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


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,” then…you 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.

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