No, I haven’t been watching When Harry Met Sally recently. But in the last month or so, I’ve been thinking now and then about the question of whether men and women can be friends without any sexual feelings interfering. About a month ago, a woman accused me (incorrectly) of having an “inappropriate” interest in her, and I was so deeply insulted that I haven’t been able to forgive the affront. The idea that men and women can be friends and nothing more is very much a part of me, and I have proved the fact to my satisfaction so many times that I was unprepared for someone who holds the opposite view. How, I wonder, could such a discrepancy of viewpoints come about?
I don’t deny that heterosexual men and women are always aware that someone is a member of the opposite sex. That is as true as the fact that a straight man can hardly have another man – especially a stranger – move into his personal space without an unconscious feeling of rivalry.
But what I do deny is that such awareness is automatically the defining feature of a relationship. Although I have no idea whether awareness of another person’s gender is biological or cultural (although I suspect a little of both), I don’t believe that it has to dominate a relationship — unless you let it.
Over the years, I have been in several situations in which either I was strongly attracted to a woman or she was strongly attracted to me, yet our relationships were about work or common interests. The attraction may have been difficult at first, but soon became irrelevant, if not always disappearing altogether, for the simple reason that I and the woman involved had decided, generally without any mutual discussion, that it would not be acted upon. It was really no more complicated than that.
However, I am thinking now that not every man can be friends with every woman. Those who can, I think, are largely those who do not define themselves primary by gender, but consider themselves people first.
If you are a man for whom your sexuality is primarily about your own predatorship, or a woman who believes that men see you primarily as prey, then I suspect cross-gender friendships are unlikely. The same is true, in more complex ways for some feminists (I regret to say), who condition themselves to see all interactions in terms of gender politics, or male supremacists brooding over the supposed wrongs that women have done them. In all these situations, the awareness of gender is too strong to be relaxed. Consequently, the people involved can never relax, either.
In their different ways, such people have all come to be obsessed by gender. Instead of gender being only one of many characteristics, for them it has become the dominant one. In fact, for many such people, it has become the only characteristic. At times, gender seems to be all they can see.
By contrast, those of us who can be friends with the opposite sex tend to see gender as important only in certain circumstances. The rest of the time, it is part of the background, either ignored or not considered primary. We don’t generally say things like, “Men are like that” or “Well, you know women,” because we don’t see people mainly in terms of male and female. Instead, we are likely to consider other people in terms of shared goals or common interests. For us, any initial awareness of gender generally fades as other aspects of a relationship become more important. That tends to happen even if the other person is strikingly good-looking.
In my own case, this outlook was strengthened for many years, because I was a well-known monogamist. One of the advantages of being happily married is that – unlike many single people – you don’t think about the availability of a person of the opposite sex when you meet them. Instead, you are freed to talk about what matters to you. That holds true whether you are with your spouse or alone.
But, whatever the reasons, throughout my adult life, I have had at least as many female friends – both straight and lesbian – as male ones. By seeing women as people first, I have learned more about humanity than I would have otherwise.
That’s why, when someone declares through their actions or words that men and women can’t be friends, I always feel sorry for them. I always suspect that their experience is too limited, or too framed by popular movies and fiction, or perhaps too conditioned by a traumatic experience. I consider them narrow people, and take their insistence on their world views as a personal insult. So far as I am concerned, they are denying both my beliefs and experience – all without knowing what they are talking about.