Last Sunday started off like any other “I’m a senior in college” Sunday.
Anxious about a thesis that wasn’t there yet.
I did feel pretty good about the sex I had the other night.
Not really the sex itself, but the fact that it was with a friend who I used to hook up with. A guy who used to walk all over me like he got paid for it. And who I let have that power like I got paid for it.
Now, after some much needed distance, things felt different. I was done romanticizing a guy because he owns three cool shirts, tells a decent joke and once upon a time showed me what Bandcamp was. I hadn’t planned on ever hooking up with him again, but when it happened unexpectedly it felt refreshingly uncomplicated. The other night lived peacefully in the “meaningless sex” room in my mind palace.
Then, things took an interesting turn when I got a call from one of my best friends. She informed me that she found out I’d slept with this guy. Unfortunately for us both, she’d been seeing him for the last couple of months.
I know this looks bad.
But, if your friend doesn’t tell you she is hooking up with someone, (we’ll call him Chad) and then Chad hits on you while you’re drunk and down, who is at fault other than Chad?
Chad, the prince he is, had told my friend to keep their arrangement a secret. Chad and I hadn’t spoken in years, much less hooked up. God forbid anyone entertains the thought that my life had moved on since I was 19 and give me the chance to react rationally to their new relationship. Instead, it made a lot more sense to sneak around and get all my friends to lie to me, as well.
So Chad and my friend are secretly fucking…
I fuck him…
and somehow he ended up fucking me and a whole lot more up in the process.
And they say Gen Z can’t multitask.
I dreaded the chaos he created and the knowledge of how little he would be affected. What? She couldn’t come over? Instead of spending one night alone he has to trainwreck my friendship? I wasn’t naive enough for any expectations of decency, but this was a Midas-touch for drama I had not prepared for.
Each day after was a new episode of a bad teen soap opera. Another girl on the side revealed, another friend apologizing about keeping their secret, another flashback of realizing what had been in front of me the whole time.
I was exhausted, unable to pick an emotional lane. I felt nauseous with guilt. I knew it was senseless. I would never have done it if I’d known. But the hatred I felt toward anyone hurting my friend was mechanical, even if I was the target.
Then I’d return to the frustration at her prioritizing him. I knew it was unfair – feeling like her secrecy was somehow a justification of his mistakes, and that made me mad at myself. He couldn’t be decent, but she couldn’t be a friend, and for some reason that stung more. There can be empowerment in anger, but feeling hurt is unglamorous and lonely.
Just in case there was any worry I could distract myself, that thesis I was stressing over is about the nature of female friendship. Specifically, the way that external romantic and sexual relationships with guys impact girls’ friendships with each other. Somebody call Oscar Wilde and tell him I can give Dorian Gray a run for his money!
In my research, I’ve been interviewing my friends about their experiences in the field. When asked the question, “What do girls fight about?” without hesitation, each subject, male and female, answered the same thing. “Boys.” Great. I was my own paper come to life.
I realized I actually had the answers to my confusion. They sat in a folder on my desktop labeled “Research.” So I turned to the deeper forces of internalized misogyny and got to work.
We have been socialized to understand women as more emotional and relational than men. Is there any scientific reason?
Neurologically, male and female brains respond to stress in the same way, but they alleviate the hormones differently. A UCLA study showed that women’s response to stressful situations is not through the classic “fight or flight,” but through befriending comforting social groups. It’s not that females are more codependent than males – who relaxes them is gender specific. When women were presented with two options while anticipating a stressful situation–wait with a man or remain alone–they chose the latter.
When the option changed to a woman, they wanted company.
Wait before you go and get all gung-ho on the calming power of female affiliation. The authors explicitly state that this data should not romanticize female relationships. Studies also show that females in hierarchical networks tend to intimidate inferior females through suppressing others’ male relationships.
The befriending and de-friending response is prevalent in environments where females are less powerful than males, when males are unavailable, when there is a high rate of attack, and when males commonly abandon monogamous situations. To name a few.
In environments dominated by patriarchal structures (e.g. most of Earth), women will instinctively bond with other women and simultaneously feel subconsciously competitive for men’s validation.
Female affiliation and aggression is perpetuated in patriarchal environments, but it’s exacerbated by the idea that sisterhood is the fix.
Sisterhood in feminism is a trope that gained traction in the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Enthusiasts advocated for a solidarity stronger than friendship which politicized the connection between women.
Sisterhood reeked of white feminism. The reduction to a universal identity grossly ignored the differences in “womanhood.” The concept demands primary allegiance to a community that often ignores and harms women of color and non-cis women.
There’s a difference between solidarity among the larger population who identify as women, and sisterhood. According to this logic, I owe every other woman a loyalty greater than friendship in order to achieve gender equality. In my experience, sisterhood is usually a debt that manifests itself as a distraction from men’s actions.
Aside from Hollywood, bathrooms and sports, Greek life is one of the few examples of environments where a strict gender binary is not only still accepted, it’s the rule. It’s an environment dominated by men’s control over physical spaces. The strategic gender imbalance reinforces women’s perception that they should see each other as the enemy. And what makes it worse is that it all occurs under a sorority veil of female empowerment.
