Friendship and Erotophobia

Josh Gonnerman has already written a fine response to Austin Ruse’s Crisis Magazine article. There is one point that I wanted to address that I didn’t think he covered, which is the belief within a lot of conservative Catholic circles that any kind of intimate friendship between men and women is “playing with fire.”

I suppose that I should begin by pointing out that I am a convert—that’s true of most of the people here on Spiritual Friendship, but many of my friends and colleagues here are converts from Protestant churches that share this kind of suspicion when it comes to mixed-sex friendship. I’m a convert from liberal Anglicanism via atheism so I was never raised with any of these ideas. It was always just normal for me to have male friends, and it was normal for my male friends to have female friends.

The first time, outside of Victorian literature, that I even encountered the idea that men and women being friends is somehow spiritually dangerous was when an older woman in my church came up to me after Mass and reprimanded me for causing scandal. The scandal was that I was seen to come to daily Mass with two different men: sometimes with my husband and other times with our housemate Neil. Also, I had been seen out at coffee shops with Neil. The way that this woman talked about it, it was clear that she not only felt that I was setting a scandalous example but also suspected that I was actually committing adultery. Her tone was scathing and very uncharitable—especially since, as I said, I had no idea that anyone still believed that intimate opposite-sex friendships were abnormal.

I’ve since encountered this belief several more times, usually from Catholics of the older generation though there do seem to be some parts of the US where this idea remains in currency. I never know what to do with it. I try to think of what the world would look like to me if I believed that hanging out with Dave until two in the morning was an occasion of adultery. Or if I got frightened, jealous and suspicious whenever my husband spent time alone with one of our female friends. Spending time, intimate, emotionally vulnerable time with close friends of the opposite-sex just is a normal part of life for a lot of people in my generation. It’s not really that different from what Josh described with regards to same-sex friends for gay people: if you have opposite-sex friends from the time that you’re young you learn in high-school how to tell the difference between a relationship where you’re playing with fire and a relationship where you’re playing with wet matches. Sexual tension is not hard to recognize (even I can spot it, and I’m pretty socially oblivious), and there are plenty of opposite-sex relationships out there where it is completely absent.

I’ve found, however, that when I try to explain this to people who believe in the dangers of opposite-sex friendship they become very uncomfortable. I had one correspondent tell me that I was very naive indeed if I would let my husband spend several days on vacation with a female friend. I was just asking for trouble. It was a weird situation because I realized that anything that I could say would sound like I was, in fact, being naive. There are plenty of women out there who say things like “Oh, my husband would never do that to me. My best friend would never do that to me…” and in fact they’re kidding themselves. It’s very hard to express the difference between gullibility and mutual trust.

I suspect that it’s the same difficulty that underlies the “playing with fire” narrative. How do you tell the difference between situations where you can trust yourself to behave and situations where you’re trying to hoodwink your conscience? The answer is fairly straightforward: you know by experience. But this answer sounds extremely dangerous from a particular point of view. There’s a kind of head-space that you can get into where you imagine that God is looming over you with a great big hammer and that if you mess up, especially if there was any possibility of foreseeing the mess up, He’s going to smack you down. After all, it’s possible that you’ll take that risk, and then you’ll be overcome by your own weakness, you’ll commit that mortal sin and then on the way to the confessional you’ll get hit by a bus. Instantaneous death. Final impenitence. Hell.

I know what it’s like to live with that kind of spiritual fear. I can’t speak for everyone, but I know that when I was in that frame of mind it was very difficult for me to trust myself to risk mistakes, and equally difficult to trust others (who took those risks all the time) because fundamentally I didn’t believe in the goodness of God. I believed in His omniscience. I believed in His power. But I didn’t trust in Him enough to believe that He would see and understand my weaknesses, that He would allow me to make mistakes, that He would give me the opportunities that I needed to grow through experience. I worried that He was a “hard man” so I wanted to keep my talents safe rather than risking them out there in the world, where I might lose them. (cf. Matt 25:14-30)

I suspect that it’s a similar kind of fearfulness that places undue limitations on the intimacy of friendship. Yes, we should avoid relationships that are likely to lead to sin—but not every relationship with someone of the gender that you happen to find attractive automatically falls into that category. Nor is intimacy, properly understood, a doorway to sexual congress. If anything the male friends with whom I am most intimate are the ones who I am most sure will never make a pass at me. Genuine intimacy entails a deep, spiritual concern for the good of the other: that’s what the virtue of chastity is about. It’s not about avoiding sex. It’s about learning to make a sincere and intimate gift of self to others through self-mastery. When chastity becomes nothing more than a barrier against sin it loses sight of its own purpose: it ceases to be an expression of love and becomes instead a kind of spiritual narcissism that traps the person and isolates them from occasions of grace.

