Why Does Friendship Matter to a Sex Ed Organization?
It struck me today that folks might sometimes wonder why, with an organization focused on sexuality, sexual health, and sexual relationships, we spend quite a bit of time talking about friendship. We do it in articles and blogs, and we talk with users often in our direct services about their friendships.
What's that got to do with what we do?
A lot. Perhaps far more than you'd think.
For starters, we strongly feel that friendship is at the core of any and every excellent, happy, healthy relationship, whether we're talking about a friendship that doesn't have any romance or sex in it at all, or we're talking about romantic relationships, sexual relationships or both. We think a sound friendship also has an awful lot to do with healthy family relationships, mentorships, and pretty much any ongoing human interaction we could possibly have.
Our relationships with people will also tend to be fluid through our lives. Friends can become lovers, lovers can become friends or family. Our super-sexy-whoo-hoo booty call can wind up being someone we later call co-parent; someone we thought was only eye candy can turn out to be a person we ultimately consider our best friend in the world. Someone we thought was the great big love of our life can wind up a footnote; someone we thought was only a footnote can become the great big love of our life. While for some people, someone they eventually create a family with may be a romantic or sexual partner, for other folks, that person may be a best friend where those aspects of a relationship don't come into play or aren't even wanted by either party. And of course, while for some people, friends with benefits is a bullshit way of getting sex with no intention of ever being a friend, for other people, the "benefits" in an FWB truly do occur within the context of a bonafide friendship.
We also know how vitally important it is for everyone to have a strong support network in their lives. Our friends are who we will tend to go to first when we need some good, outside perspective on our other relationships from someone we know cares about us, someone we know we can trust. Even if and when romantic or sexual relationships are both something we want and something we have, those are never the only kind of relationships we all need. Just like when we have a meal, we need more than one kind of nutrition on our plates, when it comes to a healthy life, we all need way more than just one kind of relationship. We need our friends, and they need us.
A life where our only important relationships are romantic? Realistically that isn't some fluffy, happy thing: its a more like being the woman locked in the attic in Jane Eyre. No matter how awesome the view from the attic might very well be, it's still just one part of the house you're confined to. A life with only one kind of relationship in it is like a life lived in only one room.
We care about our friends, too, and we want to help and support them, including with sexuality, sexual health and their other relationships. We hear from people here all the time looking to help friends out of abusive or unhealthy romantic relationships, wanting to help a friend with poor body image, expressing concern over friends who are taking big risks with their sexual health and feeling afraid for them, looking for ways to support a friend after a breakup, or with things like pregnancy or abortion, coming out, rape and more. Doing what we can to help and support everyone in being friends in that situation is a way that sound sexuality information and support can be provided peer-to-peer, and that's probably one of our favorite things we're able to do for our users.
We also know that learning how to be friends gives people some of the most important relationship skills any of us can have, and that struggles with friendship can also show up as struggles with all of our relationships, including in our romantic or sexual ones, or create problems for whole groups of people based on sexuality.
For instance, someone who has been raised with the idea that men and women can't be friends is going to have a hard time developing some really big parts -- the deepest parts -- of an ongoing romantic or sexual relationship. A lesbian who never really had strong friendships with women because of the cultural message that girls are crappy to each other or should be in constant competition is going to likely have some barriers forming romantic relationships with women, not only non-romantic relationships. Straight guys who suggest that gay guys only want in their pants and thus, can't be friends or in any relationship with other guys but something sexual can have a big impact when it comes to enabling homophobia. Someone with the idea that any opposite-sex friend of their partner is a threat? It's going to be awfully hard for that person to be in a relationship, and equally hard for anyone they're in a relationship with to be able to have and keep friends. People who only know how to seek out and find companionship and support through sex, and not also through friendship, tend to be pretty lonely, unhappy people.
Caring for other people isn't always easy, nor is caring for ourselves in relationships. The first elective -- by choice -- relationships we'll usually have are with friends, and so friendships are usually the first relationships where we learn about that, about how to treat others with respect and care and be treated that way in mind, where we learn about when to stick it out and when we need to get gone, about boundaries and the lack of them, about things we can do that earnestly help people, and things we can do which really aren't helping anyone at all.
