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Written by Meg Warren-Lister.
Art by Sebastiaan Stam.

Although the word ‘friendzone’ seems  harmless, reactions to this platonic realm highlight its dark side. It might not be restricted to specific sexualities,  but the way it often plays out in straight relationships reveals  inklings of male entitlement – kindling for incel culture.

Coined by a cis het man (specifically: Joey Tribbiani of Friends), the term  has stuck in public discourse ever since, permeating both Love Island gossip, and the more established echelons of celebrity. Last year, speaking of her now-husband A$AP Rocky as an exception, Rihanna told Vogue that “people don’t get out of the friendzone very easily with me”. On the surface, this might seem like a rejection of the concept, but it also reflects the fact that women, and even Rihanna, are forced to police men’s sexual advances. 

Encouraged by corners of internet culture presided over by the likes of Jordan Peterson, and Andrew Tate, friendzoning is generally seen as an insult – something I became aware of after trying to squash any kind of prospective romantic or sexual relationship with a close friend.

If his subsequent ghosting is anything to go by, he wasn’t terribly happy about it. My naivety is probably attributable to the fact that I don’t typically think of any of my relationships in the binary terms of ‘friend’, or ‘fuckable’, but this is exactly what the concept of friendzoning is premised on.

In my case, the friend in question was a fellow law student who had a penchant for repeatedly leaving belongings at my house after I hosted pre-drinks. This developed into a ritual collection visit and cup of tea the next morning. At the time, I lived close to the club frequented on Wednesdays (sports night), so didn’t think much of his habit beyond it being an exercise of convenience – who wants to take a coat to a club? But, this changed when pals of mine hinted at an ulterior motive, and hopes of romance on the part of the coat-leaver.

Quickly, I decided to mention the fact that I was interested in someone else. This was an immediate cure to the belonging-leaving behaviour, but more than that, I noticed that my usual efforts to chat and make plans were being met with ambivalence, if they were responded to at all.

On hindsight, what I find most surprising is the cognitive load I carried. The ‘friend’  in question did not once confess their feelings. Instead  I was left to guess their  motivations and simultaneously make my own  intentions clear without appearing presumptuous (it’s not easy to put boundaries down in a relationship when the other person only communicates what they want through mutual friends and behavioural quirks). 

My compulsion to make my intentions clear reveals a general knowledge amongst straight women that the ‘nice guy’ act, is usually exactly that: an act. We’ve all heard the phrase ‘nice guys finish last,’ but frankly this isn’t true. Men who pretend to be nice, and then become bitter when they don’t get what they think they deserve (sex, or romantic interest), are not nice guys. A quick Google search reveals hundreds of articles providing advice on how to get out of the friendzone, which speaks to a disconcerting truth about the lack of weight given to a woman’s right to say no. 

Yes, we are all hardwired to hate rejection, I can personally attest to that, but the argument that someone might no longer want to speak to you because they like you too much, and your rejection was too painful, doesn’t hold water. This might be true in exceptional cases, but I have lost a grand total of three male friends in the kind of circumstances described above. Not one of the three ever spoke to me directly about their feelings, and after I made my lack of romantic or sexual interest clear, all effort on their part was retracted.

The ending of any friendship just because sex is off the table, is painful. This is even truer when there is a lack of communication, and you’re left to read between the lines, slowly comprehending that your value as a friend diminishes with the expression of “Yes, I like you, but no – I don’t want to fuck you.”

The very idea that women are either Romantic Objects, or Unsexual Friends, can be traced back to the madonna versus whore dichotomy; the idea that women are either pure and ‘virginal’ or overtly sexual. The friendzone is a logical extension of our historical obsession with putting women into categories determined by how sexual they are perceived to be, or how sexual we (…straight men) want them to be.

The very idea that women are either Romantic Objects, or Unsexual Friends, can be traced back to the madonna versus whore dichotomy; the idea that women are either pure and ‘virginal’ or overtly sexual.

Pop culture is littered with resentment at women who lead men on, but there’s a difference between maliciously making someone think you’re romantically interested, when you’re not, and simply being kind, and having this misconstrued as a commitment to sex. It seems that anger at being friendzoned stems in part from a wilful blindness towards this distinction. 

Yes, women also get friendzoned, but it’s not seen as so much of a consolation prize. Maybe this is because patriarchal norms which create toxic expectations of masculinity might, for some men, mean that the intimacy and emotional vulnerability of female friendships is confused with romantic interest. According to a study by Time,  if a man over 30 texts a friend who is a woman to suggest coffee on a weekday, there’s only a 3 per cent chance he thinks it’s a date. Reverse the genders and the odds go up to 16 per cent. As a result, it’s unsurprising that straight women are 20 per cent more likely than men to (be left in a position where they need to)  friendzone someone.

Although I lost friends to the friendzone, other women have lost their lives. In an article for Dame titled ‘Men are killing thousands of women a year for saying no’, the writer Caren Lissner reports that 1000 women are killed each year by someone they know.

Incel culture is often perceived as a fringe movement,  but the underlying sense of entitlement to women’s bodies plays a fundamental  role in the reactions of het men to being friendzoned. The rise of misogynistic influencer Andrew Tate is stark evidence of this. Amongst other things, Tate  (who is currently undergoing criminal proceedings for sex trafficking) has said that women are a man’s property, and that rape victims must “bear some responsibility” for their attacks. With more boys aware of Tate than British PM Rishi Sunak, the statistics speak for themselves.

 The friendzone is not a benign concept and the fact it can be perceived as an insult to  straight men reflects the fact that so-called ‘nice guys’ can feel as if they are entitled to the sexual or romantic interest they feel they deserve. Sometimes friendzoning someone might have no consequences, but when it does, they can be fatal. On a cultural level, every instance of anger at the friendzone chisels away at the right of women everywhere to say no.

About the Author

Meg Warren-Lister is a London-based writer. She is currently studying MA Journalism at City University, and has a law degree from the University of Bristol. She works with brands such as HuffPost, Fizzy Mag, and Open Democracy, and enjoys writing about news and pop culture from a feminist perspective.

Follow on IG: @megs_wl |