Making assumptions about different-gender interactions

I read a blog post in which a woman described meeting a man on a plane and getting a glimpse into his fascinating life. She also spoke well of his looks, not in an “I was attracted to him” way, but in a way you might talk about admiring anything beautiful. This was a very small part of the post, which was mainly concerned with her anxiety about talking to a stranger and her gratefulness that she overcame that anxiety and was able to briefly connect with him. But what was the first comment on the post? “Sounds like you found him attractive ;)”. The author had replied to that comment saying that was her husband’s response as well, but not at all what she had felt or meant. And it made me sad that this was both the commenter’s and the husband’s focus, and that they took the author’s words in an entirely different way than she intended them.

People tend to do this to each other a lot, at least in spaces where heteronormativity reigns unquestioned—if someone shows any sort of interest in a person who is perceived to be of the opposite gender, it’s assumed to be romantic interest and treated accordingly, because of course everyone is both straight and interested in romantic relationships, and that’s the only reason they would ever interact with anyone of a different gender than their own. This often means that the person showing the interest gets teased; my teenage sister mentions a male friend, and my whole family starts asking, “Ooh, do you like him?” and making jokes about the two of them as a couple. Reacting to kids especially this way sends the message that the only relationships there can be between people of different genders are romantic ones, which is severely limiting. It’s quite possible to be friends with, be intrigued by, have a good conversation with, or desire to get to know better someone of a different gender without any romantic attraction being present. But heteronormative circles don’t acknowledge this, and some perhaps don’t even believe it.

The typical nature of the responses—“Oooh, you like her”; “You must think he’s attractive”—makes people (again, probably kids in particular) feel like they need to defend these instances of non-romantic interest in those of a different gender, or else causes them to feel that they can’t talk about them to others at all—because other people won’t understand and will turn the occurrences into something they’re not. The FedEx guy who used to pick up my office’s packages every day was really nice, and my brief conversations with him were always pleasant. But I avoided talking about him to certain people, stopping myself from mentioning a fun place he’d recommended I go or a story he’d told, because I didn’t want to get asked, “Ooh, what’s his name? Is he hot?”. I didn’t want anyone insisting I felt something that I didn’t, and I didn’t want the point of my story—“This is a cool guy, and I enjoy talking to him”—to be completely missed.

Even worse, these typical reactions can cause the person expressing interest to be embarrassed, which could lead them to avoid non-romantic encounters with or interest in people of different genders in the future. Several times I have tried to minimize my interactions with a certain man after being teased about him, because the only way I saw to escape getting teased again was to not talk to the man I was being teased about. But how awful is that? At worst, the person I’m suddenly ignoring will be bothered by my apparent rudeness, and even if he doesn’t actually notice or care, I’m still missing out on interaction and possibly a relationship with a fun or interesting or good person, just because he happens to not share my gender.

I think making assumptions of romantic interest is especially harmful when it’s done to kids, because they don’t know to be heteronormative or amatornormative or assume that they can’t be friends with people of different genders until they’re taught to do so (which is done by popular culture as well as interpersonal interactions). Once they learn that they should only be having certain feelings and relating to other people in certain ways, anything that doesn’t fit into this mold becomes something to be ashamed of—something to then defend, or repress, or excise altogether.

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8 thoughts on “Making assumptions about different-gender interactions

  1. Aqua December 14, 2014 / 11:29 pm

    Doing that bothers me so much for those reasons. It’s strange that heteronormativity, even when accompanied by restrictive attitudes towards sex still hypersexualizes and hyperromanticizes every non-familial interaction between men and women. On the flip side, same-gender romantic relationships are devalued and erased by this, sometimes being dismissed as simply being friendships, with the assumption that friendships are less important.

    I also remember being teased about having male friends in middle school and high school, by my family. For a short while, I was too nervous to be around one of my friends, because of the teasing. I was lucky that they quickly backed off though. They quickly realized that I wasn’t interested in any of my friends romantically, and they quickly accepted it.

    I agree that it’s so damaging to assume that romantic-sexual relationships are the only reasons why unrelated men and women would want to be with each other. What a way to restrict so many opportunities for meaningful relationships of other kinds! I didn’t believe that I was wrong for having male friends, without either of us any sexual or romantic intent behind the friendship, and we just saw each other as fun people to hang out with, but it’s sad knowing that so many people do believe that this isn’t possible, or not meant to happen.

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    • cinderace December 15, 2014 / 11:41 am

      Thanks for the comment! I come from a pretty conservative background, and like you said it’s funny how even in an environment like that, people have no problem jumping in and making assumptions about romance. “For a short while, I was too nervous to be around one of my friends”. When I wrote out that I’ve avoided certain people to escape teasing, I thought it sounded a little extreme but I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who’s felt the need to do that–although I definitely wish you hadn’t had to go through that! Glad your family didn’t keep it up.

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      • Aqua December 16, 2014 / 11:15 am

        You’re welcome! I didn’t avoid this person, but I was nervous being around them, knowing that my family would tease me about it. They didn’t mean any harm by it, but they may have bought into these kind of ideas.

        It’s weird that there’s so much emphasis on abstaining from sex until marriage, that an unrelated young man and woman are seen as needing chaperones, under the assumption that they will have sex if unsupervised. I didn’t deal with that idea outright, because I didn’t have a conservative upbringing, but it still lingers in mainstream society to some extent. I was nervous at the thought of others perceiving me and any of my male friends as a couple, because of the assumptions they might make about me and them.

