Wednesday, June 10, 2009

On male/female friendship

Request for advice: I know that this Onion article is meant largely as satire, but how exactly are women supposed to behave in situations like this?

I've written on situations like this before in response to a really bad Kay Hymnowitz column. There, I concentrated on trying to offer advice (and admittedly, justification) to men stuck in similar situations. But what are women supposed to do when they find themselves in this situation?

I suppose one easy answer is simply not to socialize with the opposite sex at all. Thus, for fear of disappointing someone, I should simply never agree to do social things with a boy. But that strikes me as nearly impossible. One, for good or ill, I live in a society where men and women attend school together, work together, etc. Maybe we would all be better off if most American colleges returned to being single sex, but that's unlikely happen anytime soon, if only because the switching costs would be so high. So I still need advice about what to do in the meantime.

If I were to start refusing all invitations to do something innocuous-sounding with members of the opposite sex, would I risk offending men who did really mean something, well, innocuous? Would I be cheating myself -- both of us -- out of the pleasures of legitimately innocent, platonic friendship? Wouldn't it just sound odd to say, "I know that you asked to go hang out on Saturday, and that sounded innocent and meaningless. But there's a chance that you might really have meant that you want to sleep with me. And clearly, I can't risk letting that happen, because that would be emotionally devastating for you. So I have to say no, even if that might be fun." Would this not also be horribly arrogant - the subtext being that the woman is so gorgeous that no man can spend time in her presence without his being torn up with desire for her? Such would sound especially ridiculous, coming from the mouth of your decidedly-average looking correspondent. Still, should women do it anyway?

I tend to think that the burden ought to be on the guy to figure out fairly quickly what he wants out of the situation. Does he really want to be friends with the girl? If so, then he should make up his mind to forget about pining for something else. Or, if he doesn't, then he ought to declare his affections and if they're not reciprocated, walk away. For what it's worth, hanging around someone hoping that they'll change their mind about you romantically is almost always helpless. This goes for both genders: I myself have been stuck in this situation several times and been forced to absorb the lesson the hard way. Walking is nearly always the wise choice of action if someone doesn't like you back right off the bat.

I once observed to Clarissa Dalloway that When Harry Met Sally was the most evil movie of the twentieth century, narrowly beating out Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of The Will and D.W. Griffith's The Birth of A Nation. Perhaps that was harsh, and the anti-prizes should go to the glorifications of the Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. But I tremble at the notion that men and women really can't be friends without letting the sex get in the way. Doesn't this inexorably lead to the notion that men and women must necessarily inhabit separate spheres, because the temptation of female sexuality is just too great? That way lies Tehran. Well, maybe not; maybe we could establish excellent all-female colleges, professional schools, etc. But I fear that the most talented women -- or those with particularly unusual interests -- might still suffer too greatly from the necessary constriction of their ambitions.

This, incidentally, is partly why I find evolutionary psychology so loathsome. But that's a post for another day.

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