I get weary of hearing that question. I get even wearier of hearing some people answer, “no,” or a “yes, but-” with a thousand qualifying factors, like the prohibition of ever being alone with a member of the opposite sex. I guess I’m not going to say what anyone else hasn’t said before, but to anyone who struggles with this question, I just want to let you know:
I exist. The answer is simply an unqualified “yes.” To deny the possibility that men and women can enjoy plantonic friendships is to look me in the eye and invalidate my existence, my experiences.
What I’m NOT saying is that this is normal (in this, or possibly any, culture). I cannot promise that your opposite-sex friendships will look any particular way. I cannot even know whether you, yourself, are capable of living in platonic intimacy with someone who belongs to the sex you find attractive. I would never be so presumptuous. Every person is different, and so many factors play into such situations, like childhood, hobbies, school, parenting, siblings, and more.
All I’m trying to do is just clarify that yes, I exist. This “mysterious” and “debatable” topic isn’t as mysterious as we like to think. It’s just hard. It’s just rare. But just because Sally and Harry couldn’t keep out of bed, doesn’t mean there’s no hope for the rest of us.
[As one author recently put it, I am not a sex-fueled robot.]
I guess I just think my story is really beautiful, and I hope more and more people become open to stories like mine.
1: I grew up with brothers. I know many people who never experienced the joys of opposite-sex siblings, and that always made me sad. I think there is something so special, so human, about learning to interact early with different sorts of people. Boys and girls don’t take the same journeys growing up, for better or for worse. They often do different chores, attend different extra-curricular activities, and deal with different things during puberty and the transition to adulthood. To learn how to respectfully, lovingly, joke, touch, play, write, talk with a boy helped make me who I am. I absolutely wouldn’t be Me if I hadn’t grown up with big, creative, loving brothers.
2: Home. Because I was homeschooled, family meant a lot. Because I grew up in and around church, I learned that the body of Christ was like a family. I spent so much time at home, at other people’s homes, and loved the feel, smell, taste, of just Being Family. When people asked me to “feel at home,” I learned to feel at home. I learned to see boys in houses as brothers; to not get offended at their sass, to roll my eyes at their silliness, to play video games with them, to listen when they needed an ear, to give back as much spunk as they gave me. Because that’s what you do with brothers, right?
3: Being a company. I started doing theatre when I was thirteen, and there’s a reason why subcultures of dance and drama know more about intimacy without romance than the average person. In high school theatre, I learned to hold hands with my company members, to dance with them, to pray with them, to give a much-needed back rub (even amidst the consternation of select mothers). We napped, cried, prayed, laughed, sang together. Sure, we tiptoed through some of it with awkwardness. And we definitely were told to “avoid the appearance of evil” more than we should have been. Because our hearts were young and noble and our hands sought to help and hold, not molest or defame. Sometimes we listened and obeyed. Sometimes we rolled our eyes and gave bear hugs anyway.
My aunt came to pick me up from a rehearsal one time and was taken aback by all the hugs. “Do you have to hug every single person before you leave?”
Well, yes. Of course.
It was a culture of hugs that we cultivated. A culture of love and silliness and memories and inside jokes. Sure, eventually some of us paired off romantically. But a pretty significantly low number, what with all the hugging and loving and being together. The hugging never led to the pairings. The specific attraction between the specific people had more to do with that, I think.
In high school, one of my dearest friends was a boy a little older than I. For much of the summer, I spent a lot of my time working part-time right in his neighborhood, so after I was relieved from my duties we met at a stopsign between our respective locations and gave each other a huge hug. Then we took a walk, or played on the playground, or went back to his house.
Part-way through the summer, his family went through a major upset. His world started crumbling at the foundations, and he was lost in a whirlwind of questions, confusions, heartache, and tears. So after we met at the stopsign and hugged, we normally walked to a park bench and I put my arms around him and just let him cry. Weeks of this. Weeks of whispered words of comfort. Weeks of wet faces touching in solidarity. Weeks of his scent on my clothes, his tears on my shirt. Hours and hours sitting in the sunshine in an empty playground, talking about heartache, encouragement, or just not talking at all and holding hands instead.
He’s the baby of his family, accustomed to a family full of arms and hands and faces. He was always particularly adept at connecting emotionally with girls, and not so he could take advantage of them. That summer when I was fifteen and he was seventeen, I laughed with him and sistered him and sometimes we talked about the girl he was in love with.
I don’t know very many adults in my life who, had they been a bird at that park, would have been 100% OK with our afternoons. Not because we did anything wrong, or broke anything sacred. But because boys and girls can’t be friends like two girls can, I guess. Because touch and intimacy are somehow thought to be elements of Marriage Only, or at the very least, gateways to unholy sexual behaviors.
I loved this boy more than almost anything. But never “like that.” Even now that we’ve both married other people, I regret none of that summer. I cherish it and know that my arms were there for him when he desperately needed them. I rejoice that my time was well-spent, and a fragile young man who might have had his faith all wrecked was able to remember that he is loved no matter what.
Aside from my husband, my closest, most long-standing best friend has been a boy (though I suppose he’s mostly a man now). When we were young, making that sometimes-awkward tween transition, we wrote letters and emails and played video games and dreamed. We danced and did shows and made a box full of memories that still sits in my closet. He was the eldest in his young family, struggling to know right things, behave right ways, and still be himself. He walked a fine line between caring and noticing the opinions of those he respected, and being oblivious to (or simply ignoring) the judgments of others. He half-reluctantly became friends with the limelight. He wrestled intensely with how attraction fit into his penchant for making friends with girls (if, indeed, it did). He stubbornly wore glasses instead of contacts so girls wouldn’t fall in love with his pretty blue eyes, and he got in a lot of trouble for his tendency to “woo” his new, young, female friends and then innocently move onto the next new friend to be pursued, leaving a trail of broken hearts.
All this …and there was always me, pestering him and hugging him and sometimes holding his hand on the couch while we watched movies or talked about the latest Life Struggle. There were long delayed good nights inching toward the front door, with muted laughter and goodbye-kisses on the hair. People thought from time to time that we were an item, I suppose, but when asked we clarified, “No, my brother.” “No, my sister.” Eventually people stopped noticing, caring. Eventually people caught on to the possibly unusual wavelength we lived on. Our relationship, a strange combination of banter, mockery, tenderness, loyalty, nerdiness, intimacy, and family-sharing, has been one of the most treasured parts of my existence.
And it wasn’t that gender or sex was ignored or didn’t matter. He’s a boy and I’m a girl and that’s important. It’s part of who we are. We wouldn’t have the same sort of friendship if he were a woman, or I a man. Skirts and dancing and strong arms and intuition and different perspectives helped define our relationship. We dealt with different lenses, different bodies, different experiences, different frustrations, different struggles. But those things were factors, not foundations. Those things were peripheral, and not core. Those things were, are, variables to discuss and explore, not boundaries or fences that keep us from love or friendship.
I don’t want to make you feel lacking if you haven’t this same story. I don’t want to say that it’s possible for everyone to have such stories, such friends. I don’t even want to say I’ve never broken hearts, never make unwise choices in my opposite-sex friendship, never taken anything for granted when I should have thought more about it.
But I know, I know, that I have experienced glorious agape, soul-closeness, with boys who never wanted to undress me. So please believe me, believe others, when they say it’s possible. We may be few, but we exist.
(And it’s actually kind of nice over here.)