Winter Rose, a student from Virginia, is only 18 years old, but she’s already internalized the idea that friend-zoning a guy is an unforgivable trespass. “I recently became close friends with a boy, but I’m hyper-aware that I’m not meant to lead him on,” she tells me. “So many people seem to think that if a guy feeds a girl kindness, she owes him romantic or sexual attention.” She’s nervous that she’ll eventually be expected to shore up sex she doesn’t feel like having: “It’s stressful. At this point in my friendship, I feel I should be able to relax, but I feel nervous that he expects more.”
It’s difficult these days to be unaware of the idea of the “friend zone,” an imaginary space occupied by people who have unreciprocated sexual or romantic feelings for their friends. First popularized by a 1994 episode of Friends in which Joey described Ross as “mayor of the friend zone,” the term can apply to people of all genders and sexualities, but the archetypal candidate is a perennially loyal, meek heterosexual man who burns with desire for his female friend but keeps his feelings hidden for months or even years. Jorah Mormont of Game of Thrones and Forrest Gump are other quintessential examples, and the message in these movies and TV shows is clear: Being stuck in the friend zone is the saddest fate imaginable.
Few among us would deny that unrequited romantic feelings are painful. However, we hardly ever hear about the hurt women face at being on the other end of this equation, in which they’re resented or rejected for offering a relationship without sex — fuck-zoned, if you will. The friend zone mythology centers the man and his feelings, making him the protagonist of a heartrending story of lost love. He’s cast as the victim of an oblivious, selfish or unfeeling woman, whose personhood we’re not invited to consider much. In reality, though, she’s likely to be experiencing significant emotional distress of her own due to being relegated to the fuck zone.
“I had a friend in high school in the same friendship group as me for years who suddenly declared his love for me,” Britt, a 25-year-old photographer from Australia, tells me. “When I made it clear I only loved him as a friend, he ignored me for the rest of high school.” She described feeling like she was only ever wanted for sex, and heartbroken that she lost someone she genuinely considered a close friend. “I still don’t think I’ve fully processed it, and it’s been eight years since I left high school. It just makes me feel like shit, so small and worthless.”
If the friend zone is painful, it seems clear that the fuck zone is at least as bad, leaving women feeling used, manipulated and deceived. Andie, a 26-year-old bartender from Philadelphia, was friends with a man for two years before they moved in together and he attempted to radically alter the nature of their relationship. “I specifically confirmed that the move would be platonic and asked him if there was any reason it wouldn’t be a good idea,” she says. “He said no, and signed a lease.” Within three weeks, he made a move on her, and the situation quickly deteriorated: “He moved back in with his mother, and now I’m paying the entirety of the rent.”
In hindsight, Andie can see telltale signs that he harbored romantic intentions and went about expressing them in a covert, passive-aggressive way. “He’d been really supportive while a previous relationship fizzled out and through some other trouble I was dealing with,” she says. “Now I see all the emotional heavy lifting as almost a formulaic approach to making me want to be with him, which sucks and totally tarnished the good memories I had with him.”
Much of this behavior seems to stem from a cultural script that says men and women can’t be friends without at least one party eventually developing sexual feelings. It’s a heteronormative, gender-essentialist outlook that minimizes women’s agency, but pop culture reinforces it constantly: Jenny has Forrest’s baby, after all, and Ross gets Rachel in the end. (Jorah’s fate is yet to unfold.) This leads some straight men in particular to view friendships with women as a strategic waypoint on the journey to eventual coupledom. “I’ve had a few friendships that I hoped would turn into something more, and I wasn’t straight up about it,” Ryan, 30, from the Pacific Northwest tells me. “It could be weeks of me not saying anything, and just acting like a normal friend, but with these feelings inside.”
The problem with this approach is two-fold. For starters, it paints a dim picture of male-female friendship, which is both possible and precious in its own right, not a lowly consolation prize compared to a romantic relationship. Secondly, women are often genuinely unaware that their male friends harbor secret feelings for them, but are then made to feel guilty for “leading them on.” Tonia, a 27-year-old student from L.A., had a particularly ugly experience. “I had a ‘friend’ throw a tantrum in public because I mentioned that I was getting dinner later with another guy,” she says, explaining how he yelled at her on the street and slammed her car door. Now she feels like she’s on eggshells with her male friends. “I’m always questioning those relationships, and I’m scared to drink around my male friends,” she continues. “Another friend’s demeanor has changed a lot toward me since I’ve become single. I fear I’m going through this again — losing a friend because they can’t see me any way but sexually.”
The idea that women owe men sex for treating them well is sexist and entitled, but it’s quotidian enough for men to easily internalize — sometimes to the point that it fuels scary, misogynistic outbursts from men who identify as “nice guys”. Ryan has started to realize how much this logic played into his behavior when he was younger. “At the time, it felt like I just wanted [my female friends] to like me as much as I liked them, but maybe there was a sense of entitlement about the friendship,” he says. “I’m realizing how much I was raised with a subconscious belief that I wasn’t truly liked or appreciated by a woman without physical reassurance of that fact.”
Once it’s clear that sex is no longer an option, men may have valid reasons for rejecting a continued friendship. Some say they need time to nurse their wounds; others wish to focus their time and energy on different relationships. But for Rosa, a 30-year-old editor from New Zealand, these kind of wholesale about-turns seem rooted in a desire to punish. “I’d been solid friends with a guy for two years when he tried to kiss me, and then he fell off the face of the earth when I said I didn’t see him that way,” she tells me. “I get needing some space for a while, but to be that close to someone and then axe them entirely as soon as sex is off the table? It seems cruel and childish, like, ‘if it’s not exactly what I want, then nothing at all.’”
Perhaps then there are worse feelings than being friend-zoned, after all.