Gender and Friendship

A while back I overheard a woman my age lecturing a younger woman. I heard her because her voice got quite sharp as she said, “There is no such thing as friendship with men you’re not married to. Whether you admit it or not, there’s a sexual element.”
I took a fast peek. There was a group of women. A couple of them, also my age, made those little shrugs and nods of agreement, one murmuring something about how, if you don’t admit it, then you’ve just taken the first step on the road to trouble.

The two younger women squared off, stating that yes, they could too have friendships with men. Even if both parties are straight.

So then I was wondering if this was an age thing, or a cultural thing, or both? Inside the world of science fiction and fantasy fandom, which is where most of my social life is lived, I have rarely seen gender become an issue in the formation of friendships. I’ve had male friends for decades, and I don’t perceive myself as anything unusual. Is the gender barrier invisible to the younger generation? My daughter maintains it is, but then she runs with a crowd where all the old barriers are pretty much invisible–age, gender preference, types of partnerings, racial blends or couplings, etc. I don’t know if her experience is the norm or the exception for twenty-somethings.

In my reading, I’m finding that younger authors are offering fictional accounts of friendships across gender, and not just in YA. Another thing that attracts me to a story is a lack of automatic enmity between the two members of the same gender if a threesome meets up. In other words, a couple meets up with another woman, but she doesn’t become The Other Woman, acting like a black widow spider. And ditto, a couple meets up with a man, and the two men don’t get into mano a mano squabbles.

Come to think of it, I just enjoy explorations of friendship.



Gender and Friendship — 27 Comments

  1. I’m with the younger generation on this one, although I’m forty-six myself. But then, my primary social group has always been SF con people, SCA, people online, etc. But I’ve always had male friends, and there’ll always be times when I want to hang with one of them alone, to talk about whatever interests we have in common, people we both know. etc. If my husband had ever had a problem with this, he’d have been kicked to the curb well before we were ever married. Likewise he has a female friend he’s known since they were teenagers, and when he goes out to lunch with her, they usually go alone; I’ve only gone along once or twice, although I know I’m welcome. They have a history I don’t share, though, and if I’m along they need to be polite and try to include me in conversation, which means they can’t spend all their time talking about what they want to talk about.

    If I were afraid my husband might cheat on me, that’d be a completely separate issue. If he were the sort of person who’d deliberately do something he knew ahead of time would hurt me deeply, that’s a problem all by itself, regardless of who else might or might not be involved. He’s not that sort of person, though, and I have no problem with him having friends and interests of his own. That seems logical to me, and I can’t imagine feeling otherwise. How awful it must be to trust your partner so little that even a friend of the relevant gender is a threat! 🙁

    I remember when I was a kid, watching couples on TV, it was just assumed that even the mention of an old boyfriend or girlfriend was enough to set a spouse off in a rage of jealousy. As though they thought their wife/husband lived in a barrel before they got married? Even at that age, I thought that attitude was ridiculous. Many years and a lot of experiences with relationships haven’t changed my mind.


  2. Angie: very true. But old movies and so forth were so frequently based on “Lust at first sight” (though they called it love) so that the couples went straight to the altar bypassing things like friendship or even getting to know the other person.

    In fact, I grew up at the end of an era when females were taught to hide their real selves. We were told that to keep a husband a woman should get up earlier than he so she can shower and get her makeup on, hair done up, and a nice outfit on, so he never sees one ‘natural.’

    I hated that as a kid, swore I’d never marry. I couldn’t articulate my objection, but later I came to think: how can one possibly build trust if one is always living a lie?

  3. I am so used to not thinking about male/female differences in my friendships that I was literally rocked back on my heels when someone (a guy) told me he couldn’t be my friend because men and women couldn’t be friends because of the sex thing.

    I said, “You know, I think they solved this in WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, but whatever, I’m not going to argue with you–obviously, we’re not friend material.”

    One thing (of many) that gets my goat about that line of thinking is the notion that we are supposed to believe that friendship is tainted or not even friendship at all if you happen to notice something sexually-related about someone?

  4. Since I have a lot of male friends, and am not young, I hold very much with the cultural explanation. Also, I’ve spent a lot of time in heavily male environments — martial arts and law (though I’m glad to report that the legal profession includes many more women now than it did when I started out in a law school class that was 10 percent female) — so if I hadn’t made friends with men, I would have often had no friends at all.

    People who don’t accept friendships between men and women are likely those living more traditional lifestyles where the spheres of men and women are often separate. It’s the sort of advice I would have expected to hear from my grandmother.

    I do suspect age is important, because I think younger people have grown up in an environment where women and men have much more equal roles in school, the workplace, and outside activities.

    Of course sexual attraction can happen, but one thing I’ve noticed is that mature people can recognize a sexual attraction without acting on it. Some people who are friends might have been lovers if they’d met when they were single, but they let that feeling go and settle for friendship when there is a marriage involved. And you know, it could be that if they’d had a sexual relationship, it would have been short term, while the friendship can be life long.

