Guy Friends, Girl Friends


Photo: Arian Zwegers/flickr

In my previous post I discussed sexual assault and its possible roots in biased gender attitudes. I suggested that one possible way to reduce the prevalence of sexual assault and the acceptance of rape myths is to encourage more interaction and friendship between girls and boys from a young age. Do children need encouragement? In most cultures, the answer is yes. Unfortunately, the current picture of gender relations among children is not great. By age 5, most children already show favoritism for their own gender compared to the other gender. A few studies have shown that five-year-old children, on average, even expressed negative attitudes toward the other gender. These biased attitudes continue through elementary school and have consequences. Children’s biased attitudes have been linked to unfair treatment of the other gender as well as distancing from the other gender.

Most of us can remember ourselves possessing similar attitudes growing up. We can also remember the stark separation of girls and boys, which continues today. One famous study found that preschoolers spent 4 times the amount of their free play time with same-gender versus other-gender peers – a huge difference. In elementary school, every Sunday we would line up to go into the worship hall. The girls would be wearing dresses and big bows, white tights or turned-down lace socks spotted with red punch we would inevitably spill. The boys would look uncomfortable in their black and blue clip-on ties and white shirts. The boys would line up in the front all together. The girls would line up in the back all together. Every week there would be vigorous jostling as everyone attempted to not be the unfortunate link between the girls and the boys. Whichever sucker ended up standing next to the other gender always looked miserable. The other gender had cooties, after all.

It seems kind of funny and most of us would probably feel okay if we observed this today. It seems natural to us, and we know eventually the genders will mix. However, I’d like to challenge us to not shrug and be so tolerant of the status quo. Think about it – most parents don’t blink an eye when throwing a birthday party with only girls or only boys invited. Even school policies may unintentionally encourage single-gender parties. My sister tells me that at some schools, in an effort to promote inclusion, a child is only given two alternatives – invite the entire class to a party (often unwieldy and expensive) or only invite girls or boys. But imagine if parents or schools encouraged only inviting White kids to a party? Racial/ethnic or religious segregation makes most of us uncomfortable, but gender segregation rarely as much. Yet in the same way that racial/ethnic or religious segregation can promote the stereotyping of the “other” and foster prejudice, gender segregation can do the same. Without much interaction, the other gender may seem foreign and mysterious.

Compounded by society’s messages that girls and women are less competent than men, boys may not only see girls as weird, but also as less capable and in some ways inferior. One study I recently came across has haunted me. French ninth graders read about hypothetical girls and boys who had very good grades. When boys succeeded children thought that these boys were naturally smart and would likely continue to succeed in the future. But when girls succeeded children thought that she must have just worked really hard and would not necessarily succeed in the future. Somehow these adolescents are internalizing the message that boys have more natural intelligence than girls.

We may often feel comfortable with girls and boys avoiding each other because we are intermingled in other ways. We may have sisters, brothers, male and female cousins. Eventually, if we are heterosexual, we may marry someone of the other gender. However, we should well know that even if one has a wife or a girlfriend that may not lessen sexism or the devaluation of women. Everyone has a mother, but there are still sexist sons and daughters. Psychologists have separated out two kinds of sexism. One kind is hostile sexism, which are outright attitudes reflecting the view that women are inferior to men – less smart, less capable and the belief that women have already gotten more gains than they deserve, like in career opportunities. Fox news chief, Roger Ailes, is a good example. The second type of sexism psychologists have termed “benevolent” sexism, which is somewhat of a misnomer. It is the belief and actions which reflect thinking that women and girls are helpless. They need to be put on a pedestal and given special treatment. Insidious in this thinking is the belief that women and girls are weak and fragile – that’s why they need special care and protection. Benevolent sexism also includes the belief that men should be the ones rescuing the damsel in distress and protecting her. Both men and women around the world often hold these beliefs. It doesn’t seem so bad, right? Every woman needs a little help putting her luggage in the overhead compartment, right? The dangerous part is that benevolent sexism and hostile sexism are often positively correlated. In countries where benevolent sexist attitudes are high, hostile sexist attitudes tend to be high too. Countries where benevolent sexism is espoused tend to have lower rates of female leaderships, health, work opportunities, and education. So even though we are more intermingled by gender than, say, by race/ethnicity, we can still hold sexist views and still believe in gender stereotypes.

On a more positive note, let’s think about all the positives about having friends who are of the other gender. I didn’t really get to enjoy the benefits of having guy friends (no, I’m not talking about those benefits!) until later in life. Being the youngest of three sisters, I would say my confidence in my ability to interact effectively with boys was pretty low, especially while growing up. I was comfortable around girls and especially around girls with only sisters. I would hang out with boys during elementary school, but only in groups, and usually only in a sports context. Many of my friends were extremely athletic, and were better athletes than the boys. We would play basketball on the pavement, kickball on the fields, tetherball, and handball. But I never had a close friend who was a boy. There was no boy that I shared my secrets with.

One thing I appreciate about adulthood is that I was able to eventually make good guy friends. Guys that I can write emails to, can sometimes talk on the phone with. Guys I can ask for advice about relationships with – who better to tell you when another guy is just plain crazy? Guys to pump up your confidence when you’re feeling low. Guys who are great listeners and are going through their own issues, too. Guys who will tell you like it is when your girlfriends pander to you with what you want to hear. Women with husbands or boyfriends who are their best friends can probably attest to these benefits as well. Sometimes you need a push from your husband or significant other to ask for that raise, to take a risk with your career, or to demand some deserved respect when it is being withheld.

I am so glad I was finally exposed to these wonderful men. I think these friendships lessened my fear of men and increased my confidence in interacting with them, which benefits me at work and in other aspects of my life. They helped me laugh at myself more and try to find humor in tough situations. I hope that being friends with me also benefited the men as well. In some ways, I think I did believe some of the stereotypes – for example, that men are stoic and don’t feel things even though they are human beings! I wonder, though, what might have been if I had made these kinds of friendships earlier in my life. Would I be a different person, have different preferences or interests? Would I be more thick-skinned and funnier? What if many of the sexual assault perpetrators had best girlfriends, strong older sisters and feminist moms early on in life? Would that change their attitudes and actions towards women? Even though the tide of childhood usually gives way to gender segregation, perhaps we can try to push back and foster other-gender friendships from a young age.