Last year, at the beginning of a long and brutal battle with chronic Lyme disease, I took a solo vacation to L.A. I didn’t know many people, but during my walks down the Venice Beach boardwalk, I began to feel at home amid its eclectic cast of characters. A man who ran an oxygen stand gave me health advice and words of wisdom; a cashier at an Egyptian shop told me about my past lives. I began to feel more optimistic about life.
When I returned several months later in search of more relaxation and healing, I was excited to reunite with my boardwalk friends. But as I got to know them better, I realized they weren’t my friends after all.
One night, I was feeling very ill when oxygen man saw me crying. After I explained what was wrong, he told me I just needed to get fucked really good—and offered to provide that for me. He kept arguing after I said I had no interest. I felt betrayed that he was capitalizing on my pain for his sexual gratification. Meanwhile, the Egyptian shop clerk, who was old enough to be my father, told me I was beautiful and asked if I liked older guys. I’d gone from feeling at home to feeling alone. I didn’t talk to them again.
Maybe, in their minds, they’d been friend zoned. But I’d been put somewhere worse: I’d been sex zoned.
You sometimes hear men complain about women who only want to be their friends even after they prove themselves partner material. What you don’t hear about is the emotional impact it has on women when those they trusted as friends only value them for their bodies or their ability to fulfill a hidden agenda. Or the toll it takes on our social lives to avoid people we enjoyed talking to because they won’t take “no” for an answer. Or the hypervigilance we develop as a result. Or the loneliness that ensues.
When someone withdraws a friendship because sex is off the table, the impacted person gets the message that all they were worth to this person was sex.
Being sex-zoned can cut women off not just from friends but from entire social circles. That’s what happened to Ali Taylor, a 21-year-old student in Indiana. Ali used to go out with a group of friends, and she and one male friend would be the last to leave. When he started coming on to her, she shut him down quickly and left. Yet he tried again every time they hung out, even when she left earlier to avoid him.
“It got to the point that I didn’t really feel welcome in that group anymore, so I stopped going out with them,” she remembers. “This was pretty early on in college, too, so it’s not like I had too many other friends. So I basically stopped going out at all.”
Even those who condemn sexual assault often make light of unwanted verbal advances, claiming they’re compliments or mere friendliness or that men couldn’t get dates if they tiptoed around women. But such advances limit women’s mobility in the world, as well as their ability to form deep and fulfilling friendships.
Lex, a 24-year-old teacher in Philadelphia, has become cautious in her interactions with men ever since a close friend sent her NSFW photos, made online accounts to view nude modeling work of hers, and called her “selfish” when she confronted him. She’s guarded even around guys who are kind to her because she’s afraid their kindness, too, is a ploy for sex. She’s dated sexually repressed men because she’s come to associate sexual expression with aggression.
“It’s like some kind of verbal rape, forced mental penetration, to just invade someone’s thoughts like that,” she says.
What makes these situations cause so much turmoil is that sometimes, the friends who violate our boundaries are the same ones we’ve relied on like family for years. Melissa Vitale, a 26-year-old publicist in Brooklyn, has a dear friend who has helped her through rough times since college. But there’s one thing that soils their friendship: He keeps asking her for nudes. “I am constantly torn between keeping him as a friend for all the times he's the best rock to lean on or permanently blocking him for the few times he makes me feel like an object,” she says.
Treating women like walking sexual opportunities rather than multidimensional people doesn’t just sadden and scare individuals; it perpetuates a societal view of women as objects. “When someone withdraws a friendship because sex is off the table, the impacted person gets the message that all they were worth to this person was sex,” says mental health counselor Kathryn Stamoulis. “That hurts. In isolation, this may be a small blip that one can easily rebound from. However, girls and women exist in a culture where they are often sexualized, so this experience may confound their experience of being objectified.”
Being sex-zoned can cut women off not just from friends but from entire social circles.
“Sexualization is associated with many negative psychological outcomes, including depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and body consciousness,” she adds.
To avoid these situations, Stamoulis encourages men to make their romantic interest clear from the getgo rather than befriend a love interest to get close before making a move.
If you’re romantically interested in a friend but also genuinely value the friendship, it’s still possible to remain friends when your feelings aren’t reciprocated, she adds. The important thing is that if your friend isn’t interested, you respect that instead of pushing it or bringing it up again. Make sure you don’t have ulterior motives for continuing the friendship, and let her know that you value her as a friend and a person. Women don’t hear that enough.
If, on the flip side, a friend of yours seems romantically interested in you and you don’t feel the same way, Stamoulis recommends having a talk where you clearly spell out your feelings. “If he continues after that, he is sexually harassing you,” she says. “When you realize the individual does not respect you, it's easier to cut the person off. It is a loss that you may have to cut out someone you viewed as a friend and perhaps not hang out with your other friends in a group as well. This type of loss is another reason why sexual harassment negatively impacts women.”
But that doesn’t mean you have to decline future friendships with men. Instead, decide in advance what boundaries your friends cannot cross and promise yourself you’ll end a friendship the moment someone crosses them. This “will allow for the opportunity for burgeoning respectful relationships and quickly put an end to disrespectful ones,” says Stamoulis.
After being sex-zoned, I was conflicted about whether to keep talking to my Venice Beach “friends.” We were still having interesting conversations, even if I had to brush off the occasional advance. But then, an (actual) friend told me that if someone insists on making me uncomfortable, I shouldn’t bother with them.
“Does that mean I have to give up what I get from our friendships?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “It means you’ll find better friends.”