For the Love of God, Will We Ever Stop Asking if Men and Women Can Really Be 'Just Friends'?

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Hey, did you ever notice that sometimes men and women have sex with each other, but then other times men and women just talk and hang out and don't have sex with each other? Almost like...friendship? Confusing, right? I mean, which is it!? Are they having sex or are they not having sex? Is not having sex its own thing, or is it just Phase One of Project: Let's Definitely Have Sex Later? When will science finally shed light on this, the blackest corner of all existence? PLEASE, I AM LOST. WHEN YOU LOOK AT IT, IT'S AS IF YOU ARE BLIND.


Except not reeeeeeeally, guys. The reality is, no matter how many times we ask ourselves, all faux-credulous and goggle-eyed, "Is it possible for men and women to be platonic friends?" the answer is always and forever YES, OF COURSE. Now. Everything, as in the case of everything, is a spectrum. Are there people actively pining for their opposite-sex friends? Lots! Are there pals harboring latent likings that only reveal themselves in terribly confusing sex dreams? Hella. Are there friends with tiny secret feelings that will never, ever be revealed and really have no impact on the friendship whatsoever? All the time! Are there people who are platonic friends for fives of years before spontaneously waking up to a brilliant attraction? Me and my boyfriend! Are there platonic pals who would have sex with each other if the opportunity arose, they guess, but otherwise aren't really thinking about it ever? Indeed! Are there completely platonic opposite-sex friendships with really truly zero attraction in either direction whatsoever? I have a million! And are there LGBTQ people for whom this question becomes double-extra-meaningless and offensive? UM YUP.

But, nonetheless, we carry on, asking this question over and over and over and over and over. A new batch of science is making waves all over the place, suggesting that women might be able to have attractionless opposite-sex friendships, but men probably can't.

Via Scientific American:

Men were much more attracted to their female friends than vice versa. Men were also more likely than women to think that their opposite-sex friends were attracted to them-a clearly misguided belief. In fact, men's estimates of how attractive they were to their female friends had virtually nothing to do with how these women actually felt, and almost everything to do with how the men themselves felt-basically, males assumed that any romantic attraction they experienced was mutual, and were blind to the actual level of romantic interest felt by their female friends. Women, too, were blind to the mindset of their opposite-sex friends; because females generally were not attracted to their male friends, they assumed that this lack of attraction was mutual. As a result, men consistently overestimated the level of attraction felt by their female friends and women consistently underestimated the level of attraction felt by their male friends.

So, the study and its conclusions are being ripped to shreds in the Scientific American comments—and it certainly perpetuates some unflattering old-timey notions about women-as-innocents and men-as-hungry-penis-monsters—but I'm really more interested in why we're so obsessed with asking ourselves this question. We ask it endlessly, even though every single one of us has immediate access to the answer.

Here: Do you interact with people of the opposite sex in a friendly manner—at work, say, or at the gym or grocery store or bar trivia or aquarium? Yes? Are you interested in having sex with every single one of those people? NO??? So you're capable of diverse human interests, self-control, and not making every interaction into a sexual transaction? Amazing! You're saying you're not a mindless Count Fuckula hump-drone? Huh. STRANGE. Because based on the frequency with which our culture wonders, "Can men and women be 'just friends'?" I'd assume that everyone on earth hangs out strictly in sex-segregated bunkers, except for when their tingling genitals lead them to the fornication grove like fleshy dowsing rods.


(And if you ARE like, "Yes, I do want to have sex with every woman," should reprioritize. Because that would take SO LONG.)

I'd say, really, that we like asking this question because the question itself is deeply flattering and comforting. If we imagine the answer is no—men and women can't be just friends—it's what every insecure single person wants to hear. Everyone who talks to me secretly likes me! He was just playing hard-to-get when he ignored me on the quad! He obviously likes me because otherwise he wouldn't have asked me to loan him $300. And if we imagine the answer is yes—of course men and women can be just friends—it's what every insecure non-single person wants to hear. No big deal if your significant other is hanging around with opposite-sex hotties. True love IS real! You're not one of those regressive types who thinks men only think with their johnsons.


As long as this "debate" remains a debate, we can use it however we like to stroke our egos and massage our fears.

But I do want to say, despite all that, and despite the apparent problems with the study cited above, this whole dynamic does have some icky implications for both men and women. Regardless of every person's individual capability of maintaining non-romantic opposite-sex friendships (and, really, I hate to be so heteronormative here, but the question itself is a heteronormative problem), we still live in a culture that encourages aggressiveness among men and passivity among women. (And, as a society, we doggedly conflate culture with biology.) Now, I'm talking deep cultural subtleties here, particularly among the insecure and immature—not the conscious motivations of socially responsible dudes. But this is tied up with the "controversy" of women standing up to harassment. It speaks to that ancient societal plank that says women are not valued for our personalities, we're valued for our sexual capital. We owe men our attention and time. We should be flattered to be told, unsolicited and in any context, that we fit a sexually viable physical ideal. We're things before we are people. And who bothers to get to know a thing?


We need to stop having conversations like this because conversations like this are self-perpetuating. The more times we ask, "Can women and men be 'just friends,'?" the farther we get from seeing the absurdity of what it really means, which is, "Can people and people be 'just friends'?" And if you don't know the answer to that question, then let's never hang out. Because you are creepy.

Image via Blend Images/Shutterstock.



One of my best friends is (was?) a guy. We met as college freshmen, had a ton in common, double majored in the same thing, and never once thought of making it anything more than a fantastic friendship. We had plenty of opportunity, but it wasn't what we were about. When my now ex-husband and I were first dating I flew to San Francisco to spend some time with this guy friend. At first he was suspicious, but then he met the friend and saw us together and all his jealousy vanished. Friend and husband became good friends in their own right.

Then friend married a woman who it now appears has some insecurity issues. His wife and I, I thought, forged a friendship of our own. When they had a child they even asked my husband and I to be his guardians should anything happen to them. But I guess through all of this she was playing a game of keep your enemies close. Apparently she hated how close my friend and I were. Once she told him that she saw the two of us driving together and we were laughing and that it was "too intimate." We were not touchy people. We were not flirtatious people. We just talked about books and music and reminisced about college.

The turning point for her seemed to be when my husband and I split up. Apparently now that I was single she felt like I was targeting her man. And then the straw that broke the camels back was when his brother, a police officer, was murdered. We talked a lot, we emailed and exchanged texts. I was trying to comfort him. And apparently that was just too much. The wife had done some serious manipulating and my friend was in a position where leaving her would mean losing his job, his family, his home, and probably custody of his son. So he called me and told me that she was forcing him to give up his friendship with me. Until he told me that, I had no idea that she hated me so much. I actually thought we were friends. But I understood the position he was in and I didn't want to make life harder for him.

As it stands we both know that our friendship exists. You can't force people to not feel what they feel. We just consider it to be on hold. And the agreement is, when the time comes, the friendship will resume.

As for her... I can't help but sort of loathe her. I don't let people into my life often. I am really close to very few people. He was one of the people that I loved and trusted. We had 18 years of friendship before this happened. Her insecurity and his vulnerability put an end to something that I cherished in my life. So I guess I sort of see it as, yes, absolutely men and women can be friends. But can their significant others handle that friendship?