According to some feminist theorists, love and friendship may not be as distinct as we imagine. (1) Yet when sexual tension emerges in a relationship between women friends, the usual fear of rejection is complicated by cultural taboos against homosexuality and lesbianism.
Courageous television personalities such as Ellen DeGeneres and Rosie O'Donnell helped pave the way, at least in some places, for more open discussion of romantic love between two women. Suddenly, just like famous heterosexual couples, popular lesbian couples and details of their romances filled gossip magazines and became commonplace household conversation. Recently, an ad for Sainsbury's supermarkets in Great Britain celebrated same-sex parenting, and in the United States, a Zales jewelry ad showed two women becoming engaged. Television programs, from Rosewood to Degrassi to Orphan Black, explore in ever-greater depth the complexities, pain, humor, and joy of romantic love between two women.
The main characters of the television series Sex and the City (2) once briefly considered and then discarded the possibility of mutual romantic attraction, but an undercurrent of sexual tension between the women plays quietly in the background in many episodes. Like many contemporary women, Carrie and her friends are highly conflicted about their looks, their attractiveness, and their sexuality, sometimes flaunting their bodies and sometimes hiding them. As is true in many women's friendships, sexuality, jealousy, and competition are often commingled yet not openly discussed.
Even today, when fluidity of sexual identity is acknowledged and freedom to choose a sexual partner of any gender is allowed, at least in some places, the issue of sex and friendship between women can still disturb. Consider the famous kisses between Madonna, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2003, which caused outrage. Madonna, who says that she is bisexual, told one interviewer that she has had a lot of crushes on women but has only been in love with men. Christina, on the other hand, says that she is straight but finds women "hornier to look at" than men. (3)
She is not alone. In one recent study, almost three-quarters of the straight women participants were stimulated sexually by looking at other women. (4) What impact do these sexual responses have on friendships?
In some cases, they are simply part of our connection as friends. Research confirms that women are often sexually aroused by touching and being touched. (5) Yet such contact does not necessarily translate into sexual interest or a sense of feeling comfortable with your body. For example, Seo-yun, a slender, delicately built woman, said that although in her native South Korea women are physically affectionate in public and in private, it's not sexual. When I asked if Seo-yun thought the physical contact with other women had helped her feel better about herself physically, she laughed. "Absolutely not. I have suffered all my life from feeling inadequate and imperfect. No matter what I accomplish, I feel like a failure. I am working on this problem. And my body is part of the problem."
Melody, on the other hand, is one of many women who told me that they became more comfortable with their body and their heterosexuality through a brief foray into a sexual relationship with a good female friend. A thirty-five-year-old kindergarten teacher, she lived in the Midwest with her boyfriend and their two children. "I'm very lucky," she said. "I have really, really close girlfriends from every period of my life. I would go so far as to say that my friendships, more than anything else in my life, have shaped and formed me. I'm still ridiculously close to my two best friends from childhood. One is more like a sister than anything. And the other one — well, when we were younger, we experimented with each other sexually. All through adolescence, sometimes while we were also having relationships with guys, we experimented together. We love each other deeply and have talked about wishing that we could be romantic together, but we don't feel that way about each other. But I know that I am who I am today because of this relationship. We understand each other more deeply and truly than anyone else in the world."