Highway to the Friend Zone

I’m not sure that this should fall under “Philosophy”, but there is some discussion of gender roles and the like so it probably does fit.

Anyway, in looking at a post that just dumped a lot of links, I came across this post by Crommunist on the Friend Zone. As it happens, I have my own opinions on what the Friend Zone is and, more importantly, what the main cause or issue with it is most of the time, and his post is a good framing device to talk about that.

I’ll skip over his definition of Friend Zone, because most people generally know what it is but defining it that precisely is problematic. For my purposes, being in the Friend Zone means nothing more than that someone wants a romantic relationship with someone and at some point comes to understand that the other person likes them … but just as friends, and not for a romantic relationship. In keeping with a big part of Crommunist’s focus, I’ll note that at least the common perception of Friend Zoning is that it is something that women do to men … or, at least, do more often than men. Crommunist then moves on to talk about two general types of Friend Zoning: Zebra, which he considers problematic but rare, and Unicorn, which he thinks is a common attitude but is mythological. Zebra Zoning is generally a woman deliberately cultivating friendships with men who are sexually interested in them in order to get the benefits of friendship from men who might not give them that otherwise by playing on the sexual interest but never paying off on that sexual interest. Unicorn Zoning is generally a man thinking that a woman is doing this when that is really not the case.

He then moves on to try to explain why this is seen as something women do to men. I don’t find either of his answers compelling, and I think pulling a paragraph from his section on “Women as sexual economists” highlights this the best:

I find this explanation unsatisfactory for a number of reasons. Chief among these is that it rests quite firmly on the belief that women are inherently likely to lie and manipulate when given an opportunity. As mentioned in the Zebra Zone section, such a belief requires women to be cruel. One might say that it only requires people to be cruel, but if that were the case then the meme would not be nearly so gendered. We’d talk about how attractive people put others in the Friend Zone, not about how women do it. Except in relatively rare circumstances, adopting this explanation is evidence of the acceptance of the believe that women are morally inferior.

The issue with this is that Friend Zoning is a one-sided exchange that works woman to man but not as well from man to woman. The exchange offered by Friend Zoning is emotional support and gaining material goods — ie getting gifts, getting means paid for, etc — from someone who is interested in sex, and then never giving that person sex (or anything romantic, in terms of a romantic relationship). This is something that, traditionally, would appeal more to women than to men. Men, typically, were expected to be more interested in getting the sex part instead of the emotional/material part, and thus the relevant comparison would be a man who represents to a woman that they are interested in a romantic relationship in order to get her to have sex with him, and then not calling again after they did get that sex. Which, you’ll note, is indeed a common a commonly derided stereotype about at least some men.

So there is no reason to presume that Friend Zoning of the “Zebra” means that women are more cruel than men. It merely means that you assume that women are just as cruel as men, but typically have different desires and means to achieve them. Also, you don’t really need to worry about women who can’t get sex, because the claim is just that the relation is common and more often woman to man, not that this is universal.

Personally, I agree with Crommunist that Zebra Zoning is rare. I don’t think that entitlement — the feminist answer — is the right answer, and think that it’s in many ways a worse answer than the sexual economist answer. He also talks about the fear of male anger, but that doesn’t seem like a good explanation because Friend Zoning occurs when a woman has indeed made it clear that a relationship is not going to happen, but that she wants to remain friends. To use that as an explanation would mean that they are lying about that, and while I think that does happen as well, it’s not a legitimate description of Friend Zoning in any way; the men were never really put in the Friend Zone to begin with. And I don’t even think that the answer I gave here is the most common case.

Where I think we start to see the real drive behind this is in Crommunist’s discussions of friendship:

And I can’t stress this enough: you’re hurting yourself when you do that. Friendship is not a consolation prize when you can’t ‘get’ a girlfriend. Many of my closest, most important, most valuable and long-lasting relationships are with women who I’ve had a romantic interest in at one time. Conversely, I’ve had romantic relationships with entirely forgettable or downright uninteresting people. While it’s obviously best when they coincide, friendship is not on a lower stratum than romantic partnership – it should not be something you ‘settle’ for. And if that’s how you approach friendship, it might be time for you to take a close look at your own life and your beliefs about the value of being close with other human beings of any gender.

