If you're a young woman in your teens or 20s, you can expect several rites of passage: learning the proper way to use a bobby pin (it's this way), for example, or realizing those Beanie Babies you saved aren't worth anything. Or being blamed for putting a guy in the "friend zone."
The term, mostly used by men to describe a failure to romantically attract someone with whom they happen to be friends, has become so mainstream that MTV dedicated an entire show to it. But though being "friend-zoned" can seem like an innocuous accusation, the term is actually completely sexist.
Being nice to a woman doesn't mean you deserve sex: Saying that someone put you in the friend zone profoundly misunderstands human interactions, because it betrays an expectation of sexual attraction or reward just because you feel it. If everyone we were attracted to were automatically attracted to us, Ryan Gosling would be cooking us all gluten-free calzones while we listened to Bad Feminist on audiobook right now. That would be nice, but it's not how life works.
Neve MacRae, a communications major at Simon Fraser University, has repeatedly been accused of putting "nice guys" in the friend zone.
"There have been a few instances when I have been romantically pursued by some truly very good men, but simply wasn't attracted to them or interested in a romantic involvement," she told Mic. "The second I made my strictly platonic interests clear, I was told by my female friends that it was unfair of me to place these men in the 'friend zone.' I don't take these comments seriously as I know my feelings are what matter in these situations, but it's still rather irritating to be judged by your peers who feel you owe somebody your time simply because they are 'nice guys.'"
Ben Dreyfuss, an editor in New York City, thinks men who say they're in the friend zone just don't know how to deal with rejection and project the responsibility onto women. "The friend zone is an excuse for men to feel wronged because they've been rejected romantically," he told Mic. "It assumes a right has been denied, as though anyone has the right to have their attraction returned."
But no one owes anyone else sex. Ever. If someone feels used by a woman because they're driving her to the airport or helping her pick out pillow covers at Bed Bath & Beyond without getting laid in return, that's their fault for misreading the situation, not the woman's fault for being sexually stingy. No one can make someone else do something they don't want to do.
Respect a woman's right to say no: Unfortunately, it's the woman who often finds herself having to speak up. A man's expectation that his platonic friendship is actually a temporary stop on the way to sex puts the onus on women to reciprocate or say no — and face the common responses that accompany women when they do so: They're not listened to, not believed, made to feel guilty or told to shut up.
Shannon* was accused of putting one of her former coworkers in the friend zone after she refused his advances. She told Mic that after politely declining the coworker's request to go on a date, he smirked and said, "I already decided, this year I'm getting out of the friend zone." She was flabbergasted.
"The implication of the friend zone is that I'm this bitch that has unfairly placed this guy in this place where he doesn't belong, when the reality is I'm not interested," she said. "Zoning is this arbitrary invention to make me seem like a fool who can't see clearly, when in reality I just don't want to date you. It's not because you're in the friend zone, it's because I said no. Is it so unfathomable that I don't want to date you?"
As Shannon rightfully points out, "There's no female equivalent. If a guy is not interested, he's just not that into you. If woman is not interested, she's crazy."
When the friend zone leads to bullying: Anna, a 21-year-old student at the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay, told Mic that she was called "the friend zone queen" — a label she hated. "It's my right to deny someone a date even if they are interested in me," she said. "I felt like my choice wasn't being respected."
Respecting that choice is crucial, because the notion of the friend zone isn't limited to awkward conversations and encounters. It also reinforces a culture wherein women who don't welcome male advances are punished for it. Often the woman who is "friend-zoning" isn't just blamed by her "friend," but is also shunned by peers.
Laura*, an 18-year-old high school senior from New Hampshire, faced exclusion from her group of peers after one of her choir partners accused her of friend-zoning him. "I was hurt because a lot of people started treating me differently," she told Mic. "I was the bad guy and he was the victim. He kept asking me to stop friend-zoning him." Feeling bullied and confused, Laura began to blame herself for what was happening. "Did I lead him on, flirting inadvertently?" she asked herself, before realizing that maybe his friendship wasn't worth preserving.
What Laura experienced is not uncommon. When romantic pursuit of women becomes a sort of performative masculinity, aggression is frequently directed at girls and women who refuse male attention. An extreme example of similar male entitlement occurred during the Santa Barbara shooting that left six University of California, Santa Barbara students dead. In a video manifesto, shooter Elliot Rodger specifically stated he was going to a sorority in order to target the kind of women who rejected him — "every blonde slut."
Rodger's actions were an extreme manifestation of a disturbingly common sentiment. Most victims of school shootings are women, and research shows that many incidents involve some amount of romantic rejection. Shooters may specifically target ex-girlfriends or classmates who have rejected them. While the concept of the friend zone of course shouldn't be blamed for violent mass shootings, it does play into dynamics that normalize behaviors that lead to male aggression.
Respect women as people — and friends: It all comes down to recognizing that women are equals, and recognizing that sex isn't a battle to win or lose.
Michael Kimmel, the director of the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities, says the friend zone is an extension of constrained gender norms and the need to constantly perform masculinity in front of other men. "If you grow up learning that sex is adversarial — he chases, she is pursued; he gets, she gives — then how do you deal with what amounts to relegation to the losers' bracket?" he told Mic. He says the friend zone is thus "face-saving."
If you think you're in the friend zone, you're probably not my friend: In reality, the friend zone devalues the very thing it references: friendship. Its view of sex suggests that platonic friendship is some sort of penalty box, rather than a relationship one should feel thankful and excited for. True friends appreciate their connection and honor each other's company. And friends respect, rather than undermine, each other's decisions.
Putting the burden on women to reciprocate romantic affection in a friendship is just another way of blaming them for something they have nothing to do with. There's an old joke that goes, "What's the difference between a slut and a bitch? A slut sleeps with everyone, and a bitch sleeps with everyone but you."
While clearly offensive, the joke captures the way the friend zone perpetuates damaging stereotypes about women. Society doesn't only scrutinize women based on who they sleep with, but it also passes judgement based on who they don't sleep with. Thus for women, there's no real way to win. Ending the friend zone requires elevating both women and men to a higher standard: We must stop evaluating women based on their sexual decisions, and we must trust men to respect women's choices.
So the next time a rejected man insults a woman by accusing her of friend-zoning him, she should feel empowered to say, "It's not the friend zone. It's you."
Some names have been changed to allow subjects to speak freely on private matters.