Monday, January 24, 2005

Sex, gender, and platonic friendship

Friendship is a cherished relationship. It is one that is not too close and not too distant, one which gives enough private space for the participants. There is affection and there is a yearning to be in the company of the other in a purely non-sexual way. One can expect a good friend to be always there for you when 'in need'. There is mutual understanding of each other's feelings and they instinctively know when something is amiss. The memories of a time well spent with a friend are valuable to us. Friendship is indeed a fun relationship that can last a lifetime.
We choose our friends very carefully. Even if we are friendly with many individuals, we are friends with only a few. There is a very careful distinction between friends and acquaintances. An acquaintance is someone with whom you have a basic relationship and is 'less intimate than friendship', like you may be acquainted with your liftman but you might not even know his name. The extrovert has several acquaintances but he is friends with only a few. The introvert cuts down on his degree and number of his acquaintance with his acquaintances but still has about the same number of friends as the extrovert. (note that this is just my theory and is not substantiated by any numbers). It is just a general observation and need not be true. But then thinking about it, I feel that there is some truth to this statement. You can only get close to people whom you trust. Now, trust is something we humans are very possessive about. We do not in general trust anyone. We rarely trust anyone completely and we are quick to suspicion. But of course, there are those who do trust more easily than others but in general, we are taught to be sparing with our trust. After all, 'it is a jungle out there'. In a completely random world where there is no such paranoia instilled in the minds of people, we would expect the distribution of 'trustfulness' (the ease with which a person would trust another) to be a normal one with all levels of 'trustfulness' existing in society in equal numbers. But in this 'dog-eat-dog-world', the distribution would be lop-sided with the more people of low trustfulness than high trustfulness. This is why I say that people tend to be friends with only a few.
We form friendships mostly on the basis of commonalities. There is usually some interest/idea/situation that you share with your friends. Even when opposites attract, the quality that they are differ in is something of importance for both. It makes for a good debate for the two. Thus, friends, and good friends particularly, do have something to talk about, something that they can posit their views on and communicate with each other. People who indulge in small talk might become good friends if they discover that there is something they value in each other. It is a mutual thing as they say, 'taali ek haath se nahin bajti' (you need two hands to clap).
Friendship is usually considered asexual, i.e., there is no sex involved at all. Of course, this raises the question whether there could be friendships formed on the common interest related to sex. I suppose. So, I am accepting the possibility of non-platonic friendship! That might be somewhat unheard of (at least for me)! Wait, that can't be right. I must be doing some mistake here.
Now, I thought platonic friendship is one where there is no sex involved at all. The word platonic means - 'free from physical desire', so it is lust rather than sex that defines what is platonic or not. More specifically, it is lust for the other which would be taboo in a platonic relationship. So, it is possible for two friends to have strong emotions for each other except lust for the physical pleasures of love. Hmm, that is very enlightening, isn't it? But in the real world, that is never possible as there is always the danger of misunderstanding the affection by one of the friends themselves or the society around them. For most people, their image in society is important and they will always try to keep their 'good name' intact. Plus, affection can so easily be misconstrued to be love. It is so difficult to tread the fine line which you must be careful not to overstep to avoid any confusion in the minds of anybody, most of all, your friend. So, it is rare to find two extremely close friends who would have been lovers if not for the absence of lust. Of course, one can argue that really close friends would 'know' there is no such emotion in the mind of the other and they just might choose to not show it publicly as other people tend to jump to conclusions too easily on the basis of the most insignificant gesture or word. I suppose there is that possibility.
I thought platonic to mean something that does not involve sex at all. I guess it comes from the notion of platonic conversations, where the aim is to further knowledge through discussions and debates. Take for example Plato's most famous book "The Republic". The book constructs a model society - call it a utopia - through discussions between Socrates and some youngsters. The dialogues in the book serve as models for what is known as platonic dialogue. Unlike Freud, for whom sex makes the world go round, platonic dialogue seemed to me to be free from sex completely. But then there could be a platonic dialogue about sex itself. I suppose I confused lust with sex in my interpretation of platonic dialogue.

