When did the Friendzone become such a terrible place to live?

In the wake of the Santa Barbara shootings, the unpleasant underbelly of the pickup artist community (PUA), involuntary celibates (incels), and other unhealthy refuges for lonely men have drawn scrutiny and condemnation. They describe themselves as exiles; in the case of the Isla Vista shooter, he decided to destroy the world he couldn’t enter, instead of building something new outside it.

Their sense of exclusion is exacerbated by the stories we tell about sex as a prize you can earn and the tendency of the media to shame sexual inexperience (The Daily Mail referred to the shooter as “The Virgin Killer,” implicitly agreeing that his sexual exploits, or lack thereof, defined him). It is also exacerbated by the stories we don’t tell about friendship and platonic love.

The friendzone is treated as a wasteland not just because we treat sex as an idol, but because friendship and non-sexual affection is written off as irrelevant. Casual dating has been replaced by casual sex; platonic touch has been eclipsed by erotic signalling. Pickup artists teach their pupils (not inaccurately) that taking someone’s hand, touching a shoulder, or even moving into one-on-one conversations are indications of interest, and a signal to keep escalating, in the hopes of transitioning to a hookup.

If affection is merely foreplay, then a person who isn’t having luck approaching people romantically is also cut off from most normal human comforts. That kind of isolation is tremendously harmful.

In the 1960s, Harry Harlow conducted a famous series of experiments in which he gave infant monkeys a choice between mother-substitutes made of cloth or wire. Even when it was only the wire “mother” that fed the monkeys, they came to it only to eat, and clung to the cloth mothers that gave sustenance of a different sort. The monkeys who were only given wire mothers were more skittish and would cling to their cloth diapers as the only source of soft contact in their cage.

Some men and women feel that they’ve wound up in a wire monkey world. In an essay for The Good Men project (“The Lack of Gentle Platonic Touch in Men’s Lives is a Killer”), Mark Greene talked about how isolated he was from others, until he had a child to take care of:

How often do men actually get the opportunity to express affection through long lasting platonic touch? How often does it happen between men? Or between men and women? Not a hand shake or a hug, but lasting physical contact between two people that is comforting and personal but not sexual. Between persons who are not lovers and never will be. Think, holding hands. Or leaning on each other. Sitting together. That sort of thing. Just the comfort of contact. … I found this kind of physical connection when my son was born. As a stay at home dad, I spent years with my son. Day after day, he sat in the crook of my arm, his little arm across my shoulder, his hand on the back of my neck. As he surveyed the world from on high, I came to know a level of contentment and calm that had heretofore been missing in my life.

The isolation may be more pronounced for men, since physical contact between two women is less likely to be stigmatized or even remarked upon. In my own experience, however, usually the only time I make physical contact with another person is when I shake the priest’s hand on my way out of Mass. When I went on a cultural exchange trip to China, I was surprised and jealous when our group leader warned us that friends commonly hold hands in China, and we shouldn’t assume a host was flirting with us if they did so.

In America, that kind of physical affection would be unusual between pairs of friends, especially if both were male. But, if friends are off limits, where else are people to turn for physical reassurance?

The shooter, and most Americans his age, don’t live among large, extended families. They are not giving piggy-back rides to small cousins or kissing grandparents hello or being called over for cheek pinches from meddlesome aunts. Luckily, comfort isn’t only available from families and romantic partners; some communities and pastimes retain norms of physical contact and encouragement. Sports are one place where platonic touch can still flourish (in fact, NBA teams with a lot of physical touch between teammates tend to do better at cooperating), but those communities aren’t open to or even desired by everyone.

After a tragedy, we tend to dwell on how we could have stopped the shooter: did he do anything to merit institutionalization, should he have been eligible to buy guns, etc. Those questions are appropriate, but constraining a potential shooter is only a partial victory. We should also look for alternatives to free him from a prison of despair, envy, and fear, even if he’s the only victim of his own unhappiness.

No one has a humanitarian duty to hug isolated men like the Isla Vista shooter any more than anyone was obliged to provide him with sex. However, it’s worth asking if there is something we can do to make non-sexual affection more common generally. At the personal level, that might just mean offering friends hugs more often, and at a societal level, telling and repeating better stories about friendship.