This post is part of the February Synchroblog “Cross Gender Friendships”. A list of links to all the contributions are at the end of this post, check them out!
I could have called it Friendship: The Great Equalizer, but I felt like writing a somewhat ridiculous run-on title. Maybe that’s because as of late, it seems as though debating whether or not men & women can even be friends has been a somewhat ridiculous run-on topic. Its spanned the interwebs in Christian, secular, and pop culture alike, (watch the creators of Portlandia look at David Letterman like wtf is wrong with you? when he can’t comprehend it’s possible they’re not “doing the things that dating people do”). It’s popped up in youtube pseudo-science, and even in more realer science. Now I like data, and I like opinions, and opinions formed into data can certainly be entertaining, but when it comes to relational things, I’m a fan of the anecdotal and the intuitive. So let me offer an intuitive and anecdotal answer the question that’s apparently vexing the entire internet: Yes.
Great. That was easy, now lets move on.
Commencing the anecdotal
Those who know me well, (my children included) know I’m a bit of an armchair gender studies freak. This evening, my oldest son and daughter, 11 and 9, once again used this against my efforts at proper parenting and tricked me into letting them stay up an hour past bedtime by engaging me in discussion. It’s a clever stall-method they have down to a science. Tonight’s diversionary tactic, I mean topic, was friendship, and the differences between friendship and dating. They’re in 4th and 5th grade, the age where kids “date” for a few minutes before lunch, then “break-up” during recess, only to be “going out” with someone else by the end of art class. It’s all very normal, and yet new for them. Both my son and daughter, as a general rule, hang in mixed peer groups with both boys and girls. They have boy friends and girl friends, but they’re just starting to wonder what it means to take the space out from between those words.
Predictably in the course of discussion, they asked me when I had my first “real boyfriend,” and I had to bravely venture into the vault of junior high memories. “There was a boy I really liked in 8th grade. He was funny, smart and kind. We talked, played basketball, walked and had a lot of fun together. But, eventually, I broke up with him, it was weird, and we really didn’t talk to each other anymore.” They asked me why I broke up with him. I told them it was because, for a variety of reasons, I wasn’t ready for a boyfriend and I didn’t know what else to do. Then they both looked at me quizzically until my son asked, “Mom, if you liked each other, and had fun together, but you weren’t ready for a boyfriend…then why weren’t you friends?”
It was a very good question, one that I’m glad he was able to ask in a what do you mean you didn’t have electricity back then?! kind of way. With some on-the-fly thinking, my answer was, “Well, when I was a kid, we had stories of princes and princesses, Romeo and Juliette – but we didn’t have Harry and Hermione. I guess I didn’t really know it was possible to be friends with a boy I liked.” Looking back, I kind of regret that there weren’t models for friendships between a middle school boy and girl who enjoyed each other’s company as much as we did. I highly doubt things would have continued on a romantic trajectory regardless, but it was if a tightly defined, binary cultural romantic narrative constricted our options and choked out any potential for a good, solid friendship.
College & Beyond: Men I’ve loved, and despite what David Letterman might think, haven’t slept with
Luckily for me, I have had male friends since that awkward junior high breakup. In college one of my closest friends was another music major, named Kevin. He was the son of two social workers, an amazing individual with a great deal of emotional integrity, and he affected me deeply over the course of our time together. The two of us would study for hours, memorizing pieces and composers in the music library, and drive ourselves silly with exhaustion studying music theory in his dorm room until the early hours. We’d walk to class together, eat together, play music at a church on Sundays together, and occasionally, we’d even lock ourselves into a practice room for hours and…wait for it…play saxophone and flute duets. Kevin was seriously dating and eventually engaged to his now-wife the entire time, but I never felt that my presence in his life was a liability, nor a threat to his relationship. I can only conclude that the stories he heard about friendships between men and women were somehow different, and thank God it left space for our friendship. I’m certainly a better, more whole, person for it.
Like my children, I continue to hang in a mixed peer group. I have close female friends, and close male friends. I have female acquaintances and male acquaintances. They’re married, single, dating, straight, gay, religious, not religious, employed, unemployed, underemployed, self-employed and republican. With these friends, male or female, I do things that friends do including; text, chat, email, write and received old-fashioned hand-written notes, co-work, go for walks, have coffee, lunch, dinner, beer, drive in cars, ride in elevators, sit next to each other, or across from each other, or at an angle from each other, joke, laugh, and exchange ideas, hopes, fears, successes and failures. I console and am consoled, hug and am hugged, love and am loved. I have a tremendous amount of gratitude for every single one of my friends, and their intersection in my life. Friendship is something I value highly, including my friendships with men.
