Stop Sexualizing Every Relationship

We understand romantic relationships, and we understand family, and that’s about all we seem to understand

A lot of people made fun of Mike Pence in April when it was revealed that the Vice President won’t eat alone with any other woman than his wife, Karen, or even attend events where alcohol is served unless she’s there, too. Others thought, oh well — that’s just evangelical Christians for you.

It would seem that few people actually thought that it’s a common practice — I certainly didn’t. But guess what; I was wrong.

According to a recent poll published by the New York Times’ Upshot, many Americans are a bit freaked out, or at least wary, of one-on-one situations with members of the opposite sex:

Around a quarter think private work meetings with colleagues of the opposite sex are inappropriate. Nearly two-thirds say people should take extra caution around members of the opposite sex at work. A majority of women, and nearly half of men, say it’s unacceptable to have dinner or drinks alone with someone of the opposite sex other than their spouse.

This has huge ramifications, mostly for women, who may (OK, are) shut out of certain opportunities at work and treated differently in many areas of life.

Easily misconstrued

I was shocked — initially. But when I reflected deeper on it, I realized how this has played out in my own life. Not that I have been afraid to be alone with a man when I was married or partnered, but how easily things were misconstrued by others. As Christopher Mauldin, a California construction worker, says in the article, “When a man and a woman are left alone, outside parties can insinuate about what’s really going on.”

Oh boy, is that true!

When I was a relatively new divorcee, I remember waiting for a girlfriend to meet me at a local watering hole. A man who frequented the same morning coffee shop I went to walked in, saw me and sat down for a few minutes to chat. Just then, a couple whose kids went to the same school as mine and whom I knew casually walked in, saw the two of us and stopped by to say hello. Innocent enough, but it was clear that a judgment had been made; I guess that’s who she’s schtupping.

More recently, back-to-back time spent with a long-time male friend became suspect because he and I are both currently single — cue the temptress-lothario scenario. Because a single man and a single woman obviously cannot be together without thinking about sex. Now, it may be true that one or the other, or both, are indeed thinking about sex. But thinking about sex without acting on it isn’t a crime or even inappropriate — even former President Jimmy Carter admitted to having lust in his heart. Isn’t lust for others generally part of the human condition whether you’re partnered or not?

The poll indicates young women are particularly wary of being alone with a man. Given the bad behavior of some men and women’s fear — sometimes irrational — of sexual violence, this does not surprise me.

Clare Cain Miller’s Upshot article mostly mentions how women are hurt by being excluded, and that is real and disturbing. But men are hurt, too.

Men — a constant threat

Men are suspect if they volunteer in classrooms, hang around parks while their kids play or try to join in a playgroup, typically made up of moms. As one stay-at-home dad tells Andrea Doucet, a Canadian sociology professor and author of Do Men Mother, “It’s kind of bad for men to be interested in other children.”

“I have encountered people who … saw me as a threat at the playground because I was a man,” writes stay-at-home dad and daddy blogger Chris Bernholdt.

When a SAHD tried to join the Burlingame Mothers’ Club a few years ago, he was turned down — although the club told him he could join if he was in a same-sex relationship. Why couldn’t he just join a dad’s group, or start his own? some asked. Once he complained to the press, he was finally allowed to join. Was the group’s initial hesitation more about maintaining a sisterhood or more about the fear of a solo man, away from his wife, being around a bunch of solo women, away from their husbands, which just might bring up thoughts of lust and sex? Hard to know.

But I am incredibly disappointed that this is happening in 2017 America, and not just in Middle Eastern countries where women must hide all parts of themselves lest a man get lustful — and of course it would be her fault.

It would be interesting to see if this fear of the opposite sex is occurring elsewhere, like Europe; I can’t find any research on it but it’s clear that Europeans generally have much healthier and relaxed attitudes about sex, and European women are eager to participate in public life.

Can men and women be friends?

Still, when it comes to why men and women seek opposite-sex friendships, it’s — as they say — complicated in a When Harry Met Sally kind of way: it’s a strategy men use to gain sex, women use to gain protection, and both sexes use to acquire potential romantic partners, according to one study.

But it’s clear the bigger issue, essayist William Deresiewicz writes, is our narrow definition of relationships — romantic or not — and the way we sexualize everything, even same-sex friendships:

We have trouble, in our culture, with any love that isn’t based on sex or blood. We understand romantic relationships, and we understand family, and that’s about all we seem to understand. We have trouble with mentorship, the asymmetric love of master and apprentice, professor and student, guide and guided; we have trouble with comradeship, the bond that comes from shared, intense work; and we have trouble with friendship, at least of the intimate kind. When we imagine those relationships, we seem to have to sexualize them. Close friendships between members of the same sex, after all, are also suspect. Even Oprah has had to defend her relationship with Gayle King, and as for men and men, forget about it.

I agree with him, and I can’t help but feel all of us are missing out by fearing being alone with someone of the opposite sex. And that’s exactly what’s driving it — fear. Will we ever get past that?

Want to learn how to talk about monogamy? (Of course you do!) Then read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). You can support your local indie bookstore or order it on Amazon.

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