Can men and women be 'just' friends? A completely unscientific survey

“Can women and men be ‘just’ friends” is probably one of the stupidest, yet most-asked questions in lazy feminist/sex/gender writing… So here we go!

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.

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.

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:

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.

They also assumed their female friends were more romantically interested in them than they actually were – and women tended to be unaware of this.

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?’:

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:

I 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!

 

Angus

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?

Angus: Yes.

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 behavioural 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.

M: Ha.

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: Yes.

A: No.

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?

M: Um…

A: I don’t want to sound like a douche.

M: I can’t make any guarantees in that regard.

 

Up next in this series! I talk with my friend Tom about whether or not he wants to make out with me.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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