The Social Sex
A recent article in the science section of my daily newspaper examined the phenomenon of high tech artificial friends for the aging—the ranks, as the story noted, of older and frail adults who are alone and often lonely, still in their own homes. Many, if not most of them, female.
The University of Illinois has received a $1.5 million grant to at least explore the idea of creating small drones that will assist in simple household chores. These robots and innovative internet-connected technologies, such as programmed Skype connections, are being developed to meet both the crucial practical and social needs of a rapidly increasing population.
A study published last summer found that both healthy and mildly cognitively impaired people in their 70s and 80s who had face-to-face (albeit Facetime) conversations daily online for six weeks showed significant improvements in cognitive functioning.
In the flesh companions would be nice, neurological researchers tell us, but in the meantime simple tablets and smartphones can fill an essential gap in staving off the loneliness that comes from lack of caring contact.
The lack of tactile human friendship.
This prophetic piece appeared the same week as I began reading a new book on the history of female friendship—The Social Sex by gender researcher Marilyn Yalom and author Theresa Donavan Brown. In it they explore the nature of these relationships over 2,000 years through formal and informal writings.
For at least 1,000 years, from 600 BCE to the 16th century CE, all the documents referring to friendship “pertained to men,” a male enterprise crucial not only to personal happiness, we are told, but to civic and military solidity. Women’s friendships, all in the private sphere, were considered irrelevant and went unrecorded. The female gender was considered unequipped for what was sometimes called the communion of souls.
The authors take us through biblical sources, the writings of priests and nuns, the plays of Shakespeare, and an expanding body of documents that portray the ways in which women have found each other: in convents, salons, seminaries, quilting circles, church groups, mutual aid societies, and political movements.
Through the life stories of both little known and famous women—religious mystic Teresa of Avila, novelist George Sand, and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt—they illustrate the nature of our platonic and romantic connections. We learn about the forms and functions of friendships among the elite and literate, including Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller’s bookstore conversations, as well as clubs attended by working women. Popular books, films and television series, from The Color Purple to the Honeymooners and Golden Girls are also plumbed for their depictions and insights.
From being disregarded or disparaged, from forbidden to highly controlled, women’s friendships have emerged and endured. Far from non-existent, or inferior to those of males, these bonds have flourished. Indeed, the authors identify the four ingredients that seem to them basic to female friendship: affection, self-revelation, physical contact, and interdependence as serving as healthy models for public relationships across genders.
“Our history suggests that women will continue to show the world how to be friends,” the authors conclude.
This book is well worth a read, preferably within the context of a group of women and men who may find its well documented and encouraging findings a vehicle for ever deepening connections.