May 02, 2011

Heterosexual Norms and Friendship

new sallyBy Sally Raskoff

Have you ever wondered if men and women can be “just friends”?

I started thinking about this the other day when I heard some people talking about these issues. When a woman and a man forge a friendship, especially if one or the other is already in a committed relationship with another person, why do some people think it’s weird?

The people I heard discussing a married friend were very distrustful of the ability of the friend to maintain her marriage to one man and her friendship with another. While they might have more relevant information than I do about their friend’s past commitment history, I will volunteer a sociological reason for their suspicion.

We assume that we are free to be friends with whomever we wish. However, societal norms operate to guide us towards specific types of relationships. These guidelines are not always obvious, but they do give us opportunities and restrictions for our behavior. When we break these norms, we must work hard to feel okay with them, make other feel okay, and/or change our behavior to be more in line with what society expects.

Our society is structured in part by a very strong heterosexual norm. Norms are important guidelines for expected behavior in a society and our heterosexual norm expects us to assume we are all heterosexual and attracted to people of the other gender. This norm prevents us from experiencing many different facets of life as it propels us into specific patterns of social interaction and self-identity.

The heterosexual norm prevents us from accepting friendships between straight men and women because we assume there will be some sexual attraction between them. The film, When Harry Met Sally explored this with humor, yet definitely came down on the normative side of the debate when Harry and Sally became a couple.

We think nothing in this society when men become friends with men and when women become friends with women. We assume they have common interests and have some sort of liking for each other. Women can be more overt and personal with their friendships while we limit men in how they can express their affection image for their male friends.

We allow little girls to hold hands with their best girl friends while we encourage little boys to play tough with their best friends who are boys. (And we use language of that sort to highlight our comfort level with those gendered friendships.)

Do you know many straight married women and men who are friends with a straight person of the other gender? Such friendships are usually more accepted by image family, friends, and spouses when they pre-exist the committed relationship. In other words, a married straight person can be friends with a straight person of the other gender if they knew that other person before they met their marital partner. If a straight married person meets a straight person of the other gender after their marriage, some people will have a problem with that simply because they suspect it signals an eroding marriage.

We seem to think that straight people in a cross-gender relationship would always have a sexual connection. If their ages are different, the suspicions may not ease if he is older than she since older man-younger woman relationships are common in our society. If she is older than he is, people may wonder what they have in common.

How does this heterosexual norm operate for friendships with people who are gay or lesbian? Does it affect them the same way it affects people who are straight?

Let me ask you this: Have you ever wondered why some straight women and gay men seem to have such strong friendships? Have you ever considered lesbian women who are friends with straight men? Do we assume that lesbian women’s friends are other lesbian women and that gay men’s friends are other gay men? (And do we also assume that gay men have sex with those friends?)

This is the heterosexual norm operating yet again.

Friendships that we don’t question are those between people who would not be sexually attracted to each other. Thus we accept the straight woman - gay man friendships, as classically shown in the television show Will and Grace. So if a woman wants to be friends with a man, a gay man is a choice that won’t raise any jealousy or suspicion.

We don’t hear or see much about straight men - lesbian women friendships. Why might that be so?

In our patriarchal society where men hold power as a group and women do not, the heterosexual norm operates to keep such power in place. The powerful group, men, have more pressure to conform to the norms of masculinity than the subordinate group, women, have to conform to the norms of femininity. (For more information, see Connell’s work on Gender and Power).

Since the heterosexual norm operates more powerfully on men, it may simply be that we’re not interested in hearing about straight men’s friendships with lesbian women because they do not reinforce our dominant norms about who should be connecting with whom.

In our society, we don’t see as many fictional depictions of lesbian women as gay men--perhaps because women do not hold as much societal power as men do. When we do see them, they are typically depicted as entertainment sources for straight men (as in explicit sexual media) or as straight women “tomboy buddies” for them (one example isEllen Degneres’s character on her sitcom years ago).

One can see the heterosexual norm operating in one’s personal social circles, families, and in the media reflections of our culture. Any of the “Real Housewives” television shows can serve as great examples. The women’s friendships are the main story, their husbands’ friendships are typically not represented or are depicted as difficult. In the episodes I’ve seen, the few gay men or lesbian women who are included are seen as either best friends (gay men), deviant or with sexual innuendo (both with gay men and lesbian women).

Granted, this analysis is based on historical definitions of gender. This may not reflect the current lived reality of some people who are able to generate and maintain friendships across all sorts of social boundaries.

