In today's predominantly urban, globalised world, many of us face a huge array of choices. We can choose our occupation, where we live, how we spend our leisure time—and who we spend our time with. But our thinking on sex and friendship is yet to catch up.
For more than a hundred years, social scientists have been pointing out that contemporary life gives us unprecedented freedom of association. Sociologist Georg Simmel, in his 1903 essay The Metropolis and Mental Life, noted that living in cities permits us form social relationships with whomever we want. In contrast to rural life, where our friendship circles were limited to a small neighbouring population, cities let us connect with like-minded people.
The Internet and social media have expanded this possibility beyond the city, facilitating our friendships with people from all around the world.
As a result, the importance of involuntary ties (such as biological relatives) is shrinking, and voluntary ties (such as friends, partners, or even adopted family) are occupying an ever-more important place in our emotional lives. The quality of these voluntary relationships has an immense impact on our happiness and mental health.
When people are barred from maintaining these friendships, their happiness is compromised.
It seems reasonable to suppose that if our relationships are so important to our happiness, then we are choosing relationships that make us happy. However, we may not have as much choice as we think. Drawing upon the research of Graham Allen, Michele Doyle and Mark Smith argue:
"…relationships that are often presented as voluntary, informal and personal, still operate within the constraints of class, gender, age, ethnicity and geography – and this places a considerable question against the idea that friendship is a matter of choice."
Cross-culturally, anthropologists tend to agree that friendships are neither as voluntary nor as unstructured as people suppose. Bettina Beer points out that even though we tend to believe that friends must be won, many societies have well-defined expectations for friendships. She describes how, in the 1960s, the anthropologist Thomas Keifer wrote about how the Tausug of Jolo, in the Philippines, formally swear to friendships by oath on the Koran. This process is important to forming alliances between kin groups and local leaders.
Biological sex has an influence on who forms friendships with whom. Famously, in ancient Greece, lifelong friendships between men were viewed as the most noble form of relationship.
Among the Kaningara of Papua New Guinea, it is common for men to "spend part of almost every day of their lives either sitting quietly chewing betel-nut, dozing after a hard day's work, or in conversation with other men." In other parts of Papua New Guinea, the sexes are not segregated. Sex segregation is therefore as much about cultural practice as it is about economic conditions or biology.
However, there are some social and economic changes we can point to that are impacting friendship. Doyle and Smith explain:
"…it is increasingly difficult to hold onto the sorts of stereotypes around gender and the experience of friendship that were the stock in trade of earlier generations of sociologists. Changing employment and education patterns, shifts in the use of leisure time (in particular around the viewing of television and other home-based forms of entertainment), the development of telephone and internet use, the more general move to the 'suburbs' and the rise of nuclear family have had a major impact on the extent to which people engage in face-to-face relationships and belong to groups and associations […] have all had an impact."
In other words, people have many more opportunities to communicate with one another, whether face-to-face or in person. We come into contact with a far wider range of people, and with a greater frequency. This greatly expands our opportunities to form and maintain friendships with anyone.
These friendships aren't necessarily between individuals; couples also commonly form joint friendships, and many of us belong to social groups based on shared interests (sports, book clubs, etc.) that usually hang out together.
Cross-sex friendships can be stressful if society views them with suspicion, and maintaining such friendships can prove to be more trouble than it is worth. As Terri Apter notes, people find it hard to believe that platonic, cross-gender friendships are possible. (This is reflected in movies like When Harry Met Sally, in which the protagonist friends eventually get together as a couple, just as their friends predicted). Enjoying such friendships within a group is one way to surmount society's suspicion.
And, yet, as psychologists like Dylan Selterman point out, cross-sex friendships can be enriching and rewarding. Moreover, some individuals vastly prefer cross-sex friendships to same-sex friendships. Group socializing does not necessarily provide them with the emotional intimacy they desire. When people are barred from maintaining these friendships, their happiness is compromised.
Take Lauren, a 30-something-year-old English woman who is currently the stay-at-home mother of a two-year-old. When Lauren was growing up, she was emotionally abused by a jealous mother and found the girls at her school to be aggressive. As a result, she developed a deep-seated fear of women. While she deeply desires a close friendship with another woman, she finds such a connection almost impossible to form.
When Lauren encounters women she becomes submissive, even though she feels that this does not reflect her "natural" personality. As a result, Lauren's closest friendships have always been men. But now that she is older, all of her good male friends have married and had families. Sensing their wives' jealousy and hostility, Lauren let these friendships lapse. She now depends entirely on her own husband to meet all her emotional needs.
Another example is Maria, a Portuguese professional who is also in her thirties. Maria told me that she doesn't have a problem with women per se, but she often prefers to be friends with men because she finds them to be less competitive. Her female friends, she claims, are always trying to one-up each other.
Maria's proclamation sparked my curiosity. If women view each other as competition, how do men see each other?
From my limited (but fascinating) querying of my male friends, it would appear that the problem is identical. Numerous men reported to me that they far prefer to hang out with women because male competition makes them feel that they do not have space to express themselves honestly. One reported that he was "put off" men because he had a very masculine, and aggressive, older brother. Another reported having been exposed to repeated male violence, making him eternally wary of men.
In an ideal world, people would not avoid forming friendships with one sex or the other because they have had bad experiences in the past. On the other hand, people have a right to look after their own mental health. If they prefer to form cross-sex friendships, then they should be permitted to do so. When we create barriers against forming such friendships, we are hindering people from getting their emotional needs met.
What can we do to encourage cross-gender friendships? Take a close look at the people you love and think about whether they are getting their emotional needs met.
Then, turn your gaze towards the people you don't love (such as your partner's friends) and consider whether your actions are impacting them negatively. Is there anything you can do to make their life easier without significantly impacting your own mental health?
It's also worth contemplating that we make a huge amount of assumptions about sex and friendship that are incorrect or incomplete. Most sentiments against same-sex friendship assume that people are heterosexual, for starters. They assume that monogamy is universally practised, but this is not—has never been—the case.
We also tend to assume that people's relationships should fit neatly into a category, such as "just friends," "friends with benefits," or "a couple."
I have two major problems with this. First, referring to our best friends as "just friends" makes them sound like an afterthought, as though they are on the margins of our lives, not the social glue that holds us together as human beings.
Second, in reality there is a broad spectrum of relationships—hence the existence of Facebook's "it's complicated" button. Given that "just friends" sometimes have sex, and married couples may not have any sex at all, perhaps it's time for us to stop putting sex front-and-centre of how we define relationships.
We may not have complete freedom of association in our contemporary society, but we can help pave the way for ourselves and others to form relationships that make us happy. Accepting that "it's complicated" is a good start.