Melinda SelmysMelinda Selmys is a Catholic writer, blogger, and speaker. She is the author of Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism and she blogs at Sexual Authenticity. Melinda can be followed on Twitter: @melindaselmys.

23 thoughts on “Friendship and Erotophobia

  1. Thank you for making the point re: spiritual risk-taking.

    I said on another thread, I think: I’d rather risk sinning by an excess of love than by a deficit.

      • I’m not sure. I think of economic policy, for example. If there were a choice between over-producing food in the world or under-producing it…my goodness, of course we should over-produce! Then if there is “extra” we can get rid of it, pull back, or at most our biggest fear is gluttony and obesity IF people choose to eat the excess rather than ignore it or throw it out (or store it if possible). If there is too LITTLE food, however…there ain’t nothing we can do. People starve. Given that the mark is likely NOT going to be hit perfectly everytime, the question of whether to err on the side of over-shooting or under-shooting is HUGE in terms of what attitude people take in their approach. I think this very debate shows it. Christ makes it clear: the talent-burier is the one to be most singled out for condemnation. The squanderer is let off much easier (just look at the sympathy shown to the Prodigal Son versus his better “conservative” elder brother).

  2. Hi, Melinda–one vitally important aspect of this discussion still remains unclear, at least to me. And, based on the title of this post, which includes the term “erotophobia”, it definitely seems worth clarifying.

    Are you basically saying that the intimate same-sex friendships being discussed include “room” for that which is “homoerotic” (or, similarly “hetero-erotic”) as long as it *excludes* sexual activity?

    Josh mentions :“it seems to me that the notion of intimate same-sex friendship is playing less with fire than, perhaps, with embers.”

    Is this “playing with embers” referring to potential homoeroticism, or something else, do you think?

    I think it’s really important to this discussion to pin this down.


    • I think the category differences between philia and eros are a lot more clear philosophically than they are existentially. Basically, you have a series of responses that involve a complex interplay of bio-chemical and psychological factors to produce a feeling of attraction towards another person. Whether we conceive of that attraction as erotic or not is at least partially a matter of how we choose to perceive or entertain it. So, to give a really straightforward example, when a woman is attracted to another person a large part of that attraction is a kind of gooshy feeling that she has because the presence of the other person has triggered her body to release oxytocin. This happens in the presence of sexual partners, it also happens in the presence of small babies. In the first context she construes that feeling as eros, in the second she construes it as a desire for a child — what is sometimes popularly referred to as “baby lust.” No one (or almost no one) gets weird or hung up about this. If one of my sisters or friends says “I am so in love with your baby. I feel like I want to be, like, physically united with him!” (Yes, my sisters really do talk like that. More normal women say things like “He’s so beautiful I just want to gobble him up”) I don’t think “Oh my goodness! Pedophilia!” Even though the physiological attraction is chemically similar, and even though it expresses itself in similar words (desire, physical union, being in love, longing, beauty, the analogy to eating, etc.) we’re all able to make a psychological distinction between the maternal kind of “falling in love” and the erotic kind of “falling in love.” I think it’s the same thing with the attraction and intimacy involved in friendship — with a really intense friendship there can be similar feelings and even similar imageries (think, for example, of the literature of romantic friendship during the Victorian era) but a psychological distinction is made that tends to preclude the sexualization of the relationship.

      • Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I think maybe there is an as-yet-unresolved…”tension”?…between “eros” construed as biochemical-psychological phenomenon and “eros” described as “the gift of love between a man and a woman” (which is how Pope Benedict describes it in his Jan 18, 2006, audience).

        In the context you suggest, “eros” seems to have a more “generic” quality to it that is clearly not intrinsically “sexual.” Yet, in the context suggested by Pope Benedict, we see an immediate connection to “sex” (being male and female).

        And, I’d further suggest that “homo-eros” (that which is homoerotic) tends toward the “replacement,” so to speak, of the “eros” that is the “gift of love between a man and a woman.” Thus it would seem to me that this narrows the context of “homo-eros” to something that must be described as more than the biochemical/physiological response kind of “eros” you describe. That is, “homo-eros,” just like the “eros” described by Benedict, is of a “sexual” nature.

        Indeed, in the Church’s lexicon, it seems the case that “homo-eros” corresponds to the “intrinsic disorder” of same-sex attraction.