Nevertheless, the legacy of our history is still with us because these gendered distinctions are built into our society. Ask those people you may know who do have non-romantic opposite sex friendships. They may report having to work hard to alleviate fears or suspicions their family and friends may have about those friendships, work they don’t have to do when they’re maintaining more normative friendships.

What other sociological theories, terms, or concepts might help us understand our friendship patterns better?


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Ever since the beginning of generation its has always been man coming together with woman to create a family. As years progressed, male dominance went up while woman's went down. Men were created stronger while woman more fragile. I believe that because of our ancestors and religion, being friends with the opposite sex isn't normal. In the past woman were to be at home taking care of their children and keeping order in the home while the man was to go out and hunt for the food. Men didn't talk to woman to become friends and woman uneducated. Flash forward a few years and you've got woman's rights movement and woman getting jobs in the business industry. Still woman are considered less capable of a mans job. Because of the separation since the beginning of time, I believe it put this stigma on relationships between the two. Girls usually make big deals out of everything and men love to give each other a hard time. With woman and men being so opposite, its understandable why so much of society sees it as something more than a friendship. A lot of media has destroyed even some chance of it becoming a norm. Many people are caught by camera having affairs on their spouses best friend or a movie about friends falling in love. All that builds up the tension in our minds and eventually ruins any good chance at a normal friendship.

In my online sociology course, we are discussing about female and gender roles, and I don't think that heterosexual friendships are bad, I actually think they balance the gender roles. I also agree with the fact that society believes that there will always be attraction eventually. Along with gender roles, it seems that men seem more dominant in heterosexual friendships, and the women are those not so dominant. I think this also carries over in the work world, women aren't treated equally as men therefore their work place may be different. I think that is manly why guy-girl relationships don't end well because men do not treat women equally, and can't picture a women being 'on of the guys'.

I think that gender roles in a relationship is always going to cause a sense of concern for the world. People are always going to question a friendship if their is anyway that you could possibly be attracted to that person. I think when you become friends with a person of a different gender you clearly have some sort of attraction to them. Although at the beginning most deny the attraction, eventually you will probably fall for that person as more than a friend. I think as long as you are aware on what direction your friendship is going there is nothing wrong with these types of friendships, just don't get stuck in place where you fall for a friend and don't know what to do about it.

I believe that a person can be friends with another person anytime, anywhere. I don't think that a person has control over who they can fall in love with, obviously. But I think that someone can wisely choose the friends that they make so that they will not be able to fall in love with the particular person. As a fellow human, you can control yourself emotionally in most cases, so if you have feelings for someone while you are in a marriage with someone else, that is not healthy for a relationship and I advise that you stop seeing that person for a while.

I believe firmly that man and woman can exist with a platonic relationship. It's unfair to assume that by being so close for so often would create feelings of sexuality; perhaps a man may crave intimacy with the woman because she's a familiar being but it doesn't mean he's chosen her as "his mate" or modernly loves her.

I think that a woman and a man can be friends and not fall in love with one another. It dosen't always mean that when a woman and a man are together that they are in love or that one is attracted to the other. Like the people said above the man may like her or be attracked to her but it dosen't mean that he wants her as his girlfriend or wife.

I have to agree with Metro in the fact that men and women can have platonic relationships. I know this for a fact, because I have so many friends of the opposite sex that I have no desire whatsoever to change into anything else. Also, it is more common for gay guys to be friends with straight girls than it is for lesbian girls to be friends with straight guys. I think this is due in part because gay men, I suppose, act more like women, because they are somewhat feminine most of the time. Lesbian women, however, aren't necessarily more masculine; they just have an attraction towards women. It's difficult to explain... but basically, gay men act more like women than lesbians act like men. Therefore, it makes more sense that they would naturally get along.


There definately seems to be a sort of lighter degree of tabbo placed on men-women relationships when the two are "just friends." We all constantly pass negative judgements when guys and girls get that close with no attraction. I think that this judgement stems from our views of women. Even still today, women, who are the majority of society, are treated as inferior because that's what nearly all women have known for their entire lives. We assume that the man will have an attraction to the woman, and, because women are considered inferior, that she will sucumb to his feelings. Women have been almost always treated in similar fashions to this and, unless something changes soon, will unfortunately be treated the same in the future.

I think that men and women can be friends but inside one of them wants something more. Sometimes it can be hidden and ignored and the friendship lasts, but others and probably more often feelings interfere.

