It happens so often, and so blatantly that I just know the women don't have any awareness of the men they're passing over. A mutual friend calls and asks me to hand the phone to Sarah to invite her for a morning walk. A moms-only blessing way is organized for the 3 pregnant parents in our kindergarten. A neighbour leaves a phone message thanking me for our children's' recent playdate, asking me to borrow some honey, then inviting Sarah for a get-to-know-each-other-deeper tea.
Are men that crude, that shallow that we can only be enjoyed in public and at a surface level? Even if we're in the minority, I know many men who are sensitive, good listeners, and eager to enter into a deeper friendship based on mutual trust and sharing. They don't want to talk about hockey and strippers; they want to know what goes on inside their friends' hearts and souls, and share what moves and challenges them in their lives and relationships.
Are we really incapable of understanding? Genuine empathy does not require having experienced the same thing. We can, and should, hear and seek to understand and reflect back the feelings and experiences of our women friends. If those experiences are unique to women, then it's an opportunity for me to ask more questions and elicit more sharing - hallmarks of good communication and building blocks of good friendships.
Do we have to take sides? Relationships one of the taboo subjects for crossing gender lines. We have several friends who talk quite openly with both of us about their lives, but only to Sarah about their marriages or sex lives. Seems to me this just entrenches the (perceived or real) gender barrier in relationships, rather than creating an opportunity to better understand each other.
Did everyone take Billy Crystal too seriously when Harry tells Sally that "men and women can't be friends because the sex part always gets in the way"? Intimacy is beautiful, and can be experienced in so many levels that it doesn't have to be expressed sexually. I trust myself, my friends and my partner to deliberately not invest energy in that direction, and equally trust us to deal with it openly if such feelings did arise. We are adults; we can direct our energies and actions and trust ourselves.
So those are my rant questions. That's what's in my head when I roll my eyes every time Sarah gets (or organizes) another gender-exclusive activity. But I do know there's another side to this. Each time it happens I have to get past the knee-jerk and see that in some cases there may be very valid reasons, such as:
Men are loud and dominate conversations. Many women tend to lose their voice in a mixed crowd. At our last full-weekend Oxfam Canada board meeting - a leading women's rights non-profit organization with very strong women comprising almost 2/3 of the board - over 2/3 of comments and questions came from the minority of men. Whether that stat would hold true, or perhaps even be reversed, in a mixed gathering dialogue around deeper personal subjects is another question.
Mixed gatherings tend to go less deep. But I would suggest that's because of social expectations and intention-setting more than the gender mix. At retreats and quiet gatherings with an explicit intention to plumb the depths, I have experienced profound sharing. Our understanding of how men and women communicate should not be based on what happens at the company barbecue.
Some topics are just a bit too tender. Yes, most men are happy to be excluded from certain anatomical discussions, but I'd like to think that women don't devote too much time to talking about PMS and cracked nipples, just as men don't chat that much about prostrates and scratchy scrotums (scrota?). And once again, even though we'll never experience menopause in the way that women will, there just might be real mutual value in exploring and sharing it with us, and exploring with us the little understood male transitions and rhythms.
Women have a shared cultural experience of having grown up with this particular society's expectations and pressures, which makes certain types of sharing and trust easier and more natural. I get that some women have had experiences that make it hard to trust a man or men in general, and that almost all women have grown up in a culture that doesn't encourage or inspire trusting friendships with men. But putting us all in the same box denies the possibility for growth and sadly limits the potential for true connections.
The biggest reason of all for this inequity is probably that I'm married to a person who is vastly more wise, compassionate, empathic, big-eared and deep-souled than I am. I fully accept and expect that if one needs to choose between us, that she is most often the number one choice. If I had to turn to one person, especially to share hard times or feelings with, I'd choose her too.
All I'm really calling for here is an openness to men. We can be nice, we can be good listeners and sharers, we can be trusted. We can actually be really wonderful friends. We like to go on morning hikes and afternoon playdates and evening coffee shops. And the world would go along a little smoother if we understood and were understood by the fair sex a little better.
I will continue to do my best to understand when women decide that they need to be with just other women. And trust before making that decision, that those women openly and bravely considered whether the inclusion of men would be possible, a worthwhile investment in bridge-building, or even a valuable or enjoyable addition.
Post-script: Just for fun, here's the expansion on Harry's theory when, decades later, he invites Sally to a just-friends dinner:
They can't be friends. Unless both of them are involved with other people, then they can... This is an amendment to the earlier rule. If the two people are in relationships, the pressure of possible involvement is lifted... That doesn't work either, because what happens then is, the person you're involved with can't understand why you need to be friends with the person you're just friends with. Like it means something is missing from the relationship and why do you have to go outside to get it? And when you say "No, no, no it's not true, nothing is missing from the relationship," the person you're involved with then accuses you of being secretly attracted to the person you're just friends with, which you probably are. I mean, come on, who the hell are we kidding, let's face it. Which brings us back to the earlier rule before the amendment, which is men and women can't be friends.