Of course men and women can be friends. In 2012, the claim that sex will always get in the way comes across as antiquated and essentialist; our hopes and our ideological convictions about gender leave us believing that platonic friendship between guys and gals is — absolutely — possible. But while our lived experience tells us that men and women can be friends, recent research suggests that these relationships are neither as common nor as easy to find as most of us would like. Based on recent research, the question we need to start asking isn't "can men and women be friends" but rather "how can we better equip dudes to handle non-sexual friendship with the ladies?"
As Doug Barry discussed previously, a new study suggests the obvious: men are the ones who have the harder time with boundaries in opposite-sex friendships. In Benefit or Burden: Attraction in Cross-Sex Friendship, April Bleske-Rechek and her team of researchers found that men are much more likely to be sexually attracted to their female friends than vice-versa. Both men and women reported that desire was a "cost more often than a benefit," with the sad potential to bring "potential negative consequences for individuals' long-term mateships."
One problem with the study shows up in the first sentence of the abstract which declares that "cross-sex friendships are an historically recent phenomenon." That's not entirely true. As Jodi Bilinkoff argued in her landmark 2005 study, medieval Catholic priests and wealthy female penitents often developed nonsexual "deep friendships" around the sacrament of confession. Theologian Dan Brennan has documented a long history of cross-sex friendship in the church in Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions: Engaging the Mystery of Friendship Between Men and Women. Simply put, it's a massive over-simplification to suggest that friendships between men and women were unheard of until our modern world. (As an aside, it's worth noting that lead investigator Bleske-Rechek once compared trusting a romantic partner's platonic friendship to the risks of letting "your teenage daughter go to a concert dressed like a slut.")
Whatever the study's shortcomings, it does seem to bear out that Harry was at least partly right when he told Sally that sex would always get in the way of male-female friendship. But as the study itself makes clear, the problem that destroys friendship isn't the physiological reality of sexual attraction, but rather the inability (or refusal) of so many straight men to believe that their female buddies aren't secretly crushing on them. In other words, the problem isn't that guys are totally overwhelmed by the hornies whenever they get in close proximity to a female friend. The problem is that men misunderstand women's intentions for wanting friendship, falsely assuming that ladies only want "one thing."
FMK is a fun meme. If you're not familiar, it involves taking 3 or more dudes (like the Romney sons or the Game of Thrones cast) and deciding which one you'd most like to fuck, which one you'd be most likely to marry, and which one you'd most want to kill. These debates are great for procrastinators, but no one here seriously believes that the longings to "fuck," "marry," and "kill" constitute the sum total of women's desires. The problem (and the blame certainly doesn't fall on the FMK meme) is that a great many men do labor under the delusion that women have no interest in being "just friends" with guys. If you're smiling at me over coffee, you must want to fuck me and have my babies –- or so more than a few dudes conclude. For them, FMK isn't a joke, but a plausibly accurate reflection of women's chief feelings about men.
The problem isn't just, as the Bleske-Rechek study shows, that men wildly overestimate their female buddies' sexual interest. It's that they also undervalue their own worth as friends. In a world where we still cling to the belief that women are naturally more intuitive and verbally adept than men, many guys assume that if a woman wants a non-sexual friendship, she'll naturally choose from the ranks of those who "do" friendship well: other women. The idea that a straight woman might want to be close to them without wanting to fuck or marry strikes them as utterly implausible. As a result, men do two things at once: they overrate their own sexual irresistibility and depreciate everything else they might have to offer. Little wonder, then, that so many dudes wrongly assume that their lady friends are crushing on them.
So what can we do to better equip guys to be "just friends" with the women in their lives? For starters, we can debunk once and for all the myth that sexual desire makes friendship impossible. The traditional reasoning is that male-female platonic relationships only work when neither friend is ever attracted to the other. Given how fluid and surprising desire can be, those friendships where lust never appears for even an instant are going to be relatively rare. But this reasoning overstates the power of sexual attraction to drown out everything else. As this new study makes clear, it's not that women are never attracted to their male buddies. It's that women are probably better acculturated to put lust aside for the sake of a friendship.
As Juliet Lapidos wrote at Slate, a close examination of the existing research shows that "sexual feeling within friendship exists on a Kinsey-type scale, and moderate attraction does not necessarily ruin or invalidate the relationship." While it's difficult to quantify "moderate attraction" in a universally applicable way, it's fair to assume that the occasional fantasy about wanting to bone your buddy doesn't mean that your friendship is founded on a lie. No one's sex drive –- not even young men's –- is so powerful that it must always trump any possibility of enduring friendship.
In the long run, what will most help adult cross-sex friendships to thrive is a culture that encourages children and teens to develop close and enduring platonic bonds. In Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men sociologist Michael Kimmel offers compelling evidence that boys who grow up with close female friends are demonstrably less likely to engage in destructive behavior. Friendships with girls not only provide young boys with a kind of inoculation against sexist cruelty, they set boys up to see their female peers as complete human beings. Alas, too many adults undermine cross-sex children's cross-sex friendships, often by asking little Joey teasingly if little Emma is his "girlfriend."
The more we encourage non-romantic, non-sexualized relationships between boys and girls, the better we equip kids to have great platonic friendships as adults. Guys who grow up with girl buddies are less likely to assume that an eagerness to spend time together is proof of a secret crush. Boys who grow up liking and being liked by girls will almost certainly be better prepared to handle the inevitable ambiguities that come with any relationship. And presumably, they'll be a lot less inclined to imagine that their female friends just want to fuck -– or marry –- them.