I think that being friends with another gender while being with someone in a relationship put a strain on how the relationship is. Sometimes a guy can't please you in some way not sexually but just in a way and you need a guy to talk to about it. Girls don't know how guys think and most of the time we need a guys point of view. I think having a guy friend is good for the girl to release some anger too. You don't want to create a problem with your relationship so if you like vent on another guy it will release some anger so you don't have to take it out on your partner. I think that people don't think we will do something with a homosexual because they like the same gender so you don't have to worry. Society thinks it is wrong to be friends with a opposite gender but its okay if they are homosexual.

I agree nothing in this society when men become friends with men and when women become friends with women. I think that men and women can be friends.

My personal opinion and incite is that all human beings unconciously surround themselves and seek out the people that fill their needs, insecurities, and comfortably fill in the missing pieces of themselves in order to make ones self feel "safe".....all without knowing it or thinking about it....there is a constant "give and take" exchange going on between people. "Friends" happens because the "give and take" works for both people naturally. I feel like there isn't a "one person" that can fill ALL of those things....not your mate, friend, or new friend! We all need more than 1 person and I believe jelousy happens (wheather expressed or not) between a mate and "the friend" weather its a male or female, because the parts that "the friend" fills....will never be the same (and most likely a personality trait that the mate wishes they had too) as the Mate, and vice versa. ....think about your closest friends.......I can bet that they are all not best friends with each other...why? because they have similar traits to each other...too many alike personalities cant grow....something to think about

I'm a lesbian and I can say that in the relationship I was in, it was acceptable for me to be friends with straight females and gay males. But that was it. She did not like if I was friends with straight males or gay females. I think the idea that a female should not be friends with a male persists even in some homosexual female relationships. This may be because female sexuality is seen as more fluid than male sexuality. If a gay male is friends with females, it is viewed as completely okay.

Even gay females are often assumed to be going through a phase. I have been told many times that I just have not found the right man yet.

Lesbian/straight male friendships seem to be less accepted than gay male/straight female friends.

as a straight man, that is hoping to meet the right woman for me it has become rather difficult. this seems to be the big trend today, women are now going for other women instead of men. very disgusting to me, the way i see it. why are women today so much more attracted to other women? i just cannot understand it at all. this is the absolute reason why us straight men are having a very hard time meeting a straight woman for us now. i can speak for myself, because when i go out i always seem to meet the nastiest women with their no good attitude now. i was married twice at one time, and was a very caring and loving husband that never cheated on them. they did both cheat on me, and i was very upset. i was very committed to them as well. now that i am single and alone again, it sure sucks for me. it hurts a lot to be alone, especially for the holidays.

it seems as women's lib took over it messed up their brain, many women out there now are not looking to meet men anymore like they use to. i am a straight man as well, that is hoping to meet a good woman today. i noticed that their attitude has changed a lot, and they are a lot nastier as well. i think many of them have been very badly abused by men in the past, making it that much harder for good men like me to meet them now. i have to agree, it hurts very much to be alone for the holidays especially when you see the other men out there that were very lucky to have met the right woman for them and have a family as well. i feel as if god is punishing me, since he forgot about me. i never did anything wrong on my part. the ones that have families, should go to church and pray to thank god for what they have. it is the men like me that are hurting real bad, and have no one now. since women have changed, i certainly cannot blame myself for this. i have to agree that there are much more women out there now that are lesbians, and it will be much harder meeting good straight woman for me now.

I believe that it is possible for a guy and a girl to keep their relationship at a friend level. However, I am also willing to admit that I do not believe that this is commonly the case. A common saying is “you will always marry your best friend”. When people are looking for appropriate spouses, they want someone that they enjoy being around, that they are compatible with, that they can communicate well with, and whom they enjoying being with. These are also very similar qualities that people look for in strong friendships, and these are the characteristics that create strong friendships. When someone finds a person with these traits, most of the time one or the other or both wishes to take things to a new level. The only time where this isn’t the case is when they are not physically or sexually attracted to one another.

I'm sure many people will liked your story. I enjoyed reading it and will able to catch more story from you.

I strongly believe that as a fellow human being we arent always able to control who we gain feelings for and who we dont. society has set standards and when someone strays outside of those regulations its looked down upon. No man or woman should be judged or cretiqued based upon who they choose to hold friendships with and what gender those set groups of friends are or arent.

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