« Clarifying the grading policy | Main | Vanity, a cleanse update and notes »

June 15, 2005



Hi, I found this post and your last post on this subject unnerving because I am a married woman with lots of male friends whom I know primarily in a professional context but with whom I regularly have lunch, talk on the phone, or exchange emails. No wives have banned me, nor have I gained weight, nor have I really suffered any adverse consequences. But now I wonder whether I am at all resented in some way or seen as a potential target for a pass etc.

I guess I have, without thinking about it, unconsciously adopted some strategies to make sure these platonic friendships don't move in a direction I don't want. 1) The socializing tends to occur only at lunch and generally in groups; our spouses are always included in any socializing that occurs outside of the workday. 2) I make a point of befriending the wives. 3) While I don't hide my looks or dress down when I am at work, I definitely turn off any hint of sexuality in my manner or my banter, and try to behave as one of the guys.

Of course, maybe it works for me because I am not as good looking as I think I am! (I have to say, I'm no Phoebe Cates!)


I dunno, Hugo. I've been the object of that resentment a couple of times from women married to or dating a male friend of mine, but usually I just befriend that woman and eventually it gets better. But that I can befriend them makes me think that perhaps it's the way that my male friends act. But that's a tough one to say; it's not that flirting doesn't go on, because it does. And surely that they show respect for me as a friend and fellow human being isn't it, because knowing that a woman is a human being in no way diminishes her attractiveness to a (decent) man.

The thing is that every woman I've gotten worried about my boyfriend hanging out with (totally irrational to worry, but what can you do?) was one that I saw actively hitting on him, even if he didn't notice it. One woman that's not even a friend, just an acquaintance of his that I'd never met "dropped in" one day to explain to him in detail what her problems with her boyfriend were. I came home from work and they were talking--she skeedaddled after tolerating being introduced to me. I turned to Mark and said, with a teensy bit of anger, "Your friend took one look at me and I guess decided she couldn't compete." He was flummoxed and denied that she had untoward intentions. Yeah right. She never came over again, I assure you.

That's what gets me, not whether I determine whether some girl is prettier or not. For one thing, how do I know who a man will think is prettier than me? In fact, one reason I can't say what my boyfriend finds pretty or not (besides me) is because he's unfailing complimentary to every woman we know, and always says that someone has nice hair or eyes or whatever. Perhaps that's a better strategy than the Eyes Aloft one you've described before--instead, find the beauty in all women so that your spouse knows that your choice to be with her is just that, a choice, and not that you are settling until you catch better prey, as it were.


CMC, your three strategies seem right on to me.

Amanda, you're right that men in relationships often don't know when they are being "hit on". That's why it's vital that they honor the judgment of the woman who is their partner, and do everything reasonable to help her feel valued and loved. And you're right as well that feeling valued and loved must be based on more than looks.


I interned last summer at an office where I was surrounded primarily by middle-aged married men. Being a single young woman, I was careful to avoid appearing to flirt with any of them. I don't know what would have appalled me more--a married co-worker avoiding me because of perceived attraction on either side, or one hitting on me. (BTW, I detest married men who flirt. I think it's disloyal and shows weakness of character.) It meant keeping things very businesslike and eating alone (not a hardship for me, since I tend to eat quickly and return to work). After I'd been there a month or so, I would get invited on the occasional large-group lunch outing, which was gratifying. I noticed that the one other single woman in the office definitely had the tomboy personality down, which I think increased our co-workers' ease around her. But I like to think that while not playing the spunky kid or "one of the boys," I made clear that I was there for business, and that all interactions would be at most professional friendship. And while my situation was unique in that all the men were married, and the most were basically honorable and good-hearted, it's interesting that even then, I had to be careful to avoid potentially awkward or irritating situations.


p.s. - I completely endorse your strategies, CMC. I've done the same with guys who have transitioned from boyfriend to friend to married friend. I guess it was your post I was thinking of when I responded.


