In her new book The Sex Myth, Rachel Hills, a great writer I’ve known for several years, reports on “a culture that tells us we must be sexy, sexually active, and skilled in bed in order to be adequate human beings—and that teaches us that the truth of who we are can be found in our sex lives.” These expectations, she argues, inspire anxiety in those whose sex lives diverge from the script. As I read, it struck me that nearly everything she writes about societal expectations around sex—i.e., what’s good sex, what’s enough sex, what’s normal—could be said of friendship as well. The parallels are substantial: If the “Sex Myth,” as Rachel defines it, is partly about an expectation that everyone wants a ton of sex and is miserable (or flawed) if they’re not getting it, the friendship myth would suggest that everyone actually wants to be out on a Saturday night or to still be in touch with their entire elementary school class.
While it’s socially acceptable, if painful, to lament the loss of specific friendships, there’s an assumption (for women especially) that these friendships will exist in significant numbers in the first place. The notion that a close-knit group of friends is a given, and that a partner will be tougher to come by, is taken for granted in contemporary culture—witness the old (and passé) expression, “always a bridesmaid, never a bride.” As an example, consider the portrait of friendship in Ann Friedman’s review of “Broad City”:
I quickly realized why so many friends wanted to talk about the show with me. Ilana and Abbi are our people. They are truly casual about sex, not simply feigning detachment in the name of empowerment. They are feminists who call each other ‘dude.’ They have so many inside jokes that listening to them can be like trying to decipher a code. [….] Ilana and Abbi demonstrate what I absolutely found to be true in my 20s: when your job is falling far short of what you hoped and men are nothing but disappointment, your life is about your best girlfriends.
As true it may be to Friedman’s experience, to me it’s just as aspirational as the romantic narratives it’s meant to be liberating women from.
The gulf between what friendship seems it ought to look like and how it actually plays out is the topic of Emily Witt’s New York Times essay about the new cultural obsession with female friendship—she too mentions “Broad City,” as well as the Taylor Swift friend-collection phenomenon. It offers a welcome alternative to the “archaic gender roles” that preceded it, Witt writes, but has brought a new set of concerns. She connects friendship anxieties (“Do you have as many friends as we do? How did you celebrate your birthday? Do you regularly drink prosecco over plates of fruit at Ralph Lauren’s Polo Bar?”) to romantic ones: “Picture-perfect groups of friends on Instagram make me wonder whether Bridget Jones’s idea of ‘smug marrieds’ could also apply to ‘squads’ and why ‘The Stepford Wives’ hasn’t been re-envisioned with a friendship plot.” Most importantly, Witt pins the blame on social media, writing that the technology of the last decade has increased the public performance of friendship. There’s certainly an element of this. Facebook, for example, can contribute to such concerns; it’s suddenly possible to feel excluded from an event that, pre-Facebook, one wouldn’t have cared was happening. But the fear of not having enough or close enough friends goes much deeper, and predates Taylor Swift performances or Instagram.
In The Sex Myth, Rachel writes about sitcoms that were on in her (and my) youth, giving the impression that sex with a new partner a week is normal. These same programs also presented a friends-as-family dynamic in similarly idealized terms. For those of my generation, this shaped what we thought adulthood would look like. (Contrast this with Hallie Cantor’s recent New Yorker piece, “Everything I Am Afraid Might Happen If I Ask New Acquaintances To Get Coffee,” which is both hilarious and unusually honest about the extent to which platonic does not, in fact, equal effortless. “They will say no and laugh at me for not having enough existing friends to get coffee with,” is a peculiarly relevant fear.)
The sex and friendship myths exist concurrently, and whichever one you relate to more will probably feel like the more important. There are, however, some objective distinctions. A platonic social life that fails to live up to one’s hopes seems like a petty concern relative to the angst experienced by the involuntarily chaste and those craving romantic companionship, at least among those who’ve long since left middle school. But “friendless,” stigma-wise, is almost certainly worse than “single,” even among adults.
Part of me wants to say that this disparity is just reasonable—that it simply is a red flag if someone has no friends, in a way it isn’t one if someone is single or celibate. (Note that there’s no friendship equivalent of the stigma on having ‘too many’ sex partners.) But maybe I’ve got it wrong. Maybe it’s just that one myth is greater than the other.