When I used to be in a sorority, love triangles between members were as common as Wine Wednesdays. If a guy hooked up with two members, his role was never the main narrative. Instead, the rhetoric around the house was always, “How could she do that to her?” In most of the situations, the girls weren’t even friends. But that didn’t matter, they were sisters.
Guys’ presence in female friendship is a tale as old as time. It’s what pop culture tells women we spend our time and energy on. A 538 report found that only half of 1,794 movies from 1970 to 2013 had at least one scene where two women speak to each other about something other than men. In Sex and the City, Miranda famously screams at the other women for doing nothing but whining about men. Yet, all of her valid disappointments vanish by the episode’s end when she realizes that she, too, is preoccupied with a man’s perception of herself.
If only the train stopped at obsession with men. Fighting over them is even more profitable.
Bravo has built a multi-million dollar industry pitting women against each other. I’m down to indulge in an episode of The Bachelor as much as the next girl. But let’s just all be real about the fact that we’re being spoon fed misogyny in the flavor of entertainment. There’s undeniable pleasure in escapist content, but the only fantasy is the notion that we’re living in a culture where women tearing each other down for a man’s validation isn’t the norm. Drink your wine Bachelor Nation, just be careful how much it tastes like Kool-Aid.
On the other end, we’re taught to admire the misogynist antihero. When Tony Soprano brutalizes women it’s a testament to his struggle. Don Draper’s catalog of mistresses is a part of his genius process. Men’s identity struggle is an American treasure. Westerns, gangster films, superheroes, they’re all trying to navigate their virile disposition in a world that just wants to contain it. If you’re at all entranced by the brilliance of these stories the way I know I am, you’ll internalize it. You’ll wake up one day and realize that you’ve equated guys’ emotional incompetence with mystery. That you’ve accepted nastiness as the standard price for intelligence, humor, taste, and talent.
After that mess of a Sunday, everyone had a solid four and a half days of feeling sorry. I got a lot of “he feels like, so, so bad” from people, as if his capacity to feel guilt was some kind retribution. He seemed pretty fine to me when I saw him for myself the next weekend. He coasted around a bar telling my friends, “Oh so everybody hates me now?” To me, he cracked up and said, “I must love being in trouble.”
I got a thoughtful apology from my friend, though, and that’s all I really cared about. I just wanted to fast forward to the day where it would be funny for me to tell her about the conversation we had when I woke up in his bed. He told me about the new word he had learned that week: gaslight. (Note to self: if the word a guy thinks of five minutes after you have sex is “gaslight”, run.)
At the end of the day, I was just a poor selection for a side chick. It’s fine because it has to be fine. A guy’s actions are never as important as a girl’s reaction. It’s simply not as fun to mull over the expected asshole than it is to watch the implosion of a girl being jealous or crazy. If I react, it’s unfathomable that it’s because of the dishonesty. Or the humiliation of knowing everyone idly watched me walk into this hurricane. Or anything that would indicate that women are capable of having feelings detached from men’s approval. And because Chad is unable to process girls’ responses to his manipulation as anything but a declaration that they’re obsessed with him, I won’t give him that ego boost.
I could say “I don’t care about the guy, I care about my friend lying” until I’m blue in the face, but it wouldn’t matter. Female friendships don’t have any political or reproductive clout, so society doesn’t value them the way we do romantic partnerships. That’s the thing about this kind of sisterhood. If it exists as a reaction to male power, it subsists on male presence.
As I’m writing this article, I get a text from her saying that she wants to let me know that they’re going to “revisit their situation.” I have to laugh. Shitty guys will be shitty until someone gives them a reason not to be. Is that an unfair responsibility to put on outsiders? Of course. But the culture sure isn’t giving them a whole lot of motivation for self-improvement.
Personally, if my relationship warranted an explanatory text that didn’t fit on a singular iPhone screen and I can’t call it anything other than a revisited situation, I’d wonder if it was worth all the drama. But that’s just me.
I’ve tried to understand what I’m allowed to feel. And toward who. And what that means about friendship and sexism and fuck I wish I picked a different thesis topic. I’ve been trying to convince myself that feeling frustrated with my friend isn’t fair. That letting a guy come between female friendship is me perpetuating the problem.
It can be. This would hardly be the first time I’d have let go of a female friendship because of a guy. It wasn’t even the first time I’d let go of a female friendship because of this guy. The worst part was that eventually, I always let the guy off the hook. Maybe Chad and I can carpool to Misogynists Anonymous meetings.
My apologies to the sisterhood, but it wasn’t exactly there for me when everyone decided to lie on behalf of a frat guy who sees pawns where others see women. Excuse me if I’m not quick to forgive and forget in its namesake. Really, the issue is allocating any feelings based on gender. I can feel mad at girls, as long as I don’t excuse guys because of a societal acceptance that disrespect is written in their code.
Ultimately, I owe everyone involved a big thank you. My advisor said my project was lacking personal connection.
This should work.