Well, ok. I have to weigh in here. I'm about to go back to grad school. My field is a male-dominated one (international relations) and I was one of three women in my incoming class when I started the program a few years back. I guess all three of us were/are fairly attractive women and we stuck out like there'd never been women who went through before us. You'd think-- let me rephrase that-- I *WANTED* to think that I could leave sex at the door and just think about, well, international relations when I went to class. But you can't. I can't emphasize this enough. You can't, you can't, you can't. It's always there, we were like this little pod, the three of us, trying to stay afloat in this island of men (and I think many of the men who are drawn to IR, military officers or otherwise, are drawn to it because it's a power-thing. We study power, on the biggest levels, that of nation-states and people who go into this field usually are going into the halls of power afterwards. They go work for the State Department or become military attaches or work for Embassys etc. so we had a lot of very dominant-personality men). Everyone else in the department would go to sports bars and drink beers and talk about national security or foreign policy issues and we'd try to do that and it just wouldn't work. It was so much easier to just hang out and study together, the three of us. Would it have made a difference if we were plain janes? I honestly don't know. Although I agree with a lot of the above comments and with your post Hugo, I think in this case... who knows? Then again think of famous IR women and you get: Madeline Albright, Margaret Thatcher, Condoleeza Rice (ok, Condi's not bad looking) but yeah, you see a trend there? Interesting post.


While it is unfortunate that sexualization interferes with the conventionally attractive's attempts at forming platonic relationships, I think it's important to keep the flipside in mind as well. As a society, we react to female sexuality in extremes-- a woman is either oversexualized or entirely desexualized, depending on how well she conforms to beauty norms. The oversexualization is, of course, a problem, especially when it intrudes on aspects of a person's life that shouldn't have anything to do with sex; however, I think the desexualization of overweight or otherwise "unattractive" women is just as significant a problem, if not more so.

I just can't help but feel too much sympathy for complaints that the "beautiful people" can't have it all (strictly platonic attention from the people they want to be friends with and romantic/sexual attention from the people they want that from), when too often the non-beautiful can't have anything. Desexualization may occasionally make platonic relationships easier to navigate, but I think it usually just leads to total invisibility at best and a lot of incredibly negative attention at worst. I think before we worry about how unfair it is for women to be expected to "surrender their sexuality and femininity," we should look at why gaining weight or not spending three hours on one's makeup and hair is interpreted as "surrendering sexuality and femininity" in the first place.


Amanda, you're right that men in relationships often don't know when they are being "hit on".

Oh, I think they often do--I'm not a mind reader, but I suspect Amanda's boyfriend was 'flummoxed' not because he didn't believe her, but because he knew the 'friend' was hitting on him. He had no intention of actually cheating, but enjoyed the flattery of the attention. That's not something you can really admit to your girlfriend, though.

The advice I'd give to men in this situation is threefold--
1) If you're attracted to a woman to whom you shouldn't be (you're married, she's married, you're colleagues), see it as your problem to deal with, not hers. Don't hit on her, don't pull out chairs, don't hang around her after meetings for no reason. Make the decision that you will deal with it privately.

2) Be truthful to your wife or SO. A lot of men seem to think this only means "don't cheat." But when you insist "I don't find X attractive!" when you know damn well your temperature goes up whenever you see X at a seminar, or when you say "Just because Z came over when you were out and started talking to me about her sexual problems doesn't mean Z was HITTING on me!", you're not being truthful. And if you're lying about that, we tend to wonder about what else you're lying to us--or yourself.

3) Don't encourage women to compete with each other. Lots of men do this (and may not even realize they are). Telling your girlfriend she's much prettier than your ex, or saying "X isn't half as beautiful as you," is ranking women against each other.

(And, by the way, we're not stupid. If you do it to them, we know you'll be telling the next girlfriend or the mistress how much hotter she is than we were.)


Agreed. Men are not stupid - if women are interested in them they can usually figure it out. It's their responsibility to deal with their own feelings, not the responsibility of the woman they're attracted to.
I was a little stunned by Amanda's reaction. Not that we haven't all had those moments where we react irrationally to something we percieve as a threat to the relationship, but her reaction in the case described seemed a bit unreasonable. How do you know what this woman's intentions were, given that you hardly know her? Maybe she just wanted to hear a guy's point of view on her situation (most people I like to get the opposite sex perspective on relationship issues occasionally, and I don't see why that's a bad thing). If you were giving off a territorial vibe I'm not surprised she ran out of there - women aren't stupid either and can read hostility from other women loud and clear.
This is part of what really puzzles me about this whole situation. Why is it that when women suspect that there may be a possibility of something going on between their SO and another woman (or even have actual proof that something is going on)or even just that there's an attraction there they get angry with the other woman rather than their SO? Are attractive women supposed to wear burquas and avoid the company of men just in case a partnered guy might happen to find them attractive? Given that your SO is the person who you're in a relationship with and who you are expecting to care about your feelings, be faithful to you etc, isn't he the person you should be angry with if you think something is going on? Do we really think that men are so ruled by their hormones what they'll run off with the first attractive woman who flirts with them?
Not to mention, if any of us (women) want to have platonic friends of the opposite sex, isn't it a little unreasonable not to allow our partners the same thing? What about trust - not just trust that they will be faithful to us, but trust that they're smart and capable enough to handle difficult situations if they do occur? You know, the same way we expect them to trust us? I just think that reacting this way makes everything the woman's responsibility (we're back to the old sexist women as the gatekeepers of sex idea), and why should it be?
The thing is that sometimes other women think that they see interest in their man when it isn't really there at all. I've had this reaction from the SOs of male friends who I wouldn't have been interested in even if I were single. I've even had a girl get angry and territorial about a guy friend who I've known since we were teenagers and who is to all intents and purposes my adopted big brother. And I'm pretty sure that this guy isn't really interested in me either - we're just not each other's types. However, his wife hates me (and most of his other female friends - the only one she's comfortable with him hanging out with is the one who is not at all conventionally attractive). Why? I appreciate the response from Hugo, but I think that women would benefit from thinking about why we so often react this way too. If you look at the underlying attitudes it's really not very feminist.
And Hugo - thanks.


