Can Men and Women Be Friends?

So asks a study. Because we are looking at When Harry Met Sally to find out what to do our psychological research on now, apparently.

Ampersand over at Alas A Blog has a good breakdown of the problems with the study, so I don’t have to. It’s the usual sort of problems– once again, we are generalizing from 88 straight college students in an Introduction to Psychology class and the older people they can rope into participating to all of humanity ever. In addition, the difference that has been so hyped up is actually fairly small. On average, men are moderately attracted to a female friend, while women are a little less than moderately attracted. While men tend to overestimate how attractive they are to their female friend and women to underestimate, the difference is not huge (half a point on a nine-point scale) either way. And, you know, between 88% and 98% of respondents (depending on demographics) said they had friends of another gender, which you think would settle the “can men and women be friends?” question.

Here’s the thing: there are a lot of reasons why men might be slightly more likely to be attracted to their female friends than vice versa. Maybe men are more attracted to their female friends because Evolution! Maybe college-age men are more likely to try the Be Platonic Friends And Telepathy Their Way Into Dating Them dating strategy! Maybe men are more attracted to any given woman and they just happened to ask about friends and not random women that walked by on campus! My personal bet would be that the reason is that men tend to be the initiator: in my personal experience initiating, I’ve found that I tend to default to assuming people I get along with are attracted to me (after all, what do I have to lose?). The women would have some pretty good evidence that their male friends weren’t attracted to them; after all, he hadn’t asked her out. But that’s a personal bias based on fuckall. This is an interesting result, if overplayed, but it is waaaaaay too soon to come to any conclusions about anything.

I really think it’s too soon to come to the conclusion that men are Rampaging Fuckbeasts that think with their cocks and only befriend women that they get boners for and that any woman who befriends a man is in denial about the power of his raging cockmonster.

One result I find very interesting, however, is that women are substantially more likely to consider attraction a cost of the friendship, and men to consider it a benefit. This is either slight evidence for the College-Age Men Are Telepathying It Up theory (“if you have a female platonic friend they might date you!”), or evidence that college-age men are more likely to adopt the Ozy Approach to hot platonic friends, namely, that my life is improved by the presence of nice asses even if I am not having sex with the owner of said ass. (Speaking of me, I am always confused about whom I get to be friends with in these studies. Who even counts as my opposite gender? What if I’m attracted to everyone? Am I forever alone?)

I do not see why attraction is necessarily a sign that the friendship isn’t working. Maybe it’s a perfectly nice platonic friendship, and also you get to check out the other person’s chest sometimes. Inexplicably, this option has been ignored by all the coverage ever.

Photo– je@n/Flickr. A sign that says “SEX in progress.” 

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About ozyfrantz

Ozy Frantz is a student at a well-respected Hippie College in the United States. Zie bases most of zir life decisions on Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, and identifies more closely with Pinkie Pie than is probably necessary. Ozy can be contacted at [email protected] or on Twitter as @ozyfrantz. Writing is presently Ozy's primary means of support, so to tip the blogger, click here.

Comments

  1. On average, men are moderately attracted to a female friend, while women are a little less than moderately attracted.

    It is amazing* that this result gets translated into “Men and Women Can’t Be ‘Just Friends’” by Scientific American (which should try harder to live up to it’s name). And I’m sure there are already some ridiculous blog posts popping up on the internet about how SCIENCE SAYS one hundred percent of women are cruel temptresses who coldly ignore all their poor, unjustly-friendzoned male acquaintances.

    Also, my personal two cents: I’ve had male friends who I’ve found quite attractive, and yet I somehow miraculously managed to maintain the friendship in spite of the fact they were either unavailable or didn’t find me attractive. I find it perplexing that attraction is supposed to be a fatal flaw in a friendship- while it certainly adds some complications, so do plenty of other human emotions that figure into our inevitably flawed and complex relationships with other people.

    *And by amazing, I mean equal parts laughable and depressing.

    • PetroniusArbiter says:

      There does seem to be a tendency – generally observed second hand, I haven’t experienced this scenario, so take this with a grain of salt – to consider attraction (whether romantic, sexual, or any mix thereof) incompatible with friendship. This seem to be opinion more often held by women, to the extent that a good friendship will be immediately terminated if the question of attraction is raised, and very often the guy will be labeled as Nice Guy(TM), who was only faking the friendship to eventually get into her pants.
      Now i don’t know how often that scenario happens, and whether it happens often enough that it makes sense to treat every case like it’s just a play to get in her pants, or if people just can’t deal with the idea that that a guy might like a girl as a friend AND be interested in sexy times with her, or that attraction is a complicated thing that can develop over time. All i know is that i hear and read stories that follow in that vein quite often (here’s a link to a rather interesting one -http://squid314.livejournal.com/328528.html?thread=2650704#t2650704 ).
      I do know that i had always had female friends, some of which i have been attracted to, some of which i haven’t, and it has never been a problem. I guess there is a theoretical situation that if I’m so attracted to someone that it causes me discomfort to be around them and not be with them, or see them be with someone else, that could make me terminate contact with them, just for my peace of mind. This hardly proves anything one way or another though.

