If you’re not crying yet, I might think you’re a terrible human being.
I’ve wanted to do a long talk about sexuality for a while now, but I have half a dozen half-finished posts sitting in my archive that, well, will probably never see the light of interweb day. But hey, I’m also long due for a New Year’s Resolution, so let’s get tangentially close to talking about sex. The issue I want to discuss a bit today, since I’ve been seeing a smattering of back-and-forth across multiple mediums, would be the friend-zone, or more broadly, gender relationships. And oh shit, it’s April and I still haven’t posted this yet. Oh well.
So I started this post a little more than half a year ago, before I went to Japan and China. My understanding of relationships has since changed, but because my ideas are so damn convoluted that it’s hard to go back and revise things without coming down with a severe case of doublethink. So here’s maybe 5% of what I think about the nature of relationships.
Periodically, I see people in my feed complaining about the “friend zone”. If you are only friends with a woman because you want to bone her, then you are not a friend at all. You’re actually an asshole with an enormous sense of entitlement to the bodies and lives of other people. She is not obliged to fuck/date you because you want to fuck/date her. No one ever owes anyone else sex or a relationship, under any circumstance. None. -a friend
For me, heterosexuality as a whole has become more and more bewildering over the years. It is a descriptive word, not a normative one. To be heterosexual, as with any other form of prefix-sexuality, is to have some quality or set of qualities that can be fidgeted around with at no great importance to this statement, related to having a preference for people of the opposite gender. That’s great, animals need to copulate and propagate, moving right along. But growing up, heterosexuality has not been a mere description. It has been thrust upon us as a duty of sorts, tied to our sexual identity as men. Our sexuality is defined observationally – we are the company we keep, the clothes we wear, the people we date. Throw in preferences and lifestyles that, god forbid, have nothing to do with where we stick our penis, and people don’t know what to do with you sometimes. And here’s the good part – after all the name calling and labelling, nobody wants to hear a damn word about what happens in the bedroom of another man. (In a side note, I’m a man; I don’t claim to know anything about women, so I will write from the perspective of a man.)
Back in high school, I met a very special individual on the flight coming back from summer vacation. I did not know how old she was, I did not know where she was from. I did not even have a good opportunity to look at her face. But the moment I laid eyes upon her, she was wreathed in light, and I had to talk to her. Despite my long history of zero social confidence, I did something pretty crazy that day, and it was a transformative experience. Back then, I called it fate. Now, I’m bitter and curmudgeonly well beyond my years and get through the days by self-identifying as a kitty. There’s no relation, but I’m not going to convince anybody of that.
There are a few broader points that I wanted to share through this 1% summary of my first love, believe it or not. First, true love is probably the most amazing thing in this world, particularly in the face of conflict and struggle. Despite everything people say about love and irrationality and all the crazy double-suicides in literature, love confers a strong purpose. It is a potent anchoring point that, albeit at the risk of being fleeting and ephemeral, answers that plague of a question: “what is my purpose in life?” My first meaningful relationship was pretty much long distance, which seems like a bad place to start. But I think it was fine. It taught me the most challenging parts of a relationship – how to handle issues of trust when you can’t have a face-to-face conversation. How to strengthen bonds when you can’t go on dates. How to find solace in one another when your fingertips can never touch. Perhaps more relevantly, the amount of dedication to my skills and studies needed to make our shared future a reality. For a long time, I was working towards getting into Stanford while perfecting my piano skills. When everything began to fall apart, I also ended up falling short of my goals – but probably for different reasons. When I came out to Duke, I did so not because I felt a strong sense of purpose, but because I wanted to run away. And run away I did – from my parents, from my home, and unfortunately, to the great harm of all those in my life, from myself. But even at that young age, I learned that relationships are not built upon the burning Crucibles where our passion and teenage angst and whatever else you might throw in the mix get compressed and recycled into a piece of avant-garde art that older folks can’t help but to shake their head at, but rather upon proper relationships.
The second point builds a bit on this story. Relationships, broadly defined and utilized, seem to capture social contrivances more than they do actual values about the kind of interactions we want to have with other people. I will readily admit that the element of physical closeness is so crucial to successful relationships. Touching is trusting. But the emphasis here is not so much on the physical contact as much as the psychology accompanying it. For me, the kind of relationships that work really well (not necessarily romantic relationships), are those that are based upon mutual trust and understanding. Bonds between people are so much stronger when they have weathered conflicts. When ignorance is turned into mutual respect, we really get something special. Is that not the value of interacting with others? Everyone is full of rich life experiences and viewpoints, and the catharsis that comes with resolving individual differences provides a satisfaction never attained by two peas in a pod agreeing with each other all day.