Here's an interesting perspective on women and weight.. Skinny girls might be out of luck if the economy keeps going as it is...



And now back to the main topic...
I think Hugo's onto something with the Ethel story. I'm pretty sure that the reason I gained weight in the first place was because I hit puberty very early and wasn't at all comfortable with the attention I was getting from men (I can remember one of my Dad's coworkers trying to kiss me and pull me into a spare bedroom at a Christmas party when I was 12. He was 28). I think that the weight can be a shield, and that maybe for some people it's not possible to lose it until you feel secure enough not to need the shield any more.


Since when has pulling out chairs, opening doors, etc been a come-on? OK, I'll admit to having a liking for people who still follow those *courtesies*. I feel that it shows respect.

Amanda Marcotte

Myth, my boyfriend readily admits when he thinks a woman is hot or he is flattered by her attention. I love him dearly, but I would say that his flaw and what is endearing about him is that he's a very "in the moment" kind of guy and at the moment all he could think was, "Why is this girl spilling her problems to me when I could not care less?" He is a genuine lover of women in a very platonic way, which might be why he can tell someone she looks hot without her thinking he's hitting on her. The thing about that is that when a woman speaks to him, he thinks she's being friendly like he very much is being and it almost never occurs to him.

If it weren't so, he's probably react differently to lesbians and straight girls he gets into long discussions with, but he doesn't. He loves the lesbians, too. Hell, he managed to befriend and introduce me to Lynn Breedlove of Tribe 8, which made me swoon.

Amanda Marcotte

Kirsty, before you judge, my man's two best friends are women and I don't fear them. I didn't fear this woman. My theme song is Loretta Lynn's "You Ain't Woman Enough". ;)

But I was super-pissed that someone would come into my house and make a pass at my man under my roof. Which I think is a perfectly reasonable thing to feel. If it were the other way around, my boyfriend might consider kicking the crap out of the guy who dared even while fully trusting me every second. It's just disrespectful.

FYI, the "woe is me" bit has been used to seduce not one but two of my boyfriends. I held the boyfriends fully responsible, but I know the bit.


Cait, men pulling out chairs -- and not for each other -- is not appropriate in an academic setting. When I am at work, I don't hold chairs for my colleagues. When I am at lunch with female colleagues, I do. And Ethel felt that she was being seen as a woman first and an intellectual second, rather than the other way around.


Still a bit too much of the South in me to completely agree with you on that one, Hugo. Not that I expect it, but I appreciate it when it happens. Have you ever listened to Jerry Clowers? I'll have to see if I can find a transcript to one of his stories related to this.


Again, Caitriona, would you really appreciate being called "Miss" in a graduate seminar with seven other guys who are all being called by their first names? I am very big on manners, and I do practice courtliness -- just not with my students!


Actually, I would, believe it or not. Different worlds.


I wasn't so much judging you in particular as using your anecdote as an example (I read Pandagon so I have a pretty good idea where you're coming from). My point was that a LOT of women react to everything from flirting to infidelity by blaming the "other woman" rather than their boyfriend (I've been on the recieving end of this with the partners of male friends who I love dearly but if they were the last men on earth celibacy would start to look like a really good option to me), and I truly don't understand why. Men, even though they may want to beat the crap out of the "other guy", don't usually hold him alone responsible for their partner's cheating. Why do women?


