One point of emphasis from the conference was in the need for people—Christians especially—to understand that friendships between men and women are actually possible and healthy. One single woman shared about how she had kept men at a distance in order to try and “guard her heart”. She later realized that she was actually setting herself up for bad relationships with men if and when she got married. This was because the only categories she had were: men to keep at a distance or men to potentially develop a romantic relationship with. If she were married and had to for instance work closely with a man, she would be in trouble if the only way she knew to interpret closeness was as the beginning of a romantic relationship. Unfortunately, many of us don’t even think about the possibility of friendship with the opposite sex outside of a “romantic” relationship. She also shared about the importance and value of having a man’s voice in her life.
One important reason for friendship between men and women is that to prohibit them hurts two often marginalized groups moreso than others: women and singles. If we, for example, say that men and women can not closely work together, this is more likely to be detrimental to women than it is to men. Since men hold more leadership positions, distancing men and women is most likely to keep women out of leadership and prevent them from gaining their full voice. (I wish I could elaborate on this subject more, but since I am not a woman and therefore haven’t experienced this from a woman’s point of view, I’m only beginning to have a vague understanding of what women face.)
The separation of the sexes also alienates singles. Often times singles—especially in church—are surrounded by married couples who have few if any close friendships outside their marriage. People may assume that singles are friends with other singles, and this is true to an extent. But if we have an isolating view of marriage, and especially one where men and women must remain at a distance, what do singles do when their friends start dating and get married? It is not health to suggest that they simply must make new friends. The fact is friendship does not often happen quickly and easily, leaving many singles with few friends once those they have been close to enter relationships.
Besides this, if we keep men and women at a distance from one another, many singles may not have a close relationship with anyone of the opposite sex. This is unhealthy. How can we know how to appropriately interact with the opposite sex if we don’t know how they view things? I believe that harm can unintentionally be done in both directions, simply because we’re ignorant of what kind of things the other gender faces. This is a reason that cross-gender friendship is important for loving people in general. If I don’t have any close relationship with a member of the opposite sex, there is a good chance I will do a poorer job of loving those members of the opposite sex with whom I am only acquainted.
Beyond this, to say that men and women can’t be friends dishonors both women and men. It suggests that men can’t control themselves and that women are nothing more than walking temptation. Jennifer Ould pointed out that we train men to see less of women, by viewing them only as a sexual temptation, when we ought to be training men to see women as God does. We can view their beauty—not only physical but personal—as a gift from God, and not degrade them to being seen only as temptresses. As one woman so vividly describes here, she wanted to be asexual because of how women are often viewed, and how men are often stereotyped. Another woman expresses similar sentiment: “I felt shame every time I was in a situation where a man would not meet with me, or ride with me, or talk with me simply because I was female. Those situations told me that there was something fundamentally wrong, and that my gender was a big problem.”
Men may be trying to act honorably in some cases but still be harming. However we won’t know about it and therefore the situation won’t improve if we don’t have dialog between men and women.