Queer Theory is Sexy

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On the Friendship/Lover Binary; Or: Why I Struggle to Find Intimacy with my Straight/Cis Friends

This post has a supplementary post here, but I request that you read this post first.

This is something I’ve been mulling over for a while, but it’s still in the developing stage, and I’ve never seen or heard someone else talk about this directly, so I apologize if my analysis is sloppy.

I also want to point out that while I am talking about tendencies I observe among my straight/cisgender friends, and while I want to discuss the structural reasons I believe these tendencies exist, this post is not to be read as a condemnation of starightness or being cis, as implying that these criticisms apply always and everywhere to all straight/cis people,  or as a criticism of any specific straight/cis person (in other words, if you’re a straight/cis friend of mine, don’t assume I’m talking about you). Nor is it to imply that there is no such tendency in the queer community as well.

Now then, to get to the point: I contend that among the structural and conceptual binaries that make up our society, there is a socially constructed conceptual distinction between two categories of relationship: “friend” and “lover”. I contend that the category of “friendship,” despite implying a meaningful connection between individuals, simultaneously involves and conscious or unconscious and perpetual distancing from the category of “lover”. I contend each of these categories involves a distinct set of obligations and norms for expected and accepted behaviors, and that movement between these two categories is extremely limited socially; that if one has a lover, it is extremely difficult (and assumed/insisted to be so by society) to later see them as “merely” a friend. And if one has a friend, the prospect of seeing them as a lover often begs some extreme re-evaluation of the relationship, an internal re-interpretation of past emotions as romantic, and some sort of triggering event of sexual tension that overcomes these boundaries (I am not here talking about the “friend zone”; see my discussion below). I further contend that this binary originated as one of the minor tools of patriarchy in asserting male owenership of female bodies/sexuality (although it doesn’t necessarily have that association today), which I explain in my supplementary post on this topic.

The friend zone—What I’m not saying: I define the use of the phrase “the friend zone” as a form of male injury at being refused their privilege over women’s bodies. Of having their assumption that all women are predisposed sexually towards them thrown back in their face, or their belief that all women should have their sexuality and behavior regulated, navigated, and interpolated by their male peers. In other words, I believe that the concept of the “friend zone” is generally a gendered and sexist expression (while acknowledging that women and gay men do use the term, do not see it as sexist, and that their use of the term is generally without patriarchal implications). I am clearly not arguing in complaint about the “friend zone”. On the contrary, I argue that the category of friendship itself inherently involves a separation from behaviors that are normatively associated with “lover”, and that this separation limits the potential for intimacy between myself and my friends.

What I am saying: I have observed over the years the ways in which we construct the binary between friendship and lover as two mutually exclusive categories. We do so out of fear of violation of compulsory monogamy, which sees physical acts as a sort of currency constitutive of a contractual obligation in which both parties have rights to a certain “payment” from their partner. We do so when we worry about getting “too close” to our straight, opposite gender friends, for fear of “leading them on” or for fear of a partner’s jealousy. We refuse to spend too much time with one person for fear that we will be seen as dating. We distinguish our “I love you’s” between friends and lovers: for friends we say it with less intention in a tone of joy (I enjoy your company) rather than intimacy (I enjoy your person), we say it almost self-ironically, abbreviating it and diminutizing it (“luv ya”) instead of the full (implicitly romantic) “I love you”. [I am not being prescriptive about how we should express our love for each other; I’m simply pointing out how we conceive of these two loves as different and avoid inserting the language of one into the language of the other]. We avoid close physical contact, expressions of intimacy like holding hands, touching each other’s faces, holding one another, etc., with people we don’t want to have sex with. We avoid telling our friends how much we care about them. And we go around constantly constructing a shared fantasy that we aren’t attracted to our friends and that talking about a friend being attractive (especially to their face) is awkward/rude/implies that you want to have sex or go out with them.

The category of friendship is always consciously and unconsciously distinguishing itself from actions, behaviors, attitudes, and language that are associated with lovers. In so doing, in constructing friendship in this way, we are severely limited in the extent of what we can do or say to express intimacy among peers that COULD fall into the category of lover.

These categories are seen as natural (it is hard to conceive of things being otherwise), normative (transgression is seen as deviant), and self-evident (which gives rise to silence about their construction and origins). Their normativity is less enforced via social punishment, although this does occur. But transgressions are so rare in mainstream culture that it hardly every occurs that deviance reaches the point of punishment. Instead, all non-normative relationship behaviors are seen as inherently more “complicated” and thus undesirable. Further, these norms are damaging insofar as they limit our ability to be building meaningful, intimate relationships..

