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  • Rebecca Esho Greenslade

Feminist Friendship, Therapeutic Resistance



Recently in the feminist supervision-reading groups I facilitate, we read an interview with Michel Foucault called Friendship as a Way of Life that was first published in 1981 in Gai Pied, a French gay magazine founded by Jean Le Bitoux, alongside Professor Sasha Roseneil’s 2006 chapter Foregrounding Friendship: Feminist Pasts, Feminist Futures published in The Handbook of Gender and Women’s Studies. I am always grateful for the groups’ rich and expansive conversation, and, in these nascent stages of building this feminist therapy community, a reflection upon feminist friendship seems like an appropriate topic for the FTN blog. Here I utilise Foucault’s writing on gay friendship as askesis[1] to generate reflection of friendship as a feminist praxis, considering the role friendship might play in accounts of ethics of the self as well as the emergent and disruptive possibilities of a feminist therapeutic practice that is rooted in, and sustained by, friendship.


Friendship as a Way of Life


In Friendship as a Way of Life, Foucault considers the role of companionship and alliance between gay men at a time when intimate relations between men were criminalized and pathologised. Foucault asks how certain tropes of homosexuality[2], such as sex as a liberatory action, stand in for what could be a more radical way of life. He questions whether instead of just being about sexual relations between men, could homosexuality also hold the potential for generating new alliances, emotional connections and ways of being together, specifically through friendship? In other words, for Foucault, it is not sexual behaviour that characterises homosexuality but a homosexual ethic of the self that is intrinsically other-related, resistant and innovative, forging new pathways of relating away from culturally given relationship models. At the time of this interview, being gay was proscribed - as it still is in many parts of the world – and therefore required creating gay spaces that made homosexual intimacies possible. However, for Foucault, the radicality of being gay was not through sex but through the immediacy of emotional connection. He is interested in how homosexuality opened up new ways of communication that extend beyond physical sex acts and unsettle and disrupt normative notions about what it is to be man and the types of connection are possible with other men. He likens this to a homosexual askesis – an act of transforming oneself. Homosexual askesis requires the ongoing negotiation of oneself, of one’s partners and friendships that challenge institutional and cultural norms, and through doing so, open up new, non-prescriptive possibilities on how to live. Through the term ‘way of life’, Foucault is referring to opening up new cultures, new ethics, new possibilities of connection, transformation, love and relations between men that were previously foreclosed, described by philosopher Tom Roach as “… the way for future becoming – a beyond sexuality, a post liberationist politics – which may preeminently take the form of friendship as a way of life, yielding a culture, an ethics, and yet unseen forms of relation” (2012, p. 44). It is noteworthy that Foucault’s advocacy for the value of friendship for the gay community’s political future was first published in 1981 at the start of the AIDS epidemic, a disease which Foucault was to die from three years later.


In Tom Roach’s book Friendship as a Way of Life: Foucault, AIDS, and the Politics of Shared Estrangement, Roach gathers Foucault’s sparse writings on friendship to emphasis the ethical and political possibilities of friendship as a practice of “shared estrangement” which he considers through the lens of queer politics and AIDS activism. He situates the practice of friendship within an ethics of discomfort where the recognition of each other through friendship must include acknowledging our finitude (he is writing about friendship during the AIDS epidemic), our capacities for betrayal and our strangeness to each other. Through Foucault’s writings, Roach finds a form of friendship that is not rooted in a common identity but in an “openness to alterity” (p, 123), It is through “ontologically differentiated homo-ness” (p. 136) that friendship acquires an ambiguous queer relationality that is never fully at ease and never fully knowable. It is this very ambiguity that imbibes friendship with a productive potential for queer resistance and activism. I would add that is it also this very ambiguity that poses such a contemporary threat to heteronormative and familial modes of relating, as we can see, for example, through the vociferous rise in anti-trans activism and efforts to bio-politically regulate trans bodies. In this respect, queer and queer-allied friendship as resistance both presents a threat and places us under threat.