Right then, now that we have the concepts of platonic friendship clear, let us move to the topic that I had in mind when I started this post. How is friendship affected by gender? Are same-sex friendships likely to be closer and better than cross-sex (not cross-gender) relationships?
Before we move any further, let me just clarify the terms I am using. There is a difference between gender and sexes - Gender referring to the terms, masculine and feminine, and sex referring to the biological differences that distinguish male and female.
No matter how much we talk of gender-equality, there exist certain unbridgeable differences between the sexes. Now, are these differences too wide for friendship to bridge? Certainly not! But the differences do serve as a barrier, albeit a scalable one, for two people of opposite sex to be friends. These differences are always there, in the background, even if the two friends become very close. For example, women generally tend to have a far bigger (volume-wise) personal space than men. This personal space is with respect to the opposite sex. If you are guy, you generally tend to keep a 'safe' distance, a distance that is greater than what you would use with a male friend, from your female friend. Because this is how Indian women have been brought up. They have been told to keep their distance from men. I do not blame them and it is easy to understand why by looking at the amount of crime that is committed against women. It is said that 90% of the rapes are committed by people known to the victim. So, it is actually safer for the women if they kept their distance from men. That reminds me of this story I read in a course by Dr. Mathur, Sultana's Dream which gives a compelling argument for why men should be kept under lock and key. The logic is that we keep the potential dangerous animals under supervision because they may harm people, so since it is men who could potentially harm women they are the ones who should not be allowed to roam the streets. Compelling argument, isn't it?
I still do not deny the possibility of two friends being very close without the sexual differences bothering them. But Freud would deny that possibility. He would say that there could be no platonic relationship between a man and a woman as 'sex' will always be on the agenda for the man in all their interactions. Perhaps, this is the reason why there are so many rapes by known persons. But on the behalf of myself, I say NO. I think that is a very shallow perspective of relationships and it is reinforced by modern depiction, in TV and movies, of men as people who always think with their 'dicks'. I think that Freud is wrong and psychology is not a science by any stretch of the imagination.
How does gender affect relationship? We do not deny that two masculine or feminine persons can be friends. We also will not deny the possibility of cross-gender friendship (with the exception of Freud and all his followers, I suppose). But my question is whether there is a possibility of a sexual relationship between two people of the same gender. This is not the same as asking whether gays/lesbians exist because even there the relationship usually depicted/reported is between a masculine person and a feminine person. For example, recently there was this news article about a lesbian couple who were being forced to separate by their families and the article included a picture of the couple and just by looking at their clothes I could tell that one of them had donned the garb of 'the man of the house' and the other was clearly the 'housewife'. This was further confirmed by their statements in the article. I do not recall the statements but I clearly recall that the gender difference clearly showed up. Are gay/lesbian relationships like this? I personally do not know any gay couples, so I cannot tell. And I will not believe the depiction of the standard gay couples in media! So, the question is left hanging in the air! :(

Ideally, we would like to have a society where we could mingle with people of all sexes/genders without any discrimination. But in the real world, it is not always possible. It is imperative to never forget these rules in your interactions with the world. Otherwise, you might end up in situations where you will not want to be. For example, if you accidentally invade the personal space of your friend and then there is this embarrassed moment, what do you do? Do you clam up and hope the moment passes or do you apologize and risk potentially embarrassing your friend further? Or perhaps you just hope that your friend understands you better and will let it pass... :((


cvraman said...

Oh WOW What a beautiful way to differentiate between gender and sexes, thx for the enlightenment

Anonymous said...

A little birdie tells me that you are gay. Are you in a position to confirm it?

-- Reporter from The Blogger Grapevine

Madhat said...

@anon: sorry to burst your bubble. but I am not...

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