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Can Men and Women Be Friends?

March 21, 2011
The When Harry Met Sally Dilemma
When I was about twelve years old, my mother told me something that I found absolutely traumatizing.  She said that from puberty to at least 70, men and women couldn’t be friends without any sexual tension.  This terrified me.  I argued with her, eloquent arguments, pointing to her own friendships with married men (“I still find them sexy, even though they’re married”) and my own budding platonic friendships (“Honey, they are either gay, or, trust me, they feel sexual tension with you.”)

I asked her if it was possible for one person to ever view the other in a completely platonic way, and she said yes, she believed so for both men and women.  I thought I had trapped her then, and asked, if that’s so, why couldn’t both people just so happen to see each other in a platonic light?

She answered, “Because then the friendship would have never happened.  At least one person, once upon a time, has to have liked the other, or otherwise, why would they bother to exert the extra energy into being friends?  Later, habit may take over and neither person may feel sexually attracted to the other, but at some point in any male/female relationship, there is tension.”  I wondered why girls bothered to be friends with each other then, or why gay men and women had opposite gendered friends if they had no sexual interest in the other party.  I was about to argue further, when my mom patted me on the head and asked if I wanted ice cream.  I did, (so easily bought!) and the conversation ended.

Over the past decade, since that conversation, I have had many male friends.  Like many women, I have, in fact, had many more close male friends than female friends.  While some of these male friends were gay, most have been straight. And because of these relationships, for years I have proudly stood fast in my belief that my mother was wrong.  But this certainty of youth was not to last.

Ladies and Gentleman, once again, doubt crept into paradise.

In college, after my first long-term college boyfriend and I split, many of my closest male friends seemed to come out of the woodwork with declarations of affection, passion, and yes, one even said love.  At first I was bewildered, then annoyed, then saddened, and then felt terribly guilty as I lost friend after male friend, people I dearly loved but was not ‘in’ love with, some of them telling me I led them on, some of them telling me I was a bitch, a few just drifting off in embarrassment.  I sought assurances from my remaining close male friends that they didn’t secretly have crushes on me, and they told me to varying degrees that I was hideous and the idea was laughable, which filled me with (a slightly ego-reducing) relief.

I have come to the conclusion that on my end, at least, I have platonic male friendships.  Some of these were always platonic, some started out with me having a crush on him and then switched over to genuine friendship.  But regardless of the way they began, they have settled into comfortable and deep amity.  That said, the way I interact with male friends is very different than the way I act with female friends.  With male friends, flirtatious behavior still exists.  There is more play hitting, and more cute insults.  It is friendship, for sure, but a slightly different beast than my same gender friendships.  Does this mean that friendship is less genuine, or just operating on a slightly different plane?  I decided to query others about their own theories regarding inter-gendered friendship.

First off, let me start by saying, yes, I am aware this entire post is heteronormative.  I apologize for this.   I see no way around it.  I think that homosexual individuals can obviously have opposite gendered friends with no sexual attraction between them.  Thus, for the purpose of this highly Scientific (so scientific, in fact, it needs to be written with a capital letter like that) survey, I asked the respondents to only answer if they were bisexual or straight.  I received answers from six women and two men (ages 20 to 28), all of which who are college (and sometimes graduate school) educated, all of who happen to be white and/or Asian.  I asked them 14 yes and no questions, designed to get at a few primary issues:

  • First, to establish if they had ever had opposite gendered friend (they all had) and the closeness level of that friendship (for all but two participants, they had a ‘close’ or ‘best’ friend who was of the opposite gender).
  • Second, to establish whether having a significant other (boyfriend, girlfriend, lover etc) affected that deep friendship with the opposite-gendered best friend or vis-versa (for some respondents, yes).
  • Third, to establish whether it was desirable to have opposite gendered friends (a resounding yes from everyone).
  • And lastly, to determine how frequently friend couples secretly covet one another, and how that sexual tension might affect their relationship.  (Apparently everyone polled (except for one female participant) had desired a friend at one point, and most everyone had also had someone they considered ‘just a friend’ desire them).

The main gender difference that arose was with the final question, which was the one I was really interested in:

“Do you think people can ever truly have opposite gendered friends in which neither side has, at some point, sexually coveted the other?”

The guys (and one girl) said no, that doesn’t happen.  Most girls though, you guessed it, said yes, men and women can have friends with which sexual politics never came into play.  This question was quite polarizing in fact: one woman wrote:
“I think the question of whether or not men and women can have strictly platonic friendships is very silly. The answer, in my opinion, is ‘of course,’ and I really don’t think it’s too much more complicated then that.”
However, a guy wrote, when asked whether one can have opposite gendered friends with zero sexual coveting:
“No.  Guys who state otherwise are overwhelmingly lying, or just by degrees more interested in someone else at the moment… An occasional yes answer may result if the guy believes the woman to be completely unattractive.”
Uh huh.

This is nothing revolutionary, the notion that men place all women on one sexual ladder of interest while women have a sexual ladder and a friend ladder from which men can only try to cross at their own peril.

One girl explained that one reason she thought she had more male friends was because her interests and stereotypically ‘male’ interests (sports chatter, cars, power tools, and drinking beer) were more closely aligned than stereotypically female concerns.  She wrote:

“I’ve been wondering how much of my ease in making male friends is due to my general, like, attitude towards life (i.e. dislike for drama) and aforementioned penchant for dude-dominated things…and how much of it could be attributed to some kind of attraction, which could be mutual or not, and also conscious or unconscious.  I used to think it was more just that I’m kind of a dude, but over the past few years as friends and I have crossed (or tried to cross!) the friend line into relationship territory, I realized that’s almost certain to always be some part of the equation too.”
A guy polled tried to explain what he meant by ‘sexual interest.’  He noted that though he would feel some sexual interest with any female friend, this interest could affect the relationship zero to 100% depending on other factors.
“Hold on a minute, I didn’t say I couldn’t be friends with women.  I meant that if they were attractive, I would at least consider them sexually from time to time. We’re not talking fantasize-in-the-shower here (I’m far too busy fantasizing that I’m the President), but just a mental note that sexual interaction would be a pleasant experience for the parties involved.”
He went on to explain that he unconsciously or consciously he considered many factors when rating a girl’s sexual appeal, including whether he was dating someone, whether the girl was dating one of his friends, and whether he was more attracted to someone else at the moment, or the girl was completely out of his sexual league.  He noted that serious trouble occurs only when none of the above apply, because then “to be quite blunt, there’s nothing more frustrating than banging your head up against the wall when you’d rather be banging your friend up against the wall.”
Conclusions? Not a large enough sample size to come to any well substantiated decisions.  But I do think the reason this question comes up again and again in popular discourse is because there is no simple answer and because there isn’t an universal answer that applies to everyone.  I think male and female friendship often has an unacknowledged sexual component.  My mother wasn’t completely wrong.  But just like everyone polled, I think inter-gendered friendships can yield a valuable and meaningful relationship.   Both because, and in spite of, their inherent contradictory, confusing and polarizing nature.
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One Comment leave one →
  1. Philip permalink
    March 23, 2011 9:01 AM

    I feel like this debate is ripe for a Dr. Johnson treatment: you know, “I refute it thus!” but in either direction: either with the cinematic slow motion kiss to demonstrate there is no such thing as platonic intersexual relations, or with the reveal of a totally platonic from day one friendship. And of course just like Johnson’s refutation of Berkeley’s theories, it would prove nothing.

    But I do hate ladder theory, because it has never actually corresponded to my lived experience.

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