Earlier this month ago I began a little project based on the frequently asked question: “Can men and women be ‘just’ friends?” For the purposes of my (and hopefully your) entertainment and interest, I’ve been publishing transcripts from some of these interviews.
I met Sam in grad school. He is 32 years old, heterosexual, and currently single. On the rebound, I’d decided that Sam was going to be my new boyfriend. My efforts at seduction failed, as it turned out that Sam was already someone else’s boyfriend. So we became ‘just’ friends.
Though we’ve only known each other for maybe a year, I very much value Sam’s friendship. He is an excellent writer and is smarter than me, which is mostly irritating but occasionally compelling.
Meghan: Ok, let’s start with the easy stuff:
Do you have platonic female friends?
Sam: Yeah, I think so. If by “platonic” we mean friends with whom sexual tension is zero or nearly.
M: Yeah well. Platonic is a strange word in that context. But let’s just say female friends – no sexual relationship.
S: Most definitely. Having female friends is actually quite relaxing. It’s like having dude friends but without the ever-present undercurrent of competition.
M: That’s interesting! Another friend I talked to mentioned ‘bravado’ – as in, he felt like he could be ‘more self-depricating’ around me. Sounds like this competitive thing is common between men…
So, how would you say your friendships with women differ from your friendships with men?
S: Many of my friendships with women are more open, even on topics that perhaps shouldn’t be. I feel that I stand to learn more from my women friends, and I listen better.
My friendships with guys tend to have an anchor in something very tangible: work, sports, music, drinking.
I’d say it’s also easier to strike up a friendship with a woman, because there is the cover of dating, or something like it, to hide behind. There’s a reason men have adopted this execrable phrase “no homo.” We have to distinguish, it seems, between showing interest in someone as a friend and showing interest in them as a potential sexual partner. The former is much more difficult than the latter for guys, largely because we’re so accustomed to being the ones to catalyze courtships.
M: That’s a good point. So I wonder if it’s maybe a little more ‘relaxing’ to be friends with women because you don’t completely have to turn off any feelings of attraction?
Or does that make it harder?
S: It’s maybe an imperfect comparison, because I’m never attracted to my male friends. But I see what you’re saying.
There is undoubtedly a latent sexual dimension to even the most platonic cross-sex relationships. Even if I don’t want to have sex with my women friends, I’m fascinated by what they have to say about sex. Between men, I find those conversations tend toward something more opaque. That might just be me, or it might be a broader trait.
Part of it is, I know my guy friends and I are probably dating behind one another. I know several exes of mine who have gone on to date guys I’d have considered friends — the less I know about my close guy friends’ sexual predilections, the less I have to imagine those couplings. And thus the easier it is to stay friends with everyone involved.
M: I can see that.
S: I realize I sound like I’m so averse to competition that I should’ve been washed out of the gene pool by now.
M: Ha. So how did your friendships with women develop? Does it happen differently than with your male friends?
S: It’s a mix. Some arise out of the same sorts of situations that generate male friendships — co-workers, friends of friends, classmates. The biggest difference is the number of female friendships that began as a prospective courtship or people I have dated and now do not. Some of the very best friendships of my adult life have sprung out of me starting a conversation because I thought someone looked like a suitable romantic partner.
Not just women who were physically attractive, though of course all my friends, male and female, are spectacular physical specimens, but women who gave off the kind of vibe I know I’d click with.
You know how taste is, like, 50 percent smell? Sexual attraction is at least 50 percent friendship-compatible. Chances are if someone is appealing romantically, she’s also someone who will make a pretty solid friend if the romance doesn’t shake out.
M: So do you feel like we can be attracted to a friend and it won’t impact the friendship?
S: “Impact” is the wrong verb. It’ll always affect the friendship in some way. But by no means does it have to derail it.
M: Yes ok. Derail. Wreck. Fuck with. Impact negatively.
S: I must have a half-dozen friends who have shown interest in me or (more likely) whom I’ve shown interest in, only to watch those overtures go nowhere. And, you know, fuck it, you just stay buddies.
If you’re doing it right, friendship is about giving without conditions. So if you’re going to pin the condition of “we’ve gotta screw” on the friendship, it’s not really a friendship.
Frankly if you want to pull someone’s clothes off you should be a proper gentleman and confess it earlier rather than later. At least to yourself. It’s just bad form to disguise yourself as merely a friend when you really see someone as a maybe-romance. There are ways to make this obvious without being grossly obvious. But still, if that’s how you see someone, it should be on the table. I’ve seen some women friends get completely blindsided by a dude they thought they were friends with who confesses his love and then, spurned, turns into a jerkface.
M: So has that ever happened to you? Did you ever try to turn a friendship into something sexual? How did it go?
