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.
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.