Reader Request Week 2004 #1: Boys and Girls

Welcome to Reader Request Week 2004, in which I write about subjects suggested by you, the fabulous Whatever reader (did I mention you’re fabulous? Well, you are). To kick off the week, let’s start with the first question I was asked for Reader Request Week 2004, which comes from Jennifer:

Why aren’t there more close male-female friendships in American society?

Well, Jennifer. How many do you want? I agree that same-sex close friendships are the norm, but I don’t think opposite-sex close friendships are entirely rare. In my own circle of friends (who are, I must admit, exceptional people, and not just because they know me), intrasexual friendships are downright common; I can’t think of one of them, male or female, who doesn’t have excellent friends of both sexes. And anecdotally it seems that younger people (or at least, people younger than me) don’t have much in the way of cross-sex friendship hangups. I think it’s all that instant messaging.

(Which is actually a not entirely facetious point: I have a lot of reasonably good “internet friends” of both sexes, the gender of whom is not nor is likely to become a critical issue because our interaction is letters on a screen. It’s not that I don’t know they’re male or female, just that the physical ramifications of that fact is severely muted by the medium.)

But let’s go with the idea that there is a dearth of intrasexual friendships in the population at large. Why might this be? Being that I have a penis and all, I can’t speak to this question from the female side of the equation. To understand the male side of the equation (and specifically, the heterosexual male side — assume for the purposes of this article that when I talk about men, I talk about men what like women), we need to start from certain premises. Let’s begin by noting that, to the extent that men have problems becoming friends with women, I think the problem boils down to two related reasons:

1. Men have difficulty just being friends with someone they want to have sex with (this is the famous bone of contention in the film When Harry Met Sally). The obvious corollary to this is that most (straight) men would be happy to have sex with most of the women they meet, if they could, which they usually can’t for various reasons. So strictly as an issue of math, the numbers are against it.

2. Men have difficulty being interested in women they don’t want to have sex with, because, hell, if all they want is a friend, they’ve got guys for that. Being friends with guys is less complicated, and most guys are all for things being as uncomplicated as possible. We’re not, on average, terribly complicated people.

Yes, this is sexist. Guess what? We’re talking about the sexes. Sex is usually a factor. I’m not one of those people who believes that we’re entirely ruled by our base, animalistic urges. That’s why we have civilization, after all. Indeed, what is civilization but an open war in which the gray, crenelated mammalian forebrain beats back the savage reptilian underbrain over and over and over again, preferably with a rock? At the same time, let’s not pretend that the reptile underbrain always loses. It’s been around for hundreds of millions of years for a reason. Sometimes the forebrain can’t beat it and has to be content with trying to shove it into a tuxedo, a la Young Frankenstein, and pretending to company it’s somehow been tamed.

So, simply as a matter of expediency, let’s take as a given that in male-female relationships, sex is a significant issue. The question here was laid out as an issue with US society, but I think it’s fairly clear that this isn’t limited merely to US. Wherever there are men and women, sex is a significant issue. The US is better off than many places because women and men are of sufficiently equivalent status that there’s not a problem with them becoming friends; i.e., US males in general accept and celebrate that women are not property, have brains as well as vaginae and prefer lives in which they are not walled off from the rest of humanity and do more than accept sperm and raise children. That’s that whole “civilization” thing again.

Anyway, the big issue isn’t whether men want to have sex with women. The real issue is: Why do men let the fact they want to have sex with women keep them from being friends with women? And also, why do men let the fact that they don’t want to have sex with certain women keep them from being friends with those particular women? These are big, fascinating questions for which I don’t have any particularly good answers, but I won’t let that stop me from attempting a couple.