      • The other crucial distinction the studies also all seem to miss is the difference between sexual attraction and romantic attraction. I’m sure a significant proportion of my male friends would hook up with me if I expressed interest, but I’m very sure the overwhelming majority wouldn’t want to date me.

  2. *nods* Clearly this means you have No Friends, Ozy. They don’t exist. Whoops.

    Also yes, with you on the “why is it unacceptable to be attracted to your friends?” question. I am attracted to many of my friends (and have in fact had sex with some of them while still be friends, but that’s a concept way too strange for this article I think) and that has not altered the fact that we are friends. I mean, this is all pretty irrelevant for anyone queer or gender-non-conforming at all, but I feel like attraction isn’t a cost or a benefit for me with regards to friendship, it’s just one facet of the many that characterize my relationships with people.

  3. “only befriend women that they get boners for”

    Maybe not only. But I think a lot of men will have gotten several of their female friends because they approached someone they were attracted to then later found out they weren’t romantically compatible.

  4. I have female friends, some attractive, some not. Being very attracted to them can be annoying if you aren’t dating them but as long as they’re actually a friend then it’s ok.

  5. I think that the problem with these studies is the underlying myth of “if you are attracted to someone you will eventually have sex with them, because we have no control of our actions when it comes to sex.”

    And not just for men.

  6. Really, Ozy? You went with “evolution” before “socio-cultural conditioning”? Dang, I think being on GMP is beginning to have some side-effects for the blog.

    And as for “my life is improved by the presence of nice asses even if I am not having sex with the owner of said ass”… uh, ew? Would so start filing papers for official aquaintanceship if a friend whose orientation included me told me that.

    • I know I’m biased in favor of the sociocultural conditioning explanation, so occasionally I need to remind myself that it’s possible that there are biological differences between men and women too. :P

      Awwwww. :( I promise I won’t stare at your ass if we’re ever friends, then.

  7. wellokaythen says:

    It’s not an either/or question. I think of this in terms of a threshold, or a “point of no return” on a spectrum. Whether or not they can be friends depends on the level of attraction and the closeness of the friendship. If you’re just sort of acquaintances and/or there’s only a little attraction going on, then there’s usually no problem. But, if two people are close friends and there’s a strong attraction, that makes platonic friendship extremely difficult. The closer the friends and the stronger the attraction, the more likely sex will get in the way.

    A bit of attraction one way or the other shouldn’t be a problem if both people are mature and relatively sane.

  8. I did a post on this a while back. In my experience and observation, my answer is: Not likely. Men tend to more easily and commonly sexually attracted to their female friends. Once sexual attraction exists on one side, being “just friends” cannot. Sure, they can play the part of being just friends as comments have already touched on, but that’s just acting. Think about it, ladies are not sexually attracted to their girl friends and men are not sexually attracted to their male buddies. Basically… If you have a friend of the opposite gender that you would have sex with if given the opportunity, they are not “just your friend.” They’re more toy you.

    • *More to you

    • It just dawned on me how this is the very reasoning is also used to stigmatize bisexuals, at least what I’ve commonly seen–the fear that bisexuals *might* be attracted to you means they can’t be your real friend. And I also find it interesting, since I although cis and relatively hetero, live in a queer community, and most of my friends are gay or bi, just how many friendships I would have missed out on if I had worried about them being attracted to me.
      I typically am not so attracted to strangers. I find attraction grows on me as I get to know people and like them as human beings. And hence some of the better friendships I’ve had have been with women I was attracted to. The proof of friendship was in the pudding–friends are there for each other, they help each other, they talk about what’s on their minds. How did we deal with attraction? Like friends. We talked about those feelings and worked them out. We decided dating wasn’t on the table, and we got back to doing what friends do for each other. I’m so glad I didn’t lose out, tossing good friendships in the trash over some false dichotomy where attraction and friendship are incompatible.

      • wellokaythen says:

        And, if men are untrustworthy because of their sexuality, then I guess as a straight guy I can’t have any gay male friends. I should just cut them out of my life before they ruin our friendship. And gay men certainly cannot have any gay male friends. That is simply impossible.

    • wellokaythen says:

      I think this is overly pessimistic, and maybe gives sex a little too much power. Once there’s attraction, there can be no friendship, because then it’s just about sex, and then the friendship is just “acting”? If it turns into going through the motions of friendship, then it was probably not friendship in the first place.

