I lost my good friend, Denis, two weeks ago. He and I are both straight, and never became romantically involved. I am married, and during our friendship, he got divorced and began dating another woman (whose grief right now I can’t even imagine). The world has lost a brilliant man, his children have lost a loving father, and so many of us have lost a great friend.
I wasn't surprised by the sadness I felt when I walked out of his funeral, as I was surrounded by a huge mass of his friends, but the rage, which overwhelmed me. Because that morning, I'd read a piece in the Washington Post about a rule Vice-President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen, have: He is not to dine alone with a woman, nor attend any event at which alcohol is present without Karen—described in the article as his “prayer warrior.” Which would be fine (if weird) if he were the leader of a cult, or a hermit. But for somebody whose job requires both empathy and curiosity about the lives and challenges faced by all Americans, and whose salary I help pay, Pence’s unwillingness or inability to imagine a situation in which men and women could be colleagues, business partners, or even just friends is not only troubling but enraging. First, as many have pointed out, it likely violates employment laws forbidding sex discrimination. Secondly, and more broadly, it means that to Pence, as the writer Patricia Lockwood notes about Catholic priests in her forthcoming memoir, “women are mostly theoretical.” For a person who wields the tie-breaking vote in the United States Senate, this is a liability whose consequences will include women’s deaths.
And while some have questioned how a man of such extreme sexual modesty could happily serve under a man like Donald Trump, our pussy-grabber-in-chief, to me it seems pretty obvious: Horn-doggery and separatist prudery are just two sides of the same woman-hating coin. Neither man perceives women as human beings equal to men, they just express their limitations differently. Let’s call them the Goofus and Gallant of misogyny.
Because of the feminist movement, we all know that sexual assault is wrong and reflects a hatred of women. But there’s still an unearned amount of respect for the flip side—the cautious avoidance of women, the kind of misogyny that seeks to protect, to put on a pedestal, anywhere but on equal footing. We are sacred or we are profane; we are not commonly understood by people like this to be human in the same way that men are human.
Pence’s fear of women, or fear of his sexual impulses when confronted by a woman when he doesn’t have his prayer warrior on hand, isn’t uncommon in conservative Christian circles. I saw a lot of tweets and articles defending his “rule,” including at least two completely inane articles on The Federalist website, which not only defended Pence as a good husband, but also mocked the very idea of friendship between men and women.
To put it simply, this is bullshit.
Christopher Stroop (@C_Stroop), who writes about both Russia and his own background as a former evangelical Christian, pointed out in a tweet that “Conservative Christians sexualize normal interaction, are deathly afraid of their sexuality.” There is something wrong in the way you construct the world—whether it’s a fear of breaking arbitrary rules or a reliance on rigid gender roles—when you declare that friendships between men and women, boys and girls, are wrong.
I’ve always had male friends. There was my buddy Charlie in first grade. He shared my taste for bad jokes and occasionally dangerous experiments in pyromania. In high school, my boyfriend was in a band and his bandmates were my pals, too. In college, after my obligatory dorm year I lived in cruddy student apartments with mostly male roommates—maybe it’s because I grew up sandwiched between two brothers, but non-romantic male friendship is comfortable for me, and especially helpful after I graduated from college and entered the working world. I’ve had male colleagues who became dear friends—we’ve shared many meals, including lots of alcohol, even while one or both of us was partnered or married to someone else. We bonded, in other words—as friends do and should do—and we got to know each other well enough to work together productively.
The Greeks had many words for love: There is the romantic Eros, of course; there is Agape, the love of one’s fellow man that flows, perhaps, from a concept of god; there is Storge, familial love; and then there is Philia, the love between friends, often defined as brotherly love. We need them all.
Several years ago, I lost another friend, Philippe, who was my colleague and became a dear friend. He is the person who introduced me to the man who became my husband. Working in the same office for years, I listened to his tales of romantic woe, and then enthusiasm as he fell in love with the woman he was set to marry before his sudden, untimely death. We fully expected to dance at each other’s weddings. I still miss him all the time.
I understand that the cultural space male-female friendships inhabit can be confusing. (I understand, too, that the Pence rule for avoiding sexual temptation plays different for LGBT people—leading to the brain twister of who, exactly, a married bisexual can ever eat with.) There’s the problem that the word “friend” is often deployed as a euphemism for lover. There’s the familiar narrative that the best marriages start as friendships first, which may or may not be true, but which unfairly positions friendship as just a way station on the road to matrimony (or at least sex).
But friendship is something of its own. When I think of what I’ve gained from the time I’ve spent with Philippe, Denis, Charlie, and the dozens of other close male friends I’ve been lucky enough to have in my life, I can’t imagine what would replace them—or who I would be without them.
I think of the way my male friends gathered around me as my first marriage ended, not hitting on me but having my back. Philippe encouraging me that Kevin and I would be a good match. Denis warmly taking in my son and dog when I needed to travel, and telling me happily about the woman he was just starting to date. We did what friends do: listen to each other, amuse each other, talk shit, share dreams.
And yes, there have been occasional friendships where crushes have arisen; either the crusher works it out on their own or the friendship goes away, for awhile or forever. But those are the rare exceptions to the long experience I’ve had with my male friends (and my husband’s experiences with his female friends). In our marriage, being able to consult with a trusted friend of the opposite sex is helpful, not harmful. They support us, they love us—because that’s what friends do.
Those who insist that the only relationship between men and women is one defined by sex and sexuality—because women are defined only by their sexuality, either virgins or whores—are wrong. Not just because they’re robbing women of a real place at the table, an equal voice in the boardroom (or the golf course, or the dinner party)—although this is the most important reason, from a public policy perspective. But even more intimately and personally, because life is a rich, complex, and sometimes painful journey—and we need all the traveling companions we can get.