Before you read this post, I’m going to need you to do a couple things. First, if you haven’t already, read this article.** Second, find a library database or run a search on Amazon/iTunes for “the four loves” and just note all of the erotica hits you get.
Now you may proceed.
“Just friends,” “something more,” “give him a chance,” “you’re leading him/her/me on”—you’ve probably heard one of these phrases before, right? They’re pretty common in this day and age. Every time I hear something along those lines I cringe inside—and sometimes outside—but for a long time I couldn’t explain why.
Then, one day, a guy at my new job with whom I’d become friends asked me out, and when I turned him down, he stopped talking to me completely. During one shift we were friends, and during the next we weren’t. Just like that. It made me sad not to have someone to joke around with at work, but there was more to it than that. I was angry. By ending our friendship following my rejection, he essentially told me that he’d only cared about me as long as I was a potential romantic (read: sexual) partner. As soon as I made it clear that door was closed, he didn’t see any value in me or our friendship. I “friend zoned” him, and he shut me out.
The friend zone as a concept is the result of a distorted view of love, one that sets romantic love on a pedestal as the ultimate goal. As a diagram, it might look something like this:
This is all kinds of problematic—mostly because it suggests that a person’s ability to care for someone is limited by their willingness to enter into a romantic relationship and/or have sex with them. It makes women and men alike into unfeeling monsters—women for turning down men who so obviously “care” for them, and men for treating women as unworthy of their time and attention if they won’t be rewarded for it.
People like to say that friendships between straight men and women don’t work, and I’ve lost enough guy friends to be able to agree—but I won’t. Because some of my closest friends are of the male persuasion, and I value those friendships immensely. It’s so cool to get to hang out with people whose brains work differently than mine, to explore interests I wouldn’t be curious about otherwise, to see things from another perspective, to have people in my life who share my enthusiasm for activities many of my female friends don’t enjoy, like lifting weights and watching action movies. My world is wider (and wilder) because of these friendships and the intelligent conversations, the crazy adventures, the bands I never would have discovered on my own, and the stupid-hard workouts I’ve taken part in or been introduced or invited to as a result of them. These friendships work because we respect each other as—wait for it—human beings.
“The language we use automatically assumes that women should be attracted to or want to date any men they value as friends, because if they’re good enough to be friends then why aren’t they good enough to be your romantic partners?”1 It’s quite simple really. You can love someone—truly, deeply, passionately—without feeling sexually attracted to them. Romantic love is not the next step up from friendship love. They’re two separate concepts entirely. In C.S. Lewis’ fantastic exploration of the idea of love (called, not surprisingly, The Four Loves), he offers up the theory that there are, in fact, not only two kinds of love as he originally supposed (need-love and gift-love), but four. These can be illustrated as four separate spheres:
There’s overlap among the four, certainly, but as the author of the Federalist article I told you to read at the beginning of this post points out, philia has been largely subsumed under eros in our present society. “Instead of friendship being noble, non-romantic, and normal, it has become the exception, romanticized to the point that we’re uncomfortable describing it and experiencing it for what it is.”2 Phrases like “just friends” reduce this noble love—which C.S. Lewis points out to be “the least biological, organic, instinctive, gregarious and necessary”3 of the four, traits that indicate its status as “higher-level” because it is not born out of need but rather “freely chosen”2—to something secondary, something less-than. The friend zone, then, does more than degrade women and turn men into sex fiends. It undermines the value of friendship itself, and that is something that should concern us. “Friendship is the greatest guard against a tyrannical society that wants to divide individuals and control them.”2 It’s a theme across many, if not all, of the dystopian novels and films that seem so in vogue these days: people split into factions and made to turn on each other in the name of self-preservation. In The Four Loves, Lewis writes, “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art…It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that gives value to survival.”3 I would contend, however, that friendship is much more necessary than we recognize it to be. It “fosters healthy communities and promotes mutual affection” as well as enabling the development of “stability, wholeness, and a deep satisfaction as we connect with other people in an intimate way.”2 As the African proverb says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Without friendship and the respect for humanity that it champions, society as we know it would quickly devolve into a base, hideous thing.
The most effective way to eliminate a bad habit is to replace it with a good one. Rape culture has generated an enormous amount of buzz in the media lately, but noise and awareness can only effect so much change. As rape culture and the concept of the friend zone both “strip a woman of her right to consent” and “perpetuate the notion that men are entitled to women (and…[their] bodies) whenever they want them,”1 both must necessarily be abolished—but to do so without providing an alternative would only create a void. I would submit that the concept of philia is imperative to any major shift in the movement to end sexual aggression. We need to stop disseminating the myth that every relationship between a man and a woman invariably carries a sexual charge in at least one direction, and instead propagate the truth: that friendships between sexes can be joyful and fulfilling without sex because—and this is key—women have brains and passions and interests and opinions and autonomy and the right to be treated with respect just like men do, and vice versa, because we all fall into the category of “human.” And if women are free to be three-dimensional people instead of being obligated to respond to a man’s advances in a predetermined manner, then men will be free to recognize that rejection is an indication not of a lack of affection but rather a different form of it.
It’s more complicated than that, and I could insert all sorts of buzzwords and phrases here (“toxic masculinity,” for starters) but that’s a conversation for another day. For now, I’ll end with this parting thought: rejection hurts, yes, but if you’re willing to cut all ties with the person who rejected you in order to protect yourself and hurt them, how can you say you loved them at all?
** I realize that article may read as slightly homophobic, so I want to clarify here that my post is strictly a personal experience-based argument against the friend zone as it applies to straight, cisgender men and women—I am not protesting homosexual relationships, and I am only treating gender as a binary for the sake of the simplicity of the argument.
3 The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis