thought for the day: why are we still framing the conversation this way?

So I was going through my Google Reader feeds just now, from the last couple of days, and a lot of people seem to be talking about the possibility of male-female friendship like it's suddenly 1989 again and we've decided that When Harry Met Sally is once more culturally relevant.

The question being, as always, "Can men and women be friends or does sex/sexuality inevitably get in the way?"

Here's my thing about that question. Two things, actually. The question "Can men and women be friends?" assumes a) hetero-universality and b) that the possibility of sexual desire precludes a relationship that doesn't involve sexual activity.

Speaking as someone who experiences the possibility of sexual attraction across genders, if I ruled out friendship sans sex with anyone who I could envision sexual intimacy with, then wow I'd be shit out of luck when it came to friendship. Because, surprise! The type of people I tend to get along with as friends are also the type of people I'd be most likely to be open to sexual intimacy with.

Obviously, it's a moot point since I'm in a committed, monogamous relationship with Hanna. So sex with anyone else simply isn't on the table any longer. But the same could be said of any person in a committed relationship -- are you supposed to cut yourself off from friendship with any person you'd theoretically be willing to have sex with, simply because the possibility of sex and friendship don't mix? That isn't practical and doesn't even make sense?

And think about what it's saying about peoples' ability to keep it in their pants and, you know, practice fidelity to the ground-rules of their primary relationships! That somehow the very presence of sexual attraction makes rational thought and decision-making evaporate? That you experience the possibility of sexual attraction and whist! -- all prior commitments and promises out the window! Erm ... really?

I get why, in our aggressively gendered, heteronormative culture it feels like "common sense" to assume homosociality and heterosexuality naturally go hand in hand. That your friendships will be primarily with people of your own gender (to whom you're not sexually attracted in any way) and that your sexual intimacy will happen with a person or persons of another gender (the gender toward which you experience sexual attraction). But that formulae simply doesn't work for people who are gay or swing both ways. As someone who experiences desire toward people with female bodies, I nevertheless have friends with female bodies with whom I manage not to have sex.

I've also managed to be naked in a locker room, in communal showers, skinny dipping, and co-sleeping with female-bodied people without engaging in sexual intimacy. Given cultural taboos, I haven't done the same with male-bodied persons, but I'd wager the experience would be similar. That is, it's not about the shape of the body in question or the gender identity of the person embodied, but about the context of our relationship and what we've mutually decided it contains. If sex isn't part of our intimacy, we somehow (!) manage to not go there.

Granted, I'm not one of those people who experiences sex-exclusive attractions. Maybe if I only found women or men attractive, it would be easier for me to form platonic friendships with people of the gender which I wasn't sexually interested in, and save the gender I was for flirting and sexytimes? But I can't help feeling like the assumption that it's an either/or (friendship OR sex) proposition hurts even the people who experience those more exclusive desires.

Thus ends my thought for the day.


  1. I agree, and have had similar thoughts (by this logic, if I've found most of my male and female friends at least theoretically pretty attractive over the years, why have I been able to have any friendships at all?)

    But I think one piece of the logic that you're leaving out here is Men are Insatiable Sexual Predators (wannabe pickup artists at the very least). The When Harry Met Sally logic is not about Sally's desires, whatever they may be--it's about Harry's, and men's. Men and women can't be friends in any meaningful way because your male friends (who are all heterosexual, naturally) do not really want to be friends with you--they're using friendship as a way to get close in hopes that you'll end up naked. Even if the woman gatekeeps successfully and there is no actual sex, the friendship isn't real and mutual. And a man wants to have sex with ANY woman, regardless of whether he actually finds her attractive. A lovely portrait of half of humanity.

    So maybe, by that logic, even if a female friend and I find each other physically attractive, we can be 'real friends' because neither of us is just in it for the hunt? And we're naturally more committed to our existing monogamous relationships, etc.?

  2. *snaps fingers* aha! I knew I'd forgotten something crucial. It was the Men Are Controlled By Their Penes truthiness factor! Suddenly everything becomes so clear ...

  3. Like Molly, I've considered almost all of my friends rather tasty over the years - the exceptions, where I've loved a friend and not fancied them even slightly, are notable (although this has changed since falling in love properly this time - I still *see* that my friends are hot). I see this stuff to be so pessimistic about sexual attraction. Like if you feel it at all, you have to do something about it. At once!

    However, Molly has it right - this is about just one side of the equation. In the same way, consider the way that friendships between gay men and straight women are framed in our culture. What kind of qualities do gay men enjoy about straight women? Who knows? Who cares? Because we all know that a gay best friend is the perfect accessory for a straight woman; he is genetically predisposed to enjoy shopping, fashion and Lady Gaga just like she does, and he isn't a bitch or a threat in the same way other straight women are.

    So we're led to believe that there are loads of straight women out there with gay best friends for these reasons. But - because they're usually secondary characters in fiction and film - we never have a clue what kind of friendships gay men have and enjoy, whether with women or men, straight or queer. As for lesbians... do they even have friends?

    Sorry for the rant, but I really hate the way that our culture denigrates friendship to something in the background of life and then prescribes what it's supposed to look like. Much like romantic love, I'm not entirely sure we choose our friends.

  4. @The Goldfish No need to apologize for ranting! That's essentially what this post itself was, afterall.

    I think you're right -- lesbians are destined to die alone, unfucked, and friendless ;)

    Looking around at my own enduring friendships, I'm inclined to agree with you that in a lot of ways friendships choose people, not the other way around.