  5. Merrie and Nancy Jane: Yes, the spark can arise–and there is the subtle tension that is so interesting to follow in fiction–but people don’t have to act on it. (Or they can be in relationships where acting on it is accepted by both parties, which has been possible in numerous social contexts over the years, but wasn’t discussed.)

    Here’s a thought that just occurred: I find myself more interested in sexual dynamics in fiction when there is a question of restraint. When characters are hopping off and on the mattress as often as people change clothes (and with as much thought), I’m rapidly bored.

  6. Just to give one example, young people in their twenties today may have played on mixed-gender minor hockey teams, which would certainly foster the idea of friends and team mates. Not that things are perfect or that there isn’t a lot of work to do, but things are not the same for those kids as they were for me (forties) or people older than me.

    I’m friends with a couple of married couples seven or eight years my junior. In both cases I knew the man first (one as a library school classmate, one through my brother.) I like to go listen to local bands, and on a couple of occasions when I’ve invited these couples along, the wife’s response was, “I’m too tired–but Jeff, you go with her if you want.” And sometimes we do that, if the band is one he really wants to see. Since these couples have no reason to worry about each other and their opposite-sex friends, it’s really nice that they *don’t*.

  7. Mer, they solved in WHEN HARRY MET SALLY *in the negative*: the proposition that Harry and Sally couldn’t be friends because they would want to have sex was not exactly refuted by them ending up together romantically. I’m not saying this is proof of anything. I’m saying that as a cultural meme, that one is not on my side.

    I now have “best” friends of both sexes, but there was only a year of my childhood when my best friend was *not* a boy. So I’m very much drawn to stories where people are friends and either don’t have sexual tension or deal with their sexual tension reasonably.

    I forget which middle-grade book it was that charmed me by giving, at the end, the brief precis of the characters’ futures that is sometimes common in the end of a MG book, and it had the girl and boy who were friends still being friends as grown-ups and marrying other people who also got along just fine. I wish I remembered what it was. It made me so happy.

  8. Shelley: That’s such a lovely sense of freedom.

    Mris: I recall distinctly the first book I read that broke those standard tropes, Special Effects, by Harriet Frank Jr. In many ways it’s very mid seventies (when it came out) but it was such a relief to find the nasty patterns broken in fiction.

  9. I wonder too to what extent thinking one can be good friends with one’s long-term romantic partner plays in.

    In my case I became accustomed to being friends with boys in high school because they didn’t see me as a girl. At the time, this was perfectly fine by me—I didn’t want to date them, either. But it was useful for knowing subsequently that women and men could be friends, and even discuss some topics that women are “supposed” to talk about only with other women, without implosion being inevitable.

  10. Oh, I definitely think there can be friendships, and I speak as a person who doesn’t have bunches. I do have some, though, and they sure feel like genuine friendships. It could be that they work because we (the guy friends and I) all think of one another as off limits–that is, I’m married (and actually, so are they). There can be flirting and attraction, but that doesn’t spoil the friendship–at least, it hasn’t from my perspective, and it doesn’t seem to have from theirs, either.

  11. John Scalzi addressed this very nicely from the male perspective in a blog post from 2008, which can be found here. (tried to embed link; here’s hoping!)

  12. Mer, they solved in WHEN HARRY MET SALLY *in the negative*: the proposition that Harry and Sally couldn’t be friends because they would want to have sex was not exactly refuted by them ending up together romantically.

    Mris: Huh, that’s an interesting split in our opinions. I feel they solved it because Harry and Sally were only able to have a satisfying relationship in the end because they had put in the non-sexual time as friends; all their previous relationships, where friendship was eschewed, bombed miserably.

    Of course, you’re right to a large extent because the movie never provided either of them with non-sexual male/female friends (outside of Carrie Fisher/Bruno Kirby, their “couple friends”). So. You know, that’s a fail and what you’re saying, I guess, was Ephron’s intention, but my rationale is what I walked away with, even when I saw the movie as a kid!


  13. Of course, what we get nowadays is people who believe there can’t be single-sex friendship; that any such friendship is really, subtextually homosexual.

  14. I think there is often a sexual spark between friends of whatever combination. But I think that the important thing is what you say, Sherwood — mature, and I would say sexually secure and emotionally healthy people in healthy relationships don’t feel the need to act on those attractions in unethical or dishonest ways.

    I do have to say that the last YA books I’ve read have done it both ways — the Cassandra Carr has a couple of love triangles, but the Garth Nix not …

  15. ADM: that was one thing (one of the many things) that I really liked about the YA novel The Bermudez Triangle–how teens deal with friendship, the spark of sex, and love.

  16. My history might have something to do with my views, so briefly you might like to know it. My mother and her mother were both born to their parents as menopause babies, late “surprise” children. I therefore was raised with values more common a generation or two ago.

    Yet my career as a construction safety manager surrounded me with male friends. And they were *friends* in every sense of the word. I felt rather a dork when I realized that in all friendships there can be a very mild sexual component: “I know you’re not available but you’re the sort of person that would interest me if you were” is a component of a lot of my friendships, with both genders. It’s like complimenting your taste in art, music or films: it means almost nothing except an extra data-point of commonality. Of course you don’t act on it; it’s just a pleasant side effect of being around people you admire.

