One of the most famous examples of class distinctions in Vance Packard's hugely influential 1959 bestseller, The Status Seekers, focused on how two married couples would sit when traveling together in a car. Working-class couples would put the men in front and the women in back to emphasize male domination, Packard wrote, while middle-class couples would sit husbands and wives together in order to emphasize the centrality of the marriage bond. For affluent couples, however, the "right thing" would be to pair the husband from one couple with the wife from another in order to enable flirtation and a frisson of erotic excitement.
Packard's explanation popped into my head more than once as I attended and took part in last month's Bold Boundaries conference in Chicago. Organized by evangelical Christians but featuring speakers and participants from many other backgrounds, Bold Boundaries challenged the assumption that Packard and many others make: that cross-sex friendships are always charged with sexual tension and danger. Men and women can be friends, every presenter at the conference argued, and not just with their spouses. In a gesture that indicates just how far evangelicalism has evolved, almost every presenter acknowledged the heteronormative framing of the whole discussion, with several pointing out that straights had much to learn from gays and lesbians about navigating friendship. The idea that lust makes platonic friendship impossible between straight men and women was, participants insisted, as antiquated as the cars in which Packard's subjects arranged themselves more than half a century ago.