        Are we possibly on the same page with this? Thanks for the conversation!

      • Sorry, the reply function isn’t working properly on my browser — I’m replying to Jim’s reply.
        Jim, I think you’re giving a reductive definition of eros. Consider Benedict’s comments in Deus Caritas Est concerning the erotic nature of God’s love for man, specifically his observation that God’s eros is agape. Clearly he’s talking about something here that transcends the merely sexual.

      • Hi, Melinda–replying to your last reply (which is probably below)…

        Yes, it seems that Benedict discusses “eros” both with respect to God (since “eros” is a form of love and God is love) and with respect to the human person. But God’s eros is necessarily “agape” as well because God is the fullness of love itself (or Love Himself). And, yes, Benedict speaks of this as something that transcends the “sexual” precisely because the “eros” of God transcends the *human*.

        One thing I have noticed is that Benedict’s “definition” of eros as “the gift of love between a man and a woman” seems to be the only way I see him describe/define “eros” in human terms. That is, I do not see him referring to the “eros”-love that exists between two men or two women, but only the “eros”-love that is the gift between man and woman.

        So, for me to conclude with you that this definition is “reductive” would require additional magisterial evidence that positively describes “homo-eros”. I just don’t think the references by Benedict to God’s eros=agape are sufficient to conclude that he would see “homo-eros” as a positive counterpart to the “eros” he described in 2006….

      • Jim,

        I’ll soften a little what Ron has said. I do think that you make an admirable effort to engage with charity — and that is appreciated. I think the fundamental issue here is that you’re looking for a quotation from a Magisterial document and there isn’t one. But that’s okay. We’re not called to just parrot the teachings of the Church, we’re called to venture out in search of the truth in communion with the other — something Benedict taught me: “As far as preserving identity is concerned, it would be too little for the Christian, so to speak, to assert his identity in a such a way that he effectively blocks the path to truth. Then his Christianity would appear as something arbitrary, merely propositional. He would seem not to reckon with the possibility that religion has to do with truth. On the contrary, I would say that the Christian can afford to be supremely confident, yes, fundamentally certain that he can venture freely into the open sea of the truth, without having to fear for his Christian identity. To be sure, we do not possess the truth, the truth possesses us: Christ, who is the truth, has taken us by the hand, and we know that his hand is holding us securely on the path of our quest for knowledge. Being inwardly held by the hand of Christ makes us free and keeps us safe: free – because if we are held by him, we can enter openly and fearlessly into any dialogue; safe – because he does not let go of us, unless we cut ourselves off from him. At one with him, we stand in the light of truth.”
        Here on Spiritual Friendship we’re talking about an experience of the homoerotic, and about how that experience can become an opportunity of grace. In the case of men whom we know had that experience, like St. Aelred, Michaelangelo, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Henri Nouwen, et al. we ask “What can we learn from these people?” Generally, we don’t see that these people achieved holiness either by repression or by redirecting their erotic desires towards women but rather by sublimating them and directing them towards friendship, art, care for the marginalized, etc. This is why it can be helpful to look at a broader definition of the erotic — at Plato’s idea of eros, for example, or at the Divine eroticism of St. John of the Cross’s poetry, or at the feminist notion of “maternal eros.” It’s a matter of pursuing the truth in our own experiences using the tools that are available within our culture in order to articulate a narrative that will be conducive to spiritual growth.

  3. Those people deeply suspicious of opposite sex friendship never seem to apply their rules to biological or adopted brother-sister relationships, mother-son, or father-daughter relationships. They often get belligerent when challenged on that.

    What this shows is that chaste, emotionally intimate opposite esx friendships are perfectly possible.

  4. Dear Jim,

    While I appreciate your efforts to look at what the Magisterium has to say about the precise sense of eros that is in view in Deus caritas est, etc., I think a more general comment is in order, in the interests of keeping Spiritual Friendship focused on the love revealed in the miracle of the Incarnation which we all celebrate this week.

    So far as I can recall, the only thing that ever brings you to the comment boxes at Spiritual Friendship is the desire to correct one or other of our authors on something. I don’t want to be rude or anything, but it’s difficult to want to engage all that much in conversation with someone whose only mode of engagement so far, has been negative. Whether I agree or disagree with the point you’re trying to make, your overall tone makes it hard to feel enthusiastic reading or responding to anything you write.

    As far as I can tell, you don’t come here trying to understand, or to encourage, or to get to know us. You only engage when you want to correct.

