The answer to the question of whether heterosexual men and women can be friends is more complicated than either Harry or Sally could have imagined. This is because they are both right. The trouble is that Sally’s yes is correct at only a shallow level. At important, deeper levels Harry’s no is right.
I once put this question to a group of young people. One woman quickly grew incensed when I suggested the answer was, ultimately, no, men and women can’t be friends. But, then, as she examined her relationships with her male friends, she said, “Yea, I guess you’re kind of right.”
Most people will have this response. The default assumption in modern culture is that, of course, men and women can be friends. To question whether that is to question the assumptions around which people have built both personal relationships and social institutions. Doing that make people nervous. Let’s do it anyway.
Before we look into why the answer is ultimately no, let’s give Sally her due and examine what a yes answer has going for it.
Sometimes when people say men and women can be friends, they do so because they think the only other option is to be enemies. That’s not the only option. But if the we ask the question “Must every woman be the enemy of every man?” and vice versa, the answer is obviously no. But, that is not really what we are asking. Still, just because relations between the sexes exist daily in something other than a state of total war, we shouldn’t assume that men and women can be friends.
If what we really mean by “Can men and women be friends?” is “Can men and women socialize and work together politely?” or “Can they work on the same team to accomplish goals?”, well, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest the answer is yes. To suggest otherwise flies in the face of everyday experience.
Unfortunately, most people never think beyond these shallow and obvious levels. If they did, they’d see the question of whether men and women can be friends hides a deeper question, one many people really want answered.
When people ask whether men and women can be friends, what they really mean is: “Can men and women be friends with each other in the way each can be with members of their own sex, without romantic and sexual interest complicating the relationship from at least one side?”
When we get down to this question, the answer is simple.
Giving this answer offends people because it cuts against the grain of our current cultural arrangement.
To understand why, think about a typical environment where men and women interact, where “friendship” between them is supposed to flourish. Take a college classroom, for example. On the surface, everything seems fine. Before class, the air buzzes with conversation and laughter. People speak and hear and sigh and smile and sex seems irrelevant. On this level, sure, everybody’s friends. Or at least appears to be.
But, sex is not irrelevant.
Beneath the surface, that room is teeming with sexual desire and romantic hopes.
We don’t see it because co-educational education like most contemporary social institutions requires the adoption of a sort of public androgyny. People are encouraged to think of themselves not as men and women, but as abstract, genderless “persons.”
All this is most obvious when we look at further at college. Everyone attends the same classes, sits in the same rooms, eats in the same cafeterias. Everyone attends the same social functions. Neck ties are unusual and dresses are seldom seen. Instead, men and women alike comport themselves in the required uniform of the casual culture: blue jeans and a t-shirt.
Increasingly on college campuses, men and women live in the same places. By eliminating dress codes, single-sex activities and sex-segregated dormitories these institutions push the idea that no significant differences exist between the sexes. What appears to be freedom is really a subtle means of repressing an obvious truth. Though these patterns are most clearly seen in the case of university education, they now extend through the whole of public life.
More women than men tend to insist the answer to the question of whether men and women can be friends must be yes. The context explains why. Genderless environments value women and their desires over those of men. In fact, the genderless environment we now experience was created through a long series of changes designed to make women feel comfortable in these spaces by limiting the freedom of men. It is in this environment that women and men now form “friendships”.
When a man and woman become “friends” in this environment, he is at a disadvantage. The official narrative and the social structures built upon it require that he pretend he sees his female friend as only a sexless “person.” What he really sees is a “hot girl.” Continued “friendship” requires that he disown this reality and hope that somehow she’ll notice he’s a man and, one day, fall for him. This unspoken arrangement makes many young men think becoming a girl’s friend is a better path to romance than simply asking her for a date.
Women tend to think the sexes can be “friends” because they are happy to be surrounded by sexless friendly males who make no demands on them. As long as a woman remains oblivious to the fact that the man is pretending not to be attracted to her, indeed often must pretend, she’ll let the “friendship” progress. He’ll be nothing more than a girlfriend who shaves.
When we take all this into consideration, it becomes clear simple uncomplicated friendships between the sexes are impossible. Men and women cannot be friends with one another the way each can with members of their own sex. They cannot be friends without at least one party developing sexual attraction for the other, though the contemporary social environment may makes it seem so.
Even if one member of the “friendship” pretends otherwise, a sexual agenda will be present. This is usually more true on the man’s part. Women will be friends with men they don’t find attractive. Men rarely will. Ladies, if you have a close straight-male friend, don’t deceive yourself: he’s into you.
This is as it should be. Men and women were not meant to be “friends.” Men and women were meant to be lovers, husbands and wives. They weren’t meant to spend their time idly hanging out. They were meant to get together, stay together and make babies. Don’t be discouraged by this reality. Accepting it will lead to better things. For while men and women can’t be friends, they can, and should be, family. And that, in the end, is a much better thing.
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