The question remains.
Short answer: Yes, they can.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be romantic undertones; in fact, there usually are. Typically, “he” starts a relationship hoping for sex, but “she” isn’t interested. Yet he stays friends because he likes her. And he’s often expecting that more will come of it. Read the rest of this entry
Cross-posted at Sociological Images
Let me ask you a question: Do you have a good friend of the opposite sex?
Odds are you do. In fact, the odds are overwhelming.
When I first began teaching, 25 or so years ago, I asked my students how many of them had a good friend of the opposite sex. About 10% said they did. The rest were from what I called the When Harry Met Sally generation. You’ll remember the scene, early in the film, when Harry asserts that women and men can’t be friends because “sex always gets in the way.” Sally is sure he’s wrong. They fight about it. Then, thinking she has the clincher for her position, she says, confidently, “So that means that you can be friends with them if you’re not attracted to them!”
“Ah,” says Harry, “you pretty much want to nail them too.”
Young people today have utterly and completely repudiated this idea. These days, when I ask my students, I’ve had to revise the question: “Is there anyone here who does not have a friend of the opposite sex?” A few hands perhaps, in the more than 400 students in the class.
But let’s think, for a moment, about the “politics” of friendship. With whom do you make friends? With your peers. Not your supervisor or boss. Not your subordinate. Your equal. More than romance, and surely more than workplace relationships, friendships are the relationships with the least amount of inequality.
This changes how we can engage men in the efforts to end sexual assault, because there are three elements to sexual assault that can be discussed and disentangled.
First is men’s sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, to sex. This sense of entitlement dissolves in the face of an encounter with your friends. After all, entitlement is premised on inequality. The more equal women are, the less entitlement men may feel. (Entitlement is not to be confused with resentment; equality often breeds resentment in the privileged group. The privileged rarely support equality because they fear they have something to lose.) Entitlement leads men to think that they can do whatever they want.
Second, the Bro Code tells those guys that they’re right – that they can get away with it because their bros won’t challenge or confront them. The bonds of brotherhood demand men’s silent complicity with predatory and potentially assaultive behavior. One never rats out the brotherhood. But if we see our female friends as our equals, then we might be more likely to act ethically to intervene and resist being a passive bystander. (And, of course, we rescue our male friends from doing something that could land him in jail for a very long time.)
Men’s silence is what perpetuates the culture of sexual assault; many of the excellent programs that work to engage men suggest that men start making some noise. We know the women, or know people who know them. This is personal.
Finally, we’re better than that – and we know it.
Sexual assault is often seen as an abstraction, a “bad” thing that happens to other people: Bad people do bad things to people who weren’t careful, were drunk or compromised. But, as I said, it’s personal. And besides, this framing puts all the responsibility on women to monitor their activities, alcohol consumption, and environments; if they don’t, whose fault is it?
This sets the bar far too low to men. It assumes that unless women monitor and police everything they do, drink, say, wear etc., we men are wild, out of control animals and we cannot be held responsible for our actions.
Surely we can do better than this. Surely we can be the good and decent and ethical men we say we are. Surely we can promise, publicly and loudly, the pledge of the White Ribbon Campaign (the world’s largest effort to engage men to end men’s violence against women): I pledge never to commit, condone, or remain silent about violence against women and girls.
Our friends – both women and men – deserve and expect no less of us.
Michael Kimmel is a professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Stonybrook. He has written or edited over twenty volumes, including Manhood in America: A Cultural History and Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. You can visit his website here.
Short answer: Yes, they can.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be romantic undertones; in fact, there usually are. Typically, “he” starts a relationship hoping for sex, but “she” isn’t interested. Yet he stays friends because he likes her. And he’s often expecting that more will come of it.
Naively, I’ve been in cross-sex friendships without noticing the “underlying attraction” part.
Before I married I had more male than female friends. I now realize this was simply because I’m an introvert (I gain energy from being alone) and am perfectly content reading, writing, painting, or biking. But men would call to chat or get together for lunch or a movie. With these guys there was no physical affection, no kissing or handholding. We talked of nothing romantic. I just thought they enjoyed my company as much as I enjoyed theirs. Until each eventually made a move and I pulled back. Yet we remained friends.
After I married and lost my men friends I realized I’d actually have to take some initiative to have women friends. It was all so disorienting, and I’m still not consistently good at it. I was lucky to have my men friends.
In some ways cross-sex friendships mirror same-sex friendships, but they’re different, too.
These relationships can offer an “insider” perspective on the opposite sex. Especially when all involved are unconcerned with charming each other and can let their hair down and tell the truth about their own sex.
They are strong in trust, respect, acceptance and enjoyment. But they are less satisfying, maybe because they don’t fulfill the underlying sexual tension that is so often present.
And intimacy can be hindered when friends create space to protect against romance, since sexual involvement becomes a threat to the relationship. Over time, sexual tension wanes.
Yes, men and women can be friends. But as Harry warned, the sex part can get in the way.