Below is an article by Meghan Murphy from Feminist Current.
Can men and women be ‘just’ friends? A completely unscientific survey
In July, The Daily Mail published an article about a recent study done on the subject, writing:
Researchers have found that men’s friendships with the opposite sex are driven by sexual attraction, regardless of whether they are single.The study, called Benefit or Burden: Attraction in Cross-Sex Friendship, surveyed “88 pairs of young male and female friends were asked to rate their attraction to each other in a confidential questionnaire”. The conclusion was that, according to The Daily Mail:
Women, however, are more likely to consider their friendships with men as platonic – and only hoped for more if their own relationship was in trouble.
Men – whether attached or single – were more likely to be attracted to their female friends and want to go on a date with them than the other way around.These two dudes visited Utah State University to make a mini-doc, asking men and women the question, ‘Can men and women be just friends?’:
They also assumed their female friends were more romantically interested in them than they actually were – and women tended to be unaware of this.
Why Men & Women Can't Be Friends
Answering the age old question, Young Independent Filmmakers Jesse Budd and Patrick Romero set out to simply prove a point. email questions or suggestions to email@example.com
The filmmakers managed to find that all men answered ‘no’ to the question of whether or not men and women could be just friends, whereas all the women they asked answered that, ‘yes’, of course men and women could have platonic friendships.
The underlying assumption here is that whenever there is an inkling of attraction (seemingly this attraction is one-sided, due to, I don’t know, some kind of biological imperative argument that’s also employed to justify rape and sexual objectification), possibilities for ‘real’ friendship are diminished to the point of impossibility. Like Harry told Sally: ‘The sex part always gets in the way’
Hugo Schwyzer wrote about the study for Jezebel, arguing that what we needed to was to “debunk once and for all the myth that sexual desire makes friendship impossible.” So every once in a while you want to make out with your friend. Big deal, right? You get over it, move on, continue the friendship. Schwyzer goes on to say: “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.”
Because my social life has become relatively dude-heavy as of late (not because I don’t have female friends who are just the best, but rather because, from what I can gather, I’ve been in summer party-mode and my party friends seem to also be man-friends), this question has been on my mind. I’ve talked about the question of whether or not women and men can truly be friends with enough people now to know that 1) there are some fairly divergent opinions on the matter, and 2) most of those opinions are much more mature and progressive than those portrayed in pop culture. I, myself, tend to fall into the ‘of course they can’ category, but hey – I’ve been wrong once or twice before (don’t tell!).
Either way I’m thinking the answers to that question will be much more nuanced and thoughtful than this:
When Harry Met Sally
decided to ask some of my dude-friends and some of my lady-friends what they felt about their friendships with me specifically as well as, more generally, with the opposite sex, in an effort to try to get to the bottom of this age-old myth (or IS IT A MYTH) that women and men can’t really be friends (because vaginas, obv). I’ll be publishing some of the transcripts from those interviews over the next couple of weeks and then I’ll try to spin this whole thing into some kind of insightful feminist analysis (Spoiler alert: Blah blah, sexism, blah, patriarchy, something about objectification, blah blah, PORN). Stay tuned!
The first interview I did was with my friend Angus. I met Angus when I was about 19 years old. My parents moved to the states around that time and so I moved into a five bedroom house with a bunch of dudes. It used to be a rugby clubhouse and the basement had been turned into a bar equipped with a pool table, a dart board, and a bed. The walls and ceilings were covered with flags, rugby crap, photos of strangers from the 80s, and some orange Hooters shorts.
I had long fake nails and liked zebra print and Angus liked to play Risk and wear black trench coats. Somehow we didn’t take to one another right away. Angus was ejected from our faux-frat house almost immediately after I moved in for having a keg party (which doesn’t make all that much sense in retrospect) and our friendship didn’t really begin until years later.
We reconnected when I was about 28 years old, drifted apart for a few years due to me having a dumb boyfriend (I KNOW I’M SUCH A CLICHÉ), and then we reconnected again this past year.
For the purposes of providing some context to this interview, Angus is a single, heterosexual man. He is 30 years old. We talk on the phone every 2 or 3 days and go to parties together on the weekends. We’re pretty close and we talk about all sorts of too-personal stuff. I interviewed him recently about our friendship and, more generally, what he thought about the potential for women and men to build close and honest friendships.
Meghan: Would you say that we’re friends, Angus?
M: Ok good. How did we become friends? Do you remember?
A: Prolonged knowledge of each others existence. A great deal of arguing. Periods of lack of contact followed then by greater proximity. More contact. I drink a lot. You also like drinking. You were sad about your break-up and needed someone to drink with.
M: So why do you continue to maintain a friendship with me? Why are we friends?
A: Because I don’t want to have sex with you…Or if I do it’s not as important as all of the other things I’ve managed to find in our friendship that I value.
