"Girls get friend-zoned too. [The] only difference is the guy will still sleep with you." That tweet hit a raw nerve last month. But the claim, which racked up about 197,000 likes and over 41,000 retweets, flies in the face of all we've come to believe about the "friend zone" over the years.
Traditionally, in Hollywood rom coms, comedies, TV shows and memes, it's straight men who find themselves in the unenviable friend zone, having been rejected romantically by a woman who's either not attracted to him in that way or says she values their friendship too much to risk romance. The reality, though, is that friend-zoning happens to men and women seeking heterosexual relationships, and as the response to the aforementioned tweet suggests, it's happening a lot.
It's more common for men to describe themselves as being in the friend zone because of the (outdated and not necessarily accurate) assumption that "while women are selective, men are opportunistic when it comes to dating and relationships" and will always be up for sex, says dating coach Hayley Quinn.
In a patriarchal Western culture that still values dominant masculinity, stories and recollections of heterosexual relationships tend to show men pursuing women and trying to renegotiate the relationship, rather than the other way around. Numerically then, men are vastly more likely to be friend-zoned in these accounts. But the reality is far closer to a 60/40 split, according to Relate counsellor Simone Bose.
"Most of my clients who friend-zone are women, but there are definitely men who do this too, perhaps 60/40 women to men in my experience in the counselling room. Men are potentially more focused on sexual or romantic love when embarking on relationships with women, whereas women can sometimes be more choosy about where they put their romantic attention and time," Bose theorises.
On the more controversial point about casual sex with a "friend", in Bose's counselling experience men and women do sometimes view it differently. "Some men do see sex as a way to feel emotionally closer to their partners. But it's women who express a need more often to have an emotional connection with a man and feel they can trust that person with their emotions. Men can compartmentalise and can see sex as more of an act of desire without emotion."
The men who sleep with women they've friend-zoned do it "without attachment, as they can enjoy the sex act without always getting emotionally attached," Bose says. "Although this is not black and white and men do often develop feelings, because sexual intimacy can make people feel closer to one another."
Candy, 25, is one woman who's found herself on the receiving end of a male friend-zoner. She's been unceremoniously dumped in the zone about 10 times and many of the men have slept with her regardless. Most recently, she dated and slept with a guy on and off for more than a year, only for nothing to materialise.
"Eventually he told me he was incredibly happy about what was going on between us – I honestly thought he was about to upgrade me to girlfriend status – but to my surprise, he said he wanted to keep our 'friendship' going and continue dating other girls. I didn't even know he was dating other people."
Another bruising experience was with a university crush, Candy adds. "We became close and were doing things together and going on what I thought were dates, then one day he told me he'd finally got a girlfriend and that I should be happy because we're 'best friends'. What the fuck?" Reverse friend-zoning is a lot more common than most people would think, she believes, as men are often unaware they're doing it.
Jennifer*, 23, has been friend-zoned three times, most recently last month, by a man from a dating app whom she describes as having outdated, patriarchal values. Things were going well until she challenged his belief that women should always cook for men (a quick reminder: it's 2018). "I said if that was expected of me in a relationship then we'd have a problem. That might have made him change his opinion about me."
He signalled his change of heart by making a throwaway comment about a current friends-with-benefits arrangement he had going on. "If you're interested in someone for something more than friendship, why mention that? Maybe that was just his way of telling me nothing was going to happen without actually telling me." A few hours later, he walked Jennifer to her car and said, "We'll see each other... later." They haven't spoken since.
Jennifer believes friend-zoning happens to women more than people think, and that men with the upper hand are more likely to sleep with a woman regardless because, she attests, men are more likely to value looks and "to have casual sex given the opportunity".
It’s unbelievably manipulative of men to sleep with women they know they don’t want a relationship with
The reason we're more likely to talk about friend-zoning from a male perspective, she thinks, is that "men joke about it among themselves and will continue trying [to progress from the friend zone], whereas for women it's a bit embarrassing to talk about." Instead, they get over it and move on in silence.
Hannah, 23, has been friend-zoned five times. "What normally happens is I make considerable effort either online or in person to flirt and whatnot, and they either want to just hook up or have nothing to do with me." Like the others, Hannah also maintains it's just as likely to happen to straight women as men in the context of heterosexual dating.
"The difference is that men will still sleep with the woman they’ve friend-zoned, and the term 'ghosting' encompasses this new territory. Women don’t want to sleep with the men they’ve friend-zoned. We respect ourselves and the other person too much to opt for the instant gratification of sex. It’s unbelievably manipulative of men to sleep with women they know they don’t want a relationship with."
She ponders: "What I really want to know is how this translates and compares or contrasts to what people experience in the LGBT+ community."
Quinn believes friend-zoning is caused by poor communication, and that women are just as likely as men to find themselves on the receiving end if they "don't communicate their romantic intentions clearly". "Whether you're a man or a woman, it's best to get clear on what you want and only participate in relationships – friendly or romantic – where you're on equal footing."
To anyone languishing in the friend zone right now, she recommends seeing it as a sign of your (non-romantic) worth, rather than a rejection. "It can be a sign that someone values you as a person, but just isn't able to give you the level of relationship you want."
Accept the cold, hard reality, too and don't maintain a friendship in the hope it'll turn into something more. "Think long and hard though about whether you're happy to keep the relationship at this level; and accept it for what it is," Quinn adds. "If your feelings have crossed a line, take responsibility to let this go." Yes, this is easier said than done when you've painted an idealised picture of someone and your future life together, but do your best Ariana and tell them: Thank u, next.
*Name has been changed