It’s one of those stories that comes around time and again, whenever any psychologist or sociologist takes it upon themselves to look into non-romantic relationships between the sexes; this time, Scientific American were among the first to jump on one such study and run the inevitable headline:
The research in question was conducted by April Bleske-Rechek and her colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and looked at cross-sex friendships through the lens of evolutionary psychology.
They posed questions to individuals in opposite-sex friendships and found that men were more likely to be attracted to their female friends than women to their male friends, and that men also overestimated their own attractiveness to friends of the opposite sex. A second study then found that most people considered physical attraction to a platonic friend to be a burden rather than a benefit.
So, concluded writers across the web, men and women just can’t be friends; it’s against science.
As a woman with many male friends - among them flatmates and even a couple of ex-boyfriends - I’m always a little taken aback by these theories. Of course men and women can be just friends. I think I’d have noticed if I was the only one to hang out with men as well as women, and I’m pretty sure they’re not all just tagging along in the hope I might one day profess my undying love. We’re even able, in fact, to do ‘friend things’ - have coffee, watch a film, play Scrabble - all without ripping each other’s clothes off.
I’m not suggesting the science behind this or any other similar study is wrong (although it is worth noting in this case that only 88 pairs of cross-sex friends participated, and they were all of undergraduate age and from the same college - hardly a representative sample). Rather, it’s the conclusions that outsiders draw.
You see, nowhere does the paper published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships actually suggest that men and women can’t be friends; it was never the researchers’ objective to prove as much. They set out to show that experiences between cross-sex friends reflect men’s heightened short-term mating desires relative to women’s - which is something rather different. But what’s a little respect for the facts when you can rely on a ‘When Harry Met Sally’ reference to prove a point instead?
What we really learn from the study is that men are more likely than their female counterparts to want to try to push a friendship into romantic or sexual territory, and that this sort of attraction between nominally platonic friends is largely considered a burden. But it’s a big leap to then suggest that this completely prevents friendships between men and women. After all, the participants in the study all identified as friends, so any desire they felt for each other - and many of them did admit to some level of attraction - clearly didn’t stop them from nonetheless maintaining fulfilling and non-sexual relationships. They still considered themselves to be ‘just friends’.
To suggest that any unreciprocated feelings or spurned advances irrevocably prevent the continuation of a friendship is frankly unrealistic, and seeing cross-sex relationships in these black and white terms would be a shame. Friendship lends itself to a much broader definition that can vary from person to person, incorporating everything from a best friend to a colleague you once drunkenly kissed at a Christmas party; an occasional tennis partner to a full-on ‘friend with benefits’.
The potential for sexual attraction may add an extra dynamic to friendships between heterosexual men and women; it may even lead to occasional problems. Seeing it as some sort of friendship ultimatum, however, would make for a lot of very lonely people.