Also, I don’t know…Similar behavioral quirks, similar interests — Judging. Yelling. The judging and the yelling. The hating stuff. I think we share lot of common experiences with things that have been influential in our lives. We both have an ability to access those experiences or empathize with them. We both have experience with addiction (for more on that see here) in one way or another and that’s been a valuable resource for me anyway. And then there’s the arguing and yelling and the judging. Also we’re both really funny.
M: How is our friendship different than your friendships with dudes?
A: It isn’t really. I guess I don’t talk with men about feminism as much. I can expect a different perspective with regard to women’s issues than I can from my male friends and with regard to gender and sexism in general. Obviously. But I don’t think there’s a substantive difference in the way that I approach our conversations…
M: Do you have other female friends besides me?
A: None that I like as much as you, Meghan.
M: Thank you.
A: The difference between my friendships with women and my friendships with men is that my relationships with my female friends seem to have deteriorated as we move out of our late twenties into our thirties and as our priorities change and people start to get married or settle down. But also I’ve never had a large number of female friends so I don’t have a great sample size to compare you to.
M: So recently you told me that you couldn’t talk to me about certain things because they were ‘boy things’. As in: “I can’t talk to you about boy things because you’re a girl and boys aren’t allowed to talk to girls about boy things.” — What does that mean?
A: You’re a girl. I’m not telling you.
A: Ok ok. Whether it’s right or wrong, I think everybody knows this — There’s the expectation of something of a code among the sexes that isn’t meant to be broken and maybe this is why women and men have trouble creating trust or creating strong friendships. Because some of the most important things that happen to us in our lives are to do with our gender and our sexuality, there’s an expectation that a big part of your relationship with these issues is meant to be shared with your ‘bros’ and that when you share that kind of stuff there’s also a lot that’s shared with you in return and you cant really share those conversations with women without committing some kind of betrayal to that ‘bro’ conversation. I think that women have it too, though. I think it would be disingenuous to say that its just a ‘bro’ thing.
M: Does my vagina get in the way of our friendship?
A: It hasn’t yet. Do you mean that to say that does your having a vagina get in the way of us having a friendship?
M: How come?
A: Because there’s a big difference between being friends with a woman and being friends with a vagina.
M: Has a vagina ever gotten in the way of you having a friendship with a woman?
A: Absolutely. In fact almost every other one.
M: Do you secretly or not so secretly want to have sex with all of your female friends?
A: I not so secretly want to have sex with almost every woman that I meet.
M: Can men and women be friends?
A: I suppose. I mean, yes. But it’s not ideal.
M: Why not?
A: Because it requires a lot more work to get past a lot of the sexual tension that comes with men and women being in any close proximity to one another. It takes a lot more work to become friends with someone who you may or may not want to have sex with or who may or may not want to have sex with you and it creates a much more complicated dynamic.
M: Thanks Angus!
A: Thanks Meghan…I get final edit on this, right?
A: I don’t want to sound like a douche.
M: I can’t make any guarantees in that regard.
The second interview I did for this series was with my friend Tom. I’ve known Tom for about 15 years or so. We went to high school together. I had a really big crush on him for a few months after he played Sky Masterson in our school’s production of Guys and Dolls. Basically the way to my heart is through musical theatre and/or hip-hop karaoke.
Tom is 33 years old, heterosexual and married. We’re pretty close and have shared a lot with each other over the years. Often I share things with Tom that he would rather I kept to myself. We have a lot of mutual friends from high school and so we’ve all been hanging out together for years. Tom and I talk online most days, play online scrabble, and then sometimes we go to the beach together and eat chips and drink wine. I talked with him about our friendship and, more generally how he felt about his platonic relationships with women in his life.
Meghan: Are we friends?
Tom: Yes, of course
M: How did our friendship develop?
T: The way normal friendships do…Through friends, by partying together.
M: Why are we still friends? On what basis has our friendship persisted?
T: A few factors. Some of the least romantic ones are: we’re used to each other, as one gets older it becomes more difficult to form new friendships, we have many mutual friends, we became friends at a young age… Those kinds of things.
But some of the better answers are: we share the same sense of humor (that’s a big one), we know how to forgive each other when we do something lame, we enjoy doing the same things, etc.
M: Ok. And how does our friendship differ from your friendships with dudes. Are there things we talk about about that you don’t talk about with male friends and vice versa?
T: Well… Yes, our friendship is different from those I have with my male friends, but only in terms of conversation subject matter. The way I FEEL about our friendship is the same. And even then, regarding the subject matter, the differences are very trivial — i.e tone, inflection, delivery, joke style.
M: For example?
T: Well… That’s a tough one because it changes from person to person, so maybe gender isn’t even the issue. I’m friends with my wife but I would not make certain jokes around her that I would feel comfortable making around you.
