Lucy Mangan

Lucy Mangan is all for platonic friendships: “Men and women can be left alone together”

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Lucy Mangan

People reacted with derision – loud and long – when American vice president Mike Pence said he refused to have dinner alone with any woman other than his wife. Now it turns out that far from being an aberration, he has company.

A recent survey by The New York Times discovered that the majority of Americans were cautious about having dinner or a drink with a member of the opposite sex on his/her own. And substantial minorities also felt iffy about driving together, having a work meeting or going for lunch. In both their private and professional spheres, one-on-one meetings between people with differently configured genitals were very much considered a fraught and perilous undertaking. This is enraging on multiple levels.

Firstly, I suspect that, far from being solely the preserve of the kind of maniacal, narrow-minded Christianity in which the US and its current administration specialise, the results would be exactly the same here too.

In workplaces both sides of the pond, the fear of sexual harassment stalks us all. Fear of experiencing it, fear of being accused of (or of being caught) doing it. So a shadowy awareness – darker with some colleagues, lighter with others – of potentialities informs many of our interactions. So they are either expanded to include others or avoided altogether. Thus men get to meet other men and consolidate their disproportionately held power (nothing like a little one-on-one time with the boss to keep your career in shape) while women are left to prove themselves by trying to do more with less. The self-perpetuating nature of it all kills me.

But although I feel I should reserve all my outrage for the more tangible disadvantages the professional divide brings, it is the equivalent in my private life that I have always found most upsetting. I remember the first time a male friend – we’ll call him James, as that is his name and I’m still furious with him – turned down an invitation (extended and accepted many times before in both directions over our previous decade of friendship) to come round to my flat for a meal. He got all shifty-eyed and shuffly-footed, muttered something inaudible and fled. I was baffled. I rang my sister, who is younger but always much wiser than me. “What’s going on?” I asked. “Has he recently got a proper girlfriend?” she inquired. “Yes.” “That’s when it starts,” she said. And so it proved.

When you get to a certain age – mid-20s, I’d say – when people start to form their first ‘serious’ relationships, a certain strain of them (of both sexes) go bonkers. Teenage madness returns with a vengeance. Suddenly, to this type, it becomes disloyal to see old friends of the opposite sex. Single women (even ones of my level of attractiveness, once summarised by my mother with a sigh as “You’ll not stop clocks, or traffic,”) become viewed as a pollutant at best (“It looks bad to other people,” James said when I confronted him) and a direct threat at worst.

At work and at home this behaviour shows that women are not considered people first and foremost, but female

Years of friendship suddenly mean nothing. You are reduced to nothing more than a potentially willing vagina and excluded accordingly.

It is demeaning – to all parties. It says nobody can be trusted, that romantic love trumps all and that it must be proved, a toll paid, by sacrificing what was previously important. Both at work and at home this behaviour shows that women are not considered people first and foremost, but female. Strange, other beings, who – even if it’s inadvertent – cannot help but lay traps and so must be treated warily. It’s an ancient, ancient stereotype that is still playing out today, and it needs to be staked through its black, black heart.

Come on, everyone. Be a mate.

Main image: iStock