Do my anecdotal experiences mean friendship between every man and every woman are advisable in every situation? Well, of course not, but what is advisable in every situation? However, I’m not alone, there are plenty of other stories out there. So, despite all of the stories we hear from people about such friendships that actually work, are greatly beneficial to both, and are not wrecking marriages and relationships, (but perhaps even strengthening them) why oh why do we continue to have such vehement pushback in the culture at large, but especially in the church?
The Problem: Slippery slopes and evolutionary biology
The problem is…well, more things than I could possibly get into right now, but for now I’ll name two. The problem is, the church buys into the idea of the “slippery slope” and the world buys into the idea of evolutionary biology. Then church-meets-world like boy-meets-girl and before you know it, hand-checks from the back of the church van go ignored, and quicker than you can say purity ring, you have an unholy marriage. To get any not familiar with church-speak up to speed, the “slippery slope” is the idea that once you have a thought or a feeling that may be in a direction you don’t want to actually go, well then – that’s it, you’ve already got one foot on the ice, and you may not have control over the outcome.
Conveniently, evolutionary biology states something similar, but from the world of science. Because I couldn’t possibly say it better, from a CNN Opinion piece, “Men’s testicles are far larger than those of any monogamous or polygynous primate, hanging vulnerably outside the body where cooler temperatures help preserve standby sperm cells for multiple ejaculations.” Well if anything makes me think “love machine,” that does. In any regard, the story goes that men are biologically hardwired to use any and all opportunities to seek multiple sexual partners.
Obviously, each of these narratives cause their own separate set of issues when it comes to a balanced, holistic view of friendship between men and women; evolutionary biology saying, “Lots of sperm, lots of sex! (and you might be next!)” while the slippery slope says, “You have control over your actions like you have control over gravity.”
That’s not very good news.
And in a church setting, whether anyone sees it or not, these two ideas can play off of each other. Scientifical license + the devil made me do it thinking = something I find pretty darned disturbing, something along the lines of, “But, God CREATED men to make a million sperm a day, so there is no way, in all of my divinely-given sperm-manufacturing power, with that obviously busty…I mean slippery slope right there in front of me, that I’ll be able to stop myself from “spreading my seed” and trying to “be fruitful and multiply”. Everyone knows, after all, its in the BIBLE.” Ok, I exaggerate, but really, talk about getting in bed with the ways of the world. Where is the “good news” in this, the good news that Paul talked about regarding not being slaves to the old self* anymore? Where’s the love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control?** It’s certainly not good news to me if I happen to be the woman at the bottom of the perceived slippery slope when there’s a Christian man who thinks he’s at the top of the hill.
My perspective: Unsafe man, run away.
In fact, here may lie an example of where friendship isn’t advisable, because my rule-of-thumb when it comes to friendships with men is if they think it isn’t possible, then I can only assume they’re right – on their end. I do my best to listen to my gut in such situations. But its a shame that this narrative dominates the cultural landscape, because the stories I’ve heard, my own experience, and my larger intuitions about human psychological and spiritual growth tell me that friendships between men and women are not only possible, they’re also incredibly important. And here are only a few reasons why:
Friendship between men & women subverts sexism
Sexism is basically the practice of making an object out of an entire gender. It manifests in comments, expressions, worldviews, power structures, relationship structures, and larger systemic structures. It’s as benign as “Boys only like blue” and as destructive as, “She was asking for it.” Generally, whether we’re talking race, sex or something else, we’re afraid of what is different than us. Many would agree that the best way to move further past racism is to enter into relationship with people of different races. So it is with sexism. It’s well-known that having daughters often changes a man’s perspective on women entirely, and other non-romantic relationships with women, such as friendships, can offer the same perspective shift. Suddenly, in front of your opposite-sex friend those sexist behaviors, those slightly sexist comments you throw around with your same-sex friends feel icky, or might even get called out.*** Suddenly, there’s a world-view mirror right in front of you. Sure, it hurts, but what better way to see ourselves more clearly?