Hugo, on Catriona's comment, I think that attitudes towards "courtly" behaviour are extremely culture-specific. I would be fine with the pulling out chairs and opening doors part (in fact I think that everyone should open/hold doors for other just out of basic courtesy), but being addressed as "Miss" would make me uncomfortable (though honey, sweetie etc is even worse). I think it really depends on a person's upbringing.


Hell, he managed to befriend and introduce me to Lynn Breedlove of Tribe 8, which made me swoon.

Leslie Mah of Tribe 8 did my ink. I Tribe 8.

As I said, I'm not a mind-reader, so I'm perfectly willing to believe your guy was ur-clueless rather than dishonest--but at some point, geez, you gotta think "Hey, the last five times this has happened it's been somebody hitting on me." (And yes, it *is* disrespectful to hit on a man you know to be in a monogamous relationship under his and his girlfriend's roof--but y'all know there are some women who just don't function below the waist unless they're Stealing Her Man.)

OK, I'll admit to having a liking for people who still follow those *courtesies*. I feel that it shows respect.

In a social situation, sure. In a business situation, as Hugo notes, they're not "courtesies." They're little ways of emphasizing and highlighting that there are females present, rather than simply treating everyone as a colleague of equal standing.


My perspective on this comes from being a straight man who's a feminist largely because of how much I defy this stereotype: I actually am much more comfortable in platonic friendships with women than with men, and I've had several genuinely platonic relationships with women I'm attracted to. But, like being a feminist (or pro-feminist, if you prefer) man more generally, this is a mighty lonely place to be. It's so damn expected for men to regard women as potential fuck objects first and foremost, I'm considered some kind of freak (or 'worse', gay) whenever I don't. And I'm in academia, surrounded by men who consider themselves liberal.


being addressed as "Miss" would make me uncomfortable (though honey, sweetie etc is even worse). I think it really depends on a person's upbringing.

LOL... you're right that it depends on upbringing and culture. Where I live, "Miss" shows respect. "Honey," "sweetie," "sweetheart," "darlin'," etc are reserved for those you know a bit better.

They're little ways of emphasizing and highlighting that there are females present, rather than simply treating everyone as a colleague of equal standing.

Again, depends on culture. I greatly dislike the "lack of courtesy" that many of us in my area perceive as occurring simply due to people from other regions of the country moving in. I work really hard to not have a anti-North, -NY, or -California attitude, because it seems to many of us that it is people from these regions that bring in what we perceive to be a lack of courtesy, which then passes on to our children.

It's like "Yes, Ma'am" being a near-insult in the North, but *not* saying "Yes, Ma'am" is considered an insult here in the South.

Lynn Gazis-Sax

I've always found it weird that some women find Ma'am an insult. I was always delighted when strangers addressed me as "Miss" or "Ma'am" when I was younger, because I all too often got the "honey" and "sweetie" treatment. And, "honey" and "sweetie" from some woman old enough to be my mother was tolerable, even if I didn't know her, but "honey" or "sweetie" from a strange man is always an insult. Now I'm old enough that I don't get honey and sweetie from strange men, so I'm still happy to take Miss or Ma'am, but not with the same sense of real relief as I once felt.

On the other hand, Miss in a professional setting where all my male coworkers were being first-named would feel uncomfortable. I don't really want to be treated differently as a woman in a professional setting. I also don't want to be rude about it, if it's the kind of small courtesy which would be OK in a social setting. But if I can do small things to look more like "one of the guys," I will. For instance, once I wore a long skirt on what happened to be the day my group had a large meeting, one for which there weren't enough chairs. I was, at the time, the only woman in my group. And one of the last to arrive for that meeting. So several of the guys were offering me their chairs, which made me feel awkward. After that, I wore pants on those days, so I'd be more suitably attired for sitting on the floor with the rest of the guys. I think, even now, that people tend to notice more when I don't have a chair than they do when a man doesn't, but at least not in such a way that I feel like a public spectacle. I guess that's the main thing I want, not to have my femaleness be a public spectacle at work.


Again, depends on culture.

No, it's still highlighting the fact that the recipient of the courtesies is a woman. When a male colleague pulls out my chair but not one of my male co-worker's, he's noticing my gender and making a point of doing so.

It's like "Yes, Ma'am" being a near-insult in the North

Where on earth did you hear such a thing? I've lived in "the North" my entire life, and I've never heard of, nor been told by anyone, that "sir" and "ma'am" are insults.

The comments to this entry are closed.

My Photo

Regular reads

Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 01/2004