We’re finally picking up where we left off in our yearlong series on Sexuality and The Church with a guest post from my friend and fellow blogger, Alise Wright. This post is a rewrite of a presentation on sexuality and friendship that Alise gave at The Wild Goose Festival last Friday.
Alise is a wife, a mother of four, an eater of soup, and a lover of Oxford commas. You can generally find her sitting behind a keyboard of some kind: playing or teaching the piano, writing at her laptop, or texting her friends a random movie quote. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, or at her blog.
In 1989, Harry told us that men and women could never be friends because the sex thing always gets in the way. And while we might laugh at the bluntness of Harry’s words about men and women and friendship, as a culture and as a church, we have embraced them as gospel truth. Harry has become a prophet for the cross-sex friendship narrative.
This is not always the message we receive when we are young. As children, we are given numerous positive examples of cross-sex friendship. We have Charlotte and Wilbur. Marlin and Dory. Jess and Leslie. In literature and film, we are given the message that friendship between boys and girls is perfectly acceptable, that we can see the wholeness of the person regardless of their sex organs. The stories show that differences are something to be overlooked in favor of relationship.
Of course, even with young children, we adults have a need to sexualize those friendships. Adults will join in the chants of “Becky and Tommy sitting in a tree!” and promise that our opposite sex children will have to marry one another when they’re old enough. We keep sex in the front of the minds of even the most innocent among us. Children are unable to develop friendships without the threat of romantic involvement being a part of it.
As children age, this intensifies. Not only do adults place this burden on children, but they begin to place it on themselves. Boys and girls begin to notice attraction and automatically assume that their friendships with the opposite sex, or in some cases the same sex, must have a romantic outcome. Boys and girls begin to look at one another strictly as potential sex partners.
In the Church, through our efforts to downplay this, we often amplify it. We talk about purity and modesty and in the process draw attention over and over again to the very thing that these young adults are struggling to come to terms with. Our desire to focus on purity becomes simply another way to focus on sex.
Additionally, with our desire to keep people pure, we begin to sexualize all physical expressions of love. We make all physical contact suspect by implying that it is the path to something immoral. We make intimacy something to be feared rather than something to be sought after.
We often talk out of both sides of our mouths. We encourage intimacy, but at the same time, we talk about "guarding our hearts." Intimacy requires that we let our guard down, and yet, when it comes to friendship that might include any kind of attraction, we build walls to protect us. But we don’t usually talk about how those walls end up cutting us off.
When we focus on fear, rather than on love, we cut ourselves off from the kind of intimacy that allows us to really rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. We allow detachment to become the norm, and even call that holy and good.
We become absolutely terrified of all attraction. The truth is, all of our friendships have some level of attraction, regardless of the sex and orientation of those involved. I am a straight woman, but I have a non-sexual attraction toward my female friends. They look more beautiful to me. I want to be physically close to them. Because I’m straight, no one thinks anything about this. But if it’s my male best friend? Then there might be trouble. Then we’re playing with fire.
My best friend and I are both married. Our marriages are incredibly important to us. In fact, the way that we speak about our spouses and the surety of those relationships is one of the things that has given us space to explore a close, intimate friendship. The friendship that exists in our marriages is the foundation for our friendship apart from our marriages.
The truth is, because I’m a sexual being, there will always be a sexual element to any friendship. What I need to focus on is just how I am going to deal with those sexual feelings when they arise. Am I going to pretend they don’t exist and risk allowing them to overrun me and simply end the friendship? Am I going to follow them to their natural end because that’s what I have to do?
Or perhaps, there is another way. Perhaps instead of ignoring or giving in, I can acknowledge, and focus those feelings into something healthy. When I sense attraction, I can look at it as something more than just an urge to be satisfied. I can examine it for something deeper in that person that draws me to them. I can discover the trait that I find attractive and focus on building that, rather than seeing it develop into something sexual.
We have made marriage and sex the ultimate expressions of intimacy. And while they are beautiful and worthwhile, they are simply one way for us to experience intimacy with another person. We have relegated friendship to a position of “just” and “only” when the Scripture refers to it as a weaving of souls together. We use Ruth 1:16-17 in our marriage ceremonies and forget that it was a pledge of friendship. We allow the absence of sex to lessen intimacy.
Intimacy can never be “just” or “only.” Intimacy indicates a fullness and a wholeness. Intimacy speaks of closeness, of familiarity. Intimacy requires knowing, not simply of surface things, but of the deep parts of the person. It takes us beyond “just” and “only” into a place of oneness. The kind of oneness that Jesus prayed would be present in his disciples.
Intimacy is frightening, especially when sexual attraction is or even could be present. Because we have so closely equated intimacy and sex, we often make it difficult to see one without the other.
We lament that the world has separated intimacy from sex, but many Christians have done something equally damaging, in that we often imply that intimacy must be paired with sex.
And yet, I know, because I live it, that we can change our thinking. We can experience intimacy, even with someone with whom there may be sexual attraction and keep sex in its proper context. Rather than using fear as a fence to keep us safe, perhaps we can center our friendships on a deep love that keeps us in the center of God’s will for those relationships, which means that we will do what we can to protect our relationship, not abandon it.
My best friend is a man. We are both married, though not to one another. We have a deep love of one another. We do not deny our maleness and femaleness when we are together, but we do not allow it to be the lone descriptor of our friendship. We are not “just” or “only” friends - we are intimate friends whose souls are weaved together.
We are one.
Do you have close friends of the opposite sex (or of the sex to which you are generally sexually attracted)? How do you navigate those relationships? Have you ever been discouraged from pursuing them?
Would love to get your feedback here!