Roseneil’s essay, Foregrounding Friendship: Feminist Pasts, Feminist Futures, whilst not referencing Foucault’s interview, is also arguing for a departure from heteronormative modes of relating, stating: “It is my argument that if we are to understand the current state, and likely future, of intimacy and care, we need to foreground friendship as a social relationship, and de-centre the ‘family’ and the heterosexual couple in our intellectual imaginaries” (p. 333). Discussing how friendship has historically been crucial to feminist politics, identities and communities, Roseneil puts forward “a manifesto for future feminist agendas” (p. 325) that challenges the familialism that continues to dominate social policy. As Roseneil acknowledges, this challenge can be found in earlier feminist writings, for example, poet, essayist and feminist, Adrienne Rich’s 1980 essay ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’, calls for heterosexual feminists to examine heterosexuality as a political institution that disempowers women. (Here, I am also reminded of poet, essayist and feminist activist, Cheryl Clarke’s essay ‘Lesbianism: An Act of Resistance’ (originally published in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981)) where Clarke argues same sex women relationships are eschewed because of their “potential of mutuality”. Rich expands lesbian existence from sexual preference to a broader understanding of female relationality, suggested through her use of the polemical term “lesbian continuum”, which some critics felt erased sexuality as part of lesbian identity and questioned whether same sex friendships should be understood as part of a “continuum” (Roseneil, p. 331-32). Whilst Rich is critical of conflating lesbian experience with male same sex relationships, where I see similarities between Rich’s and Foucault’s positions are in their advocacy for a way of life that resists dominant models of relating and sees the political possibilities of friendship as an act of resistance.


I have read Foucault’s interview Friendship as a Way of Life a number of times now, but this time I was struck by how much Audre Lorde’s essay Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power’ was present for me during this re-reading. In this essay, Lorde considers what is lost through women’s detachment from the erotic. The erotic, for Lorde, I think like Foucault and Rich, seeks a mode of relating that includes but is not reduced to sexuality – the erotic is a source of life-affirming power that has the capacity to generate social change. She writes:


“The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling. In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change. For women, this has meant a suppression of the erotic as a considered source of power and information within our lives” (p. 53).

Oppressive systems – such as the “compulsory heteronormativity” that Rich wants feminists to disrupt - obstruct and prevent women’s connection with the erotic, rendering docility or acquiesces. By contrast, for Lorde, “recognizing the power of the erotic within our lives can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world” (p.59). Can we understand Lorde’s call for reclaiming a relationship to the erotic as a call to a way of life – a renewed culture and ethics – an askesis that is characterised by erotic power? Both Foucault and Lorde are calling for modes of relating that operate as an antithetical force in hetero-patriarchal systems that maintain conformity, in contrast to re-imagining radical ways of being in and building relationships that do not depend upon the hetero-patriarchal nuclear family for their production. Notably, Lorde, Foucault and Rich were writing at the rise of neo-liberal political and economic policies, therefore exploring the potential of non-hetero-normativity under systems of capitalism.


In his chapter Friendship As Resistance, philosopher Todd May proposes that friendships that trouble social norms are even more important in an age of neo-liberalism. May is interested in the political possibilities of friendship, in particular friendship’s potential to politically resist neoliberalism’s dominance upon our social, political and economic culture. (Neo-liberalism’s impact and influence upon the psy-disciplines and how they are practiced today is well-documented and I will not re-hash it here, only to emphasis the importance of understanding the type of selves neo-liberalism produces and how as therapists, we can be conduits of this particular form of neo-liberal subjectification.) For Todd, the consumerist and extractive figurations neo-liberalism produces and reinforces can be disrupted by particular characteristics of friendship that enable us to “resist that infiltration and thus create alternatives to whom we are being asked to be” (2017, p. 64). Friendship includes acts of spontaneity, knowledge-sharing, vulnerability and care that are “not not simply investments, performed with an eye to the return they will yield” (2017, p. 66). Whilst, it may be rewarding to offer support to a friend, May distinguishes this from “the consumptive enjoyment promised by neoliberalism. It is a joy that arises from the knowledge of how it will affect the other rather than solely how it feels to yourself.” (2017, p. 66). And, this is not a world that we have to create, because it already exists. To return to the title of Roseneil’s chapter “Foregounding Friendship”, we are choosing to draw on what already exists to envisage and to expand otherwise ways of relating and being with each other that are not prescribed by neoliberalism.