S: I’m sure I do that all the time.
Thinking back to women I’ve dated in the past, oh, five years? Most of them started as friends in some fashion. I don’t think I’ve ever melted down a friendship over a rejection. I’m cagey enough not to staple my heart to my everlovin’ sleeve if I doubt that someone is going to take me up on an overture.
…Now, I have definitely fucked up friendships because they detoured into sex. Sex, in one regard, is like war. You need a plan, even if that’s just an exit plan. You simply can’t hook up with a friend without attempting to foresee the consequences of that, even if that friend is mindblowingly hot and totally attracted to you.
M: So when I was researching this topic, a lot of what I came across was that, when women were asked if men and women could be ‘just friends’, they all said yes. Whereas the men all said no – because they secretly or not so secretly wanted to fuck all their female friends and would given the opportunity. Do you think that’s a stereotype? Or do you think that’s a little accurate?
S: There’s a lot of truth to that, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Another way to read it would be that men try out prospective mates as friends before trying to commit to something sexual. A less charitable way would be, men just like to fuck, and even being friends with them doesn’t protect you from getting a dick pointed at you.
In many ways, though, I sympathize with women who go through that frustration. I return to my earlier statement: Guys should be relatively upfront about their intentions as soon as they become clear. There are civil ways of doing this.
Usually we disguise those as quasi-hyperbolistic flattery: “Meghan, what’s up? Haven’t seen you for a while! You look fantastic. Damn, I hope you’re not seeing anybody.”
S: But it’s like the Nelly line about kidding, unless you’re gonna do it.
“Ha ha ha I’m totally kidding ha ha ha but I’m not really just letting you know ha ha.”
M: Right. Ok so are we friends?
S: I love being friends with you. You’re one of the most thoughtful, honest, provocative people I know. I wish I had 50 more friends like you.
M: Good answer, Sam!
S: Well, it happens to be true in this case, even if it sounds like something I’d say to butter you up for a keg-party makeout session.
M: Haha. Ok so how did we become friends?
S: I remember being in a large group of people roving Main Street looking for a bar that would fit the lot of us. You and I took the lead on that, and wound up sitting across from one another at the place where we wound up. Goddamn bunch of drunks was so loud there was no one else to talk to except the person right across the table, so we started talking. And I guess that’s how most friendships start — in a little foxhole with the rest of the loud world ignoring two people.
Since then you’ve become more of a drinking buddy than anything, I’d say. Which is perfectly all right, because while I eschew pretty much all other chemical vice, I do love to pull a cork.
M: Ok see this is interesting. From my perspective we became friends because I was trying to date you…Which didn’t work out. And we became friends instead.
S: And I picked up on that very early. But I was committed elsewhere. And that was all right. I mentioned sexual tension up top? It’s fine to have some sexual tension in a friendship. I dare say we still have some of it. Again, it’s totally natural. We are two highly successful, achingly beautiful people who are sought after by acquaintances and strangers alike for our apparent sexual potency. It would be downright weird if we had no frisson whatsoever, no?
M: Obviously. But my point is, I guess, that friendships can happen even when there were other feelings or attraction or whatever. The cliche is that “the sex will get in the way” but I think for the most part, I mean, it can, but it certainly doesn’t have to. I don’t know that sex or attraction is as all encompassing as people make it out to be? In all circumstances…I mean, so what. It doesn’t happen. You move on.
S: Exactly. You and I are both on the enlightened side of 30. We have loved and lost, been embraced and spurned. With a few exceptions for truly heart-stopping moments of thunderbolt love, we know that life will continue no matter what happens.
And let’s just look at the track record. How long was your average romance? Vs. how long is your average friendship? You’re better off cultivating the friendships for the long term.
S: Friends are around longer, or gone longer. At any point you have more friends than lovers, by a factor of dozens or hundreds.
M: Ok, last question. As I’ve asked all my other interview subjects: Does my vagina get in the way of our friendship?
S: Honestly, I swear. Is that all you women think about?
S: No wonder we’re friends.
OK, for real. No, it doesn’t. It enhances it. It means you have a side to your life and being and experiences that complements mine. Because I can ask you questions like, “What’s it like to have a vagina?”
…Not that I would. But I could.
M: It’s like having magical powers.
S: I just imagined your jeans filling up with starlight and harp music.
M: That’s what it’s like.
M: Ok so I’m done my interrogation. Thanks for answering my questions! Is there anything else you’d like to add?
S: I would add for anyone in their teens and twenties, regarding these men/women friendships: It gets better. People of both sexes start to mellow out at a certain point. I won’t say anyone calls a truce, but everything gets a tad less awkward, and you realize that we have a great deal more similarities than differences. Getting older rules.
M: So true. Thanks Sam!
M: Take care.