“Zoning Laws” – Or, “Putting People into Boxes” Or, “Friend-zoning”

NOTE: I’ve embedded here an audio file of the following essay; please feel free to listen to it while reading. If you cannot view the embedded player, you can download the file from here. It is about 19 minutes long. Please feel free to comment and let me know what you think of this format!


The Preamble

I “friendzone” people. I also “acquaintancezone” people. I see no fundamental issues for deciding where a person fits in my life and deciding to restrict that even if my restrictions are tighter than they’d prefer.

In the kink world, we call those “boundaries.”

I dunno. I’ve always said that I really like the entire concept of “friendzoning” as a useful word for how I conceive of my relationships. It’s really a shame that it comes from tear-and-cheetos-stained MRA/PUAs (“mens rights activists”/”Pick-Up Artists”) complaining that the objects of their desire aren’t sex vending machines, vending all of their sexy goodness for seventy-five seconds of being treated like a human being. It’s a pity that MRA/PUAs can’t view women and others they’re attracted to as autonomous people with personal tastes that don’t include them (simultaneously forgetting that they themselves have personal tastes that mean that not all women or others they’re possibly attracted to are attractive to them).

Fluffy, What is Friendzoning?

I’m, well, not *glad* you’ve asked, but I don’t really mind explaining. If you know already and don’t want to read about it, go ahead and skip to the next heading “Zoning Laws.”

For those who’ve been living blissfully unaware of this particular piece of rhetoric, the foundation of it is this idea that people (usually cisgender women) withhold sex from “nice guys” (usually cisgender men) while “using” them for favors like… listening to their problems,  helping them move (or move things they can’t alone), going out on platonic dates, and anything else you can think of. Fundamentally one might respond “hey, aren’t those, like, things friends do?”

Yes. Exactly.

The problem is that these MRA/PUAs have so conceptualized the idea that men “buy” sex from women by doing “favors” that they wouldn’t otherwise do. Like paying for the occasional meal, helping them move across town, sharing expertise or knowledge, listening and offering advice on their problems, among other things.

These people honestly believe that these are not activities that you can or will do with/for friends, I suppose; only when one expects a (usually sexual) reward. That’s the only way that I conceptualize of this line of thinking making any sort of sense to them.

And if you think that’s true? Hey, you’re a shitty friend.

Friends help each other. Typically that help comes with an expected reciprocation, yes, but it’s not a transaction. I don’t help my friends and then trade that favor later. I help them because it feels good to help my friend.

If you only help people with an expectation of that being reciprocated, and then get pissed when it doesn’t happen, then I’m going to give you some advice:

  • Charge for that help. Use the money you make from doing it to fund the help you need in the future.
  • Alternately, you can barter directly for it. But don’t pretend that you’re doing it because you’re a friend. Literally say “I will help you if you’ll help me.”

I mean, hey, if (platonic) friends don’t help friends move then I have about five people to whom I owe at least a blowjob. That’s the going rate, right? Or does “lifting heavy things up a flight of rickety steps” equate full-on coitus?

The basic flaw with this is that “everyone knows” that some things are worth certain interactions and/or sex acts.  Except that *no one actually knows* what the hell these so called “standards” are. Oh, sure, some PUAs have codified them; but they’re far from experts in having sex with other people (their self-proclaimed proficiency notwithstanding). MRAs have suggested standards, but they pretty much boil down to “women are obligated to have sex with me because they made my dick hard” and, not unsurprisingly, differ depending on the source, the cultural background, and whether or not they have PUA influences.

So. That’s the origin of the friendzone.

Zoning Laws

I am a relationship anarchist. Maybe in a past or future writing I wrote/will write about exactly what that means to me and in practice, but the basic idea is that I establish my relationships without rules that restrict other relationships.

This primarily affects my romances, but informs platonic relationships as well. Essentially I view each relationship as unique, its own, and only impacted by those it intersects (eg. those who are married or dating).

Perhaps a bit counter-intuitive for something with the word “anarchy” in the name, I enact this by use of what I call “Zoning Laws.” Essentially these “laws” are for my own benefit and consist of constructing (often artificially) the boundaries of a relationship to ensure that it does not overlap with others. Sometimes I do this in collaboration with the people I’m “zoning” but often-times I do not.

Mostly these “zones” define the *potential* of any given relationship, not necessarily where it “is” or where it “will be” because, as a relationship anarchist, I recognize that relationships fluctuate, change, grow, and shrink. What may today be an intense and impassioned romance may tomorrow turn into a really wonderful (but platonic) friendship. Because of this I also place a huge emphasis on the *now* instead of *prospects for the future*;  that is, I care about if they’re funny *now*, if I like the sex *now*, etc. because that’s all that I can really be certain about.

I’ll talk more about collaborative vs. non-collaborative zoning in my next section, “Putting People into Boxes” but for now I’d like to talk about my process for zoning relationships.

