Being ‘friend-zoned’ is nowhere near as devastating as being sex-zoned
As a woman, I’m constantly being reminded that my presence in society is predominantly sexual
“I’m sorry Maddie,” a male friend said by way of explanation. “ We did have fun together. I just don’t want to hurt my wife.” I gaped back at him. “Michael,” I replied. “You do know that I’ve never flirted with you?”
This decision had radically different consequences for us. He avoided feeling slightly guilty about meeting with a much younger woman while married. For me, the rejection went far deeper. It meant that all of my personality, interests and experiences was nothing next to my body and sexuality. To him, as with so many men, I existed entirely as a sexual prospect. Temptation. Fall from grace. I didn’t — couldn’t — exist as a person in his universe. I was doomed to be the slut, the other woman, the one who breaks up homes and ruins lives. My friendship with him meant nothing. My potential to be sexual meant destruction.
I didn’t try to convince him to continue the friendship. It was over the second he said that. He tried to apologise, but it wasn’t really the loss of a close friend that cut me: it was what it had meant. My flaw was being a young woman. If I had been a sixty-year-old, I know he wouldn’t have devalued me so easily. Sexuality makes women dispensible.
It’s easier to treat women badly if you dehumanise them through sex: we praise friendship with mothers, grandmothers and sisters, but god forbid you are a young woman challenging the heterosexual notions of friendship. Sexuality and youth somehow make a woman dirty, unclean, even evil. If you are an older woman, you are allowed a status above being a potential girlfriend with men: you can have skills, a great sense of humour, or at least a workable casserole recipe. For me, in those horrible few seconds, I was denied anything beyond the trope of the wicked would-be mistress.
I could have called him out on all this, but in his eyes, he was protecting himself. People would talk. No one would believe we genuinely discussed books and films and ranted about random artists. I’m very young. What could he possibly see in me in a platonic way? I get it. No really, I do. I get that gossip is annoying and painful. But the world won’t change unless we stop sexualising young women so much that we become untouchable beyond an erotic context.
The world won’t change until men openly turn to the whisperers and their friends and praise their female friend’s sense of humour, intellect or talents. It won’t stop until you turn around to Dave at the pub and go “No, Sophie’s just a mate, she’s good at listening to me and I don’t really get that anywhere else.”
I don’t want much. I just want to stop losing male friends or allies because they are worried about how it ‘looks’ or what people might ‘think’ to have a young female friend. And before you accuse me of giving off the wrong signals, I’m extremely careful to clarify a platonic friendship when I enter one.
Ultimately, I just want to be a person. Not every woman under 30 wants to be the next Mrs De Winter.
Here endeth the lecture.
Author’s Note: I always, always change names and places in my work. Otherwise, things get uncomfortable.