Leah’s Handy Guide to Not Letting Eros Destroy Philia

This post is part of a debate on gay marriage.  I’m responding to Matt’s post on gay marriage and deep friendship, and this is the last part of my three-part rebuttal.

Matt and Esolen’s idea that sexual tension poisons relationships has pretty high stakes for me. As a bi girl, I am technically never not around people to whom I could conceivably be sexually attracted. And as an out bi girl, I’m around people who know that I know that they know that I am not categorically opposed to having sex with them on account of their physical secondary sex characteristics. (I may be categorically opposed for other reasons).

Esolen and Matt’s concerns imply that I’ve got some pretty meaningful barriers to friendship with people of either gender, but that hasn’t been my experience. I’ve lived with guys and girls, and I’ve seen plenty of both in their underwear or towels. (Yes, I have had the hot co-ed experience of seeing a girl in her bra while I pin parts of her dress so I can make alterations for her on my sewing machine. Yowza.)

So how do I do it? Well, one of the reasons my female friends are comfortable around me in a way they wouldn’t be with a straight guy isn’t any particular credit to me. Most of us don’t think of women as sexual aggressors. My female friends and casual female acquaintances never see Schrödinger’s rapist when they look at me, even if we’re alone in a dark alley. Not coming off as a sexual threat is more difficult for guys.

But that problem is muted if you’re already on the path to developing the kind of deep friendships that Matt and Esolen are trying to defend. So they’re really concerned about ambiguous sexual tension. If I exuberantly grab someone’s hand and do a few swing dance turns, my friend may not be able to share as wholeheartedly in my excitement because a part of zer is concerned I may be hitting on zer, and ze doesn’t want to send be the wrong signals. It’s not an idle concern; I’ve found myself in that situation, and I’m sure many of the readers have, too. Here are the two main ways I deal with it:


The ‘friendzone’ works

The longer you spend around someone without making sexual advances or things that look like sexual advances, the less likely it is that whatever you’re doing now will be interpreted as a come-on. It’s just good Bayesian updating on priors. That means this scourge of nice-guys-in-romcoms is your ally when it comes to developing deep friendships. It takes time for this effect to kick in, but it takes time to develop a deep friendship, too, so that’s fine.


Improv comedy is a good model for targeted flirting

In improv, the first rule is “Yes, and.” A scene can’t go anywhere unless you and your partner keep building on what the other person has done. So if someone says to you in a scene, “You’re late!” you can’t just say, “Yes” because then the scene stops. You have to say “Yes, and I was stuck behind a circus parade the whole way!” Now the other person has something to respond to.

When you’re flirting with someone, you can match whatever level of physical intimacy you have and then amplify slightly. If both people are using this strategy, it’s a feedback loop if they’re both trying to flirt. If the other person doesn’t “yes, and” your advance or asks you to tone it down, return to the previous level of engagement.


Let’s make everything more scripted!

Fine, I know no one but me likes this one, but if you’re bothered by ambiguity, why not make asking people out a lot more explicit? Take someone dancing, ask them out on dates, pass them a note in study hall, filter your message through three mutual friends, so no one has to deal with the awkwardness of a face to face rejection. If you’re known for being direct, people know that other physical intimacies don’t denote sexual attraction.


All of these solutions take effort, but they’re hardly a crippling burden.  Matt is right that out gay people change some dynamics of friendships, but only modest adjustments are required to preserve the best parts of the old ways.


This post is part of a debate on gay marriage.  I’m responding to Matt’s post on gay marriage and deep friendship, and this is the last part of my three-part rebuttal.

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  • anodognosic

    What in retrospect seems like kind of an easy knock-down to the original argument:

    1. Denial and ignorance will not prevent same-sex attraction from occurring; and

    2. Only further openness and acceptance can get us closer to a place where just asking can put this sort of awkwardness to rest.

    Leah, I appreciate your patience in laying this all out as thoroughly as you did.

  • Katie

    So I see what you’re doing here, but I still feel disappointed that you take the arguments about ambiguity at face value. I think Esolen is clear, even if Matt is not, that this isn’t about the possibility of confusion as much as it is about grounding sexual relationships, even social order, in a strict gender binary and creating “safe spaces” completely devoid of the possibility of sexual desire. Matt’s a smart guy; he knows full well how to detect and deflect unwanted sexual attention. This argument is about whether he should stomach his resentment at having to do so.

  • Lukas Halim

    “I know no one but me likes this one, but if you’re bothered by ambiguity, why not make asking people out a lot more explicit”
    B/c people are embarrassed. You may be less easily embarrassed then most, and hence are better able to navigate these situations.

    • leahlibresco

      Yes, but several of my examples let you do this in more roundabout ways. Also, the good thing about social scripts is that, though they don’t give me plausible deniability when I ask you out, they do screen off the intensity of your response in a way spontaneous encounters do not.

  • Matt Gerken

    I was going to charge you with female privilege there for a second just for fun but then I realized I’d have to introduce all sorts of “gender binary” and masculinity that would quickly reduce to this thread to hysterics. I still think the problem originally described is much larger than the conversation has given it credit for, but for now I’ll let it rest and thank you for inviting me to start the conversation.

    I’d also like your thoughts on my previous comment about how we should just all agree that the “gay marriage doesn’t affect you straight people in any way whatsoever” argument is false.

    • Zanzanar

      We shouldn’t agree that it’s false because even your argument doesn’t contradict it. As people have explained, your argument leads to the conclusion that the existence of same-sex attraction affects straight people. There is nothing in it that applies to marriage in any way. The only way it would is if people of the same sex regularly got married, and that didn’t previously imply that they were romantic partners. Then you could argue that gay marriage affects straight people.

    • Katie

      I like that you put “gender binary” in quotation marks.

      Look, that term might be a cultural signal that tells you to stop taking me seriously because leftist feminist hysterics and all, but I think it’s an apt description of the order you propose. Do you have a better one? Or do you simply think that people shouldn’t draw attention to the premises you hold to be self-evident?

      Even if you think the gender binary is real and the only way that things could or should ever be, there is value in articulating it as a premise. A liberal arts education is worthless if you cannot come to see the air you breathe or, if you’re a fish, be able to say, “This is water.”

      And yes, we can all agree that a world in which there is only one acceptable kind of sexual relationship is different from a world in which that is not the case.

  • deiseach

    Okay, let’s take an example of reading “deep friendship” versus “homoeroticism” versus “suppressed homosexual desire”.

    Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson walking, in the park or on the street, linked arm-in-arm. Example drawn from the written canon, so put in there by ACD and not by the perfervid imagings of slashers.

    Anyone willing to tell me that today, 10th February 2012, if they saw two men walking on the street arm-in-arm, which of these would be their first impression:

    (1) Ah, two friends out for a stroll
    (2) Ah, boyfriends/sexual partners of some kind

    My mother used to walk arm-in-arm with her girl friends – she referred to it as “linking”, as in “I linked Sheila home after the dance”. (She’d do it with guys too, but my mother was the kind of young woman in late 1940s/early 1950s rural Ireland who saw nothing odd with walking a drunk guy home from a dance because the hotel was beside the sea, the usual path home was on the beach, and he would be in danger of drowning from the tide being in).

    That attitude, I submit, has changed with our being open about all kinds of sexuality, so that where previously there might not even have been the capacity to speculate on any sexuality other than the heteronormative, now we have almost gone to the opposite swing of the pendulum and if a close emotional tie develops between two people, it is considered to have sexual desire at its root.

    Think of that idiotic film “When Harry Met Sally” – no, men and women can’t just be friends, they have to end up as a romantic couple.