Can Men And Women Really Be Friends? A Scientific and Cultural Investigation

Disturbed to learn my male friends don't find me sexy, I reached out to an evolutionary psychologist and gender expert to find out whether heterosexual men and women can truly be friends.

|
Dec 1 2016, 3:00pm

Photo by Per Swantesson via Stocksy

Many people remember 1989 romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally for Meg Ryan's terrible perm or that famed orgasm scene, but most recall it for one thing: Popularizing the notion that men and women can't be authentic friends.

Harry: You realize, of course, that we can never be friends.
Sally: Why not?
Harry: What I'm saying is—and this is not a come-on in any way, shape or form—is that men and women can't be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.

Harry and Sally's eventual coupling validates the idea that male-female heterosexual friendship will always be colored wth some cast of romantic or sexual desire—however you deny it. But When Harry Met Sally was intended to have a more complicated, truthful ending. Screenwriter Nora Ephron meant for Harry and Sally to remain friends, but not lovers—gradually drifting apart until they run into each other on the street years later. The script was amended to provide the romantic resolution a box office audience needs, and a generation was conditioned to believe that platonic male-female friendship is a lie.

The idea that men and women can't be friends isn't new, but When Harry Met Sally was the first major cultural event to make the case succinctly, and with humor. Tracking further back, we can blame medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas for spreading the notion that men and women can't be friends.

"Woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence; such as that of a south wind, which is moist," Aquinas opines in 1485 meteorological yawnfest Summa Theologiae. Wet winds aside (blame not the queef), if you agree with Aquinas, then men and women can't be friends—as friendship is defined as a relationship between equals.

A decades-old film shouldn't inform our understanding of male-female social interaction, any more than a fake news site should influence a US president's policy on climate change. Sadly, both can and both do.

Getting my male friends and coworkers to discuss male-female friendship with me is unexpectedly difficult, but I persevere—accosting my friend Alex* over lunch. Listening back to the audio recording, I can actually hear his discomfort. I understand why. In a roundabout way, I'm asking him to confess to having sexual thoughts about his female friends—namely, me. Luckily, he mostly held his shit together.

Read more: Why Women Bruise More Easily Than Men

"I dunno," Alex mumbles, his words all jumbled together like alphabet soup. "I guess I trust girls a bit more, especially if you went to an all-boys school like I did. If you hang out with guys who just talk about sports and stuff it gets boring after a while."

I ask him if he finds it weird them some men don't have female friends. "I guess? That's like 50 percent of the population you can't interact with. Maybe guys worry their friends think they're pussies for hanging out with girls." Pained, Alex looks at me with questioning eyes. "Is that enough for your piece?" I feel bad and let him get back to his lunch.

The idea that men and women can't be friends is bullshit, according to Professor Sandra Faulkner of Bowling Green State University. (I paraphrase.) "It plays into what I call the heteronormative script," she explains. "If you are operating under this script, then anytime you think of a man and women together, you assume it must be romantic—because of the script. But many of us don't operate under these scripts."

Photo by Lauren Naefe via Stocksy

Faulkner, an expert in gender and sexuality, traces the idea back to the normative view of male-female romance as the highest form of social interaction. "It's based on the presumption that everyone is heterosexual; that romantic relationships are more important than other types of relationships. It's about the cult of romance—the idea that a romantic relationship serves all of your needs."

A male-female friendship that is genuine and lasting often trumps romantic involvements. "Becoming best friends with my first girlfriend proved to me that guys and girls can co-exist without the need to fuck," my co-worker Nick explains. "After years of hating each other passionately, we ended up becoming friends again. I still love her as much as I did at the time, but without any hint of romance."

Not everyone is so optimistic about the possibility of male-female friendships or able to let the past subside. "I think it's attractive to look at the question from an evolutionary biology standpoint," explains my colleague Brian. "By many metrics, it's simply not productive to have non-sexual relationships between different sexes. Obviously females fulfill non-sexual roles within patriarchal hierarchies, but when it comes to males and females of a similar age and/or societal standing, can reproduction really be ruled out?"

For More Stories Like This, Sign Up for Our Newsletter

The idea that we're all defined by our biology—a view beloved of Red Pill-ers and the alt-right—isn't an argument that sits comfortably with me. In the interests of balance, however, I reached out to April Bleske-Rechek, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and author of a recent study into male-female friendship.

"We surveyed men and women and asked them to think about an opposite sex friend who wasn't a romantic partner," she explained. "Then we asked them to describe that person—are they a member of the opposite sex who is a friend, are they a member of the opposite sex I am attracted to, or are they both? Men were more likely to describe their female friends as someone they were attracted to."

Bleske-Rechek says that cultural anthropologists report that men and women in traditional tribal societies who are of reproductive age tend not to have platonic friendships. "When you have a male and a female who are not genetically related, and are not already romantic partners, they are potential romantic partners," she explains. According to her data, "men tend to over-interpret women's sexual intent. Women might perceive one thing, but if they're sending any kind of ambiguous signals, men could be perceiving something else."

Despite this, Bleske-Rechek does believe that men and women can be objective friends, but only if they're open and honest. "They need to be upfront about what each of their goals are," she suggests. "If you enjoy spending time with someone and find them physically attractive, it's possible that your evolved mating strategies will be triggered. But as multiple studies out of my lab show, one friend's degree of attraction to the other person is not a predictor of how the other person feels back. One good solution would be to be direct with the people you interact with about what you feel and what you want out of the relationship."

Thinking your platonic friends are kind of sexy really isn't a big deal, unless you make a drunken pass at them, in which case it still isn't that big a deal. "I definitely have a few friends that I get the sense that they might fancy me a bit," says my friend Tim, sexily. "Who knows? I probably give off some of those vibes too," he goes on. "People flirt, that's human, but it's impossible to tell if it means anything or not." A short while later, Tim pops back up on Facebook messenger to exhibit the deep anthropological nous I'm friends with him for. "Human beings are pretty complicated, aren't they," he muses.

Being honest about your feelings starts with being honest with yourself. "I think a good barometer for actually being mates, without having any romantic attraction, is whether you get jealous if they get with people," explains my friend Adam. "When you get off with guys on nights out," he reminds me, "I mostly just get stuck with a whole taxi fare home from wherever we are." He pauses. "Actually I mostly get stuck with the whole fare when you don't get with off guys too." (This is untrue.)

One of the reasons that many believe men and women can't be genuine friends is because we're socially conditioned to look to our friendship groups for romantic possibilities.Back to Faulkner's cult of (heterosexual) romance. "There's this view," Faulkner argues, "particularly for women, that you need to be in a romantic relationship. And pop culture feeds into that." This is typified by shows such as Friends, where the majority of the characters end up coupling off with each other. But treating your friendship group as fertile loam for your love life seldom ends as well as scriptwriters would have you believe. "I dated a friend 18 months ago," Tim says. "That was a fucking disaster. I found it difficult to get over it."

If there's a moral to this story, apart from the reassuring consolation that my male friends aren't secretly in love with me, it's that men and women can be friends. Fuck your friends or don't: Human beings have evolved past our biology, and sharing bodily fluids with a close friend isn't necessarily a bad thing—but it's certainly not a necessity. If you do fuck your friends and it doesn't work out, don't worry—you can just find new ones.

* All names have been changed.