This is part one of a discussion I’ve been considering for quite some time. And, it has been one of the most difficult pieces that I’ve attempted to address. At this point I can only say that there will be at least a part two. Maybe, more. I will publish part two next week.
A couple of months ago I read a post over at Rachel Held Evans’ blog. It was a guest post written by Alise Wright entitled “Not ‘Just’ Friends -Thoughts on cross-sex friendship.” Alise has her own blog here. The piece was a critique of the common assumption that when women and men get together, they cannot possibly be friends because the ‘sex thing’ will always rear its hoary head. I read the post and comments. I chased several links through many other similar posts by other authors. And, I noticed that this topic was addressed mostly from a women’s perspective. Other than a few comments, I did not find any posts written by men about this. While I thought this was a tad odd, I was not surprised. I find that, in a broad generalization, men are somewhat reluctant to discuss matters that touch on ‘cross-sex’ friendships. So, I thought that I would offer some reflections from my very male perspective.
I can only speak to those of us who live in Western culture. For much of the world, gender roles are specifically delineated. For instance, in parts of the Muslim world, women are totally segregated from men. Different clothing and different rules for appearing in public are written into civil law. In these instances the kinds of relationships I want to discuss are simply not possible.
However, in the West we are not subject to such strictures. Overtly, there is an understanding that women and men are equal and, therefore, are able to seek whatever companionship and camaraderie they desire. (Although, covertly there is still a long way to go before ours is a truly egalitarian culture.) But, are we able to simply ‘be friends’?
The embedded clip from the movie “When Harry Met Sally” is actually a pretty accurate assessment of what many people think. In the circle that I’ve been a part of for the last 30 or so years people will swear by this. It’s the gospel. Men and women cannot be trusted to be together outside of state and church sanctioned wedlock. And, to be quite honest, I have experienced the difficulties and consequences of relationships like this. They can be extremely precarious. As I was training for various ministry positions and even at seminary, we were often told that the best rule to protect oneself and one’s reputation was to simply avoid being alone with someone of the opposite sex. (Or, with someone who is the gender that one is attracted to.) This ‘necessary’ precaution would provide a barrier against ‘impurity’ or even the appearance of impropriety. In practice this would mean that pastors and counselors could not meet with these people behind closed doors. Or, at the very least, windows should be installed so that nothing could be hidden from view. Meetings with cross-sex colleagues and coworkers should be avoided. And, never, ever was it appropriate to go to lunch or spend non-official time with them. These rules were put in place to protect individuals from following their inherent ‘lust’ from spilling out and contaminating everyone.
This way of thinking has naturally grown out of what has become known as the ‘purity culture.’ In this culture two characteristics predominate. The first characteristic is that women are Jezebel seductresses who dress and act in ways that are designed to capture men’s imaginations and cause them to stumble and fall. Members of this culture decry the way women dress, particularly in the summer or in warm climates. I heard one church leader say from the pulpit that he hated summer for that very reason. This position not only objectifies women in a negative way, it opens the door for shaming that always demeans and silences women. The second characteristic is not unlike the first. This suggests that men are weak, carnal beasts who cannot control the sexual lusts and desires that the seductress women cause them to have. (Please note, it’s the women who bear the onus of this charge, not the men.) Both of these characteristics diminish people and marginalize them. The scriptures tell the story of humans created in the ‘image of God,’ as eikons who represent God on Earth. Granted, humanity is fallible. We are not far removed from other animals. We are, in a word, sexual beings. But, to reduce us to the two characteristics mentioned above is to caricaturize people. It also tends to cause folks to obsess over the issue of sexuality. Much like telling your child not to eat the cookies, continually telling people that they must avoid any kind of behavior that may smack of impropriety may, in fact, draw them into it. I think that there must be a better way to address cross-sex relationships. A way that not only honors marriage and family, but that allows people to express their love and friendship freely and without all of the baggage of the ‘purity culture.’
In my next post I will share some of my thoughts and reflections about how we may have and enjoy these relationships. I would also like input from readers.
How do you view cross-sex relationships? Do you think that it is even possible to have them and not engage the ‘sex thing’? Please share your thoughts in the comments.