Specifically considering relations between women, in Girlfriends and Postfeminist Sisterhood (2013) Alison Winch argues that that “postfeminist sisterhood” is a symptom of omnipresent neoliberalism, where friendship is procured through an Anglo-American “liberal feminist rhetoric of agency and choice” (2013, p.2). Through her analysis of popular culture, Winch identifies various characteristics of friendship between women, or “girlfriend culture”, that concord with the political project of neoliberalism “that dominates social and economic norms by enabling a culture where the individual is prized above society and choice is placed in conflict with collective action” (2013, p. 2) Winch identifies ways neoliberalism infiltrates intimate relations with women, for example, through the commodification of choice and empowerment for individual women, which aims “to generate bonds between consumers and brands” rather than bonds between each other (2013, p. 2), contrasting these with feminist intimacies of taking up collective action for disempowered groups of women.


Whilst acknowledging that not all friendships are politically resistant, May contends that friendship offers three political virtues: 1) a model for egalitarian, non-exploitative relationships, 2) a training for people in egalitarian interaction and 3) motivation for people to develop healthier egalitarian relationships with others. In the introduction to Breaking Bread, where bell hooks and Cornell West intimately come together to discuss the challenges and joys of Black intellectual life, hooks reflects upon what the friendship between herself and Cornell West enables in their dialogue. She writes,


“I think it is important for readers to know that Cornel and I are friends. There is something about the nature of working in friendship that also makes this dialogue possible and that if we were people who were solely in political solidarity without the context of friendship some of the magic and the sillinesses that appear in our discussion might not be there. It is partially friendship that makes certain forms of vulnerability possible, certain forms of interrogation possible.” (2017, p. 4).

Perhaps a good illustration of May’s egalitarian political virtues of friendship, hooks describes how their friendship provides the kind of “critical affirmation where we can talk, argue, disagree, even become disappointed in each other, yet still leave one another with a sense of spiritual joy and renewal” (2017, p. 2), modeling through living example the possibility of new kind of relationship between Black men and women that “breaks bread” with past and present. Perhaps we could say they are modeling friendship as askesis, a spiritual practice that generates new possibilities of relationship to self and other, that generates a new way of life.


Therapists are NOT friends! (are they?)


We learn early on in our therapeutic trainings that a therapist is not a friend! I am not convinced it is a simple distinction to make. In one of the discussions on friendship in the feminist supervision-reading groups, I asked everyone to put their definition of friendship in the ‘chat’. Each definition could also have been used to describe characteristics of the therapeutic relationship. In antiquity, friendship and the practice of truth speaking (parrhesia) were bound together – the truth speaker takes the role of ‘ethical friend’, which perhaps aligns more with the role of therapist (I have a forthcoming paper on this so won’t unpack this here). Certainly, when we consider the potentialities of friendship as a therapeutic intervention, the traditional psychotherapeutic model of therapist and client in a consulting room will be reimagined. Michael Guy Thompson, an American psychoanalyst who came over to train with the psychiatrist R.D. Laing in the 1970’s and lived in the Portland Road therapeutic community for a number of years, writes about Aristotelian notions of friendship in relationship to living in therapeutic households, reminding us of Aristotle's remark that friendship seems to be the bond that holds communities together. It is notable that Laing named his organization the Philadelphia Association, which derives from the Greek word for friendship philia, because he conceived it as a brotherhood or sisterhood of friends. Laing’s therapeutic project was rooted in friendship. It was also a subversive project where the therapeutic households sought to cultivate a different culture of therapeutic understanding and care, a way of life where madness was not locked away but freely expressed.


