the homosocial project

A more cohesive mix of my homosocial research and subsequent posts:

Growing into an adult at a women’s college is a unique experience. I arrived at one of the top women’s colleges on the West coast three years ago and have seen my social circles change dramatically. Throughout my experiences, I have had friends of all different genders, and have enjoyed being challenged by the different perspectives gender inevitably brings to the table. However, now my friends are all biological and self-identified females. In fact, I can go days without even interacting with an XY. What’s more is that I don’t mind. I identify as heterosexual – and yet, it doesn’t bother me that I interact with boys only at college parties and on summer break.

Last summer, Oprah Winfrey’s magazine, O, ran an interview about Oprah’s relationship with her best friend, Gayle. For months rumors had been swirling in the media that the two friends were actually lovers. Oprah combated the frenzy by explaining, “I understand why people think we’re gay. There isn’t a definition in our culture for this kind of bond between women. So I get why people have to label it—how can you be this close without it being sexual? How else can you explain a level of intimacy where someone always loves you, always respects you, admires you? Wants the best for you in every single situation of your life. Lifts you up. Supports you. Always! That’s an incredibly rare thing between even the closest of friends. 

Having the bonds that I do with my close girls-that-are-friends (not to be mistaken with “girlfriends,” which you can’t say in today’s world, unless you are actually referring to your romantic partner) I could relate to Oprah’s sentiment. When given the option of dating – entering that fiercely competitive, overly-emotional and just plain boring environment – and hanging out with my network of women, I always choose the latter.

 

Does my lifestyle make me gay? Is it really that strange? Someone once told me that I lead a very homosexual lifestyle. I thought for moment and could only disagree. I’m not afraid to be called gay – in fact, given my circle of friends, people generally assume that I am a lesbian. I never really feel the need to correct their assumptions, because usually my sexuality is none of their concern. But the expectation that I’m homosexual just because I hang out with girls is kind of astonishing. I argued that no, I do not lead a homosexual life – none of my interactions with my girlfriends are ever sexual. I offered that my life is probably homosocial.

 

Homosociality can be described as relationships between people of the same sex that are not sexual in nature. Traditionally, this subject has been discussed on how it relates to relationships between men. Eve Sedgwick formalized the definition as it relates to male characters in nineteenth century British literature. There have been homosocial studies of men in the work place and in sports.  The study of “romantic friendships” between women, and specifically, homosociality as it applies to women, is less researched and written about.

 

Sedgwick claims that the study of relationships between males must be held separate from the study of relationships between females.  Due to the patriarchal power structure of society, homosocial men rely on social forces different from the forces on which homosocial women rely. These variations in social pushes and pulls are not only applicable to sex, but to race, class and age, Sedgwick says.

 

Navigating through a larger lens – exploring friendships in general among women and Lesbian relationships – allows for the availability of a wider discourse on homosocial relationships between women. This is done not only through literature reviews, but in conjunction with the analysis of the varying language used to describe female relationships through time.

 

Researchers have recently begun to delve into qualifying non-sexual relationships between women in history as far back as the Ancient World. Women were seen as a function of men; as having no autonomy, making it difficult to study woman relationships. Women’s sexuality outside of the context of men was repressed and there aren’t many textual sources documenting the Ancient World. Historians have had to rely on images (casts, carvings, reliefs) to analyze women’s relationships with women. The societal pictures of the Ancient world – highly male centered – show that women did spend much time together, a feature of homosociality.                                                                                                                                        

 

The terra cotta knee guard for working wool depicted above shows women preparing for a wedding ceremony in ancient Greece. The artist, Eretria Painter, hoped to depict a “woman’s world” of the period.  Women prepared for marriage and childbirth with other women in a space that was called a gynaikonitis. The scene above exposes this space. Most interestingly, these spaces were used in conjunction with events (marriage, childbirth) that have connotations with a woman’s sexuality, womb and genitals.

Writers have called these ancient situations “homoerotic” and “homosocial” in a broad sweeping assumption. In fact, homosociality and homoeroticism are often used interchangeably when, in actuality, they are two very different concepts. Homoeroticism is defined as atendency for erotic emotions to be centered on a person of the same sex. In homosocial relationships, there are no links to sexuality. In fact, homosociality implies a passionate longing for emotional, spiritual and physical intimacy, without the traditional association of sex and reproduction. The distinction between homoerotic and homosocial is hard to make in the Ancient world, where same-sex sexual relationships were not defined. Historians are in a constant battle to decide whether homosexual relationships happened at all or if they were simply censored. Thus, it is hard to ever know if the seemingly homosocial relationships of the past were actually homosexual.

In the nineteenth century, as a function of the large middle class in the United States, both women and men were encouraged to socialize. Women, however, were seen as having a greater spirituality and higher morals. This element, combined with the time’s social norms surrounding house and child care, created separate spheres for men and women. These separated social circles created several same-sex environments. For example, men worked as cowboys and in mining towns and women, went to school at female academies or worked in factories. It is during this time that researchers are able to find textual recordings of homosocial (questionably homosexual) lives.

 

Research of romantic friendships during the nineteenth century generally focuses on white, middle-class women; their close friendships with women were seen as an acceptable and encouraged part of their social role. Sociologists have explored the components of these women’s relationships by analyzing the letters sent between sets of friends, autograph books, female academy yearbooks, newspapers and journals. The result of this primary document exploration is a classist arrangement of data; it excludes the analysis of romantic friendships among women who could not afford the fore-mentioned means of documenting relationships.

