What would it take for you to say yes to sexuality and friendship?
What would it take for you to say yes to the life-giving power of sexuality in friendship?
Before I proceed further let’s pause briefly and consider what I mean by friendship. Friendship is a voluntary, nonfamilial, nonromantic relationship between a female and a male in which there is no sex or sexual intimacy. In other paradigms friendships occur with “benefits.” That is a current social practice but that is not my intention in my definition of friendship. I don’t intend any kind of “friendly sex.”
So then, what does it mean for one to say yes to sexuality and friendship? I find myself resisting either-or paradigms. I know I am not the only one who resists these simplistic choices. I am writing this with a goal of reaching out to those who would like to see something different than either-or paradigms on sexuality and friendship.
There is one paradigm which sees any kind of deep passion or intimacy in friendship as conveying there is always something more that’s behind it: a conscious or unconscious sex drive. In this paradigm, deep intimacy which doesn’t result in sexual intimacy is ultimately a frustrated paradigm. This is the result of sexualizing all deep love (think of the popular reaction to Oprah and Gayle King).
The other paradigm is so fearful of integrating sexuality and friendship; it fosters all kinds of boundaries and rules for limiting any sort of deep engagement between the two friends. Side hugs (where hip bones “connect”), no meeting alone with the opposite sex, limited emotional connection, no cultivation of dyadic intimacy, no dinners, no car rides, chaperones must be present, are just some of the many boundaries to limit a meaningful connection between sexuality and friendship. This paradigm involves obsessive boundary-drawing between friends with the approval of their community.
What the two paradigms have in common is genitalizing sexuality and meaningful, close relationships. But what if sexuality is more than just sex? What if sexuality is more than just being sexually active? What if sexuality is more than just frustrated sex drives in relationships?
It could very well be that in this century we will see the positive shift among many Christians embracing sexuality and friendship.
1. Saying yes means exploring what confusion means when sexuality is present in friendship.
Our hyperromanticized culture has claimed particular habits, actions, behaviors, and passions as mutually exclusive from platonic intimacy in male-female friendships. Dinners at restaurants or homes, going to theatres to watch movies, going out for drinks, walking, skiing, canoeing, physical affection, emotional intensity, and so on are all exclusive markers for robust sexuality in “coupling” relationships.
What would be the markers for meaningful, intimate platonic friendships? Does romance get a monopoly on the social markers for male-female love?
To explore what robust possibilities are for platonic intimacy could produce confusion for you, your friend, and others. Some Christians have been taught that romantic relationship is the only appropriate place to get in touch with their sexuality. Any movement in which they experience desire to be with or a longing to be with an opposite sex friend could be confusing.
Confusion may be a place of vulnerability and openness but it doesn’t mean you are on a slippery slope into anything is permissible. What if attraction (for example) is a lot more complex than a summons to jump in bed? What if sexuality is a powerful but not an uncontrollable energy? What if attraction could be channeled to celebrate the gift of sexuality in friendship? What if healthy, deep emotional bonds between the sexes reveal the image of the triune God in friendship and community?
There can be legitimate confusion in exploring authentic, healthy boundaries in each friendship if one is considering the move from an obsessive boundary-setting paradigm to nurturing mutual trust, openness, appropriate vulnerability, delight, affection, and presence with their current friend (s).
But saying yes to sexuality and friendship does not mean saying yes to mixed signals. What if there are flirtations, jokes, innuendos, and teasing with a sexual tinge present? Ongoing patterns of such communication send signals of mixed motives in the friendship and if married, sends mixed signals to one’s spouse if you are flirting with your friend. Flirting is a form of skirting the edges of sexual possibilities. Exploring confusion in this sense would involve a come to Jesus talk about clear motives in sexuality and friendship.
2. Saying yes means exploring what fears we have of celebrating and honoring the gift of sexuality in friendship.
Saying yes to sexuality and friendship doesn’t mean you are naively closing your eyes to the dangers of infidelity or the possibility of inappropriate sex in friendship. You’re not saying yes to a slippery slope. Saying yes does not mean you are opening yourself to the possibilities to the sexual dynamics of a triangle. This is not a surrender to an out of touch sexuality where you are taken by surprise by your acting out something you didn’t see coming.
In our hyperromantic culture, given the advent of sweeping social changes coupled with the internet, there is the appearance of numerous romantic possibilities/alternatives other than one’s present spouse. But underlying these alternatives is a consumer-driven romantic culture that contradicts any message one hears about needing to “work on your relationship.” It is this consumer-driven sexuality that magnifies an ongoing hunger for an intense, eternal private romantic experience that is never attainable in marriage.
Saying yes to sexuality and friendship is saying yes to the superabundance of God in monogamous marriage and the superabundance of God in friendship beyond marriage. As Samuel Wells puts it, “Friendship embodies the superabundance of creation in the kingdom.” In God’s kingdom, the breadth and depth of friendship includes an intensity of love for others beyond marriage.
But there are more fears to explore as we seek to celebrate and honor the life-giving power of authentic and healthy sexuality. The quality, the zest, the pleasure, the goodness, the deep beauty of attending to your sexuality is deeply connected to your spiritual life—celibate, single, or married. All of us have areas in our sexuality (in marriage and in friendships) where we need to grow.
Certain religious systems and faith communities have emphasized so much sexual insecurity, individuals are fearful of receiving, giving, and delighting in their own marriages. Nurturing a greater awareness and openness to who we are in relationship—emotionally, physically, spiritually, intellectually—we are exploring our fears in honoring the life-giving gift of sexuality. Fears keep us away from exploring so many powerful life-giving, connecting possibilities in sexuality and friendship.