Can Men And Women Be “Just” Friends?

One of the longest running debates amongst men and women is the question of whether or not straight men and women1 can ever be “just” friends – that is to say, can a friendship exist without sexual or romantic attraction “ruining” the relationship.

A recent article in Scientific American drew the conclusion that no, no they couldn’t, based on a pair of studies of 88 couples in mixed-gender platonic relationships. The conclusions from the study found that – amongst college students – the male partners in the relationships were far more likely to be attracted to the women than vice-versa and that the men would also overestimate the level of attraction that the women felt for them.

“Oh yeah. She wants me. I can tell.”

Now, arguments could and have been made about the article’s interpretation of the data (which varies from the stated purpose of the study), the way the study was conducted, the potential problems with the sample pool or the statistical conclusions that can be drawn from a 1 point difference in estimated levels of attraction (on a 9 point scale). I’m not about to try to wrangle with the data, but there were aspects that I took issue with.

To start with: the fact that the man may be attracted to a woman – or believe that she’s attracted to him – automatically disqualifies a friendship implies that ultimately it is his and only his view that defines “just friends”2

For another, the idea that just being attracted to somebody means that the relationship isn’t “just” a friendship carries the implication that there is a magical dividing line between romantic or sexual attraction and friendship.

Despite the obsession with the idea that men’s libidos somehow make them unable to be friends with someone they find attractive, I believe that not only can men and women be “just” platonic friends… it’s the obsession with the question that’s the problem.

Why Is This Still A Question?

It’s a sexy topic, rife with stereotypes and joking-but-not-really stereotypes about men and women and teasing the idea that your supposedly platonic friend is actually harboring a secret crush on you and whether this is a good or bad thing for the relationship. People who believe that yes, men and women can be friends without sex becoming a wedge will talk about their plethora of male or female friends with whom they share no romantic entanglements3, while those who believe that they can’t will cast aspersions on the male half of the pairing (and it’s always the men who are supposedly the weak link in this equation) and insisting that they would gladly bone the hell out of their girl friends if given half a chance.

We love the idea that there’s some sort of impossible wall between men and women and ascribe all sorts of motivations to it – that men only are friends with women because they want to sleep with them or that women know that their male friends want them and string them along because they enjoy the ego boost or because they get their jollies over the power they wield.

Part of what keeps the topic alive is the way that pop-culture seems to thrive on the idea that beneath any platonic mixed-gender friendship bubbles a simmering brew of frustrated sexual desire and sublimated romantic dreams just waiting to boil over and cause all sorts of delicious drama.

Side note: And it’s always mixed-gender relationships. Hetero/homo relationships are apparently automatically presumed to be a case of unrequited desire. Heteronormativity, ya’ll!

Music, films and television constantly sell us the idea that there’s always someone in our lives harboring a secret crush and wishing in their heart of hearts that we would just notice them as more than “just a friend“. Just off the top of my head, there’s Friends, The X-Files, CastleHow I Met Your Mother, Frasier, Smallville, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Skins, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog, Gossip Girl, Teen Wolf,  Twilight, The Ugly Truth, American Pie 2, Slumdog Millionaire, Friends With Kids, French Kiss, Chasing Amy, He’s Just Not Into You, Some Kind of Wonderful, Pretty In Pink and 1/3rd of the career of Taylor Swift.

It’s a Hollywood trope: if we see a man and a woman who aren’t related (and sometimes even then) having any sort of relationship – even if they hate each other – we are trained to believe that this will inevitably turn into fireworks of passion before the third reel.

“Feeling it yet?” “Nope. You?” “Mostly I just have to sneeze.”

It’s not surprising really. Unrequited love (or at least, horniness) makes for great drama. A love that runs smoothly is ultimately a lousy story; the more barriers you can put up between them, the better and few barriers are as universally relatable as being stuck in The Friend Zone. It’s hard to weave a narrative out of “Well, we get along great and we have a lot in common, but we know it wouldn’t work out, so we’re happy as we are.” Platonic friends are for supporting characters, the ones who’re cheering on the protagonists to get together… and even they usually end up with a “pair-the-spares” b-plot running in the background.

There’s More Than One Kind of Love

Another issue is that culturally, we have a problem with the idea of love that doesn’t conform to romance or familial relationships. We are acculturated to believe that love has two definitions when it comes to relationships; one for family and for everybody else.

Men especially, who are socialized away from acknowledging or expressing their emotions, have a hard time accepting that one can have love for his friends that doesn’t have a romantic or sexual tinge to it. Men can refer to their friends of long-standing as “brother”, but telling a friend – especially a male friend – that he loves them… that’s a big time social faux pas. The drunk overly emotional “I love you, man!” guy is a comedy staple – his gushing profession of manly affection is supposed to be awkward and embarrassing, something that should never be openly acknowledged.

