Whatever X, Day XIX

To make up for the fact that I’m traveling today and therefore won’t be posting much, here’s a really long reprint from 2004. Quantity! It rules!

APRIL 19, 2004: 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.

31 Comments on “Whatever X, Day XIX”

  1. Weird. I have female friends that I am not sexually attracted to. Never really thought about it that much. Of course, there are varying degrees of friendship as well, but I am stating that I have close female friends that I am not sexually attracted to.

    Assuming a close relationship, I suspect that many start due to one being attracted to the other, and the attracted can accept the rejection and simply enjoys the person enough as a friend without pining for them.

    I think the reason there aren’t more close male/female friendships in the US is actually insecurity. Not all wives are comfortable with their husbands going to conventions with another hot girl. Which of course goes both ways – not all men are comfortable going to conventions with hot women other than their spouse.

    Or something like that.

  2. Thanks for codifying how I largely felt and acted anyway. I realised it was the lizardy seahorse-shaped bit thing that wanted to jump every lass I’m attracted to. And to be honest, that’s most of ’em. I agree with Manuel Garcia-O’Kelly’s statement that there are no ugly women, just beautiful in different ways (ah, what a wonderful world it is that has girls in it! (double Heinlein score)).

    But the fruitful and fun other parts of interpersonal relationships are much more important and fun. And above all – simpler. Which stops the male’s simple target-tracking brain from getting all squirrelly. If I had to bollocks up a friendship or two when I was in my teens to learn this, well, I’m sure I’m not alone.

  3. Hm. I think this is like a 5000 word essay explaining why women like gay men for friends…

    I have never, ever given this subject so much thought, but I do notice that a lot of my good friends in the sf/f world (a social circle my husband never enters) are men. I understand all of the above, and it’s okay with me. I know I am not going to do any harm to these guys’ marriages, nor they to mine, and so I feel secure. Every once in a while things get too friendly, and I remember that stuff is complicated, but that just makes life interesting. Sometimes I do feel that this whole complex bleeds over into the “networking” side of things and fouls it up, where a perfectly good business interaction suddenly becomes a junior high school dance. On the other hand, it seems to help sometimes, too.

  4. I would add, from a female perspective, that I have encountered MANY women (young ones at that) who simply *presume* that if a man is talking to them, and wants to be friends, that the man must be *interested* in them in a sexual way. So, not only does it seem that a lot of men are attracted to their female friends, but also that a lot of women are perfectly aware of this and it makes them uncomfortable.

  5. Obviously you have never experienced infamous unwinnable discussion #3 with your wife. “You think she’s attractive? What’s she got that I haven’t got? Do you think about her when we make love? Why do you have to think other women are sexually attractive anyway? Am I not good enough for you? Do you regret marrying me?” etc etc etc etc

  6. I guess I don’t understand the problem. I am gay, but I have many male friends, gay and straight. I don’t find them all sexually attractive. In fact, I don’t find most of them sexually attractive. My longest friendship is with another gay man whom I have known for nearly 50 years, but we have never had sex, and never wanted to. I also have friends with whom I had previous sexual relationships which are now kaput. That doesn’t mean we can’t still be friends.

    Why can’t hetero males and females interact with equivalent logic?

  7. I find this whole subject fascinating. I think mostly because it’s one that I fundamentally do not understand. For whatever reason I don’t seem to be wired for sexual/physical attraction. Whenever people talk about it, it’s like some strange foreign language to me.

    My bestest friend is a female, but I tend to connect better with guys. I suspect this has more to do with me being a big old geek and that seems to be a rather male-heavy group of folks!

  8. 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.

    The subtext here is rather sexist (and not in the about-sex way):

    1) You chicks are so darn complicated, unlike men, who are normal and not at all fucked up with PMS and shoe obsessions and stuff.

    2) There’s nothing women have to offer other than pussy.

    Now, I know you were quite unlikely to have meant exactly, John, and I’m guessing that for ‘complicated’ you meant ‘complicated by sexual attraction’.

    But it’s not far from what you did say, and it’s something I have heard quite directly from many men: you put up with her prattle about her girlfriends and her romantic movies and stuff because that’s how you get to fuck her. But as for people who you want to spend time around because you enjoy their company as people, that’s men.

    There are few things more eye-opening that seeing how ‘nice guys’ act when the women in their lives aren’t around.

