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Making Sense of the Friend Zone

It was a normal weekend for us here at Good Clean Love when we posted a link to some light weekend reading for our Facebook fans — “The Friend Zone Has Deep-Seated Roots in Rape Culture,” courtesy ofThe Plaid Zebra. Our post reached more than 1500 people, and we definitely heard about it: many people were angered by the content of the article and asked that we take our link to it down. In response, I figured we should probably have of a conversation about the whole thing. So here it is. (Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!)

What is the friend zone?

The “friend zone” is a term that’s been thrown around for the last few years. Google Dictionary defines it as: “A situation in which a friendship exists between two people, one of whom has an unreciprocated interest in the other.” Unfortunately, I think this minimizes the fact that if you look around, most of the people talking about “being friendzoned” are men. And it’s not just individual men… If you do a search for “friend zone” on Google, you’re bound to come upon articles with titles like “How to Man Up and Get Out of the Friend Zone,” and about everything from men’s relationship programs to widely sold magazines like Men’s Health.

Why is it a problem?

Clearly, the term is problematic for a number of reasons. Personally, I’m apt to agree with The Plaid Zebra when they say that the friend zone is a product of, and contributor to, of rape culture: “The friend zone both resents and blames the other party for not consenting. This disrespects the non-consenter’s physical and emotional boundaries, and contributes to a culture that normalizes this violation.”Secondly, the friend zone takes real, heartfelt friendship completely off the table. Third, no one wins in the friend zone scenario. And fourth, it does men more of a disservice than they think. Let me explain myself.

First is the notion that the friend zone is an effect of rape culture. This concept is a sticky one, as some people believe that rape culture doesn’t exist, and others just don’t want to talk about it. But the statistics don’t lie:The New York Times report that 1 in 5 women have been sexually assaulted; according toWashington Coalition of Sexual Assault, more than half of women reported being abused by intimate partners. And according to that same national study cited by the New York Times, 1 in 7 men have been assaulted by partners.

I cite this last statistic to illustrate that rape culture affects us all. But what is it, exactly? According to feminist theory of the 1970s, it is a setting in which rape is widespread and normalized due to preconceived gender roles and characteristics of sexuality. In layman’s terms, rape culture is the objectification of women in mass media, it is the victim blaming that occurs after a violent sexual assault takes place, and it is putting responsibility for an individual’s safety on the individual themselves, as opposed to tackling the underlying issues that promote such ideology. Basically, it is saying that “she deserved what happened to her because she should have been more careful/not worn such a scandalous outfit/should have left when she’d had the chance.” But Rape Culture is also the culture that tells men that in order to be considered manly they need to be aggressive, ‘cut’ and ‘ripped’, make a ton of money and have the best things in order to ‘score’ with women. Unfortunately, it leaves little room for true, authentic exploration of the scary ‘f’ word (feelings), leaving men who don’t fit the ‘masculine’ mold to be harassed by fellow men.

So where does theFriend Zone come into this equation? Well, it’s a by-product of its generation. Predicated on the idea that “if you give something, you should get something back,” it’s a term that seems to have become increasingly popular in Bro-Culture, the culture that feeds off of winning and losing, hypermasculinity, and that strange crossing of homoeroticism and homophobia. It is the culture that teaches men that being a man is based on being violent, being the leader of the pack, and not having feelings besides testosterone-fueled aggression and high sex drive.

It is not surprising, then, that a majority of men grow up thinking that sex is owed to them. Having never been taught to question what goes on around them, and having the benefit of a distinctly male form of privilege, these men get a free pass into thinking that sex is something they are owed. Whether this happens on a conscious level or not is beside the point; what it turns into is the friend zone.

The friend zone vs true friendship

The friend zone seems to be the modern-day answer to When Harry Met Sally first posited the question: Can men and women ever really be friends without sex getting in the way? The classic rom-com clearly said No, and it seems like, despite all the progress we’ve made since the ‘80s, men still believe that when they see a pretty girl, they’re entitled to sex with her, even if it means waiting.

The waiting part is essential to the problem of the friend zone. If a man sees a woman he thinks is attractive and immediately pursues sex with her, he generally comes off as a douche, especially if those advances are unwanted. In a second scenario, “The Nice Guy” considers himself nice because he’s not the testosterone-filled brute of the first scenario. This Nice Guy butters a woman up (no sexual pun intended) by being the guy she can spill all her problems to. He plays the part of the doting boyfriend minus the sex, falsely thinking that if he just holds out long enough, the spark will ignite and, sooner or later, he’ll be having sex with the girl of his dreams.

The fantasy is busted when he finally makes his feelings known or, alternately, the girl starts going out with some other guy that she actually likes. The Nice Guy* gets pissed because he feels as if he put in so much effort and was so completely unappreciated. He shuffles away with the type of the sense of entitlement that is now so accepted in Bro Culture. One could argue that this was the sense of entitlement that fueled the violent rampages of men like Elliott Rodgers, the shooter in Santa Barbara who unleashed years of resentment, grief and entitlement on the local campus.

How the friend zone hurts us all

Categorizing relationships into “friend zoned vs not friend zoned” really does a disservice to human relationships. It devalues women by turning them into living, breathing sex objects, and it creates the kind ofcontinued risk that women face whenever they feel like they can’t say no to a man for fear of violent or aggressive retribution. So, instead, they’re forced to “play along” for a while in hopes that a situation will arise in which they can “let him down easy.” In other words, a woman’s choice isn’t respected, but seen as a temporary obstacle to be slowly eroded by any means necessary.

The friend zone is also harmful to women because men separate women who they’re friends with because they want to sleep with them from the ones that are “just friends.” What’s the difference? One of them fits their female fantasy and the other one “wants too much” from the relationship. Thus, in either case, women can’t win and can’t count on these men to value having a relationship with them that isn’t predicated on sex or the lack thereof.

The friend zone also deeply hurts men, because it becomes an excuse for an underlying problem — an inability to communicate the types of emotions essential for authentic interpersonal communication. Our culture of hypermasculinity robs men of the chance to learn how to be in touch with ALL their feelings, which is detrimental when they try to form the types of interpersonal bonds with women (and may be detrimental to longevity,as a new study indicates). Unless a man gets good modeling from his father or male role model, from his mother or sisters, he is usually stunted in his ability to name the complicated array of feelings he (and any other human being) has. And, as we all know — when you can’t name something, how can you feel it?

The reality is that most men out there are not the violent, narcissistic antiheroes that a lot of discourse makes them out to be. But just as women have to be taught to ignore society’s pressure to compete with other women, men have to be taught to treat women with respect. When men can get in touch with their internal feelings, they can then access the empathy and compassion required for the fulfilling, authentic relationships they desire.

*Real nice guys will want to be friends with you regardless of whether you want to sleep with them or not.