The reality of the matter, however, is that it is simply unrealistic to expect everyone to form trusting relationships (often developed from hurting each other repeatedly). There’s nothing wrong with that, and if anything, our experiences show us that the loneliness from withholding trust is far less dangerous than not having our guard up at all. And plenty of relationships or unions hold out with plenty of distrust and pent-up discontentment. This might be the most accurate picture of what our actual human interactions look like, a nebulous and chaotic mass that pushes and pulls on a day-to-day basis depending on our particular moods and neuroticisms, upon our circadian rhythms, upon the food we eat and the words carried into our ears by the wind. But what holds our society together is the often unspoken and unidentified reality that we more often than not, have to deal with people out of obligation. Because they exist; because we are actors on a greater stage; because alienation is unfathomable. For whatever reasons, we end up with responsibilities that are seldom codified, but they are there, and nobody ever told us what they are.
Come the 20th century, however, and the rules of engagement have changed. It’s not a modern problem; it has been festering since forever ago as long as humans could identify the differences between man and woman. But it seems to me that the way we live with our fellow human beings today is about as unsustainable as the way we live with the rest of the world and with nature at large. The structure of our society makes little sense to me now, and the amount of disconnect from the world that I experience has plagued me for years and years. And after burning away the most vibrant portion of my youth in depression and anxiety, I’ve awoken to my current reality that it’s not me who is insane, it’s everything else.
Horribly asymmetric gender relationships can work in a society, and as a short trip around the world will reveal, works remarkably well in some places. True equality is a hard concept to attain, especially since the Western world took off on the heels of industrialization, which brought about specialization in both the workplace and the domicile. As specialization and division of labor are important aspects of functioning societies present since the Neolithic era, we shouldn’t be overly ashamed of how easy we have made it for us to compartmentalize people by what they do. After all, that is a part of how our brain operates – break down complex pieces of information and categorize it over and over. It’s difficult for us to process information that is floating out there by itself, completely unattached to our mental file cabinets. It might even be impossible, if it means trying to process something which we cannot attach to our cognitive categories at all. But back to the main point, while categories are to be expected, these things complicate equality, and to claim that societies can’t exist without equality is a bit of a strange claim.
At the same time, I don’t think equality is a misguided principle – it just tends to be defined in ways that are catastrophically intuitive to society at large (scarcely a problem for activists, though), but also a bit unrealistic given how clumping and distribution can create apparent (or real) inequality even when starting from equal initial states. Having that said, though, the reverse case is also rampant in the status quo. Because people cannot see what they cannot see, it is often hopelessly difficult to perceive how we individually contribute to the patriarchal status quo. One such case is the underrepresentation of women in math and science. People have tried to explain away the inequality with flawed biological arguments, that women are somehow less “endowed” to perform analytical tasks. And while these numbers might pan out, there’s a more parsimonious explanation out there – even if we don’t bar women from entering those fields, we nudge them towards dolls as children, make-up as teens, apparel and technology as young adults, and then shit, you better be ready to be had by a man and pop out some babies. I see this whole thing as a combination of our desire to create consumers in an economy that, in all fairness, requires consumption, and a set of antiquated ideals that our little girls are more delicate and should be raised as such. Regardless of whether that is true or not, let’s let the equal opportunities start here – free kids from the tendrils of mass consumption and let them decide what kind of things they are capable of doing. Because let me tell you, I’ve met some amazing women at Duke, and damn can they do science. And art. And music. And everything else – at once.
But first, let me be clear. I have no goddamn idea what the “friend-zone” is. And I suspect that, as far as memes and catchphrases that ride upon the whale of collective experience go, neither do a lot of other people. That’s fine and all – that’s probably why there has been so much heat over this topic over our social networks. People are discovering additional ways to conveniently package their vast and sophisticated life experiences and interconnections with others into an ambiguous and crass term. Other people have properly identified that such an ambiguous and crass term really does us no favors – it’s more of the same blame-shifting, more of the people in power playing the victim to get what they want. I don’t feel a particular need to rehash the waves of bewilderment pouring forth from the masses of men who don’t understand the hearts of maidens, but one thing is clear – yelling at ideologically crafted straw-men and straw-women really won’t help us move further in our relationships or make more sense of our relationships. After all, I have never seen a vagina with blood-dripping fangs or a penis that shoots masses of Lovecraftian whips in reality – so let’s try to be realistic about the people we’re dealing with.
I always struggle with how much background I should provide, because my mind is filled with a lot of undocumented nonsense that, were you to hold a conversation with me, would make for endless hours of boring lectures about the nature of the world. But first, I want to make an assumption about your garden-variety human being – regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, what have you. I believe that your standard person is generally kind, compassionate, and understanding, but usually only in the areas of their cognition in which they are comfortable. This might seem like a silly point of saying, well duh, everyone is more comfortable in their own personal bubbles, but there are several implications for this statement. First, relating most closely to the problem of friend-zones that I am attempting to address, is that most men will self-identify as being “nice guys” because they honestly try to be nice guys. While operating from scenarios in which they are comfortable, where there isn’t a great deal of emotional turmoil involved or a deep and often uncomfortable understanding of their partner required, they really are quite nice. But when dealing with situations in which they feel threatened or victimized, or when the people they are dealing with somehow become objectified or dehumanized, their cognitive framework shifts. To be blunt, humans are generally able to empathize well with those like them. Once you start emphasizing differences as matters of moral good and bad, throw in some incommensurability for good measure, and you see humans failing to treat humans as humans. That’s why propaganda divides and invokes feelings of victimization or rage; that’s part of why the Gestapo were able to rope otherwise good, moral citizens into committing some of the most atrocious acts known to man.