May also suggests that the political virtues friendship propagates can also be employed in relationships that are not friendships, which, from a therapeutic perspective does not foreclose particular qualities of friendship being present within the therapeutic relationship (note, in feminist psychotherapy, relational egalitarianism is a therapeutic priority). Therefore, whilst the parameters of a therapeutic relationship perhaps prevent the possibility of a friendship between client and therapist being fully actualised, qualities of friendship may be present that are in service of the therapeutic relationship (and, may also hinder it). As feminist psychologist Laura Brown describes,


“As I often tell trainees, friendship and psychotherapy have elements in common. They require mutual willingness to be open-hearted, to take emotional risks and to engender trust in one another” (Brown 2013, p. 16).


Feminist Friendship, Therapeutic Resistance


So, what of the role of friendship in building this community – the Feminist Therapy Network? Can we create conditions to cultivate meaningful friendships as both a personal and political act? Of course, the FTN adheres to a feminist praxis that is for all genders, but can prioritising friendship within the FTN be an organising principle to resist dominant practices in favour of a radical feminist psychotherapeutics that cultivates collective, alongside individual, therapeutic environments, underpinned by a mutual reciprocity between care of the self and care for others? In other words, through friendship, can the FTN challenge the normative assumptions that underpin our profession? Can the practice of friendship be one means to resisting the therapeutic orthodoxies that keep us away from each other and render collective resistance harder to undertake?


I am grateful for one the early conversations I had with Chand and LV around FTN membership. They helped me understand that, at least in these formative stages, I am not interested in building a membership body. I am interested in building a community where friendships can grow, and from which our feminist work together can occur. As Chand pointed out, with membership comes gate keeping, it replicates therapeutic organisational models that require an adherence to particular standards to be a member. Membership also leans into an extractive model where we can pay £50.00 dues a year, state we are a member of the Feminist Therapy Network on our C.V. and websites, yet never meet other members, never build feminist friendships or undertake feminist work together (as I admit, I have done in the past with some memberships).


It is currently hard to ignore the Big Three’s (BACP, UKCP and BPS) upcoming implementation of SCoPEd (The Scope of Practice and Education), despite members’ protestations and lack of consensus (and lack of consent). Notably, since members recently started receiving emails from the BACP letting them know what column they would be in, there has been an explosion of complaint and outrage on social media. Yet, as one anti-SCoPEd campaigner recently posted, where were you all during the campaigning work? Where was your voice of outrage then? It is a feminist question! However, what if, instead of competing with each other over whether we are placed in Column A, B and C, we concern ourselves with friendship? What if, through friendship, we found otherwise ways of practicing ethical accountability in our work? To recall Foucault, “a way of life can yield intense relations not resembling those that are institutionalised. It can yield a culture and an ethics” (1981, p. 138). Can psychotherapists and counsellors collectively imagine, and conceive of, a culture of therapeutic practice that is deeply rooted in ethical accountability and responsibility, yet refuses institutional surveillance? Do we dare to? And what might it require of us? Could feminist friendship be one such means to therapeutic resistance and the building of alternatives?


Rebecca Esho Greenslade




Image Attribution link: geralt on Pixabay


This piece is section of a current work in progress. I welcome any feedback or comments.

[1] Askesis refers to ancient spiritual ethical practices, encountered most extensively within Hellenistic philosophy, concerned with self, and by extension, social transformation. My research is concerned with their contemporary relevance, specifically to a feminist therapeutics. [2] Once a term used widely to describe gay people, the term ‘homosexual’ has now become associated with stigma and prejudice. Therefore, when referring to Foucault’s essay I will use the term ‘homosexual’ - as he does - but will otherwise use to the term ‘gay’.

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