By Liz Mutter ’15
Volume XXXVIII, Issue 2, November 21, 2014
Growing up, we’re told that you’re either a girl or a boy. We’re told that girls and boys look different, act different, and like different things. As puberty arrives, we’re more attuned to the omnipresent messages about romantic love and sexual attraction. If you’re a girl, someday your Prince Charming will come to sweep you off your feet and take care of you for the rest of eternity. If you’re a boy, someday you’ll accomplish something great enough to attract a bevy of beautiful women seeking casual sex. And in the meantime, you’ll have your friends to keep you company—friends that have the same set of secondary sex characteristics as you do.
Because of these expectations and the human tendency to love a good story, we see opposite-sex (OS) couplings everywhere, all the time—among the people around us, but also in novels, movies, television, and our own imagination. In elementary school, no recess experience was complete without someone spotting an OS interaction and yelling, “[Girl] and [Boy] sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G! First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in a baby carriage!” Later, we watched Lizzie McGuire and Gordo’s long-awaited kiss, and we read with glee that Hermione and Ron finally admitted their feelings for one another. If we wanted to invite someone of the OS to our birthday parties, our parents made a big deal about it. We formed friends through our extracurricular activities, which were usually same-sex (SS) groups.
Later still, we watched literally everyone on “Grey’s Anatomy” hook up with everyone else of the OS; we watched “How I Met Your Mother”’s only single female protagonist dates both of the show’s single male protagonists; we watched movies called My Best Friend’s Wedding, Just Friends, and Friends with Benefits that ended—much to no one’s surprise—in romantic love; and we watched shows like “My Boys,” “The Big Bang Theory,” and “New Girl,” which revolved around the inherent ridiculousness of a woman spending a lot of time hanging around with a group of men. (In “defense” of “The Big Bang Theory,” it’s not supposed to be funny just because Penny is a woman, it’s supposed to be funny because she’s a dumb woman and of course she couldn’t possibly understand the super smart science talk of the men around her, but at least she makes up for it by having social skills. LOLLLL.)
Here at Amherst, we know the ins and outs of everyone’s business, and even when we don’t, we’re happy to speculate. “David, I saw you and Katie eating together at Val today and you both looked really happy—are you guys a thing?!?” “No, we’re friends.” “Oh, sure, okay whatever you say, but just know that you can tell me anything. WINK! [Spins around until nothing remains but a pile of dust.]” We make such speculations because 1) it’s fun to imagine people you know being romantically interested in one another (maybe it gives us hope that one day we too might be less lonely?) and 2) we are socialized to believe that friends are people of the SS, whereas people of the OS are for tryna fuck/date/love-unconditionally-in-the-context-of-marriage. According to Professor Sanderson, who graciously agreed to answer some questions via email, this “general lack of trust that such ‘true friendships’ exist (and hence the perception from family/friends that these friendships are in reality dating or sexual relationships)” can present a real barrier to forming and maintaining OS friendships. If you’re a straight, cisgender person, your current friend group probably reflects this gender singularity.
(If you’re not a straight, cisgender person, please write for The Indicator. We desperately need the voices of this publication to reflect the (gender/sexual/racial/ethnic/regional/ socioeconomic) diversity of the voices on this campus. You could write on queer gender and sexuality as they function in friendships at Amherst, or you could write about whatever else, regardless of its relevance to an aspect of your identity. I truly mean whatever else— one time I wrote about menstrual cups, so anything goes!)
In addition to social pressures, another obstacle to OS friendship, as noted by Professor Sanderson, is “the potential of sexual feelings in one (and not the other) member. Many relationships do start as friendships,” she continued, “so in some cases these feelings occur over time in both members and that can be a good start to a dating relationship. In other cases such feelings occur more in one person than the other, and that can be tricky.” Undoubtedly, unrequited love hurts, and that hurt can put a huge strain on a friendship. Even just sexual attraction, though, can make it tough to appreciate someone for who they are rather than how sexy they are. In fact, a straight male friend told me that his recently diminished sex drive has enabled him to form several new OS friendships, which is both great and terrible: great that he’s enjoying spending time with these women just for the sake of getting to know them, but terrible that his sexual appetite had previously prevented him from doing so in a way that it never prevented him from forming connections with men.
Exacerbating the problem of sexual attraction within OS friendships is the fact that it is not equally likely to occur across genders. According to a 2001 Social Psychology study by April L. Bleske-Rechek and David M. Buss, men are more likely than women to be sexually attracted to and desire to have sex with their OS friends. Furthermore, Sanderson pointed out that “men are more likely to (wrongly) perceive sexual interest from their female friends than women, whereas women are more likely to not recognize interest that is there!” Consequently, women are more likely
than men to have experienced an OS friend confessing romantic interest in them seemingly out of nowhere. Unless the interest is mutual, she is left with the unfortunate choice of cutting ties and seeming like an asshole or trying to remain friends but living in fear of leading the guy on—or worse, having to deal with a guy who continues to pressure her and make her feel guilty for not returning the feelings. Repeated experiences like this might make a woman hesitant to pursue OS friendships. Conversely, repeated rejection by women might make men hesitant to pursue OS friendships.
