Fear of Female Friendship

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Since these are the beliefs now running our country, there’s renewed interest in Mike Pence’s rule that he’ll never be alone with any woman who isn’t his wife. Supposedly this is called the Billy Graham rule, after the famous evangelist who lived by a similar precept, as a hedge against temptation. (Yes, this man willingly chose to work for President Grab-Her-By-The-Pussy. Christian hypocrisy knows no bounds.)

Several pundits noted that it would be impossible for a woman to have a career in politics or business if she observed the same rule. The fact that it’s possible for men is a symptom of the severe gender imbalance in the upper echelons of power. And part of the reason for that disparity is that many powerful men have written or unwritten rules like this that give preference to other men. That makes it nearly impossible for a female staffer to network, to cultivate professional connections and mentorships, or to put in the kind of above-and-beyond effort that leads to recognition:

The Pence approach rules out a lunch meeting or a professional dinner with a woman. It also “included requiring that any aide who had to work late to assist him be male.”

It also raises the question: if a man can never be alone with a woman or have any kind of close relationship with a woman unless it’s his mother or he’s married to her, then how can men and women be friends?

The answer is, they can’t. As Jia Tolentino says:

Because I was raised in a Southern Baptist community in Texas, the answer to that last question is still ingrained within me: a married man simply shouldn’t have female friends. It’s not necessary or proper. That’s what plenty of people I grew up around might say. Men and women are meant to serve God in a contained, organized partnership. Intimacy of any sort leads to sexual temptation; a man’s wife is the only woman outside of his birth family who should rightfully play a meaningful role in his life.

The idea that there needs to be a wall of separation between the genders is a widespread article of faith among the religious right. The conservative Christian blogger Matt Walsh asked, with apparent incredulity:

Because I have female friends and I want to catch up with them and learn about what’s happening in their lives, and a meal is a socially accepted way to do so? Is that not “appropriate” enough?

But for a deeper plunge into this psychological wasteland, turn to an essay in the Federalist titled “Why Men and Women Can Never Be ‘Just Friends’“, by Hans Fiene, a Lutheran pastor. Fiene argues that men will always be better than women at the things men care about – i.e., swilling beer, chortling at dumb violent movies, yelling about sports, or “showing affection through insults and general jackassery” – and thus, the only reason a man could possibly have for wanting a woman as a friend is to leverage that relationship into sex:

If, then, the average male coworker, male neighbor, or male Nepalese yak herder is better at producing masculine companionship, why is an average man giving his business to you? It’s not because he wants your friendship. It’s because he wants to convince you to open up the supply chain of a romantic relationship to him, and he foolishly believes he can do so by being a loyal friendship customer. “Pay my dues in the Friend Zone,” he thinks, “and one day she’ll promote me to boyfriend.”

Fiene urges women everywhere to immediately break off their friendships with men they don’t want to sleep with, so as not to perpetuate false hope. In case you were wondering, if you as a woman do want to sleep with one of your male friends, you should immediately marry him and start procreating, like God intended.

There were obvious satirical elements in this, but the thrust of the essay is to reinforce, not to mock, this viewpoint. It’s only a slight exaggeration of an attitude held by many religious conservatives. That includes its author, who said on Twitter that the post was “60% jokes and hyperbole and 40% what I think is true”.

This attitude claims that the sexes are separated by a chasm of strict gender roles. Women are the ones who possess “kindness, thoughtfulness, sensitivity, support… the feminine virtues” (to quote Pastor Heine), whereas men enjoy “yelling at football players through the television set and laughing at noxious flatulence”. But this superficially self-deprecating attempt at comedy conceals a deep-seated and vicious sexism that hurts both men and women.

It insists that men and women belong to non-overlapping spheres, and that neither sex possesses the attributes traditionally ascribed to the other. This holds back women in all the ways noted, but it also diminishes all our lives, men and women alike, by cutting us off from half of our potential friends. Instead of seeing people you meet as interesting and unique individuals and encouraging you to explore how their interests overlap with yours, this theology insists that everyone fits into one of two rigid and cramped boxes and that each gender has only one thing to offer the other. But if you truly don’t enjoy the things your gender is “supposed” to enjoy, then what do you do?

Many of my close friends are women. That’s something that’s always been true about me, before I was an atheist, before I knew anything about feminism. I rented my first college apartment with a woman who was one of my closest friends. When I started work, I lived for two years in Manhattan with two women as roommates. Somehow, this didn’t destroy my relationship with the woman who eventually became my wife, something that should be impossible according to Christian sexual paranoia.

Fiene’s Federalist essay flirts with something true: so much of the stereotypical mode of male-male interaction in our society is, basically, primate dominance hierarchies. Anyone who’s been around teenage boys has seen the bluster and swagger, the chest-beating aggression, the endless one-upsmanship, the ritualized humiliation. This stupid and pointless competition holds no appeal for me and never has. I had an aversion to bro culture even before it was called that. Whether it’s nature or nurture, I find that most women are also repelled by this behavior, and that’s why I gravitated toward them as friends. (It’s no coincidence that most of my male friends don’t care for this kind of nonsense either.)

Of course, if this is the way men are “supposed” to act, there’s no reason to change. The religious right’s gender segregation claims to be a way to discourage bad behavior, but it’s actually a cause of that same bad behavior. If men were expected to act maturely and to control themselves around women, more of them would be motivated to learn how to do that.

The gender apartheid of the Christian right is nothing new. It comes from the same segregationist mindset as all the other religions whose men believe they’re too holy to touch, see or hear women. Whether it’s the gender-segregated synagogues of Orthodox Judaism, or the Islamic cultures that confine women behind stifling shrouds, or Catholicism’s celibate male-only priesthood, or evangelical Christianity’s creepy purity culture and obsessive focus on abstinence. They manifest in slightly different ways, but all these misogynist beliefs are alike in spirit.

They all stem from the same basic idea: that women are inherently tempting in a way that men aren’t. A man can’t be in the presence of any woman without wanting to sleep with her, and he won’t be able to restrain this urge given the opportunity. If cheating can happen, it will happen.

But even though this belief system holds that men are the unreliable, untrustworthy ones, it makes this women’s problem to solve through restrictions on their dress, appearance and behavior. How does that make sense? As I’ve said before, if it were really the case that men couldn’t control themselves around women, the solution isn’t to ban women from public life, it’s for men to wear blindfolds and women to lead them around.

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