  9. I enjoy spending time with female friends. I like the way that conversations can be more direct than with guys, and that the range of subjects can be more interesting (sometimes). Fortunately, none of them subject me to discussions about shoe fetishes :)

    But one thing that I do wind up saying to female friends is “Remember that guys’ motivations are usually simpler. The reason that women keep saying they don’t understand us is that they keep expecting us to be as complicated as women are.”

    re: Mythago at #8. Normal and abnormal have nothing to do with it. And I would suggest that seeing ‘nice girls’ when guys aren’t around could be equally eye-opening.

  10. I think a lot of guys are reluctant to be friends with people we’re not sexually attracted to because we’re worried they’re secretly attracted to us, and we don’t want to have to deal with an awkward scene when they confess their undying love on the first night of a five-day camping trip.

    As far as Mythago’s comment goes, there are a lot of things I put up with from my wife because I love her and want to spend time with her. Well, time not spent putting up with X, where X is one of the things she does that bug me. And I know it’s the same in reverse, and I’d be glad to give you the list of things I do that bug her, like reciting the plots of TV shows she could care less about, talking about bloggers as if I actually knew them, and many, many more.

    Most of my friendships have similar complications. Several of my closest friends not only have political leanings that drive me up a tree, but they seem to enjoy watching me lose my shit when they talk about it. But we’re still friends, and, as far as I know, we’re not having sex.

  11. CJ: the argument that guys are ‘simpler’ is, frankly, horseshit. I know many men like to tell themselves this, and think it is a compliment to women. It’s not. Men are human, and have human feelings and conflicts and emotions and all that messy stuff.

  12. I dunno, Mythago. Among both the men and women I know, “men are simpler” is pretty much taken for granted. I will admit that the phrase needs qualification: “Most men have more straightforward motivations than most women.”

  13. Even qualified, it’s still complete horseshit. Dogs are simple and have straightforward motivations. Men, being people, are complicated, emotional, not always clear about what they think and feel, ambivalent and confused just like women are. There’s certainly a cultural taboo against admitting they have those feelings, mind.

    I haven’t found that treating men as ‘simpler than women’ got me anything except kicked in the ass by all the complicated parts that weren’t supposed to exist in the first place.

    Mike – I’m not talking about putting up with a loved one’s or friend’s less endearing habits from time to time because you like their company, but the mentality that you pretend to like somebody’s company because that’s the only way to get them to put out. (And lest you think I’m hammering on men here, yes, I have known women who pretend to be deeply interested in their significant others’ chatter because he buys them sparklies.)

  14. Mythago,

    I never meant that guys were on a par with labrador retrievers, although some women have said that.

    I meant that we don’t analyze nor try to communicate with sub-text to the extent that women seem to. A lot of female friends have come to me to ask “what did he mean by that?” for some remark that they thought was odd. My usual interpretation was that the guy was saying just what it sounded like.

    This may sound like horse shit to you, but it is still my opinion. Women are more complex in their communications, and in their analysis of others’ motives.

  15. Men’s actions/ways of behaving are somewhat driven by what women find attractive in men.

    Mythago feels there is cultural taboos about men being complicated and emotional. She is correct, but the taboos are enforced by women. In my experience women generally disdain men who are emotional when it comes to sex. They seem to preferred being self assured and solid instead of complicated guys with a lot of pit falls/complication.

    I heard a lot of women saying they wanted a sensitive caring guy, but I never see them date/stay with them for too long. Ultimately women seem to want sensitive, caring men as friends (nice guys), but not as lovers. Since men are driven to be attractive enough produce offspring being sensitive is counter productive, thus we don’t generally act in this manner.

  16. Indirect/Subtext always felt very wasteful effort wise to me. Took me a long time to learn of it’s value. I still prefer the straight forward no subtext method. But I have learned that most seem to prefer the complicated method as it smooths over more rough edges and is better at keeping the peace.

  17. In my opinion, we’re all a lot simpler than we give ourselves credit for. In retrospect, I like to think I my anger about a situation was completely justified, but the truth is that I was pissy because I ate lunch late and got a headache, plus I hadn’t had enough sleep.

    The older I get, the more I learn to go through the “preschooler list” with myself. Do I need a nap? A cookie? Do I need to visit the potty?

    Those three things, I find, are responsible for most of the drama in my life, no matter how much I’d like to assume higher motives.

  18. Mythago and other interested parties,
    Norah Vincent’s book Self Made Man is about her experiences while she disguised herself as a man to get an inside look at male-only groups/experiences, including a monastery, a bowling league, a men’s support group, and dating. It gives a fascinating look at some of the issues that you mention.