First, men let the fact they want to have sex with women keep them from becoming friends because men often think it’s more important to have sex than have friends. Scratch that: It’s not that they think that so much as they intuit that — which is to say the ol’ reptile portion of the brain has distracted the forebrain in some way and is now whispering in the man’s ear: She’s fertile! Pass on your seed! And rip out the throat of all those who oppose your mating! And in a purely Darwinian sense this is correct: Being friends is nice, and perhaps as a matter of cooperation helping ensure the survival of the largest number of your tribe, it has an evolutionary benefit. But it doesn’t pass on your genes. Mating is more important. Friends are easy. Sex is hard.

Now, the thing is we don’t live in a strictly Darwinian world, in which you have to abandon the idea of friendship for sex. But tell that your reptile brain. Your reptile brain lays down the rules: She can be a friend, or you can have sex with her. Such are men that they a) they don’t ask why the dumb reptile brain gets to make the rules and b) they’ll happily default to the “sex” option regardless of the likelihood of that option actually happening.

I’m perfectly happy to entertain the notion that this “friend vs. sex” formulation is simplistic. On the other hand, think of all the people you know who get with other people who are bad for them — over the strenuous objections of their relatively clear-eyed friends — for the dubious pleasure of “being in a relationship.” Think about the overarching importance we place on sexual/romantic relationships at the expense of other relationships. Writer Justine Larbalestier recently railed effectively about the fetish of romantic relationships:

How come the majority of the longest relationships in my circles are between good friends? That’s right “just” good friends. People who have known each other for years and years and years, have loaned each other money, helped rear each other’s children, read each other’s books, shared houses, shared jobs, but who aren’t in a sexual relationship with each other. How come the myths of our potential lives are centered around romantic love instead of friendship?…

I see friends in relationships with people they don’t much like, because somehow that’s more grown up than being single. I see friendships destroyed when friends become lovers and it doesn’t work out and somehow the friendship dies in the process. I see single friends, otherwise perfectly happy, beating themselves up because they haven’t found the mythical One yet.

As for why men don’t bother becoming friends with women they have no sexual desire for — well, to go back to what I said earlier: It’s a lot easier to make friends with guys. Also, I suspect that for the guys who let their reptile brains do a lot of their thinking when it comes to women, there’s a deep-seated cognitive dissonance: You’re around this woman all the time, yet you don’t want to mate with her? What’s your problem? Men — again, generally uncomplicated creatures — don’t like cognitive dissonance. It’s like an itch you can’t scratch. Better to avoid it all together.

What queers this formulation is that men do have friendships with women all the time — good ones, with nary a hint of sex in them. So how to explain this? Well, I see two options:

1. The men are being friendly while biding their time for the sexual relationship component. This is rather common; I remember in college a good female friend of mine was dating a guy named Leo for a long time and in the process had acquired a number of good male friends. After she broke up with Leo, all of her “good male friends” except for me (who was involved in an entirely different friend/sex quagmire at the time) professed their undying love — i.e., desire for sex, this being college — usually prefaced with the statement, “Well, now that Leo’s out of the way…”

2. The man has found some way to reconcile his desire to have sex with his women friends with the fact he won’t, yet still wishes to have them around, and/or is able to accept that women he doesn’t want to have sex with still have other redeeming qualities.

(There is a third option of having sex with your female friends and yet still just remaining friends, but let’s acknowledge that most men in general do not get to experience this option, or indeed are mentally prepared to deal with it as an option.)

As a practical matter, the first of these solutions isn’t very useful, either to a guy’s mental health or to the overall health of the friendship, which is, after all, predicated on a lie (that the guy likes the woman as a genuine friend) and often on a platform of ill will to boot (the guy wants the woman’s current relationship to go sour). So I don’t recommend that. The second, of course, I recommend wholeheartedly.

At this point, I hear some of you ask: Well, John. You seem to have a lot of female friends. Are you just waiting for their men to die to collect them into a harem, or have you somehow dealt with your sexual desire for them?

Well, it is true: I do have quite a few female friends, dating back to high school, and have been fortunate to continue to make female friends, including several over the last couple of years. I’ve never done a head count on this, but I suspect I have more good female friends than male friends. Most of the women friends I have I’m sexually attracted to. Generally speaking, they are smart, capable, witty, accomplished and sexually desirable: In other words, they totally rock. If I weren’t attracted to these women, it wouldn’t be out of line to question whether I was attracted to women at all.