As women began fighting for equality (the suffragist movement of the early 1900s, the feminist movement of the 1960s/70s), it seems that their relationships with other women began to suffer. It is also interesting to note the period of the “sexual revolution,” and its impact on relationships between women. Sexual relationships between people of the same sex were defined (homosexual, gay, lesbian) and large groups of women who supported the advancement of women were labeled as “radical, bra-burning feminists.” Detrimental and stereotypical labels were attached to these definitions. This must have had an impact on women’s friendship… women who shared close bonds with other women didn’t want to be attached with these groups – who were constantly being harassed by a very hetero-normative society. In the case of Mills, student handbooks during this time describe an activist women’s campus but, illicitly state that Mills women are not radical feminists.

 

While is it positive that women have been able to make progress across the board in civil rights, one of the costs of this has been close female friendships. As social environments have become co-ed, climates and social infrastructures dedicated to women have deteriorated.      

During summer breaks from school, I pack up my things, and I head home. Home means I hang out with my guy friends and my guy more-than-friends… in fact, the majority of my activities during the summer are spent with men. It has been shocking when I bring these men back into my school (female) network; they are threatened and silenced by my group of outspoken women friends. To compensate for this, these men make me the other, the weird one, the one who has strange relationships. The closeness of my pure friendships are tainted and made to seem unnatural. The fact that I chose to attend a women’s college makes me either gay or weird or anti-male. Does the nature of my friendships emasculate and threaten men? Do large groups of women intimidate men because they can be a powerful and unstoppable entity? Do my male friends retreat when my feelings toward them seem subordinate to my feelings toward my girl friends?

 

Sources

  • D’Emilio, John and Freedman, Estelle B. Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in 
    America.
    University Of Chicago Press, 1998.
  • Jenkins, Thomans E. “Among Women: From the Homosocial to the Homoerotic in the Ancient World.” Journal of the History of Sexuality. Austin: Jan 2003. Vol. 12, Iss. 1; p. 150.

  • Rabinowitz, Nancy Sorkin and Auanger, Lisa. Among Women: From the Homosocial to the Homoerotic in the Ancient World. University of Texas Press. 2002.
  • Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Adrienne Rich’s Poetry and Prose.  New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1993. p. 203-224.

  • Sedgwick, Eve. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press. 1985.

Follow Up:

I’ve been surprised at the amount of hits I’m getting from people searching “homosocial relationships.” I thought I was the only one in the world who thinks it’s important.

So I was exploring some other blogs and I quickly realized that I am not the only idiot who has academicized (queered?) same-sex, non-sexual relationships.

I came across this one. The blogger (RJ) says homosociality is this:

it’s roughly the idea that men’s relationships with women are secondary to men’s relationships with other men, and that women are used as currency of exchange in male relationships, that women are used by men in various ways in order to negotiate their relationships with other men, etc.

And goes on to say:

Given a choice between looking bad in front of other men by treating a woman like a human being vs. looking bad in front of a woman by going along with what sexist guys are doing, guys operating under homosociality will always choose the latter.

It has become clear to me that homosociality has different meanings. I mean, in RJ’s post, homosociality is made to be about men and is later compared to the term “pussy-whipped.” 

Another blogger, Hugo (a “pro-feminist” male, Women’s Studies prof. who connects the “struggle around food” to sexuality in his syllubus) talks in legnth about his struggle to over come the social pressure to hate women to impress men. What a concept?!  Should I give him a pat on the back for that one?

Here’s the thing:  Where are women in these blogs? The writers keep talking about how women are treated as objects and that’s bad. But the way in which both of the blogs address homosociality and male relationships, the objectification/woman hate is only expanded.

It’s ridiculous.

It’s not homosociality… it’s patriarchy.  

And some more pictures for Mert:

 

4 Responses to “the homosocial project”

  1. barbie April 11, 2009 at 6:03 am #

    i loved this! i identify as bisexual(a label that i don’t love), but i have many close friends that i do not see in a sexual way, more like sisters. and because of how i identify people in my life and outside of it like to make a lot of assumptions, it can be frustrating.
    nice blog. thank you.
    http://barbarellaisbi.wordpress.com

  2. ashburyhomage March 18, 2010 at 11:51 pm #

    Great article! All my life I’ve had deeper friendships with women than men, but am most certainly heterosexual. This started as my teammates in various sports were always women, and carried on until recently. I’ve recently moved to California and in the course of a year had to start over with friendships. Aside from just generally having to overcome obstacles to establish deep friendships, I’ve noticed more than ever that my friendships with men don’t compare in the least to the friendships I can share with women when we’re not threatened by men and are being ourselves. I can get pretty close with some of my gay friends, but there’s something special and intangibly healthy to me about sharing a connection with a female friend. I’ve just begun my female friendships in this new city and am excited to continue cultivating them through girlfriend brunches and get-togethers.

    Thank God not all women are the passive “girlfriend” type.

  3. Sandra October 22, 2010 at 3:05 am #

    I came across this blog by chance, checking on google the reference of a book. Interesting reflections on homosocial issues… I´ll get back to read everything about it.
    Besos from Spain…

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Summertime = « A Taylored Stitch, A Modern Bitch - May 29, 2007

    […] some point, I’m going to write more about this book on my Homosocial Project page, because it relates so well. Reading Truth & Beauty was so familiar. I was constantly […]

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