I’m not calling anybody a Nazi, or saying that getting dumped is at all comparable to a genocide. But the seeds of evil do are in fact sowed within what we often perceive as good, righteous behavior – and largely to no fault of our own. After all, human cognition is inevitably constrained by what we have epistemic access to. And for the most part, all we really have access to is what is in our experiences (and Wikipedia, god do we have access to Wikipedia). So, when we say that men fail to empathize with women, it’s true on one level but false on another. I wager that most men can empathize with women on the level of human beings, or on the level of a shared cultural heritage. But beyond that, we simply don’t have epistemic access to the way that those around us operate. Even though we might not want to hurt our loved ones, it sometimes ends up happening anyway. Think back to your childhood, or look at your children interacting with other children. Sometimes you make another kid cry and you honestly have no idea what happened. And no matter how hard you get grilled on “why did you make her cry,” you just don’t know. It just kind of happened. Like playing a card game, we only have a very peripheral understanding of what cards someone is bringing to the table; what cards they’ve been dealt, what experiences they’ve had. Because of that vast unknown, we are bound to hit land mines and to do weasely shit that makes our loved ones uncomfortable. It’s just a tad problematic that men have long been able to take what they wanted with few to no cohorts to protect against such predation, and that differences in modes of thinking that arise today are simply written off as differences between “rational” men and “sentimental” women.
Is this the reason why women have been systematically barred from entry to math and sciences for much of the ascendancy of the Western world, or why it is so hard for female scientists to receive proper recognition for their contributions? Do you know who Rosalind Franklin is? How about Watson and Crick? I don’t want to draw sweeping social conclusions just based upon a little bit of hermeneutic play, but let’s be real here, the amount of aghast horror that my fellow men exhibit at the seeming inexplicability of female behavior is, well, inexplicable. Be an asshole to others if you want, but at least be ready to die for your woman.
Here, I believe, is the root of the problems in our twisted relationships. The rules of engagement that society throws down upon us makes it okay for people to question my sexuality or direct me to counselling because I’m supposed to be a 22-year old straight male. But my sexuality is curbed for several reasons – first, I’ve always been more fascinated by the distant and vibrant world that lies beyond that almost pathological desire to be chained down to other people. And while I’m truly grateful for my great friends who put up with my self-inflicted, non-drug induced voyages into the edges of metaphysical insanity, the bigger problem I have is with sex itself. I have no problem with intimacy, but the act of penetration, and even just thinking about it, is so analogous and reflective of the abusive powers that we’ve so often exerted upon others throughout the history of mankind that I can’t help but to wonder if something funky happened to me in a past life. But that’s me, and that is us. We live in a world where our merit is so often defined by vague successes and conquests that nobody else ever wants to hear about, just to justify a vague and nagging need to remind everyone else that you sit among the pantheon of Masculine Men. We are told that Men need Women and a Women need a Man in order to feel accomplished and successful in life, and stories about how romance is supposed to look like and what love is supposed to look and feel like are endlessly rammed down our throats, and when our experiences fail to conform to those images, we refuse to wake up and instead begin to lash out at our loved ones for not meeting our expectations. We take these experiences and write books about them, telling our friends how our Asian parents never loved us because they wouldn’t let us date and wouldn’t let us play video games and would beat us when we couldn’t memorize things. But we overlooked everything else. It’s always so easy to overlook everything else – the blood, the tears, the countless dollars poured into private lessons and encouraging skills. God, I was raised like a prince. A storybook prince, only raised in the house of a pauper.
I never would have realized it, but my parents’ greatest gift to me was the gift of overflowing love. A great love to be at peace with those around me, to be at peace with the world, and finally, to be at peace with myself. To see beauty in all these things. That peace has also become part of my feminism, a realization that we can achieve a sort of equality even if the numbers tell us that income inequality aren’t being resolved. That begins by seeing our friends and partners as human beings, extensions of ourselves. Not as property, not as objects upon which we project our desires.
This is why the friend zone is the absolute best place to be. Stability and love blossom from friendship, from the trust that comes from being with someone and connecting with someone on a deeper level. Getting in the friend zone often requires a great deal of sacrifice and dedication, because people tend to be more reluctant to allow other people into their circle of lifelong companions than they are to let someone into their bedroom for a night. Remember, women have sexuality too – and as it takes two to tango, your “conquests” might not be as yours as you think. Sometimes ex’s come and go, never to be heard from again after leaving in a furious maelstrom of legal action. But you’ll be the person who can be turned to, and at the end of it all, you will have the most closure of all. Friendship is not so possessive – you can be friendzoned by multiple beautiful ladies at once. You might even be called upon to comfort them. And maybe you’ll politely decline. But friendship is but a concept, a fragile container for the wondrous thing that is the human relationship. It may take many forms and shapes, but invest in it; be patient with it, nurture it. When the day comes that you, too, have outgrown the need for ridiculous labels on your interpersonal relationships, we should have coffee together.