Remember when men and women could be friends? Republicans don't | Jessica Valenti

Jessica Valenti
Mike Pence: it’s cool because there are other men in the room. Photograph: Reynolds/EPA/Rex/Shutterstock

There’s a line in the 1989 hit movie When Harry Met Sally where Billy Crystal’s character insists: “Men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.” Thus begins the push-pull of one of the most famous romcoms of all time; a film that ends, of course, with the title characters getting married.

Platonic relationships between men and women may be ripe fodder for romantic storylines, but it’s a shame that in real life we’re somehow back in a place where male-female friendships are seen as unrealistic. Or, even worse, a danger.

In the wake of Mike Pence’s no-dinner-with-women-alone rule – a mandate that conservatives defended as good sense for honoring a marriage – a conversation has re-emerged on the right about proper roles for men and women. The short version seems to be that those of us who believe people of the opposite sex are capable of being in the same room without immediately engaging in intercourse are just fooling ourselves.

The most talked-about (and mocked) argument in this vein this week comes to us from Federalist writer and Lutheran pastor Hans Fiene, who insists that women don’t actually have any male friends – just men who want to sleep with them that they’ve “friend zoned”.

“Every year, countless young men find themselves trapped in the Friend Zone, a prison where women place any man they deem worthy of their time but not their hearts, men they’d love to have dinner with but, for whatever reason, don’t want to kiss goodnight.”

Setting aside the contention that a friendship without sex is a prison (perhaps referring to relationships as such is why women aren’t eager to kiss?), the important piece of this strange article is Fiene’s worry that male-female friendships are “an inarguable drag on fertility rates”.

“[A] man who spends several years pledging his heart to a woman who will never have his children is also a man who most likely won’t procreate with anyone else during that time of incarceration,” he writes.

And that’s the rub. To some conservatives, still, relationships are not about joy or friendship, mutual admiration or common interests – they’re about creating new citizens. “Get pregnant a bunch of times and give birth to a bunch of beautiful little future taxpayers,” Fiene instructs women.

That’s why I can’t feel too badly for men like this, who are missing out on rich friendships and connections with women. Because the reason they refuse to see us as friends is that they don’t really see us as people – just potential wives or objects or desire, virgins or whores.

It’s a view of women I can’t help but think about quite a lot this week, as more and more advertisers pull their money from Bill O’Reilly’s show after reports of sexual harassment settlements. (Or when I see that the president defended O’Reilly as a “good person”.) National Review writer Mona Charen, for example, suggests that Pence’s rules about not being alone with women might have prevented the harassment at Fox News – if only women weren’t alone with O’Reilly!

When the default assumption is that men cannot control themselves or that women are just that irresistible, it does a disservice to both genders. There are quite a lot of rollbacks I expected under the Trump administration. The resurgence of the belief that men and women cannot share space without incident was not one that I considered.

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