The issue, as I see it, is this. Both friendships and romantic relationships are valuable. But the big difference between a friendship and a romantic relationship is the desire for sex. It is rare that someone will choose to stay in a long-term relationship with someone that they find forgettable or uninteresting, so the common interests part has to be there. But those sorts of traits are generally the same traits that would make you want to be friends with that person. Not every member of the appropriate sex that you encounter and would be friends with is someone that you’d want a long-term relationship with, and sometimes that is based on their personality, and not just their sexual attractiveness. But almost anyone that you’d really want a long-term relationship with is also someone that you could see yourself spending time with without having sex with them, or else you’re doing it really, really wrong. So what differentiates a friend from a romantic partner is, in fact, sexual desire.

Now, because men generally have to do the approaching, they are trained to look for indications of sexual attraction first. And, it turns out, this is generally relatively easy to do, at least as an initial assessment. Yes, someone can start out as not seeming attractive and yet can grow on you with more exposure and potentially with different appearances/outfits/whatever (this did happen to me), but in general for most people if they look to see if someone attracts them they can tell right away. While I can’t speak for the experience of women — and so am open to being corrected if wrong — I think that men, because of the training I outlined above, are more likely to openly and deliberately assess a woman’s sexual attractiveness early, in order to determine if this is someone that they want to approach for a relationship, while women can wait for that at least until they get approached. Which doesn’t mean that women never see someone and think “Oh, my God!” … but that happens to men, too. What I’m talking about is the more cold “Do-able?” type assessments (and I think that the thing that those men did that was bad was not asking the question, but was doing it where she could hear them, but that’s another debate).

So as most people fall into friendships — and, let’s face it, that is how most of us do form friendships; we don’t usually actively seek out friendship directly with a person — for the most part when a man approaches a woman that he doesn’t know or doesn’t know very well he’s more interested in a romantic relationship than in a pure friendship, which means that he’s already assessed how sexually attracted to him she is and has decided that she is indeed attractive. But society says that what he should do is try to become friends first, and shouldn’t start from an overly sexual context, because that’s potentially creepy and objectifying. So he approaches as if at least the sexual attractiveness part is a minor portion of his interest, if he doesn’t hide it completely (which is more common).

From her side, it looks like she’s falling into a friendship. There’s no real indication that this is meant to be a sexual approach, so she often doesn’t even consider whether it is one or not. She’s made a new friend. And then this proceeds for a while, and she settles into a routine where this is someone that she is good friends with, and she treats him as a friend. And then, finally, he gets up the nerve to declare that he wants more. And then she does the serious assessment of his attractiveness, and either doesn’t have it, or more likely might have some but likes the friendship better; the attraction isn’t enough to risk losing the solid friendship that she does value.

Which is usually lost anyway, because she can’t help but feel that he was less than honest with her, by acting as a friend when what he really wanted was sex/a romantic relationship, and he can’t help but feel a bit led on because he was acting the way he thought you had to to get a relationship and she never considered that that might be what he was interested in. As the anger builds, the intentions are taken to the extremes, and get into the typical extreme debates over Friend Zoning: she concludes that he was never interested in friendship, but was only interested in sex, and he concludes that she was playing on his sexual attraction to get benefits without having to give what he was interested in in return. Neither is, in fact, true.

Ultimately, one of the PUA principles, if I recall correctly, addresses this: don’t be ashamed of having sexual desires, and don’t be afraid to express them early in a relationship. If you want to have a sexual relationship, don’t start by denying or hiding that. Express it openly. Sure, we have to find ways to do that that don’t reduce her to a sexual object, but ensuring that she knows that you are sexually interested in her early is something that we need to do. Thus, what we really need is a way to express sexual interest honestly without being crude about it. Doing that, it seems to me, will help reduce notions of “Friend Zoning”, hopefully to effectively 0 … and then only from people who are really cruel, and not the innocents we have now.


One Response to “Highway to the Friend Zone”

  1. Héctor Muñoz Huerta Says:

    I don’t think men are trained to look for sexual attraction indicators first but that the traits that first interest men are more evident at
    sight. Women of course have interest in physical traits but they are ultimately more interested in character and status so they have to know the person better to asses those.

    Friend zoning is a game of double hypocrisy: the man who hides his real intentions and the woman who profits from this share equal blame but I’d agree that most women don’t actively cultivate friend zone pals, I think most tolerate suppressed sexual desire as long as the man puts good enough effort in a legitimate friendship as opposed to lame servitude.

    Abusing friend zone is fairly common among very attractive high status women though: men wait in line for them to abuse the way groupies throw themselves to rock stars; it’s a strong temptation.

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