For women, the term ‘friendzone’ is a toxic minefield

On the surface, it’s a seemingly harmless label, but labels are subjective (Picture: Getty Images)

‘Friendzone’ sounds like a suggestion for a 90s band name that didn’t make the cut.

It’s a word that gets playfully thrown around to define the state of a relationship between two people, when Person A is romantically interested in Person B, but Person B sees Person A as a friend and nothing more.

On the surface, it’s a seemingly harmless label, but labels are subjective, and the more I hear it bandied about, the more I believe it has the potential to be harmful.

While the word can be used to describe the relationship between two people of any gender or sexual orientation, when applied to a male/female dynamic the connotations are different. This is because women are often shamed for creating healthy relationship boundaries, while the rejected man is framed as some sort of victim.

I’ve been this woman.

While society would have me feeling flattered at the compliment, I was devastated to learn that the main reason this person was spending time with me was because he wanted to sleep with me. 

Those intentions were not clear from the off, but they became apparent when he announced on a bus journey together that he thought our chemistry was undeniable (it was very deniable), that we would make the perfect couple and that he had thought about this since the moment we met (I was nice to him and made him laugh) and sparks flew.

I was further devastated to find out after this admission, that he had told other people about his feelings since the beginning. That mutual friends were wishing him ‘luck’ on our outings and that the ‘success’ of our hang-outs would be judged on whether I flirted with him, rather than if we had a nice time.

When I politely declined his offer, and reinforced the notion that I thought we were wonderful friends – but nothing more – he was no longer interested in friendship.

Although I understand that this may have stemmed from embarrassment, I couldn’t help but feel that I was no longer of worth now that I was a sexual non-prospect. He had really laid it on thick that we were destined to be together, despite the fact that relationship destiny requires two willing subjects. I felt creeped out and we’re no longer in touch.

I’ve no sympathy for any man who wishes to claim victimhood in the ‘friendzone’, instead of simply admitting to a bruised ego

I felt pressure when friends encouraged me to ‘give it a go’ because he was ‘into me’, while completely disregarding my own wants, needs and ability to make sexual choices for myself.

You rarely hear people encourage others to have friendships with people they’re not interested in having friendships with, yet you often hear people encouraged to ‘give it a shot’ with someone they’ve expressed no romantic interest in whatsoever. People remarked that I had ‘friendzoned’ him, when in fact I hadn’t done anything at all. It just was what it was.

Why is the ‘friendzone’ seen as something inferior to romance?

This belief system works on the assumption that sex with a woman is the main aim, the ultimate goal, the pinnacle of interpersonal relationships and anything else is sub-par.

That sounds like incel ideology – a dangerous online subculture of men who define themselves as unable to get a romantic or sexual partner despite desiring one – if ever I’ve heard it.

Why shouldn’t friendship between hetero men and women be something that is celebrated, cherished and seen as the benchmark, rather than inferior to romance?

A person you like wants to have a friendship with you that is free from the complications and confusion of romance, because they like you as a person and want you in their life – surely that’s a good thing.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve faced many romantic rejections in life and each and every one has sucked. I’ve listened to Celine Dion/Adele/Ariana Grande on repeat (depending on the decade) in desperate attempts to fend off any incoming existential crises.

But rejection is one thing. You get the message – however hard it is to receive – and you move on.

The ‘friendzone’, however, isn’t a place of acceptance. It’s an ongoing state of wilful denial. A place in which one person has made themselves clear and the other sticks around – unsatisfied – in the hope that the other will change their mind or perhaps be persuaded otherwise.

Incels also use the horrendous term ‘sexgating’, which they define as ‘preventing someone from having sex’

This is where the term becomes a smokescreen for manipulation. If you accept the other person’s offer of platonic friendship, then you’re just friends and there’s no need to bring any zonal terminology into it. To continue to label the dynamic as a ‘zone’ implies the belief that there is an area outside of it – a level yet to be achieved if only given the time and opportunity. A level that is predicated on sex.

While researching, I stumbled across some very concerning theories on friendzoning from the incel movement. According to an entry on one of their websites, the definition of the term has little to do with friendship, but more to do with a woman placing a man on hold for future sexual relations.

They quote, ‘Heterosexual women generally do not become true friends with someone they will not be willing to be romantic or sexual with later’, which is disturbing not only because it is blatantly untrue, but because it is an idea stemmed from wider societal beliefs about male/female friendships.

Incels also use the horrendous term ‘sexgating’, which they define as ‘preventing someone from having sex’. They theorise that it is the fault of other people (mainly women) they are not having sex, hence why they are ‘Involuntarily Celibate’ or, incels as they call themselves.

They believe sex to be something they are entitled to and that sexgating or friendzoning is stopping them from having it.

They separate ‘sexgating’ from ‘friendzoning’ as they consider the former to be permanent and latter as only temporary, with the website stating, ‘women only form friendships with men they would be open to having sex with down the line’.

Once again, this disturbing way of thinking is not limited to extremist incels, because it can be seen in other communities every time a man refuses to accept a woman’s offer of platonic friendship and believes their decision to be temporary.

This is dangerous ideology that dehumanises women, and frames the man as being deserving of sex, regardless of a woman’s boundaries. It’s rape culture in a nutshell– which is why I’ve no sympathy for any man who wishes to claim victimhood in the ‘friendzone’, instead of simply admitting to a bruised ego.

What is rarely considered, are the feelings of a woman who has been romantically propositioned by a man she was spending time with under the pretence of a friendship.

The woman who worries that she misled him somehow, that she should’ve behaved differently. The woman who questions whether her value as a friend is based solely on her potential for sex, instead of her personal qualities. The woman who worries that other people will think her to be cruel.

In a patriarchal system, the woman is shamed for denying a male friend the opportunity to have sex with her, while the man is seen as a victim.

When it comes to ‘friendzoning’, the role of the victim should apply only to the person who is shamed for setting boundaries, the person who is manipulated into a friendship under false pretences and the person who is left questioning their value as a platonic friend.  

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