      Besides, isn’t most of friendship about behavior and how you act? If someone acts like your friend and never does anything to hurt your friendship, then isn’t that person your friend? If a friend can never be attracted to another friend and still be a friend, then you’re right. I think it can be challenging but not impossible.

      If men simply cannot control themselves in the presence of attractive women, then perhaps total gender segregation is in order. Set up relocation camps for horny hetero men, perhaps?

      • It all depends on what your definition of friendship is. Mine is when there is a closeness and bond, but no sexual attraction on either side. Also, I’m not saying that men can’t control themselves around women they are attracted to. Sure they can, but they can’t control who they are attracted to, am I right?

        • I think your definition of friendship might be different from many other people’s Ashley. Mine does not preclude sexual attraction. You are right that you can’t help who you are attracted to (within the limits of socio-cultural conditioning), but you can certainly control how you act on that attraction. I, for example, have a strict ‘no fantasies’ rule about friends to whom I am attracted. In the end it’s just another thing about your friend that you notice and move on from.

        • wellokaythen says:

          Ashley,

          You’re right, it’s probably impossible to control who you’re attracted to. Men will be attracted to the people they’re attracted to. But, a man doesn’t have to act on his attraction. That is something that he does have control over. It is possible for most men to have two different thoughts in their heads at the same time, contrary to popular belief about the male brain. Sexual attraction does not trump all other thoughts in his head unless he decides to let that happen.

          [Sorry, I can see my comment about out of control men put into camps was pretty lame. Too much or too little coffee, I think.]

      • I think the bisexual issue is an important one to raise here. Theoretically I should have absolutely no friends then. But I do. Of both genders. Couple of them have included casual sexual relationships (which haven’t screwed up the friendship since we were on the same page to begin with).

        I don’t friend people I’m necessarily sexually attracted to regardless of gender. And for the most part don’t form sexual attraction to my friends.And that’s not a choice. It’s just how it goes. As a woman I can’t control who I’m attracted to anymore than a man can.

  9. Actually, I think this is a very important question. I believe it’s possible in all, well, shades of grey, but, no doubt, sexual attraction, but even more so, romantic interest! do add two dimensions to a relationship that need to be addressed in some way. My first question is about the definition of friendship – is a friendship necessarily “platonic”? If so, why the qualifier in “platonic friendship”? I think sexual attraction can be far easier managed than romantic interests, alas, sex and romance being as intertwined as they are, I think it’s a fair question to ask how many friends would be able to do one without getting into the other. I mean, it’s fine if it works, but with romance involved, I’d say the term friend would be slightly stretched to denote the kind of relationship…

    As for sexual interest, i think ignoring is not a bad approach, I think, particularly if applied implicitly and symmetrically. It only runs into problems when it’s asymmetric, and the person more affected cannot deal with the asymmetry (if implicit) or the rejection (if explicit). But that’s just the way it is.

    I also think there’s a problem that couples and jealousy pose for male-female-friendships: in my experience, there is a certain tendency for the couple’s friendships to follow gender lines: she keeps her female friends, he keeps his male friends.

    So, yes, sure, women and men who attracted to one another can be friends. But their relationship is certainly more complex, and more complex to keep, than friendships without that element.

  10. To my mind as long as the two people could (theoretically) have sex but not turn it into a relationship and still enjoy each others company then why couldn’t they be friends?

    Personally I have several female and bi male friends who I have either had sex with or would if the offer was on the table who are perfectly good friends out side of this. I think if people weren’t so hung up on sex as something more than it is outside of a serious LTR then this question wouldn’t even need to be asked. as the answer would be a resounding and obvious “yes of course, what a silly question”

    Luck,

  11. wellokaythen says:

    I was just thinking that there might be a little “confirmation bias” at work on this issue. When a friendship burns to the ground because of sexual attraction, it gets a lot of attention. Everyone says, “See? I told you sex gets in the way!” Meanwhile, when one friend is attracted to another and it doesn’t ruin the friendship, no one notices as much, because daily life just continues uninterrupted. The two friends are too busy gossiping about the behavior of the two people who grew apart because of sex. We’re too busy noticing when it fails to notice when it does work.

  12. Hmm, how’d I miss this.

    I sure don’t understand WHY it happens – I’m thinking back to the ladder-theory post a few weeks back, and as far as I can tell, I just don’t have a friendzone of any kind (and it does seem to be a real thing for other people), but I can certainly deal with feelings of more than just friendship occurring between people to some degree. It’s best acknowledged and not overly dwelt on unless necessary – and just be careful in certain circumstances together (like anywhere serving alcohol :P ).

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