  19. From a girl’s side of things:

    I’m not sexually attracted to 90% of my friends. And most of my friends are male. Once someone has landed in that zone of friendship, mostly I don’t even think about them as having genitals.

    That 10%? I accept that I feel that way and move on. I’m fairly sure those couple of people are aware I’m attracted, it likely came up back in my drinking days I imagine. But we’re adults, we don’t have to jump in bed just because it might be fun.

    And maybe I’m just unlucky, but other than a couple exceptions, most of the women I know aren’t into video games, comics, table-top rpgs, debating minute points of plot/jokes/science in shows that haven’t been on television since childhood (coughreddwarfcough), and a number of other nerdy pursuits that make up most of my life. This puts the girl/guy ratio of the friends group very skewed.

    If my friends find me sexually attractive it never comes up. Being married helps, I think, but I’ve been friends with most of my people since middle school, so if we were going to date or jump in the sack, it probably already happened or was never going to happen.

    And of course, being married, if I did have a friend who I couldn’t keep my hands off, well, I wouldn’t hang out with that person anymore. (And for the record, I do actually have an ex who is a very good friend, but we keep our friendship purely over messaging and playing MMORGs together since in person we can’t seem to help but try to make excuses to cheat on our lovers with each other.)

  20. I have to agree with Mythago’s analysis.

    As I am not considered attractive by most guys I come across, I am often willfully ignored (and I am not purposefully looking for this fault. I experience it most clearly when I’m with friends who are attractive) It’s a very disheartening thing to experience. Who I am doesn’t really matter as much if they’d rather sleep with me or not (or my friend).

    It also sucks b/c any guy that treats me with equal interest as just person I immediately develop a crush on. Even when I know good and well they’re not trying to take it there.

    Luckily, I’m good at keeping that underwraps

  21. I would like to point out that I believe our host meant what he said when claiming that women are very complex and mysterious indeed. But it is men who find them complex and mysterious. Not women.

    As to whether one sex or another is “more complex” is very hard to say, as we all find ourselves on one side or the other of the issue. There are no neutrals to go to for arbitration.

    The whole “finding someone sexually attractive” -business is fraught with misunderstandings already in this thread. Possibly because males have a lower minimum-sexual-attractiveness-required-before-consideration-as-possible-mate than women do. So the sentence-fragment “finding someone sexually attractive” just does not mean the same thing for a man as for a woman.

    I am also quite impressed with our host for not managing to put his feet further down his throat with this subject.

  22. John-

    I have to say yours is the best description of my state of mind on this subject I have read. With me, it is exemplified by my relationship with my ex-girlfriend. We were together for 20 years and have been apart for 5, during which time I have been living with another woman in a good relationship. We are all friends and this year, my ex- and I went on two multi-day back backing trips, sharing the same tent. Am I still sexually attracted to her? Of course! Did I feel under any physical need to act on that? No.

    Part of that is because at my advanced age (61) maybe some of that sense of urgency has passed, but I don’t think that’s the only reason. I think what makes it easier for me to have non-sexual friendships with women (and it’s not just my ex-) to whom I’m sexually attracted-and that’s every woman I know, basically, is because I have a good sexual relationship with one woman, my current sweetie. And that is the important difference. If I were not in that kind of a satisfying relationship, I would definitely have a different slant on those relationships I have with women friends to whome I have that kind of attraction.

  23. My only long term male friends are the ones who came to grips with the fact that there will not be sex in the relationship. The rest left. But recently it has been noticed by our social groups that the husband and I are poly so some of those previous males that abandoned the friendship have come back looking for something they still are not going to get. And males that had no interest in me before of any kind let alone friendship because I was “taken” have also reappeared. It does not get any more obvious what their one note minds are fixed on. My female friendships are now strained from me becoming competition again; even the married ones since they are now unsure if their own husbands will wander.
    Like it or not perceived possibilities of there being sex does impact friendships.
    Being bi also shifts those rival, ally, conquest, or irrelevant evaluations.

  24. So obvious, thus, I couldn’t see it for standing too close. Here I was all puzzled about *why* I often go chasing after many of my female friends, and you just put the answer out there for me.

    Thanks, John. Really insightful post.

  25. burvegas,

    Thanks for the tip about Norah Vincent’s “Self-Made Man”. It’s a very interesting book, with a nice insight into the male/female communication difficulties. I finished most of it in one evening.

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