August 12, 2010


In our multiply normative society, friendships that cross gender boundaries offer important opportunities to try on non-gender-normative behavior.



Anonymous said...

Huh? Ouch! You hurt my brainz! I can haz boobz nao?

Stephanie Zvan said...

Liar. You said you could die content after the last set.

D. C. said...

Stephanie, friendships that cross gender boundaries are outside of conventional social norms.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Well, yes, and for a lot of what I think are silly reasons. My thought is that norm-compliant people of our own gender have more of an interest in policing those norms in us, as that validates their compliance. People in cross-gender friendships have to settle on activities to do with their friends, which I think would provide encouragement for both parties to step outside the norms.

Heather M. Rosa said...

I don't know about validating their compliance. I think it has more to do with not threatening their romantic relationships, since few can see cross-gender friendships as anything but sexual.

D. C. said...

Well, yes, and for a lot of what I think are silly reasons.

I don't think "silly" is an apt description. They're defending established social roles. Those roles have, with variations, served our ancestors for thousands of years and they survived. Look at the question from a Darwinian perspective as you would any other trait, and apply the same reasoning.

Likewise, defense of social roles appears to be "baked in" to a good bit of our species, and that appears to have been serving us much longer than the roles themselves. Same selection argument applies.

None of which is to say that the roles serve us well now, any more than our instinctive love of fats, sugars, and salt do. Then again, I wouldn't call tastes for potato crisps or ice cream silly although I would call them unwise. But "silly" is a very parental dismissal, and IMHO leads to muddy thinking and poor approaches in dealing with the behavior in question.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Heather, how about children? Are they enforcing gender stereotypes in order to protect their romantic relationships?

D.C., careful, I might sic Greg on you. A number of our norms for children's behavior in particular are very Victorian in origin. And in more epistolary times, cross-gender friendships were much better tolerated, at least among the educated classes, than they are now, although they may not have offered the advantages I'm talking about.

Also, while "silly" is very much a word of judgment on my part, it isn't a simple dismissal. It comes out of much of what you said plus all the vague fears that parents express about sexuality in conjunction with gender roles, etc. It is a considered "silly."

D. C. said...

Anyway, back to the topic:

People in cross-gender friendships have to settle on activities to do with their friends, which I think would provide encouragement for both parties to step outside the norms.

Well, opportunities anyway.

There may be a bit of an age factor here. I'm looking at this from the perspective of someone who's closing on 60 years old and am pretty set in my ways. I'm not closed to trying something new, but on the other hand I'm pretty comfortable with the fact that I've made a lot of decisions which, by their nature, closed off possibilities -- so experimentation has less of an upside, too.

Some of that "possibilities off the table" leads to us circumscribing our behavior in other ways. (This gets back to the other side of "safety.") For instance, I keep my sexuality locked down pretty solidly when dealing with friends-who-are-women not because we're pretending that it doesn't exist [1] but because of the HAZMAT potential -- it is, for whatever reason, something that has too much potential to damage the relationship that we value.

In that particular case I'm actually quite a bit more comfortable going outside of the usual envelope with solidly heterosexual male friends because we're more comfortable that the role-playing is just that.

[1] Given that my (adult) children are one of my favorite topics of conversation, I hope that's not in question any more. At least with those who don't kid themselves that it all got shut off once the youngest was born.

Stephanie Zvan said...

D.C., you engage in an analysis of motivation and emotion that is decidedly not stereotypically male. Do you think you'd do as much if you hadn't have female friends very early?

D. C. said...

D.C., careful, I might sic Greg on you.

I'll take the chance. Greg can, after all, be quite enlightening.

As for specific roles and antiquity, no argument. Some, of course, are much older than others. However, the tendency to defend the roles appears to be on another order entirely.

Meanwhile, my current reading in social psychology suggests that there's a consistent connection between chronic fear, enforced conformity, and narrowing the diversity of social contacts.

That, in turn, suggests the hypothesis that the causality between role experimentation and heterodox social contacts is not straightforward. IMHO a persuasive case can be made for any of: common causality, contact diversity leading to role experimentation, and role experimentation leading to contact diversity.

D. C. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
D. C. said...

Do you think you'd do as much if you hadn't have female friends very early?

If anything, t'other way 'round.

I was very much a Martian boy [1]. No sisters, and girls-as-friends were quite a late development for me. The analytical slant comes more from being by nature introspective, early readings, and a very early ethic of hating self-deception.

[1] Physically enormous, intellectually inclined. Good way to have no friends at all in elementary school.

Glendon Mellow said...

I think I have had almost the opposite upbringing to D.C.

My dad left us early, and I was raised by my mom. Two sisters, one a year older, one two years younger. I've only lived with women: 2 roommates, 1 gay 1 straight. Now married in a hetero marriage.

Friendships with women are great - can go hang out with female friends, and it's not a big deal, my wife is cool with that.

Still, there are some boundaries. While I may go for coffee with a female friend, I probably wouldn't have her over to my place when no one else is home.

Some conversations when meeting new people differ as well. When speaking with a straight woman approximately my age, often there are quick mentions of boyfriends and spouses to establish boundaries. I haven't experienced that happening with gay men or women though.

I agree that the friendships are important across gender divides. I don't know exactly how much non-gender-normative behaviour I engage in though (does gothy eyeliner count back in the day? Enjoying the Legally Blonde comedies?)

Silver Fox said...

Isn't this mostly, so far, about whether cross-gender frienships enable men (or boys) to try on what are considered more typically female traits (like expression of emotion)? What about the opposite case where women who have had more male friends, have tried on, used, replicated, or immitated more traditionally male traits or behavoir (e.g., like cussing a lot, being more risk-taking than they might normally be)? Those would be my early to middle career years (at minimum).

Heather M. Rosa said...

Steph, you asked how about children? Let's start with them choosing friends who are most like themselves, and thus most comfortable to be around, among those available. Often that's based on gender, but there are so many forces at work there including who's in the neighborhood and whom their parents arrange play dates with, that I'm just not sure what influences their choices. (Think about whom you liked/disliked back in day care and what it had to do with gender.) Since both boys and girls align along a bell curve in most traits and behaviors, who's "most like me" will differ. Thus unforced choices will differ.

The real problem is sorting out the internal from external influences on those choices. Until that's done, you can't tell who the enforcers are either.

As for protecting romantic relationships, if we still consider them children about the time puberty occurs, then, yes, it still holds. Possibly even more so, since gender roles and relationships are most of what make kids that age so insecure. (And here we could morf off into part of your post/discussion on "safe" men and the problems etc. etc. etc.)