I go through a few tiers of decisions when I come across a new relationship or otherwise decide to reassess one. This might seem artificial to describe, and to be honest it is fairly artificial. The amount of time it takes depends entirely on how much time I’ve invested in the relationship already, how much time I expect to invest in the relationship in the future, and whether or not I *enjoy* the person. The more positive each of these become the longer the exploration period before I make a real decision. In any case, any decision can be repealed (and often is).

Level One – Zoning (Change) Request

This level of decision making is entirely based on superficial questions and primarily focuses on the amount of time I’m comfortable around a person. Typically this ends up defining acquaintanceship vs. friendship for me. Often I need to re-evaluate because I’ve been spending more time than previously expected with the person(s).

  • Does this person make me laugh?
  • Do I make this person laugh?
  • Do we communicate relatively well?
  • Does this person bore me?
  • What method(s) of communication work best?
  • Are they clean? Self-sufficient?
  • Do they “need” more than I can provide?

 Level Two – Investigation

Here I primarily do fact-finding and try to gauge what the other person’s level of interest, and what type of relationships they’re interested in with me. Sometimes I will ask this outright and try to do this cooperatively. Mostly I just decide on my own. This process is considerably longer; while it’s definitely a precursor to having a relationship with someone, if we’re fucking I’m more likely to speed through this. I think of this more as “friendly vs. intimate” friendship.

  • Am I interested in romantic activity with them?
  • Does this person make me think?
  • Do I want to kiss them? Hug them? Fuck them?
  • How much time do I spend with them before I need alone time?
  • How honest are they?
  • What are their current and past relationships like?
  • Do I like their friends?
  • What do they do for fun?
  • What is their relationship (if any) to their family?
  • Are they kinky? In what ways?
  • What is their orientation and experience with “queer” spaces and lexicons?
  • How well versed are they on gender? Are they able to learn & retain?

Level Three – Inspection

This level is almost entirely about romantic viability. The difference between friendship and possible romantic partner. This is probably the shortest process of all of them and completely non-cooperative.

  • How often do I think of them, even when they’re not around?
  • How good is the sex?
  • How good is the kink?
  • How good is the conversation?
  • Do I feel safe around them?
  • When I look into their eyes, do I feel a warm sensation on the sides of my neck?

Level Four – Drawing Up Plans

This is only ever a cooperative process, and more about understanding the dynamics of the relationship I have with the person. It’s the end of all of tiers, even if some are skipped or denied. Essentially, this is the big decision. I generally have a few concentric circles, one of which a person ends up in:

  • Acquaintanceship: I know you. I may forget your name (I’m really horrible at them) but I know you well enough that I don’t mind giving a hug and saying “hey!” and I’m likely to wave, say hi, or stop to have a quick chat if I see you randomly.
  • Friendly Friendship: I know a lot about you and, in turn, you probably know (or have had access to) a decent amount of info about me. I really like to talk with you both one-on-one and in a group, but I don’t really feel the need/desire to “hang out” with you or make plans. I consider anyone whose birthday party I would go out of my way to go to a good baseline for a “friendly friend”
  • Intimate Friendship: Like a Friendly Friendship only I DO feel the need/desire to “hang out” or make plans occasionally. Maybe we’re fucking, too. In any case I share more with you than I do others.
  • Romantic Friendship: Flirty, fun, but low or no commitment. Essentially an intimate friendship only we make it a point to see each other regularly and/or fuck regularly. (I really hate these types of friendships so I tend not to accept them; I don’t exactly *want* to be friends with my romantic partners. It’s a whole thing that I have, but I’ve found it makes for bad partners for me)
  • Romantic Relationship: “Committed” relationship, by which I mean we both openly (at least to friends) acknowledge that we are together.  We definitely make it a point to see each other regularly and to foster the right conditions for love to blossom.

Putting People into Boxes

To continue my metaphor from before, once I’ve “zoned” a potential or ongoing relationship, I then enforce those boundaries.

This absolutely means that there are people whom I view as friends and that I resist (or deny) any attempt to move that interaction further. Whether I’ve decided that it would take too much emotional investment, time, or simply that I don’t enjoy the other person’s company, I’ve found that I have a good sense about these things and get very few “false negatives” when deciding on boundaries. That is, if I’ve decided I do not want to be more involved than a cursory acquaintanceship for instance, I’ve found that original decision is usually  correct and disregarding (or re-evaluating) it leads to disaster (or at the least drama that could otherwise be easily avoided).

Human beings rationalize and categorize. We want to be special and also to belong to something. Ultimately we want to have the sense of control over our lives and the factors that impact them (known as an “internal locus of control”) and generally fight to achieve that. Because of these factors the idea that I might pick someone up without their input and put them squarely in the box of “friend” without a chance to push that friendship into romantic territory is supremely frustrating, especially if they move slowly.

And to be truthful, I think that’s where the blue-balled history of “friendzone” as a MRA/PUA term comes from. People don’t like the fact that those they’re interested in don’t “play the game” by their rules, that their interest (or intent, or reading of a situation, or, or, or) does not, actually, matter.