    But I felt like the world’s biggest idiot that it took me until I was fifty years old to figure this out. Looking back on it I had friends in high school who got this. They went far, too, so it must be good for a career.

  17. Wendy: sometimes it can take a while to sort these things out. I sure was no speed demon about it!

  18. Interesting post and comments, and they tie in with some stuff I’ve been thinking about but haven’t quite managed to articulate. So, thanks!

    I wanted to add a couple of semi-related notes:

    1. If it weren’t possible to have friends of a gender that you’re attracted to, then bi people would be unable to have friends at all.

    2. I could be wrong, but I think a lot of people find some members of an appropriate sex attractive and some not. For example, I imagine that there exist straight men who aren’t attracted to *all* women. So it seems like even if we were to accept the premise that you can’t be friends with someone you’re attracted to, *some* male/female friendships should be possible even among straight people who don’t happen to find each other attractive.

    3. I think there are a fair number of people — perhaps especially in fannish and geek circles? — who have mostly friends of another gender. For example, the majority of my friends are women, and a fair number of them have mostly male friends who have mostly female friends.

    4. Finally, I totally agree with various people’s remarks that it’s entirely possible to be friends with someone who you do find attractive. The aforementioned stuff I’ve been thinking about lately is that I rarely see this in fiction, but I see it all the time in real life: two people who are both aware that they find each other attractive, but who (for any of a huge number of possible reasons) know that they’re never going to act on that attraction.

  19. Jed: exactly. I think number four is what sparks really interesting fiction, actually.

  20. I hate to say it, but probably about 60% of the time in my life, Harry Burns was right about the sex part always getting in the way. Growing up, my guy friends would eventually get (unrequited, sadly) crushes on me, and then it was hell. I finally ended up dropping out of my college friend group when three of them had crushes on me (and weren’t listening to “no”). And I’m not a hot chick by any means, but some guys will get crushes on any female who speaks to them on a regular basis, as far as I can tell.

    I have managed to have male friendships that haven’t gone to the bad place in more recent years, but that is probably because the guys are married (not skeezy), or gay, or I am out of the guy’s preferred age range for dating.

    My verdict is: it can be done, but it’s tricky. And I suspect depends on circumstances.

  21. I suspect it has a lot to do with the individual. A very good (female) friend of mine really can’t be friends with straight men, because she’s a bit of a horn-dog. (She may be less so now than she was in her thirties, but she still doesn’t have any straight male friends.)

    Meanwhile, I have lots of male friends, some married, some single, most straight, and no worries regarding the sexual part of it. If any of them have been attracted to me, they’ve been very quiet about it.

  22. Throughout my life, I’ve had difficulty making friends because I’m sometime paralyzingly shy. But I’ve always had more male friends than female ones and my best friend of the last 34 years is male. Since high school I’ve only recently developed really close friendships with other women.

    I think the idea that every friendship must have a sexual component is nonsense. I’m hard-wired hetero and while I loved my high school and college girlfriends deeply, it was like having sisters, not potential lovers. It actually ticked me off when someone would suggest that because my two college buds and I were so close, we were closet lesbians. I frankly thought (since it was usually a guy who suggested it) that there was a little jealousy involved (“You mean you’d rather hang out with those girls than me? Must be gay … yeah, that explains it…”)

    I also thought, rather uncharitably, that guys thought every relationship was about sex because they couldn’t imagine any other kind and thought that sex and love were the same thing. Now, those guys? — definitely not friend material.

  23. I came into the military in the late 1970’s already married–and that made it easier in many ways for me to make friends there despite gender barriers (rank was a lot bigger barrier than gender). There weren’t many female butterbars out there, and so I made friends with the civilian GS’s (mixed military-civilian office) and fellow butterbars (no bond like the one between those being gently tortured by a first Sgt there since Hannibal crossed the Alps–he despised all butterbars equally). Of course, my (civilian) husband had a military-grade haircut and formal civilian dress (the code of the school he taught at, this being Arkansas), so all the base cops thought he was OSI and he got better salutes than I did, but that’s another issue .

    But gender issues weren’t that big, save for some of the dinos, at least not for me. Again, being married probably saved me some grief (even if I did have to accidentally step on a colonel’s foot a couple of times at the O-club on the dance floor). But my husband was raised a fan and SF reader along with me, so it has never been an issue that I can think of.

  24. Maya: “Mistaking sex for love”–hoo boy, there is a whole discussion possible just on that subject.

    Jean: re stepping on the colonel’s foot *snicker*

  25. I’m sorry I didn’t see this post and discussion earlier! This is exactly what I am wrestling with in my W.I.P. I think Jed’s #4 scenario (friends who find each other attractive) is right where the story is, but I keep butting up against “but if I do that, I’ll trigger THIS expectation.”

    I’m finding that maybe each time that happens, I need the characters to grab the expectation by the throat and haul it out into the open… which changes the story somewhat, but I think it works better than just letting those expectations fester.

    I’m hoping that this is heading toward something like The Avengers, except Mrs. Peel is a dowdy spinster….

  26. Camille: all the better. Dowdy spinsters, imo, need their innings as heroic figures!