    Since we are parsing Magisterial documents, I would suggest that you spend some time reflecting on Evangelii Gaudium, and asking whether your comments here either spring out of or effectively communicate the joy of the Gospel. My own sense, based on my reading of your comments, is that you haven’t got quite the same gentle touch that Jesus displayed in His interactions with sinners. I hope you will take this not as a condemnation, nor an effort to push you away, but as a gentle encouragement to reflect on the way you approach this community in hopes that future interactions will be more positive for everyone involved.

    • Hi, Ron–sorry to have apparently wasted everyone’s time with the “desire to correct” that I mistakenly thought was my desire to engage in a personable discussion that would measure claims made at this site against specific aspects of magisterial teaching. Sorry, too, for apparently being less gentle than Jesus. Then again, who isn’t? 😉

      My hope is always to engage substance–but the low marks you’re handing me regarding style, tone, and motivation would appear to disqualify me from doing so.

      For the record, I *have* made effort to get to know some of those involved in your project. Had I done so privately with you, perhaps you’d see my comments in a different light.

      I’ll leave it at this and won’t comment further here.

    • Ron,

      It seems to me that Jim’s habit of being critical is annoying, but not necessarily the type of thing that deserves rebuke. I’m not quite clear on whether the above is a rebuke, but I hope it isn’t.

      Personally, I often come across as critical when I’m talking to my wife. Much of that is because I teach philosophy for a living, so my bread and butter is refining a person’s ideas. I find it very helpful when my wife tells me that she perceives something I say as overly critical, because it gives me a way to check whether I am encouraging her enough — of course, I want to encourage her. But I also want to help her move in the right direction, which means disagreeing with her in various ways. (She does the same with me).

      So anyway, I understand that you want to make SF a safe and encouraging place free of the rancor and vitriol of the internets. But I am concerned that your concern might have a chilling effect on the vibrant discussions here. I mean, maybe this isn’t the place to hash out the details of discussions like this. But I, personally, don’t have any other place where I can read people talking about this topic, and so readily engage them in an academic exploration of the truth. Once again, maybe this is because I’m a philosopher. When other philosophers criticize my work, this makes me happy. It makes me fight to defend what’s true, and seek to discern what’s false, in my view.

      At any rate…

      Merry Christmas, brother!

      • Ron, I would have to agree with Daniel here. I’ve noticed on several occasions your tendency to rebuke people. I am not sure if that is perhaps because you are reading into people’s tone more than is there? I didn’t find anything objectionable about Jim’s response even if I don’t agree. I read this blog regularly and maybe I have missed some of the comments but he doesn’t stand out to me as a troll. I think its unfortunate that he now feels he cannot post comments here.

        We hardly have any influence if we cannot engage with people’s questions or objections. I think its great that he was willing to engage the conversation. If we cannot adequately answer his concerns, then what is the point of this blog? I thought we were trying to engage the church more intellectually. Or are we just preaching to ourselves.

        If I can make a friendly and gentle suggestion, I would ask what is it that compels you to frequently rebuke people? It can leave a paternalistic and thought-police kind of impression.

  5. ‘I suspect that it’s the same difficulty that underlies the “playing with fire” narrative. How do you tell the difference between situations where you can trust yourself to behave and situations where you’re trying to hoodwink your conscience? The answer is fairly straightforward: you know by experience.’

    One somewhat important qualification I might add, as far as I’ve come to see things, is that the balance and health of these opposite-sex, or let alone same-sex, friendships with the question of erotic fallibility (for lack of a better phrase—or just, fair enough, ‘erotophobia’) can really only be ensured while in relationship with a father-confessor (or spiritual director, for the Catholic world) who knows best the state of your soul and what is good for you in your interactions with others. This is not to say that self-knowledge and learning by experience are insignificant—far the opposite—but that these judgment calls only make sense with the council of a spiritual father.

    Maybe this is old news for the fellow Catholics and Orthodox folk here, but in the age of autonomous action and reason, it helps to have the reminder. At least I’m always in need of that.

    • Excellently put. Reading Melinda’s generally very good article, I kept thinking: I wonder, she must, she must know about spiritual direction.

      I’m increasingly convinced that for ordinary people receiving ordinary amounts of grace, spiritual direction is essential for growth in holiness. It’s just to easy to fool ourselves.

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  7. Melinda,

    I think this is a very helpful little exploration of friendship — thanks! I tend to think living alone is bad for the soul (though there are exceptions). So I really want the Church to come up with a way for gays, lesbians, and bisexuals to live out chaste lives in living situations that include other people. But this whole idea that you cannot live in the same house with the type of person you are attracted to (male or female, as the case may be) is simply depressing. I mean, sure, I’m attracted to men, but that doesn’t mean that I’m magnetically attracted to every person with male genitals.