But here’s the truth: it doesn’t matter.

These same people seem to conceptualize the friendzone as this place they’re banished to, or that they have to “work” out of. But again – their work doesn’t matter. Not everyone even WANTS or IS OPEN to romantic, let alone sexual, activity; the fact is that most folks friend-zone *every person they meet* until-and-unless a person “makes a move” by asking for special consideration to be put into a different box. Unfortunately, even the men who DO seem to get this often get frustrated or angry when their requests are denied, falling back to this same rhetoric, though perhaps with different diction. Their individualism and locus of control is so internalized that they fail to recognize that other people exist as individuals with agency.

My process is a bit different, I suppose. As of this writing I consider everyone fair game for the first three months or three meetings I have with them, whichever comes first. During this time period I keep them in a special box that I call “new relationships.” At the end of that 3/3 review, they then get moved into one box of many others (some of which I’ve described above).

Perhaps boxes aren’t a good analogy, because some people DO interact and intercept within multiple areas of my life. A better visual effect is, perhaps, multiple circles which over-lap in varying ways or a network of nodes and connections. In any case, I typically think of any person for which I have “multiple” boxes as having one box: a special box that is all their own.

Realistically these boxes are meaningless; they represent the potential of the relationship, not the actuality, so a person may grow or shrink within that depending on our most recent interactions. If a person in a box marked “acquaintance,” for instance, tries to set up meetings with me regularly outside of gatherings with multiple friends, I will likely gently decline or gradually phase them out of communication entirely. If a different person in the same box never talks to me one-on-one but we still see each other occasionally, despite not living up to “the potential” of acquaintanceship, they’ve stayed within their “boundaries.” In general if someone continually tries to “break out” of the boundaries I’ve set for our relationship (knowingly or unknowingly) it constitutes one or two conversations and eventually a complete phasing out of communication.

So. The first three months are for, essentially, the first two stages of “zoning” I mentioned above.

Typically if I’ve known someone for three to seven months and there’s never been a hint of romantic chemistry or desire (whether that be by physical “moves” made from them like kissing, playing in the dungeon, or direct communication of that desire) I friend-zone someone. Obviously, the extent to which I’m interested in intimacy with them determines exactly when in that window of opportunity I decide to close the door.

If we haven’t moved on to an explicit relationship within a year despite deciding to leave that door open, I friend-zone them.

But what does a Fluffy-FriendZone look like? It looks like someone who I am very close to, but who I (generally) don’t fuck, and for whom I don’t go out of my way to see. If I’m not setting up regular, consistent times to see you, you’ve probably been friend-zoned.

And yet, you’re still a person I will help to move if I’m available, whose issues I’ll listen to if I can handle it, and whose input I will occasionally seek on my own issues and needs as well. Sometimes we may even be intimate together or even fuck if it satisfies a need we both have. I don’t think that’s so bad.

I do this for a multitude of reason. The biggest of which is that I have a tendency to pine. In the past there have been people very happy using me as an “intimacy mule,” who would very happily cuddle, kiss, even occasionally fuck, but who would either flat out deny our interactions in public or reject me when I requested to move our interactions “further.” They were very happy with the situation as it was and I was not. I don’t blame them any more than I blame myself; when I develop feelings for someone they are strong and they last. Not having the strength of will to recognize capacity for feelings with someone who could/would not reciprocate them was as much my fault as their using me for intimacy.

Put simply, if I develop feelings of love for someone, those feelings don’t go away. Because of this I’m extremely protective of myself and of allowing the environment for love to grow. I suppose that I view friend-zoning others as a method of ensuring that it doesn’t happen again, and simultaneously a way of ensuring that I don’t do it to other people. Once I’ve decided that I’m not going to pursue romantic and/or sexual attractions to someone, or have decided with the person that it is not a possibility, I subconsciously stop *feeding* those desires toward that person.

BOOM lo and behold, my emotions (eventually) match my behavior.

And this is part of why I don’t really like mixing “romance” with “friendship.” It’s not that I see these concepts as directly opposed or even remotely related, it’s just that “friendship” is so platonically coded for me that superseding it with a romantic and sexual relationship becomes difficult.

That is, because I (generally) don’t fuck my friends or go out on dates with them or “love” them, romantically, I tend not to think of romantic relationships as “friendships.” I don’t like this idea that romance “grows” from friendship. For me romance tends to grow from good sex, curiosity, and physical intimacy. Love and romance are processes that happen EARLY in a relationship, for me, not late, and they happen easily. Conversely, friendships take a long time.

And that’s why I friend-zone people. Because unless we are creating the room for love between us, it is one-sided and painful.

Not because I enjoy “getting something for nothing.”


About Michael Robinson

An eclectic person living in a world rife with binaries, opposition, anger and pain and trying to find the spectra, love, happiness and catharsis within.
This entry was posted in Essay, Gender, Orientation, queer, QUILTBAG, Recorded, Sex and Relationships and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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