Thoughts on seeing this New York Times headline earlier this week: “It’s not just Mike Pence. Americans are Wary of Being Alone with the Opposite Sex.”
“I thought that was just Mike Pence being odd … ”
“Who are these people?”
The article examined the results of a poll of Americans that showed: “Around a quarter think private work meetings with colleagues of the opposite sex are inappropriate. Nearly two-thirds say people should take extra caution around members of the opposite sex at work. A majority of women, and nearly half of men, say it’s unacceptable to have dinner or drinks alone with someone of the opposite sex other than their spouse.”
So that means half of those surveyed don’t have close friendships with people of the opposite sex. Am I alone in thinking this is weird? Just what century are we living in?
For those who missed the original story: in 2002 the now US vice-president Mike Pence told political news site The Hill that he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her present.
The Pences are evangelical Christians, so his habits, which at first blush seem odd, do chime with his conservative beliefs. But what about everyone else? Why do the “majority of women, and nearly half of men” say it’s unacceptable to have dinner or drinks alone with someone of the opposite sex other than their spouse?
The practice of sex segregation might be the norm in say, Riyadh, where unmarried men and women are punished if they mingle, but in the more licentious US, you would think men and women just hanging out would be the norm. Haven’t we settled that old question by now: can men and women just be friends?
Male-female friendships are a relatively new development in the evolution of the human species, coinciding with the first and second waves of the feminist movement.
In a fascinating 2012 New York Times feature on platonic relationships, essayist William Deresiewicz explains that the notion of friendship between the sexes first became popular in the suffragette era. Men and women began to want romantic partners that could provide friendship and companionship as well as the old glues that bound people together: economic stability and child rearing.
Then, in the 1960s “friendship wasn’t part of the demand this time, but the things that were demanded – equal rights and opportunities in every sphere – created the conditions for it”, he writes. “Only once the sexes mixed on equal and familiar terms at school, at work and in the social spaces in between – only once it was normal and even boring to see a member of the opposite sex at the next desk – could platonic friendships become an ordinary part of life.”
When I was growing up, my baby boomer parents had mainly same-sex friends or were friends with other couples. Yet in a generation, there seems to have been a leap towards the normalisation of platonic friendship with the opposite sex. At university I made a bunch of platonic male friends and have continued apace ever since (shout out to millennial men: you are awesome at friendship!)
Yet in the span of human history, a few decades of platonic friendship is not much time to iron out any kinks or quirks or sort out the complexities and the nuances.
There are still hurdles. What happens when one of you gets into a serious relationship? Or marries? Can you still dine à deux or call them late at night to tell them your problems? Or are those days over? Do these innocent, youthful friendships become inappropriate as we get older simply because they might compete with the intimacy that is in marriage or a long-term partnership?
I put the question out to my online networks and got a mixed bunch of answers.
A female friend who lives in a regional town mourns her lack of male friends. She used to have many, but the town’s gossip factor means she shies away from making new friendships with men, particularly with those who are in a relationship.
Another female friend doubts if men and women can have pure friendship, quoting Oscar Wilde: “Between men and women, there is no friendship possible. There is passion, enmity, worship, love, but no friendship.”
A male friend said his female friends avoided him as soon as he got married.
Others said if it weren’t for their friends of the opposite sex, they would have no or very few friends.
This is rich and still disputed territory – yet popular culture hasn’t kept up. There is of course the film When Harry Met Sally, which concluded women and men couldn’t be just friends. That feels like ancient history: it was, after all, a pre-millennial movie (1989).
Meanwhile literature is currently enjoying a purple patch of exploring friendship between women (Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, Zadie Smith’s Swing Time) – and is yet to get to the part where men and women are friends, with all the juicy complexities and dramas that could entail.
Ben Lerner’s 2014 novel 10:04 has a male/female friendship at its centre, as does John Marsden’s Tomorrow, When the War Began and its sequels. Yet on television, it seems we’re only comfortable when one of the two friends is gay (Master of None, Will and Grace) or the relationship between the man and the woman has a mentor aspect: Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson in Parks and Recreation, Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy in 30 Rock and Peggy Olson and Don Draper in Mad Men.
We’re left with Seinfeld – if you ignore the fact that Jerry and Elaine dated.
Maybe people aren’t making friends with those of the opposite sex because there are no real models reflected back as to how it’s done.
So while I thought the Pence stuff was looney, the survey results brought his views out into the mainstream.
There are significant consequences to this: in the workplace it locks out women from important interactions. The office becomes one giant golf course where men bond and banter and women are relegated to joyless meeting rooms with the door open.
And in life. Well, that is the saddest of all.
Without friendship, there can be no true understanding between the sexes – we get stuck in the retrograde beliefs that women are from Mars, men are from Venus. These are roles that imply women and men are too different to really connect outside the bounds of marriage and childbearing.
This circles us back to a de facto segregation that took place right up until the 1970s – the era of ladies lounges, men moving to the drawing room after dinner for port and cigars, the women in the kitchen, the blokes crowded around the barbecue, the girls’ weekends away.
Men talk politics and sport. Women talk feelings and children.
I don’t want to go back to that.
For men and women – beyond the deep, primitive ties of blood and sex – there exists a hinterland. Friendship is the place where we can meet, rest and lay down our weapons.
We want to know what you think: can men and women be just good friends? What are the obstacles? How do things change as we get older? Tell us what you think in the comments below.
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