It was an example of a kind of opportunism that preys on the vulnerable, the kind of man who is attracted to brokenness because it gives him an advantage to exploit, and yet there were those who wanted to criticize the victims for inviting him into their confidence, for being deceived. For, essentially, being vulnerable.It all made me incandescently angry. This guy was targeting women because they were already wounded and in need of protection and friendship. He played the part of a friend, but treated emotional connections as tools for manipulation.
Power enters into sexual dynamics long before we reach assault, doesn’t it? It’s there as soon as the insecure initiator starts manoeuvring, consciously or unconsciously, to get the upper hand in an encounter. It’s there when the older guy pursues the younger girl who makes him feel like the worldly, experienced one. It’s there when the “nice guy” decides to make a move on a friend while she is crying on his shoulder after a nasty breakup or the death of a loved one.
Freshman year of college, I was good friends with Jack. Jack and I hung out all the time, and we were swing dance partners in the swing dance club. We were pretty good at it too! I had a lot of guy friends (and girl friends); just a lot of friends in general.
The fall formal was a cotillion, where the ladies got dance cards and the men would sign the cards to “reserve” a dance. No one came with a date; everyone came alone or with friends and danced with everyone else. It was really fun.
But for the Spring Formal, people brought dates. Well, about two or three weeks before the Spring Formal, Jack started dating my friend Ruth. So of course he took her to the Spring Formal. I wanted to go with someone because I really liked swing dancing and ballroom dancing and wanted a partner, but all my guy friends were taking their girlfriends or the girls they were interested in.
I wasn’t dating anyone. I was just everyone’s friend.
I tried to make the best of it and went with two of my girl friends. I actually sewed my own dress (a renaissance gown) and determined to have a good time. On the way there we got a flat tire and some kind strangers came to our assistance and changed the tire to the spare, but we were late arriving. Once I was there I danced maybe two dances, but it was obvious that my guy friends were doing me a kindness and really wished they could be with their dates.When we got back to campus that night I couldn’t hold it together anymore. I changed out of my dress and into street clothes and decided to go for a walk. I walked around the wooded campus by myself, crying and feeling rejected, yet also feeling like a spoiled brat because of course Jack and the other guys would want to be with their dates. Who was I to demand that they not date anyone else when I hadn’t wanted to date any of them? I had just wanted to be friends, but I hadn’t wanted to be left alone when it came time to be paired up.
Then I bumped into Luke. We were friends, but we weren’t close. He asked me what was wrong and the words came spilling out.
“It’s not that no one likes me. I’m just second on everyone’s list, and it hurts!”
I was very vulnerable that night.
Luke could have taken advantage of my need to feel wanted. He could have manipulated me to make himself feel good.
Instead, Luke stood and looked me in the eyes. (He was slightly tipsy—I think this detail is worth mentioning because even when tipsy he was still an honorable man.) He said, “Anna, you are a good woman. You’re not the kind of woman guys date. You’re the kind they marry.”
Then he put his hands on my shoulders, kissed me on the forehead, and went inside.
That was EXACTLY the hope I needed to keep me from despair, to keep me from throwing away my integrity chasing after attention.
He reaffirmed my goodness and value and reminded me that some man at least could see it. And that gave me hope that some man in the future would. Even if I was alone right now, that didn’t mean I wouldn’t someday be desired for everything that I was.
I really think that if I hadn’t run into Luke that night and had that conversation, I would have found myself serially dating boyfriends I didn’t really like for the next several years, looking for that validation.
But instead I continued pursuing really rewarding friendships with guys, secure in the knowledge that I was lovable. And about nine months later I met the man I would eventually marry.
I called this story “Honour in the ‘Friend Zone'” because it involves that sticky place where friendship and romantic insecurity can often intersect in complicated and messy ways. My reader was feeling insecure and confused because she still wanted to be “first” on Jack’s list, even though he was dating someone else. She needed to feel seen and affirmed as worth more than second-place.
When she encountered Luke, she was vulnerable, just as the targets of our serial predator were vulnerable. Her fear of being alone and unwanted would have been easy to feed into and take advantage of, had Luke been a lesser man. Instead of affirming her value and encouraging her to keep her standards high, Luke could have used their friendship as a staging ground for seduction.
(Note: This is what complaints about the “friend-zone” imply to women: that friendship between men and women is primarily a staging ground for seduction or romance, not a destination in its own right. I recognize men use the term sometimes to refer to valid complaints about possessiveness and exploitation. There’s a whole discussion to be had about that, too.)
Friendship between men and women isn’t always easy to navigate. Toxic attitudes of entitlement and opportunism make it harder still. To trust each other, we need to respond to vulnerability with honour. We need to respond to each others’ insecurities with affirmation, not opportunism.
We need to be more like Luke.