In March, The Washington Post noted that Vice President Mike Pence does not socialise alone with women who are not his wife, Karen Pence. If Karen is not with him, he will not circulate in a gender-mixed group at a function where alcohol is being served. If we are to take him at his word, Pence’s moral compass prevents him from so much as getting a sandwich with a female colleague after they conclude a meeting.
His rules may seem extreme to your average secular urban liberal who, regardless of relationship status, will merrily stay out until all hours at after-work drinks with colleagues of all genders, but I was surprised to learn that, according to The New York Times polling, the Pences are far from unusual. A majority of women and nearly half of men believed that having drinks or dinner with anyone of the opposite gender except their spouse was inappropriate.
A response from conservative blogger Matt Walsh on Twitter read: “Seriously what's the appropriate reason for a married person to go out for a meal alone with a member of the other sex (outside of family)?” It was this that stuck with me most, because the answer seems so clear: “Duh, because they’re friends.”
This question – what’s the reason? – makes it clear that, to many people, heterosexual men and women being friends is not merely questionable, it’s impossible. It made me consider my own platonic friendships with men – how impossible having such a thing once seemed to me, and how I have come to love and depend on them as an adult.
It’s not surprising that I didn’t grow up perceiving boys as potential friends in the way I did girls. Like most people in Ireland, I was educated in a single-sex school. When I did start to socialise with boys in drama clubs and after-school groups, I regarded them with the guarded caution one might an unfamiliar animal. They seemed cruel and brash and incredibly loud. They moved unpredictably, clambering over chairs and yanking up skirts and throwing food. They seemed to thrive on creating minor humiliations among each other and us girls. Despite my wariness, I can remember the feeling of being seduced by their dubious glamour, their strange confidence and brittle humour, all very far away from my softness. I wanted them to like me.
I wanted nothing less than for every man to find me attractive, because I still had no idea of what value I was, if not for that
Many, if not all, of my early friendships with boys were characterised by my desire to fit in with them. Men seemed real in a way women did not – they seemed always to be the ones playing the leading part, both in the media we consumed and in a broader everyday sense. Their roles were defined and active, where women were docile and reactive. Of course, nobody ever told me that I should make myself accommodating and pleasing so that boys would like me, but I learnt to do it anyway and for a long time believed that to be friendship. I absorbed information about bands they liked, what film directors to drop into conversation, what authors to read. I fed it back to them slowly, subtly, in the hope they would not notice that what they liked when they looked at me was only what they liked when they looked at themselves.
I suffered from this impulse in university, too, when we were finally submerged in each other’s company and supposedly on equal terms. It was that muddy age of playing with the props of adulthood without having quite caught up emotionally. I made amazing male friends then, but it was difficult for me to establish platonic friendships when my sense of self was so uncertain, so reliant on sexuality. I wanted nothing less than for every man to find me attractive, because I still had no idea of what value I was, if not for that.
I found my friendships with men back then fraught with drama and jealousy and unclear physical boundaries. It’s now that I’m older that they are strong and straightforward and a source of uncomplicated joy in my life.
Some of my best friends in the world are men now. We go to dinner, go on holidays, get drunk together, whether I have a partner at the time or not. These acts have become signifiers of a particular type of intimacy, but we are doing ourselves a disservice to relegate intimacy to our romances alone.
It feels cathartic to have rebuilt my conception of what an intimate relationship with a man might look like – to have taught myself that it needn’t involve the sexual and power dynamics I once assumed inherent in any heterosexual interaction. They restore a little much-needed faith. I couldn’t live without them. And I don’t expect I’ll ever have to.