While preparing to write about male/female friendship, I read several reviews of cross-sex friendships in history and literature. These friendships appear more frequently in the correspondence and literature of the 18th and 19th centuries than in prior eras.
I learned that Mark Twain and Helen Keller got along fantastically and she would read his lips by touching them when he talked, which is a great mental image considering the magnificence of his moustache! Thomas Jefferson's friendship with Abigail Adams was at least as significant, long-lasting, and free in spirit and correspondence as that with her husband, John.
As wonderful as these examples of male-female friendship are, they stand out primarily because they are unusual. For much of recorded human history, there would have been little opportunity for men and women to become friends of this sort. Segregation of roles and social mores limited socialization between the sexes.
The sociologist Michael Kimmel, who writes extensively about masculinity, observes that younger people are less likely to find cross-sex friendships unusual or remarkable than older generations. He writes,
When I first began teaching, 25 or so years ago, I asked my students how many of them had a good friend of the opposite sex. About 10% said they did. The rest were from what I called the When Harry Met Sally generation. You’ll remember the scene, early in the film, when Harry asserts that women and men can’t be friends because “sex always gets in the way.” Sally is sure he’s wrong. They fight about it. Then, thinking she has the clincher for her position, she says, confidently, “So that means that you can be friends with them if you’re not attracted to them!”
“Ah,” says Harry, “you pretty much want to nail them too.”
Young people today have utterly and completely repudiated this idea. These days, when I ask my students, I’ve had to revise the question: “Is there anyone here who does not have a friend of the opposite sex?” A few hands perhaps, in the more than 400 students in the class.
But let’s think, for a moment, about the “politics” of friendship. With whom do you make friends? With your peers. Not your supervisor or boss. Not your subordinate. Your equal. More than romance, and surely more than workplace relationships, friendships are the relationships with the least amount of inequality.
"Friendships are the relationships with the least amount of inequality," Mr. Kimmel says. And perhaps there lies the key to friendship between women and men, the same necessary ingredient to mature friendship between any two people.
I don't think equality of station or class is essential to friendship, but the lack of a power differential does ease what I think is the most important prerequisite to friendship: the recognition of the "I" of the other person, free from the utilitarian logic of use.
I am reminded of a bit of dialogue from the novel The Surgeon's Mate, by Patrick O'Brien. The novel is set in the Napoleonic era.
"I know very little of women, sir," [Jagiello] said. You cannot make friends with them: they are the Yews of the world."
"Yews, Mr Jagiello?" cried Jack. And to himself, chuckling much, he added, "It would be a damned odd thing if they proved rams, you know."
"Jews I mean," said Jagiello. "You cannot make friends with Jews. They have been beaten and spitted on so long they are the enemy, like the Laconical helots; and women have been domesticatal helots for oh so much longer. There is no friendship between enemies, even in a truce; they are always watching. And if you are not friends, where is the real knowledge?"
Later, Jagiello laments,
"Ah, Dr. Maturin,...if I could find an Amazon, one of a tribe of women that never have been oppressed, one that I could be friends with, equal friends, oh how I should love her!"
Will cross-sex friendships ever be free from sexual tension? I don't think so, but I also don't think that tension is reason enough to eliminate half of humanity from the pool of potential friends. When we meet on a basis of mutual self-revelation, respect, and charity, we create the conditions where a moderate amount of unreciprocated attraction need not detract from the good of the friendship. The ebb and flow of friendship-as-good-in-itself has room for navigating these eddies and others.
A transactional friendship, where the goal in friendly behaviour is to achieve a desired outcome, cannot survive the denial of its ulterior ends because it is not a true friendship at all. There is little difference between the man who befriends you only because he "wants to convince you to open up the supply chain of a romantic relationship to him" and the childhood friend who only wanted to spend time with you if he could use your new NES game system.
You feel betrayed when you become conscious of being valued for what the other hopes to gain from you, rather than for your own sake.
We've made a lot of progress toward creating a world where men and women can meet as friends rather than as "enemies...in a truce." If we want to continue, we need to free friendship from the burden of being "for" something other than itself. We need to recognise that the "friend zone" is not a punishment or an exile, but a privileged space.
Just as the good of the other calls us into friendship, the good of communion and unity with the other can sustain it--between two men, between two women—and, yes, between a man and a woman.