Non-attraction as grounds for intimacy:
Of the friendships popularly seen as being exempt from this limitation on intimacy are people who “couldn’t” be attracted to one another. The most obvious stereotype is the gay male and a straight woman. Gay men have been fighting this stereotype for a while, so I won’t dwell on it, but I think it’s significant that this occurs mostly in straight discourse and straight-controlled media. That means that straight media conceives of the gayness of the male character as grounds for being closer to a female character given that he does not need to distance himself from the category of lover given his sexual orientation. In other words, the gay male and the female are not really exempt, rather, their relationship affirms that sexuality is an impossible element to introduce to friendship, that friendship is inherently non-sexual, and that wherever sexuality is possible there is a necessary distance in the relationship (The last being  part of why friendship between a gay man and a straight man is seen as problematic).

"Friends with Benefits": This phrase affirms the binary rather than violating it. It implies that friendship is without inherent benefits or intimacy. It implies that sexual acts are inherently something distinct from and outside of friendship. It implies that the only way to be a friend here and not lovers is to have sexual activity be a purely physical/recreational act. It implies that lovers are always sexual and romantic and above all, not friends. This against platonic romances, against asexual and aromantic relationships, against anything that is in between romance and friendship that may or may not involve physical activity.

I’m not just talking about sex: I’m not saying that all friends should be perpetual fuck-buddies. In fact, I’m trying to get away from an idea of what friendship SHOULD be entirely, which involves opening up possibilities. Currently, everything that is marked as belonging exclusively to the idea of a lover, of a partner, is negated by friendship. Friendship is constantly afraid of being interpreted as something more than itself. It is inherently self-limiting. I want friendship to be able to mean something more than that.

Queer folk: I think this is something queer people understand intuitively. As discussed in the supplement to this post, this binary traces its origins to patriarchy and compulsory monogamy, both of which are tools of heteronormativity. Queer people are usually disposed against such ideals, and as such more cognizant of the problem with these norms and more willing to explore alternatives. Queer folk are generally less insistent upon monogamy, less insistent that physical acts can form/break implicit contracts, less insistent that their partner and friends behave towards them in ways that are normatively distinct. I’m not saying this idea doesn’t exist in queer communities (it definitely does), but I believe there are plenty of examples of non-traditional family arrangements, intimate solidarity, and expressions of platonic romance that violate this binary (I’m thinking especially of the intimate personal relationships pioneered by radical feminist lesbians during the 60s-80s which continues today).

To return to the very first substantial post of this blog, Foucault once said:

I think that’s what makes homosexuality “disturbing”: the homosexual mode of life, much more than the sexual act itself. To imagine a sexual act that doesn’t conform to law or nature is not what disturbs people. But that individuals are beginning to love one another-there’s the problem. The institution is caught in a contradiction; affective intensities traverse it which at one and the same time keep it going and shake it up […] Institutional codes can’t validate these relations with multiple intensities, variable colors, imperceptible movements and changing forms. These relations sbort-circuit it and introduce love where there’s supposed to be only law, rule, or habit.


To me, it appears certain that in the United States, even if the basis of sexual misery still exists, the interest in friendship has become very important; one doesn’t enter a relationship simply in order to be able to consummate it sexually, which happens very easily. But toward friendship, people are very polarized. How can a relational system be reached through sexual practices? Is it possible to create a homosexual mode of life? This notion of mode of life seems important to me. Will it require the introduction of a diversification different from the ones due to social class, differences in profession and culture, a diversification that would also be a form of relationship and would be a “way of life”? A way of life can be shared among individuals of different age, status, and social activity. It can yield intense relations not resembling those that are institutionalized. It seems to me that a way of life can yield a culture and an ethics. To be “gay,” I think, is not to identify with the psychological traits and the visible masks of the homosexual but to try to define and develop a way of life.

In my words, queer people (and feminists, I would argue) are developing new modes of relating to one another as part of our strategy and ethics of liberation and self-determination. These new modes of relating are better able to escape the constructions of heteronormative society than heterosexual ones. The refusal to be heterosexual is itself a negation of this concept of friendship that limits our intimate experience of one another as (ideally) full, self-determined persons.

