I don't remember when I first heard about the "friend zone," but it wasn't until college that I learned it could be sexist. For years, I bought into the idea that if someone wants to date you and you only offer them friendship, you're letting them down — which meant that I felt guilty when friends wanted something more and I didn't. It wasn't until I was in my 20s that I learned that complaining about the "friend zone" is just another way men act entitled to women's bodies. We're worth so much more than our sexuality, and our friendship shouldn't be considered a punishment.
The guilt I started feeling over the "friend zone" began during my sophomore year, when a friend of mine asked me out. I wasn't physically attracted to him, but I felt like I had to give him a chance. Personality could trump everything after all, right? (Women, but rarely men, are often taught that it's vain to care about a partner's looks.) Besides, he was such a good friend.
When I realized I couldn't force myself to be attracted to him, he completely lost it, texting me constantly about how heartbroken I'd left him and posting passive-aggressive Facebook statuses about how angry he was with a certain person who was clearly me. I internalized all the shame, deeming myself cruel for "friend-zoning" him. It didn't occur to me that he was the cruel one for shaming me for feelings I couldn't control.
Then, I came across a blog post titled "Lamenting The Friend Zone, Or: The 'Nice Guy' Approach To Perpetrating Sexist Bullshit." Its author, Foz Meadows, pointed out that people who complain about being put in the friend zone are disproportionately men "friend-zoned" by women. Which is how we get sexist jokes like this.
Meadows quotes Twitter user hexjackal as saying, "Friendzoning is bullsh*t because girls are not machines that you put Kindness Coins into until sex falls out." In other words, the phrase "friend zone" wouldn't have any negative connotations unless men felt entitled to sex from women. So, teaching men that the "friend zone" exists ultimately teaches them to feel entitled — and when it starts in the teenage years, it sets men up to feel entitled throughout their entire adult lives.
After that, I began to understand that the type of relationship two people have does not have to be a mutual agreement. If I only wanted to be friends, I didn't have to compromise with anyone by giving them a little bit more. Despite what so many of us are taught from a young age, it wasn't my duty to make sure men's sexual or romantic needs were met.
I also began to challenge the idea that by being friends with guys, I was "leading them on." The "friends" of mine who said things like, "Well, you did come to my room," and, "Are we flirting a little right now?" (when we weren't) were in the wrong. We need to tell men that friendship is a worthy goal for its own sake, not a stepping stone toward a relationship.
At some point growing up, the men who had complained about being friend-zoned by me or expected to get out of the "friend zone" had instead learned that dating or sleeping with a woman is preferable to being friends with her. The belief underlying this is that women are primarily for sex and dating, rather than being full human beings who can have the same kinds of relationships with men that other men would. (It's also heteronormative, since not all men even want to sleep with women.)
In this way, the concept of the "friend zone" objectifies and dehumanizes women. It teaches men that women aren't even capable of being their friends. This same sexist philosophy underlies questions like "can men and women really be friends?" The only thing that lets us consider that they can't is the idea that women are just not worth men's time unless they're offering up their supposedly most valuable asset: Their bodies.
Complaining about the "friend zone" also feeds into the popular view that "nice guys" deserve sex or love from women. Yes, people really think this way: One OKCupid date told me the women who didn't message him back were being "unjust." As Arthur Chu writes in The Daily Beast, this results from a popular trope in movies and video games where men get rewarded for their kindness with a princess or popular girl at the end.
Perhaps this is how we start to buy into the idea of the "friend zone" at such a young age — and why it's so gendered. Women can get upset about being friend-zoned, too, but I've found they're more often unhappy with the circumstances than mad at the person who "friend-zoned" them.
After I came to understand how harmful concepts like "the friend zone" and "nice guys" are, I became less shy about telling guys I only wanted friendship. As it turns out, how willing someone is to be your friend is a great predictor of how good a partner they'll be. Most actual nice guys I've met are totally cool with hanging out as friends, even if we've met on a dating site.
Teaching teens about the friend zone sends the message that romantic relationships are more valuable than friendships — and that women are more valuable as sexual partners than as anything else. It teaches men that they can earn sex from women through good behavior, and it teaches women they've wronged men if they don't grant it. In order for us to all see one another as humans, we need to teach men that women are suitable friends and worthwhile people whether they sleep with them or not.