young adults laying on a white blanket outside, smiling and laughing

Imagine a world where everyone searches for their one true Friend, someone they hope to spend the rest of their life with. You can have as many lovers as you’d like, as long as those extra relationships don’t interfere with or detract from this central Friendship. Ether Rothblum, a psychologist whose work centers lesbian relationships and LGBTQ+ life, proposes this thought experiment to highlight how our culture privileges romantic relationships over friendships in all areas of life.

Defining “friend” is surprisingly difficult, and friendships are often conceptualized in contrast to other types of relationships. A friend is likely someone who you know, like, and trust more than someone you consider an acquaintance. You might think of a friend as someone who you love but don’t want to have sex with. Or a friend may be someone who you like to hang out with, but who you wouldn’t want to hang out with over an expensive candlelit dinner surrounded by other romantic couples.

We usually treat friendships like “extra” relationships that add a little fun to our everyday lives, but we don’t organize our lives around them. For instance, most people wouldn’t turn down a dream job because their best friend didn’t want to move to another city with them. If you noticed that someone brought their best friend to a wedding as their +1, rather than their romantic partner, you might wonder if they broke up. Spending too much time with a friend or appearing “too close” may solicit inquiries and rumors questioning if you really are “just friends.” These examples reveal the cultural assumption that everyone wants sexual and romantic relationships, but this isn’t the case. What is friendship when romantic and sexual relationships are not a relevant point of comparison?

First, we can turn to asexuality, which commonly refers to the experience of little or no sexual attraction. Although asexual people often do not experience sexual attraction, many report experiencing other forms of attraction, including romantic and platonic attraction. Based on this framework of multiple forms of attraction, many asexual people combine their romantic and sexual attractions to form identities like heteroromantic asexual, homoromantic asexual, panromantic asexual, etc.

But what is romantic attraction in the absence of sexual attraction? Without sexual attraction, how can you tell if you are drawn to someone as a friend or as a lover? Put plainly, when you can’t define a friend as someone you like but do not want to have sex with, the line between friend and lover becomes much fuzzier. Because of this, asexual folks often think of relationships as a spectrum rather as either friendships or romantic relationships.

Further complicating all of this, some individuals (and not just those under the asexuality umbrella) experience little or no romantic attraction, often described as aromanticism. Where asexuality blurs the line between friendships and romantic relationships, aromanticism challenges the idea that romance is the pinnacle of emotional intimacy. People who are aromantic call us to question why, exactly, romantic relationships are privileged over all other relationships, and why sex and romance are so tightly linked.

Other sexual and romantic relationship lifestyles challenge similar assumptions. For example, people who have sex with friends or are in consensual non-monogamous relationships also challenge the idea that sexual experiences should be limited to romantic relationships. Polyamorous folks and those who practice relationship anarchy do not restrict emotional intimacy to one central relationship, opposing the idea that romantic love should be exclusive and scarce. Queer folks have contested the boundaries between friend and family, creating chosen families that are accepting and loving.

The privileging of romantic and sexual relationships creates barriers for anyone who does not follow the “traditional” trajectory of heterosexual, monogamous marriage. Relationships that are not family or marital relationships don’t receive institutional or legal recognition. There is no ceremony to solidify and celebrate your status as friends. Many benefits and rights allotted under family law cannot be extended to friends, such as insurance coverage, filing joint taxes, visitation rights for someone in the hospital, and the release of deceased to next-of-kin for burial or cremation.

In other words, challenging the privileging of sexual and romantic relationships involves coming up against various cultural, legal, and economic institutions. How would our world look different if all types of connection and closeness were recognized and celebrated? The perspectives of asexual, aromantic, queer, and non-monogamous folks raise perhaps more questions than current research has answers to—but they point toward the cultural assumptions that underlie dominant understandings of “friendship.”

Emily Fox (@fox_emilyc) is a sociology Ph.D. student at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research focuses on gender and sexuality in the context of friendship.

Canton Winer (@CantonWiner) is a sociology Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Irvine. His dissertation, part of which received honorable mention for the 2022 Best Graduate Student Paper from the ASA’s Section on Sexualities, examines the intersection of gender and sexuality through interviews with individuals on the asexuality spectrum.