"I think we should just be friends."
Seven of the most horrifying words a women could ever utter to a man.
How about this one:
"Yes, I slept with Bobby and not you, but that's because I respect you!"
Another 14 words that make men cringe. In fact, most men, upon hearing such a declaration, think to themselves: "Please, stop respecting me!"
For many, both men and women (I don't want to get too tripped up on the focus on men here), being rejected sexually is the greatest insult, above being called a jerk, a loser, a "bad boy", or even a "bad friend". From an evolutionary perspective, this is not a surprise. Evolutionary Psychologists would be the first to point out that sexual intercourse gets our genes passed on to the next generation, while friendly banter, in itself (for now, note my phrasing here; in later posts I will elaborate), cannot offer the same vehicle.
Why am I writing about this? I'm a "serious" intelligence and creativity researcher. This post seems to have come out of nowhere!
Well, not really. I am deeply interested in the role of creativity in human mating behavior. So some of these ideas are on the forefront of my mind.
But even more relevant, I was spurred on by a recent post by one of my esteemed blogger colleagues Michael J. Formica on the topic: Pornography, Emotional Availability, and Female Objectification.
I often enjoy reading Michael's posts (they add much needed soul to life), and this one was no exception--particularly striking my chords.
In his post, he argues that pornography is about the objectification of women and can subtitute for a real "emotional connection". I agree with him that addiction to pornography can be a problem, especially if it interferes with forming desired emotional bonds. But it's important to bear in mind that the problem isn't with pornography itself but as Michael astutely points out, when that pornography acts as a subtitute for real human contact.
But more relevant to the current post, Michael said something in particular that got me thinking:
"Most men who indulge themselves in pornography would be appalled - despite the immediate response -- if their wife or girlfriend walked into the bedroom wearing fishnets, stilettos and a latex corset and wanted to get nasty."
I found this humorous. But I also found it thought provoking. Thinking along these lines reframes, at least for me, the entire meaning of "The Friend Zone". Suddenly, comments such as "I didn't get nasty with you because I respect you," and "Let's just be friends. I want to sleep with the milkman and you are getting in my way," make sense. The person actually does respect you, and that is the reason why they don't want to have mad passionate monkey sex with you. The problem is they respect you too much to see you as a sexual opportunity.
And while Michael frames his entire blog post in terms of "the objectification of women", objectification is an equal opportunity employer. Even if more men consume hardcore pornography than women, women are quite capable of objectifying men in other ways-- such as treating men like "sugar daddies" or valuing men strictly for their wealth or fame.
My point is this: for many (if not most) individuals, the "mystery" and "intrigue" of meeting a stranger is sexy. If we become too close to that person in a "friend way" too soon, we start caring about them in a way that isn't associated with sexual intercourse. If this emotional connection is formed too soon, before at least a modicum of sexual attraction is formed, the person enters "The Friend Zone".
Of course, none of this means that if you act out scenes from your favorite pornography movie with your interested partner that you don't care for that person. And while Michael's point is well taken, I'm sure there are many individuals who would not be appalled in the least if their partner "wanted to get nasty". For many healthy relationships, "getting nasty" is a normal way of expressing each other's love, devotion, and sensitivity to their partner's desires.
Here I only address "The Friend Zone": that curious, poorly understood, much under-studied (yes, by scientists) place where one is cared about in a way that isn't sexual. Of course, friends can develop into lovers. But this only happens when the long-time friend, for whatever reason, starts to be seen in a new light: as a sex object (among many other objects: social, emotional, etc--indeed viewing someone as a sex object isn't in itself objectification, it's only when that's the only way you view them).
In fact, the reality is that being in the friend zone is an honor: it means you are well-respected, have formed an emotional connection with that person, and are thought of as nice, considerate, and dependable. These are really valuable traits. And I really mean that. They just aren't all that helpful in getting out of "The Friend Zone" if there isn't also a sexual attraction.
But for many who get in the zone, it's easy to lose sight of how much of an honor it really is.
© 2008 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved
I thank Elliot Paul and Erin Wegner for their insighful comments on an earlier draft of this article. I also thank Ben Irvine for influencing my ideas through many stimulating discussions on this matter.