-year-old period specific instances of being teased -- I'm sure in a well-meaning way! -- about my passion for the tennis player Andre Agassi whom I idolized when, for a brief while, I was into tennis. Perhaps some of the intensity I felt about him WAS pre-pubescent romantic interest, but I really hated the teasing because I was confused by my own feelings, didn't identify them as romantic or sexual, and didn't like the feeling that other people were assigning terms to my feelings that I didn't agree to. It also felt like very private feelings were then being hauled into public in ways that were potentially embarrassing.

So during that period, the framework of "the crush" actually served the opposite purpose from bonding with my peers or same-gender compatriots: it made me feel uncomfortably singled out and limited in my passions. It served to make it clear that I needed to police my feelings (and the expression of those feelings), particularly about boys and men, if I didn't want to come under unwanted scrutiny.

As I'm typing this, I'm thinking about the way in which my passions for same-gender friendships were NOT similarly sexualized or policed by others, and the freedom that allowed me to develop emotional intimacy with my close female friends during pre- and early adolescence.

Third, I definitely remember the way in which my teenage friendships with other girls organized themselves around "boy talk." Our "boy talk" manifested in two distinct ways (as I recall), one of which I felt comfortable engaging in and the other of which I didn't. I do remember enjoying "boy talk" that circled around fictional characters in films and books. My girlfriends and I would read novels and portion out who had the "rights" to certain dashing heroes (or anti-heroes). We gossiped about what was happening between our favorite (hetero) couples in these fictional narratives and celebrated the successful marriage plots for the characters we felt were deserving and well-suited to one another. All of this I very much enjoyed.

What I felt more uncomfortable about, and artificially performative of, as time went on, was the more personal boy-crazy talk about crushes within my friendship circle. It felt awkwardly forced -- particularly for the friends (and we were a shy group of girls) who never acted on their supposed crushes by initiating a relationship with the person in question. It very much felt like an activity engaged in to earn points with other girls. You talked about who you had a crush on because it was what everyone was supposed to do.
I remember really hating the awkwardness of this period (adolescence), and the way in which girls and boys were relentlessly sorted into same-gender groups, and their mixed interactions chaperoned with the expectation on all sides that such mixed-gender interactions (whether single-y or in groups) were going to be fraught with sexual tension. I didn't like the way you suddenly were supposed to be aware of your bodily boundaries, who was touching whom, and how things that seemed nice (and possibly proto-sexual) were suddenly inappropriate. Like, I remember once being on a camping trip and helping a boy wash his hair in the river. We were both wearing bathing suits and I didn't touch anything other than his head, to help with the shampoo, and it was really nice to be enjoying ourselves. But afterwards, there was this clear message from some of the camp counselors (and later, parents) that this interaction was somehow fraught and potentially worrisome in a way that it would never have worried anyone if I'd helped a same-gender friend wash her hair.

Thoughout my adolescence, I kept asking people what was difference about sexual attraction versus intense, passionate friendship and they kept telling me that I'd understand when I had the experience. What I eventually figured out (embarrassingly enough, not until my mid-twenties!) was that the reason I couldn't decipher the difference was that I in fact had the potential for sexual desire for both men and women. My attraction to women had been burbling along all throughout my childhood and adolescence and had simply been allowed to run its course through passionate friendships -- without all of the constraints imposed upon interactions with boys.

The one passionately intimate friendship I developed with a boy in my adolescence was with a young man who eventually came out as gay. We're still very close friends, but it's definitely illustrative to look at the way he and I navigated our friendship in the context of heteronormative culture. While my passionate same-gender friendships were just as intense and intimate as my relationship with this boy (part of the patchwork of clues that finally led me to understand my bisexuality / sexual fluidity), those girls and I never problematized our relationship -- and neither did our families or wider circle of friends. In contrast, this male friend and I were both very aware of the emotional intensity of our relationship, and about the expectation that we needed to police the boundaries of that passionate relationship in order to respect one anothers' (emerging) sexual identities and to manage the expectations of our respective social circles. Our letters (for much of our relationship during that period we were long-distance correspondents) are full of discussion about the nature of our relationship, whether or not we felt a sexual relationship was in the cards, why or why not, how we might piece together a continued friendship even if one of us was sexually attracted to the other and the other did not reciprocate. We looked for models in history and literature for passionate, non-sexually-active, cross-gender relationships like ours. All of this activity was never explicitly prompted by our peers or the adults around us, but was definitely something we felt we needed to do. While no analogous process ever took place between me and the young women I was close to, despite the fact that I would (looking back now) argue the emotional intensity of female-female relationships were commensurate to what I felt with this male friend.

My point in recounting this story is that as a woman who grew up queer in heteronormative culture, I still felt pressure to sexualize cross-gender relationships and the absence of pressure to sexualize same-gender relationships. This meant that I was often bewildered and frustrated by the way cross-gender relationships that did NOT feel particularly sexual to me were nonetheless inscribed with those feelings from the outside, and simultaneously it delayed my recognition of the sexual potential within same-gender relationships because no one in the culture around me was encouraging me to think in those terms. While I'm glad for the protected, private space that gave me to explore my same-sex desires without the social scrutiny I would have endured for cross-gender desires (if/when they became socially visible), heteronormativity also meant I had a lack of language to speak about those desires even when I had begun to acknowledge them.

Whew! More thoughts than I anticipated when I started this reply ... I'll leave it there. Good luck with the final week of revisions, and thank you so much for staying in touch! I'm looking forward to reading and reviewing the final work.


1 comment:

  1. It served to make it clear that I needed to police my feelings (and the expression of those feelings), particularly about boys and men,