“Jack? Where are ya man? I want everybody to know you’re like – hic – my best friend and I love you! I love you! Not in a gay way – hic – although that’s cool too…”

 

Even movies about platonic male friendships are almost always played out in romantic terms; you have the meet up, the burgeoning friendship, moments of jealousy, the big fight, then the make-up and reconciliation at the end. One of the central conflicts of the movie Chasing Amy, for example is that Holden can’t conceive that his friend Banky may love him without actually wanting to sleep with him.

This inability to come to grips with the idea of a love that doesn’t automatically mean hearts and flowers is part of what perpetuates the idea that men and women can never be emotionally intimate without sex or romance being thrown into the mix. Defining love as having two meanings – one for family, one for everyone else – limits the ways in which we perceive the world.

The ancient Greeks on the other hand, acknowledged many different kinds of love. There was eros – sexual attraction and infatuation while romantic love and affection was entirely seperate as agape; the feeling of contentment and emotional fulfillment that comes from a romantic relationship was thought to be entirely separate from sex. Philia on the other hand, was a dispassionate, more “virtuous” love, the platonic4 affection and loyalty felt between friends. It was a love of the mind, not the heart or the loins.

The Myth of Male Powerlessness (Before Their Boners)

It’s a long-running – and frankly rather insulting – trope that men are powerless before their own sexuality. We are so at the mercy of our hard-ons that the merest hint of sex is enough to reduce us to cavemen, incapable of anything other than the fulfillment of our immediate desires.

The idea that sex inevitably becomes an issue between cross-gender (or, again, cross-orientation) friendships is a long-standing one, and one that’s reinforced regularly by pop culture. To be a man, so we’re told over and over again, is to be unable to compartmentalize our sexuality from our daily lives.

One of the most famous examples – especially with relation to friendships – comes from the movie When Harry Met Sally:

The issue here is the underlying assumption that the fact that an attraction exists somehow means that men feel as though they must act on it. They are powerless to resist!

The power of boners compels you! The power of boners compels you!

It’s a popular idea. We – men included – are always making jokes about our penises having minds of their own or the blood draining from our brains in order to fuel our erections, laughing in that “ha ha, no but seriously…” way that we do when we want to bring up uncomfortable truths. And yet the idea that men are ultimately controlled by their libidos is an insulting one; it implies that we have no free will once sex is in the picture, that we are nothing but erections with legs, compelled to plunge ourselves into whatever orifice will receive us.

The idea that men are incapable of controlling their desire is an infantilization of male sexuality; it implies that men are baser and less-evolved than women and as a result, women are the de-facto gatekeepers of sex. Men are unable to control themselves, therefor their every motive should be considered suspect.

Sex Doesn’t Ruin Friendships

Just as we have a complicated relationship with the idea of “love”, we have a similarly complicated one with “sex”. Our culture is so tied up with mixed messages about sex and sexuality that we can’t keep them all straight. Sex is dirty and wrong and only bad people have it… so save it for marriage kiddos. Sex is awesome and we should be having it all the time… but someone, especially a woman, who likes sex too much has something wrong with them. The only way for women to be valued is to be sexy, but being sexy or sexualdeliberately is a cause for scorn and shame.

The idea that sexual desire can exist independently from an emotional relationship is one that a lot of people have issues wrapping their heads around. Sexual desire is of the body while affection – romantic or otherwise – is of the mind. Sex is peanut butter and love is chocolate – they go together amazingly well, but one can have one without the other or without mixing the two together. Some people are great at compartmentalization while others are not… but this doesn’t mean that the existence of sexual interest in one friend or the other spells the doom of the friendship.

The idea that men and women can’t be “just” friends presumes that the fact that an attraction means that it is automatically unacknowledged… or that it will inevitably be enacted upon. Yet in the real world, friends can acknowledge an attraction – whether one-sided or mutual – without destroying things. It’s entirely possible for a couple to say “Yeah, we know it would never work out and we don’t want to risk ruining our friendship with an ugly break-up”. Men (or women) are quite capable of being attracted to someone and keeping that attraction to the realm of fantasy or “it would be fun if…” without actively trying to pursue it.

It’s when one or the other has an agenda that attraction ultimately ruins a friendship. When somebody enters into a friendship under false pretenses – attempting the Platonic Friend Back Door Gambit – they are using the guise of friendship in selfish hope of getting what they want. If you’re only maintaining friendships with people you’re attracted to in the hopes of someday getting together with them or wearing them down – what I call the Big Lie From A “Nice” Guy – then you’re not actually their friend, you’re just an asshole.

Friendship – real friendship – can encompass sex or love without being “ruined”, so long as everybody is honest with one another and willing to act like adults.

  1. and by extension, mixed heterosexual and homosexual friendships – especially between men []
  2. And thanks to Amanda Marcotte for pointing that out. []
  3. although I always feel the need in the name of intellectual honesty to point out that anecdotes are not data []
  4. see what I did there? []