Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Was Harry Right?
~by Jay

Bluemilk got me started thinking about this. I first heard Harry's thesis advanced by the resident I worked with on my med school psych rotation. She assured me that while I might think I had platonic friendships with men, the men didn't see it that way. I was pretty sure they did see it that way. I wasn't naive - I was engaged to be married and had done my share of dating and flirting; I knew what it felt like when a man was interested in me sexually and I knew the difference. I still know the difference, and I still have men friends. For most of my life, my closest friends have been men.

I had a best girlfriend growing up, but we weren't together very much - she lived in a different neighborhood and had a lot of afterschool activities and we weren't usually in the same class at school. We didn't trade sleepovers and call each other to check our outfits and have long closed-door talks like Eve does with her friends. My day-to-day best friend, the person I hung out after school with and rode bikes with and watched TV with and waded in the creek with, was the boy across the street. We were inseparable until he moved away when we were ten.

During that same psych rotation, we had a lecture on child development in which I learned that "all children" had a same-sex best friend during latency. I asked the lecturer afterwards what would happen if a child had an opposite-sex best friend during that period, and she said "gender development would become abnormal". Perhaps that explains it.

I started to seek out and cultivate female friendships when I was in med school, but I find I still gravitate toward friendships with men. I am blessed, now, with wonderful women friends, and I'm deeply grateful for them, but I still think my psych resident - and Harry - were wrong.


blue milk said...

I am fascinated by your response here, Jay. Most of your life your closest friends have been men? And do your friendships behave similarly to typical female friendships? Do you share secrets? Talk about arguments with your partner to them? Go to movies together? Holiday together?

Wow.. that is a lot of questions, sorry. Told you I was fascinated.

Jay said...

blue milk, never apologize for questions. I love questions, and yours are fascinating in their own right.

I thought about that statement for a long time before I published it, and I'd have to say that it's true for every period of my life except my 40s. I had close female friends during all that time as well, but the people I was most comfortable with were often men. We do share secrets; at the moment, the person I'm most likely to turn to if I need to talk is a man. I don't go to movies or travel with my women friends all that often these days, and I've been married a looong time, but in college and med school, when I socialized without Sam, I did go out with men in the same way I did with women.

I really do think much of this comes from my own internalized misogyny, which often leads me to ignore the possibilities of female friendships. In many ways my interactional style is more "masculine", at least in the ways defined by the likes of Deborah Tannen. So maybe that attending was right 25 years ago, and my gender development was "abnormal".

I do, by the way, also run into suspicion from wives and partners, which has been a problem.

Mary P Jones (MPJ) said...

I realized as I was reading this that I've always bought in to Harry's thing that men and women can't be just friends, because the sex thing always gets in the way, but then I realized that I've also only wanted to be close friends with men I'm attracted to and who are attracted to me! (Revelation!)

I have male acquaintances that I don't find attractive, but I generally have no desire to develop a closer friendship with them.

On the other hand, I'm also attracted to many of my close female friends, and actually have hugely flirtatious relationships (to the point where it would be inappropriate with a straight man) with some of them, but there's less potential there for the attraction to go anywhere, so it feels safer.

Which all means I should go look at my stupid love addictive type issues again! :-/

Betsey said...

John Scalzi addresses this, at least from the male POV, in an old post on his blog. His opinion is that friendships between the sexes can be platonic, and that this is not related to whether the man finds the woman sexually attractive.

(The comment thread also has some good insights)

Narya said...

I loathe that movie. Seriously, it is on my worst-of-all-time list. The main reason is that speech, in fact. I have always had many male friends, in part because the things I've done were often in all- or mostly-male environments, so there were just fewer women around. (That said, I also have many close female friends.) Have I slept with some of them? Sure. All of them? No possible way. And that's kind of the point. Grownups are capable of acknowledging that they're attracted to someone without having to act on that attraction.

Jaggystar said...

Narya - your comment resonates with me totally! I have several long term male and female friends. I am sometimes sexually attracted to these friends. I have never acted on this sexual attraction, apart from being flirty and sometimes in my fantasies (if I'm honest). I'm in a committed monogamous relationship for the time being - the relationship and friendships span two decades. At some stages the sexual attraction has been spoken about with these people. However we are all grown up enough to know we can have sexual feelings/desires and good close wonderful friendships without the need to act. I think it is powerful to honestly understand how sexual desire operates in our bodies and wonderful to be friends with anyone. All power to you Narya

Mary (MPJ) said...

I would say that "the sex thing" has gotten in the way of many of my friendships -- but that doesn't mean that I've had sex with those people.

It means that in some way the flirting/emotional affair/fantasy has interfered with my ability (or my friend's ability) to be genuinely good friends to each other and respectful of each other's other relationships.

Because of issues in my own relationships, I've come to see flirting and fantasy can be a way of acting on attraction that has the potential to be as powerful and destructive as actually having sex.

Jay said...

Getting back to this after a hectic couple of weeks..

thanks for the link to Scalzi's post, Betsey. I wasn't crazy about his initial formulation that "guys want to sleep with every woman they see", but he did have some interesting things to say after that. Eventually.

I don't find that attraction or flirting gets in the way of true friendship when there is more to the connection than simply attraction. I guess it depends on why I'm flirting, and what the impact is on the other person. If there's any doubt about our intentions, that's a problem, so if we can't have an open conversation about our feelings, it won't work. Sometimes flirting and teasin is a refuge or escape from that kind of honesty, and that's a signal that something is off.

An analogy to alcohol occurs to me - I can drink a glass of wine because I like the flavor and even sometimes because I enjoy the sense of relaxation, and it's a nice thing but not the focus of my life and not something I lose control of. Not everyone has that luxury. In the same way, I can be friends with and even sometimes flirt with men I'm attracted to, and it's a nice thing but not the focus of the relationship.