    I think that Jim raises a valid point, by the way. I have a male friend who I could very easily flirt with, but we both try not to. We know that the flirting would not really put us in any danger of sexual sin, but the flirting does encourage us to experience almost vicariously the pleasure of that sin — or the pleasure of a relationship that included that sin. I think that it’s unhelpful to seek out that pleasure. Here I think we need to turn to St. Paul, and not ask whether something “is permissible to me”, but rather “whether it is beneficial.”

    There is a danger of becoming legalistic about this, but there is also a danger of using lax standards as an excuse for sin. As usual, we tread the middle course.

    • That’s a really insightful observation, Daniel, about flirting. It is a sort of secondary-something or other. It’s grounded in suggestiveness, right? And suggestion is a connected with permission or license.

      I mean, for myself, I don’t flirt. I just don’t. It’s not really my personality. My girlfriend and I do with each other, but it’s suggestiveness makes it inappropriate in most circumstances. Why would I suggest something that I do not actually propose? Because it’s fun?

      Well, it’s all fun and games until someone gets an eye poked out, right? I mean, I have made the mistake of flirting for fun, and then taking it too seriously, and having it taken too seriously.

      C S Lewis haunts me: “Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn.”

  8. It’s a very good article, and I basically agree.

    I would only add that those boundaries are there for a reason, and that we ignore the reason at our own peril. Even TIME Magazine, hardly a bastion of old-fashioned morals, has recently run a cover story reporting that couples’ therapists are nearly unanimous that adultery starts with this pattern: husband and wife have some tension, and one of them starts relying on an opposite-sex friendship for emotional support.

    It is something of hubris to think that 9-out-of-10 type patterns don’t apply to me, because I know better, as Melinda points out; yet, that is the sort of approach she takes.

    I am not rejecting opposite-sex friendships. I am saying that the opposite-sex part isn’t negligible. That mistake is a species of the basic sexual revolutionary mistake that sex (as in gender) is negligible. The mistake is foolish. If you are a woman, everything you do, you do as a woman. If you are a man, everything you do, you do as a man. Even buttering bread, I’ve watched my sister and her husband stand and scrape the butter differently. She is not a frilly girl, but she is feminine, and he does not try to play macho, but he is decidedly a man. And they scrape their butter differently.

    When entering into or developing opposite-sex friendships, I think we must bear this in mind and exercise prudence. Couples I know are conscientious to include their spouse into these friendships; never to speak ill about their spouse to opposite-sex friends, or to share with them marital troubles. Bitching about the wife is what same-sex friendships are for, to these friends of mine. No alone time together with opposite-sex friends in private, ever. Ever. That’s a final boundary because whereas emotional infidelity might occur at a Starbucks, actual sexual adultery is much rarer there, I’m pretty sure.

    For me, the bottom line is that, coming from a divorced family, safeguarding the marital bond is my top priority. Top. And I am absolutely decided that there is nothing I will stop at to preserve the marital bond, once I enter into it. NFP? Convinced when I heard the associated divorce rate. Retrouvaille? I’m sure it will make me nauseous to talk about my feelings so much, but twice weekly, if my wife likes. Protective boundaries between me and real, honest friends of the opposite sex? No brainer.

    Keeping a friendship with Sally just the way it was before marriage (as if marriage could help but change everything in life!) is just not worth the smallest possible risk of losing the Missus. That said, I cannot imagine myself marrying a woman that I knew would insist that I must stop being friends with Sally at all. Melinda’s basic point, I think, is very sound here.

    But like even same-sex friendships, these opposite-sex friendships must necessarily change when one’s whole life is changed by marriage. Marriage doesn’t mean much if it means still owning yourself and arranging everything just the way you like.

  9. I’ve encountered the belief that opposite sex friendship was dangerous also, but I’ve seen this from younger Catholics. Those holding the beliefs are either former Evangelicals or are from very Evangelical-influenced Catholic circles.

    I’d never heard of any of this growing up. In fact, I thought being seen in public with an opposite sex friend was preventing scandal, because most people don’t commit adultery in public places.

    I think when groups, Catholic or Protestant, put too heavy an emphasis on sexual sins (as opposed to other sins), people do become too afraid to love in appropriate ways. This fear of love turns Christianity on its head, and the whole thing collapses like a house of cards.

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