That’s not the end of the odds stacked against OS friendships—there’s also “the perceived threat of such friendships to dating partners of one or both friend” (Sanderson). This can certainly pose an issue, but in my experience being in a relationship actually facilitates forming OS friendships because it takes any sexual or romantic possibilities entirely off the table without anyone feeling rejected. It also doesn’t hurt that along with a boyfriend comes the chance to meet the boyfriend’s boy friends. On the other hand, a person in a relationship might devote less time and effort to friendships in general, according to Sanderson: “Typically people have many friendships (and at least a few close friendships) and a single romantic/sexual relationships, so in that sense, people often put a higher priority on their romantic/sexual relationship since it is the ‘only’ relationship of such a type at a time.”
Regardless, there are also structural obstacles to forming OS friendships. Your first-year roommate is the same sex/gender as you. Teams and most a cappella groups are single-gender. Even some majors and courses have a disproportionate representation of a single gender—“The Psychology of Food and Eating Disorders,” for example, has only one male student. Such structural factors make it easier to form SS than OS friendships because you’re more likely to interact with people of the SS anyway. When it comes to meeting new people, the time when there’s the greatest chance of forming new friendships—read: a Saturday night—happens to be the same time when you’re most likely to be seeking out a romantic or sexual encounter. And we all know which pursuit tends to take priority. Even greater than the difficulty of meeting a potential new OS friend is the difficulty of maintaining the friendship, which results in part because of significant gender differences in the types of things one does with friends: “Men are more activity-based in their friendships (playing sports, watching TV, shooting pool, etc.),” Sanderson explained, “whereas women tend to spend more time just talking (e.g., having coffee, hanging out, catching up). Men also tend to have larger, but less close, friendship networks, whereas women tend to have smaller, but closer, friendship networks.”
All things considered, it’s no wonder OS friendships are rare. But they do exist. I’m lucky enough to have quite a few OS friends, and beyond the benefits like “companionship, good times, conversation, and laughter” found by Bleske-Rechek and Buss to be genderindependent, getting to know these guys has helped me understand how they each see the world—what they care about, what bothers them, what they’re curious about, and how they are dealing with their shifting identities and futures. Since these characteristics are influenced by their experiences, they are also fundamentally influenced by gender identity. So, seeking to understand the views and struggles of OS friends “can provide a different way of seeing the world, just like having friends from different backgrounds,” Sanderson explained.
I also have the comfort of knowing individual men to use as counterexamples whenever generalizations about men threaten to take hold as truth in my mind. The same would apply for a man in combating generalizations about women. Guys, if you have any further doubts about why OS friendships are great, hear this from Sanderson: “Such relationships tend to be better (more beneficial) for men than for women since both men and women prefer to disclose in women!” Ladies, don’t be discouraged—there are plenty of men here who are capable of being great listeners. They’ve probably just had less practice, since men aren’t socialized to be compassionate communicators to the extent that women are. I urge you to give them a chance to listen to what you have to say.
Finally, an ongoing campus initiative highlights the need for a cultural shift towards valuing a better understanding among the sexes, which is best achieved through OS friendships. In a recent open meeting on the vision for Social Clubs at Amherst, the issue of whether to offer SS Social Clubs was on the table. One student noted that a few of his younger teammates felt far more at ease at SS gatherings than at events where women were present; so, the student argued, SS Social Clubs are necessary as a space where everyone can feel comfortable being themselves. This wasn’t the first time I’d heard a man acknowledge general discomfort in the presence of the women. My freshman year, a male friend said to me, “I don’t really even consider you a girl.” At first I was confused and took offense, but with time I came to understand that what he really meant was something like, “I feel comfortable acting like myself around you, which is usually a comfort level I only feel around other guys.” But the words he used to frame this thought revealed the extent to which he had internalized “girls” as fundamentally different from him, such that his ability to connect positively with me outside of a sexual context made me an anomaly. And rather than reframing his conception of what interactions with girls could be like, he instead divorced me from the “girls” category in his mind.
Well, I am a fucking girl. And I promise, us ladies do not exist to make men feel uncomfortable. Perhaps that discomfort comes from primarily being exposed to media (including porn) in which women are consistently sexually objectified and are rarely portrayed as well-rounded protagonists. But by simply talking to women without a sexual agenda, men could see that we’re just as normal or weird, gross or neat, funny or boring, smart or slow, sweet or cold, selfish or caring, and excitable or blasé as you guys. And if our breasts and vaginas scare you, then it’s time you grow the fuck up, because we’re half of the population and we’re not going away. As the marginalized group, women have had to confront and operate within the male-dominated worldview on a daily basis, so some effort to return that favor and listen to our views and experiences would be much appreciated. Being friends with us is a great first step, and gender-inclusive Social Clubs would be a great way to facilitate these friendships.
Unfortunately, time may be running out on forming OS friendships. According to Sanderson, “They are more common in high school and college, and (perhaps sadly) less common later in life, when people are often partnered and then spending time with same-sex friends and/or couple friends.” So please start now, lest you miss out. I have full faith in us. We are not the generation that will continue to let a gender binary dominate our perception of individuals. We are not the generation that will allow gender inequality and gender exclusion to persist because we can’t be bothered to understand the perspective of the “other side.” We are not the generation that is content to miss out on forming meaningful and mutually beneficial platonic relationships with someone of the opposite sex just because we have different sets of genitals.