While we hear the phrase "just friends" a lot among our users, we really don't think there is anything "just" about friendship. We think friendship is a big deal. By all means, early on in life, people tend to build some big boxes around relationships to classify this one as way different than that one, like by separating who your parents are and who they aren't, who your teacher is versus someone elses, then later, who your friend is and who your boyfriend or girlfriend is, all with very different titles, and with whatever rules or behaviors someone decides puts one relationship in one box, and one into another. But over time, as we grow and experience different relationships, and as we realize we can only compartmentalize our lives and feelings so much, we usually realize that what kind of relationship is what and why can be pretty mushy.
As well, there's a common cultural idea that the relationships in our lives can be put in a sort of hierarchy, where romantic partners are always at the top; where our romantic partner must be "the" partner, but we're not on board with that either.
We know that who is important to us in each of our lives and what place they have in them is usually less about what we call someone, or what kind of relationship it is in terms of its title, and more about the who in all of that, how we feel about each other, what history we have with each other, and -- yep, you knew it was coming -- the depth of friendship, in the largest sense of the word, we have with those people.
Last, but absolutely not least, learning to have friendships of real depth and quality with others helps us learn how to be a better friend to ourselves, something so, so many of us struggle with. So often, the way we treat ourselves truly sucks, and is a kind of treatment we'd never give a friend. We need to learn and always get better at being our own friend. And learning to be a good friend to others can be a really excellent way to learn that: sometimes the only way some of us do.
When we are our own friend, making tough decisions -- and goodness knows, when it comes to sex and sexuality, there will be many -- gets a lot easier. When we're able to be the friend, for ourselves, who can say "Hey friend, what the hell are you doing?" when we're about to do something stupid or that might do us or others harm, the friend who says, "Hold up: is that really what you want?" when we're about to make a sexual choice that isn't right for us, or what we want at all; the friend who says, "I'm worried about you, and think you need to take better care of yourself," when we're neglecting our sexual health or other self-care, we can advocate better for ourselves, and have some of the support and self-esteem we need even at times when no one else is on board, or there isn't anyone else around to help us out.
When we can be the friend, to ourselves, who says "Here: let's listen to that CD 97 times that makes you feel better but you tell everyone else you think sucks," when we're heartbroken or bummed out, and the friend that says "WAHOO! Go us!" when we're stoked, have just had a great time (especially if it's the kind of good time others around us don't approve of, but we know works for us), or made a choice that was tough, but got through and made best for ourselves. Learning to be all those kinds of friend to ourselves is part of how we support our own self-esteem and self-worth, and not only is that big-time important to a healthy sexuality and healthy sexual relationships, it's vital to just getting through every day of our lives. This is really what people mean when they talk about learning to love yourself. And this all can keep cycling: we can learn to be a better friend to ourselves by learning to be a better one to others, and then we can take our increased self-love and share it with our friends, whether they're the friends we don't have any kind of sex with, or the friends we do.
At the heart, literally, of most sex education, sexual expression and learning, is love. (I know, this may be one of those moments where those of you who have read me for a while are all, "Oh boy, here she goes with the hippie stuff again." For those of you who share that groan, just humor me for a second.)
I'm not saying all sex is about capital-L loving someone, whatever that means to you. Sex isn't, itself, love, nor does the expression of sexual feelings or desires magically create love. And for sex to be healthy, people certainly don't have to love each other or be in love per all the usual social narratives we so often hear are required.
But our sexuality, and sexually connecting with people -- even when it's not in a romantic context, even if and when it's in what most folks would consider casual contexts -- has something to do with love: with self-love, with loving that part of who we and others are, with loving those parts someone is sharing with us or with loving that person, full-stop, with love for that part of the human experience, with connecting to something deep in us, even if what we're connecting to isn't always the same (it isn't), isn't the same experience every time (it isn't), or isn't something we all experience the same way (we don't.) Those of us who choose to work in sexuality education usually do so out of a love for people and humanity: it's sure not for the paycheck. But in one way or another, and to varying degrees, what I think any of us do when we really dig in and do real-deal sex ed, what any of us do when we really dig into our sexuality, and seek to explore and express it in healthy ways, alone or with others, is about love.
Which also makes it all have something to do with friendship.
Did you know that the etymological root of the word friend in English, freond or freogan, means to love and favor (the word friend is also related to the word free, go figure)? If nothing else makes more clear that friendship isn't something we can separate from any kind of intimate relationship, or totally separate from sex, I'm not sure what does. When we learn to be friends, learn to develop and deepen friendships -- with anyone in our lives, whatever else the relationship involves or has to offer, as well as our friendship with ourselves -- all the parts of who we are and our lives benefit from it, and that absolutely includes our sexuality.
So yeah, it matters. A lot.