I was asked today if I had a boyfriend. I answered no. I would have answered no regardless of my relationship status the reason being, quite simply, that I can't abide the term. Following a long term relationship I vowed that I would never have a boyfriend or conversely be somebodies 'girlfriend' again. This wasn't a vow to singledom, a bitter casting off of relationships, this was simply that I had the opportunity to start fresh with how I approached and understood relationships. Part of that was eschewing the X-friend terminology. It's a term I have loathed for years and I am determined not to fall into the easy habits of using it again. Let me talk you through why.
Girls and boys or men and women
First and foremost, I find it to be infantising. I'm not a girl any more; I'm an adult, a woman. The people I choose to have relationships with are also adults. Our relationships are adult. I don't want to have a romantic or sexual relationship with a child, with a little boy or a little girl. I want to have a relationship with a peer. Yes ages may vary, and maturity isn't necessary defined by the chronological age of a person, but I still want to be confident that I can describe my relationship as an adult one. A relationship without boys or girls.
Just 'girls' and 'boys'?
You can have a girlfriend and you can have a boyfriend. What about if you are a person who is gender queer, gender neutral or intersex? What if you are in a relationship with somebody who doesn't fit neatly into that gender binary. When common terminology like girlfriend and boyfriend is used it excludes a whole host of people and their relationships.
“This is my genderqueerfriend.” doesn't quite roll of the tongue, and gives the impression that it is an asexual, aromantic relationship. You know, a friendship.
The “friends” thing
The X-friend terminology carries with it the implication that you can only be friends with somebody of the 'opposite' gender if you are also in a romantic and/or sexual relationship with them. This reinforces stereotypes that men and women, or girls and boys, are different, two discreet groups that are to different to mingle freely.
You will occasionally hear 'girlfriend' being applied to platonic female/female friendships (a generally American usage I believe); I don't think I have ever heard boyfriend being applied to a male/male platonic relationship. Likewise who would use boy/girlfriend to apply to a platonic hetero relationship? Further confusion comes when we realise that this also relies on heteronormative preconceptions of relationships which may vary by culture; a man referring to a boyfriend is almost certainly going to be considered in a homosexual relationship where as a woman referring to her girlfriend may be in a homosexual romantic relationship or a platonic friendship depending on the prevailing culture.
Non-traditional relationship structures
The standard relationship structure in the UK is one of long term monogamy; for many individuals though, that simply isn't the structure that works for them. Polyamory, open relationships and other forms of non-monogamy are becoming increasingly accepted and explored relationship structures as people try and find away of having relationships that satisfies their needs and doesn't end in divorce or long periods of uncomfortable compromise. Girl/boyfriend are terms that have been around for over a century and have almost exclusively (especially in the latter half of the 20th C) been used to refer to ones monogamous romantic partner. As soon as you move away from that two person relationship dynamic, language becomes even more complex. The term isn't easily or comfortably applied to some romantic and/or sexual partners without considering how you label all individuals in the arrangement. If you have different types of relationship with different people, a single term might not fit all yet you risk alienating or hurting individuals by applying the term to one and not to another. This is multiplied when the public perception of a word carries significance that is at odds to your own personal situation.
[Of course a majority of people are perfectly happy with long term monogamy, have no qualms about making it work and have no need or desire to explore other formats. That's cool, I'm just looking at other groups for this particular point.]
This is where I fall apart somewhat: trying to find a suitable alternative for a word firmly lodged in my and other's lexicon.
Partner – it is delightfully gender neutral, contains more gravitas than boy/girlfriend, and is reasonably malleable to fit different situations. The problem is I find it a little to serious and stolid, not really suiting more casual relationships and flirtations. It still has the baggage of long term monogamy attached which doesn't suit all. It's just a little too business like and formal for my tastes.
Lover – A term that makes me cringe somewhat with it's kitschy undertones and suggestion of illicit boardroom affairs. But it is gender neutral and is free from the bounds of traditional relationship structures and less heavy and demanding than 'partner'. That means of course that it's less heavy and demanding than partner, perhaps not feeling right for a more committed relationship.
Paramour – Bizarrely I find this less kitschy than lover, though it still has many of the same pros and cons. It is somewhat sweater than lover, and for me doesn't have the association with an illicit affair.
Beau – My main issue with this is that I never really know how to pronounce it. It is a term I am most familiar with being applied to younger people, and thus risks becoming slightly more childish, not categorised as a 'real' relationship. That being said it is pleasingly neutral (though I believe is intended to refer to a male partner) with an affection that is lacking from love and partner.
That's it, those are the only alternatives I can think of and none are quite satisfactory. I'm wary of creating entirely new words. Yes I understand that that's how language develops but the intentionally created word often seems trite and forced – compersion a word created by the poly community to cover the pleasure you take in one of your partners enjoying another relationship is an example of this; lovely definition, yet the word leaves me utterly cold.
The other question to ask is do we need these labels and terms at all, can the ubiquitous boy/girlfriend be ditched in a mass slewing of definitions, labels and terms. Well maybe, perhaps we can focus more on describing the individual and the personal nature of the relationship and try not to fit into the boxes defined by particular words. The fact remains however, that sometimes we want an easy, simple and compact word or phrase for ease of communication and that those words can be a part of the relationship itself.
I am loathe to produce a piece that complains about an issue without offering a viable solution but the fact remains that as of yet, I don't have one. All I am sure of is that I don't want to be your girlfriend.