Straight/cisgender folk:  I see the tendency to conform to the norm in straight/cisgender (the slash being an “or”; you don’t have to be both) people insofar as they lack the above reasons to be different. However, I see no reason why my relationships with my straight/cisgender friends (which includes gay cis men) need to be limited by this binary. I know straight and cisgender politically-conscious individuals who implicitly and explicitly violate this norm all the time. And I would encourage those who haven’t considered alternatives to this limited sense of friendship to do so, queer or straight, cis or trans*.

Socially constructed does not mean “bad”, but normative does not mean “right”:

I am not saying that all relationships should be antinormative and transcend this binary. To say something is socially constructed is not to condemn it. On the contrary, non-normative identities are just as socially constructed as normative ones, and a negation of the one qua identity would be a negation of the other. What is the real problem is the normative quality this binary has, how it limits our imagination and lived experience, and prevents us from conceiving of meaningful alternatives.

Imagining Alternatives:
What else could our relationships look like? What possibilities does a rejection of this binary open up? Here are some (fictitious) examples I came up with:

  • There is now a place for the platonic couple who are deeply in love but don’t engage in any physical behavior besides holding hands and the occasional kiss on the cheek.
  • Two lesbian political activists who move in together out of financial necessity but choose to stay together even when things get better because of a discovered mutual purpose in their activism and a closeness of shared values.
  • A place for the asexual partner of a polyamorous person, who don’t have sex but are very much in love. The poly person is committed to the asexual person but has other sexual partners. The asexual person is only interested in the poly person, and will occasionally, out of desire for the pleasure of their partner and without personal or social pressure, engage in physical acts of intimacy. The poly person appreciates this intimacy without expecting that it will lead to sex.
  • Any people that live together for an extended time without being in love or planning on getting married/being in a relationship.
  • Friends that realize their mutual attraction, decide to engage in physical intimacy (sexual or otherwise) and find it deepens their friendship. The friends do not see themselves as dating but simply consider this physical intimacy as constitutive of their friendship.
  • A man and a woman who have been close friends for years and who, at one point at a party, have sex. The friends don’t regret the sex, nor do they feel it changes their relationship substantially. However, they feel that the circumstances that led to it were unique and don’t anticipate making sex a regular part of their relationships, although they aren’t interested in avoiding sex.
  • Polyamorous arrangements, broadly.
  • Multiple parenting, broadly.
  • A genderqueer person and trans woman who found intimacy in shared experience as trans* and shared values as members of the local queer community. They choose to have sex with each other because they trust each other more than anyone to create a safe space and to not cause gender/body dysphoria or  bring normative expectations about sex to the table. However, they are not “in love” in a traditional sense, although they value their friendship more than anything else.

And hundreds more examples that are for me, still on the periphery, still on the tip of my tongue, still on the boarders of imagination. I challenge you to look at each of these and explore the ways that they violate the norms of “friendship” and “lover” in turn. And to come up with your own notions of intimacy and relationships that transcend these categories.

Ending on a personal note—Why I struggle with friendship: It is without exaggeration that I say that I don’t really understand what other people are talking about when they talk about friendship (as an emotion, not the social category discussed above). I don’t know what it’s like to feel that the desire for closeness or intimacy is unromantic. Or perhaps, on the contrary, I don’t know what about romance transcends this desire.  I want to say that my predisposition towards others is inherently romantic, or something along those lines, since so much of what I experience as friendship other people lump into what is exclusively romantic (and therefore needs to be distanced). But I don’t think that’s very accurate. I don’t think I’m all that love crazy, but I can’t be sure because I don’t share other people’s experience. But I know I want something more out of friendship. I know there are times when I felt myself being pushed away for various reasons, even when my goal was not to start a relationship. I know I’ve felt myself pushing other people away precisely because I didn’t want a relationship. And I know that there are times I’ve wanted to hold someone, kiss someone, maybe even make love to someone, tell them I love them, get them a gift that would be considered a romantic or suitor’s gift, but that I couldn’t because we were “just” friends. And yes, every friendship is a negotiation between two people, and it’s probable that some of my friends weren’t interested in this level of intimacy with me. But maybe they had their own ideas, things I had never thought of. Maybe we could figure that out over time. The thing is, without the possibility for this inter-personal negotiation of our selves and our desire for intimacy, I can never know the ways in which I might have loved someone differently.

Filed under theory queer theory foucault personal queer feminism

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