M: Ok so like what? What’s the difference between how you talk with men/other friends and how you talk with me?
T: Ok, well there is more “bravado” (I hate that I used that word) when guys talk. We tend to discuss successes more than failures. Conversations with you can be more self-deprecating than if I were having a conversation with Mike, for example.
T: But that’s only because I’m not trying to bang you. So it’s really hard to answer. It might be different if we were single and friends… But I’m sure that is a question that’s coming up so I’ll wait.
M: Which brings me to my next question. Do you hang out with me because you secretly or not so secretly want to do me?
T: Haha. No, in all seriousness no. BUT that answer has layers to it.
M: In what way? What are the layers?
T: I’ll speak more generally. I can’t speak for all men, but for me I have always had a lot of female friends and I’ve hooked up with many of them, and that’s great, and I’m still friends with many of them. It’s not the REASON I’m friends with girls, but it’s always an option. When I was single, I felt perfectly comfortable having sex with a friend. I didn’t expect it or think I deserved it or anything… It was just a nice bonus.
That’s another thing on the question about differences between guy and girl friendships — sex is not an option with my guy friends. But that doesn’t make my female friendships more appealing. I’m not friends with girls because of the possibility of sex.
That said, I suppose I haven’t always had these views. It took me being very immature about relationships in terms of the way I reacted to friendships and sex for me to get to the point that I’m at now. I have ruined or have come close to ruining what could have been or turned out to be very meaningful friendships by pretending that I wasn’t interested in someone sexually.
I’m glad I got all that drama out of my system by the time I was in my mid-twenties, because it opened the door for a lot of really fun, drama-free sex.
M: Do you think sex changed any of those friendships? Or do you think sex could potentially change a friendship? If you want to make out with a friend does that change the friendship? The wanting to?
T: Well there’s a difference between wanting to do and would actually do. Wanting is different… If you WANT your friend, then it’s not really a friendship and it’s more a secret desire, which has a whole host of nastier complications and results. But yes, having sex/hooking up with a friend can change a friendship, it just hasn’t done so for me personally.
M: Ok so if you literally wanted to have sex with a friend it wouldn’t ‘really’ be a friendship?
T: No, it would be a secret sex project.
T: You can’t base a real friendship on that. That’s why I think the ‘friend zone’ thing is bullshit.
M: Why is the ‘friend zone’ bullshit?
T: If you want to have sex with a girl, you court her like a normal person. If she’s not down and you think you can handle it, by all means be friends. But if you can’t handle it, move on.
T: Don’t pine for her love by being nice and hoping that she’ll realize you’re attractive after all… That’s a fantasy and it has never ever worked. “Be a man” — i.e. be a thoughtful, normal person.
M: So do you secretly or not so secretly want to do/make out with all or most of your female friends?
T: Again, there’s that “want” word. I WOULD make out with the female friends that I find attractive, yes. But I’m not actively pursuing that (that I’m married is not the only reason, haha). And that depends on a few factors too. I would not make out with a female friend if I thought she couldn’t be mature about it or if I thought it would ruin the friendship. But it never has for me.
…I mean, you and me made out a few times and we’re fine.
So it’s more about being mature about the whole thing?
T: It’s more about appreciating sex/play for just being fun and wanting to do it with someone you like.
M: Right. So does my vagina get in the way of our friendship?
T: Not at all. Your boobs on the other hand…
M: Do my boobs get in the way of our friendship?
T: No, haha. No not at all. If I was in love or in lust with you though, then that would get in the way, but we wouldn’t have a friendship if that was the case.
M: I see
T: Unless you loved me back, in which case we would have a romantic relationship, which is very different too.
M: Then we would be in love. Not ‘just’ friends.
M: So you’re saying we’re not in love.
T: I do love you Meghan, but not like that.
M: Thanks Tom. I love you too.
Ok last question. Can we be attracted to a person and still be a friend? Does that necessarily interrupt the friendship?
T: Yes, I have no issue being friends with someone I’m attracted to. I’m attracted to most of my female friends — so it goes back to the sex question – Yes, I’m attracted. No I’m not pursuing. If you want to have sex, let’s do it. But I’m not going to lose my mind if you don’t want to fuck me. I don’t assume I’m attractive to everyone and I’m not going to take that personally. It’s those people that need to be wanted that can’t maintain co-ed relationships.
M: Right. Because then it makes everything about sex/sexual?
T: Yes! For me, in a truly healthy, mature friendship, sex is an option, but not expected or necessarily sought after. It’s just a nice bonus if it happens.
M: But it’s not the point. Or the number one priority?
M: The number one priority is the friendship?
T: Yes, absolutely.
M: Thanks Tom! Is there anything else you’d like to add?
T: Nope. Did I sound like a douchebag?
M: No you sounded awesome.