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        • cinderace December 16, 2014 / 11:49 am

          Oh, got it. Glad it wasn’t that extreme for you, then (and in my case it wasn’t actually friends, just acquaintances who I wouldn’t have come into contact with much anyway).

          Ugh, yeah, I’ve seen discussions among Christians about whether it’s appropriate for even adult men and women (who aren’t related/married to each other) to ever be alone together, because if they are, who knows what they might do? It’s such a suspicious, mistrustful attitude, and like you said it even extends beyond conservative Christian circles, and has harmful repercussions for aces and anyone who doesn’t want people to assume that just because they’re friends with someone of a different sex, doesn’t mean they’re having sex!

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  2. morgaine has won December 19, 2014 / 6:25 am

    I feel you so hard on this! I’m from Germany and no one is this kind of conservative around here (not that everything’s sunshine and roses), and the only people who would make these kind of “jokes” around me were aquaintances. Uuugh, I would just stare at them blankly until they stop it. It’s so uncomfortable, and I also feel like people try to be subtly controling with it. Like you said, it assigns inappropriate contexts to situations that one hasn’t experienced that way at all!
    I really appreciate your thoughtful and respectfully probing attitude in writing. I enjoy reading your thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • cinderace December 19, 2014 / 1:11 pm

      Aww, thanks so much for the encouragement! That really means a lot to me as someone who’s just starting to blog. :)

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  3. luvtheheaven December 22, 2014 / 11:56 am

    This is a great post, so much thoughtful discussion on this topic, and also in the comments it’s continued and I love that. I think you’re right that it’s particularly hurtful to kids to reinforce this notion. I was an ace girl who assumed thanks to a combination of a few things including heteronormativity and no exposure to the concept of asexuality that I was straight, and growing up my best friend was my brother (who was/is two years younger than me), and no one assumed anything weird about that because siblings are allowed to be friends. But then, sometimes I’d become friends with my brother’s male friends.

    In one case, while we were barely around the age puberty starts, middle school aged or whatever (we’re from the USA) an “only child” boy who lived down the street from us who was one year older than my brother and one year younger than me truly became a mutual friend, a friend I considered mine and not just “my brother’s friend”, and so yes, I had my first real friend who wasn’t female, and I started wondering what it might be like if we were to date. Not because I felt anything more than friendship for him – I enjoyed playing video games with him, talking to him, eating snacks with him, watching movies on his TV while sitting on his couch, jumping on the trampoline in his backyard, when it snowed sledding down my backyard’s hill together, etc. We were just typical middle-school neighborhood friends. But because male/female friendship meant there MUST be some hint of romantic crush there, right? I wondered if maybe I did have a crush on him. After all, I liked him as a human being a lot. The same way I liked my female friends for who they were as people. But he was a guy. So I couldn’t like him at all and not like him in that romanticized/sexualized way, right? I’d internalized this notion that maybe what I felt for him was more than just friendship.

    My brother’s friends who I enjoyed hanging out with were typically two years younger than me, just like my brother, and often because they were “so young” (age differences feel more extreme, the younger you are, after all) I often felt like I wasn’t equal enough to them to really even let the thought of me having a crush on them cross my mind. But as I got older, I did start to wonder what they were thinking about me “as a girl”, and started to feel confused about what I felt for them. If I enjoyed spending time with them, what did that say about my feelings toward them?

    There were certain male teachers I liked a lot in middle and high school… but there were certain female teachers I felt the same way about too. Still, I wondered, when these male teachers were particularly young and often obviously, by objective/society’s standards, “attractive”, if I had a crush on them. I tended to have stronger feelings toward male teachers than female teachers anyway. I was a bit of a teacher’s pet and my male teachers tended to simply be friendlier or something. It wasn’t always true, but sometimes, and I felt confused about my feelings. This was heightened by not knowing about asexuality or aromanticism being a thing, not knowing I might fall on those spectrums and assuming I was straight-by-default, and then attempting to classify SOME of my ace and possibly *platonic-only*-for-everyone-of-every-gender feelings as fitting in a heteronormative box of “romantic crush” and/or “sexual crush” on the men I had any positive emotions at all toward.

    It was confusing, and in some ways it still is.

    I pretty much don’t have any close male friends right now, probably thanks to society telling me my whole life that girls aren’t friends with guys, and me therefore only seeking out fellow people of the female gender to become my friends. Although I feel extraordinarily close with my one male first cousin who’s not still a toddler (the one who’s only 7 years younger than me), and with my father and brother. And the female-only friendship thing is starting to change now that I’ve joined a local ace-meetup group – I now have a couple of agender friends, and one guy in the group who I’m beginning to view as a real friend too. I love that at the ace-meetup, there is an expectation of platonic-only type feelings between everyone, regardless of gender. It makes things simpler, and really comfortable, actually.

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    • cinderace December 25, 2014 / 11:26 pm

      Thanks for sharing about your experiences! I can definitely relate–when I was a teenager, I didn’t even really consider the possibility of having guys as friends, but assumed that any interest I had toward guys I knew was romantic in nature. In college, I finally did have male friends and really enjoyed it, but at the moment, I’m not sure if I’ll form any new male friendships in the near future, because of the societal pressure not to, and the assumptions people would make if I did. Unfortunate but true…

      Your comment also reminded me of getting teased in college for liking a male professor–and I did like him, because he was awesome, but not in a romantic way. But of course my thinking he was a great prof and him being fairly good-looking meant I had a crush on him. And then I couldn’t talk about him anymore, because if I did the conversation would just turn into teasing.

      The ace meetup does sound like a really great environment. So different from the norm!

      Liked by 1 person

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