Friendship between men & women subverts patriarchy
Within patriarchy we see a practical expression of sexism through the lens of power structures. It’s as benign as, “We strong men better protect the fragile, weak women,” and as destructive as, “The proper place for a woman is quiet, submissive, and under men. Now shut up and make me dinner.” Patriarchy is simply about power, and is held up by an over/under relationship-power structure. Much like how friendship between a man and woman can suddenly put sexist behavior in a different light, it can also throw a great big spotlight on the over/under power structures of patriarchy. Friendship, by general definition, is about a meeting of equals, and it’s hard to be over (or under) an equal. I would argue that in order for a friendship to exist between a man and a woman, patriarchy either has to be non-existent, or at the very least, constantly examined, and one of the best ways to subvert something dysfunctional, is to put it on the line by examining it closely.
Friendship between men & women leads to more whole people
Integrated relationships lead to integrated people, and integrated people are people of integrity. In so many ways, we as humans have been fractured and damaged by relationships, and I’ve come to believe the only way to healing is to untie our fractured messes, let the pieces fall, and then find people to hold safe spaces for us while we do the hard work of putting ourselves back together. And here’s the deal: Things done by men, pieces of us fractured by men, can best be undone by men. Things done by women, pieces of us fractured by women, can best be undone by women. We need a diversity of relationships in our lives to continue on a path toward peace and wholeness. You might even say we need brothers, and sisters and mothers and fathers.****
“Life is a beautiful risk, and the lilies are the beautiful part” – J. Caputo
I’ve been on the outside of the church for 2 years now, and I find that cross-gendered-friendships are not nearly as scorned in secular culture as they are in the church. However, I still believe that it is our spiritual selves and constructs, not the simplistic secular lens of evolutionary biology, that offers the best place to let go of the impoverished view of humanity that says we are the sum of our impulses. Right now, the culture is leading the church on this – and that’s a shame – because the church has every reason, and every resource, to be leading the culture. Holding on to an archaic and impoverished view of humanity through the lens of gender relations does nothing to further the fundamental cause of Jesus, in fact, it’s not ‘good news’ at all. It’s the antithesis of good news. It’s time to stop letting our individual and systemic egos, our need for power and control and stability, get in the way of real gender equity, in the way of real redeeming friendships and relationships, in the way of real personal and communal growth, and in the end, in the way of our chances of becoming more whole – integrated – people. Is it a risk? Of course. But, intuitively and anecdotally, it’s a beautiful risk.
*If anyone is interested, a study on the term “Sarx” or “flesh” in the NT, juxtaposed against the ancient Hebrew idea of the Yetzer Hara is fascinating and illuminating.
**Gal 5:22, Yeah, I haven’t been in church for 2 years, but that was a biblical reference. I grew up evangelical and have a head-full of biblical references still ready at any given moment. Swords up!
***But not me, I would NEVER call someone out.
****Another biblical reference which I apparently have shoved so far back in the file cabinets that I can’t easily recall the reference, help anyone?
Wow, what a great list of contributions this month!
Chris Jefferies – Best of both
Jeremy Myers – Are Cross-Gender Friendships Possible
Lynne Tait – Little Boxes
Dan Brennan – Cross-Gender Friendship: Jesus and the Post-Romantic Age
Glenn Hager – Sluts and Horndogs
Jennifer Ellen – A Different Kind of Valentine
Alise Wright - What I get from my cross-gender friend
Liz Dyer – Cross-Gender Friendships and the Church
Jonalyn Fincher – Why I Don’t Give out Sex like Gold Star Stickers
Maria Kettleson Anderson - Myth and Reality: Cross-Gender Friendships
Bram Cools - Nothing More Natural Than Cross-Gender Friendships?
Marta Layton – True Friendship: Two Bodies, One Soul
Kathy Escobar – The Road To Equality Is Paved With Friendship
Karl Wheeler – Friends at First Sight
Jim Henderson – Jesus Had A Thing for Women and So Do I
Also, I’ve donated a significant amount of writing time and professional services to The Sacred Friendship Gatherings over the last two years because I think this conversation is incredibly important. This years conference in April in Chicago is called BOLD BOUNDARIES | Expanding Friendship Between Men & Women. If you’re curious about this topic, if you question it, if you love it, if you hate it, if you agree with it, if you’re vehemently against it – I invite you to join us.