I am not waiting for their men to die; aside from being unrealistic (both in the “all those men suddenly dying” sense and the “and then they’d want to be with me even though I’m married” sense, not to mention the “and my wife would happily accept my new polygamous lifestyle with nary a peep of complaint” sense, which seems doubtful), it seems pretty mean to wish all those guys dead, not in the least because I’m friends with most of them, too. All things being equal, I want these guys to live — if not for themselves (which, to be clear, is a good enough reason) then because they make my friends happy, and I want my friends to be happy.

So you can conclude that by and large I’ve reconciled my sexual attraction for my women friends with the fact that I won’t actually be having sex with them (you could alternately conclude that I’m having sex with them all, but with me as with most men, that would in fact be the incorrect conclusion). I should note that “reconciled” is also certainly the wrong word to use here, since it implies that I have accepted a situation that somehow deviates from the optimal, as in “I’ve reconciled myself to a life without one of my kidneys.” It’s not like that at all. I’d imagine that a life where I was having sex with my all female friends would be interesting, but as that famous ancient Chinese proverb implies, “interesting” is not the same as “optimal.”

It’s more to the point that I’m not concerned about my sexual attraction to my female friends. Yes, generally I find my women friends sexually attractive. But tell me why that implies I need to do something about it. See, that’s the problem right there — The general belief (particularly strong among males) that one needs to do something to resolve one’s sexual urges, no matter how impractical, inconvenient, or just plain stupid. By this, if you’re sexually attracted to someone, you ought to be having sex with them, and therefore you should work to make it happen regardless of consequence — or at least tie up your psyche in ulcerating knots of guilt about it (the already-in-a-relationship guy’s option). Thanks, I’ll pass on that. I don’t believe that I need to follow through on every sexual desire — nor, I suspect, do most men who do have strong non-sexual friendships with women. They accept the sexual desire — it makes sense — they just don’t see it as the focus of the relationship.

Accept your desire to overcome it? Well, yeah: Why wouldn’t you be attracted to your women friends? If you acknowledge that as a heterosexual man you generally find women attractive — and that women who embody traits you enjoy in friends are more likely to be even more attractive to you than the general female population — then wouldn’t it be strange if you weren’t sexually attracted to your women friends? Once you get that into your thick skull, it makes the attraction substantially easier to deal with; you realize it’s part of the natural process of the friendship and something that adds to its quality, not a complicating factor that needs to be dealt with before you can move on. It also puts the sexual attraction aspect into perspective. Yes, I find my women friends sexually attractive, but as a general rule their sexual attractiveness is a minor component of why I think they’re so damn fabulous.

(Accepting the sexual aspect of friendships with women also makes it far easier to have strong friendships with women with whom one is not sexually attracted — if you can get past the idea that you are sexually attracted to a friend, you should likewise be able to get past the idea that you’re not.)

I don’t imagine that most of my women friends will be surprised to learn I find them sexually attractive; likewise, I don’t imagine that most of my women friends are particularly worried that I’ll invite them up to look at my etchings. I couldn’t tell you what percentage of my female friends find me sexually attractive; aside from my suspicion that women don’t necessarily process intrasexual friendships the same way, it’s also just not a topic that comes up much. There are usually other things to talk about. And I would imagine that if they do find me sexually attractive, that they factor it into the friendship pretty much like I do.

Of course, if they’re suddenly overwhelmed by desire for me and have to have me now, then I guess they’ll need to talk to Krissy about that. Let’s just say I’m not exactly worried about Krissy getting a ton of phone calls. And that’s fine. In this context, I’m delighted to hear the “I like you as a friend” speech. That’s the way I like them, too.

(Want to suggest a topic for me to write about his week? Leave ’em here.)

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