Quantcast

«

»

Nov 03 2012

Can Men and Women Be Friends?

As someone with a lot of female friends — in fact, two of my three closest friends in the world are women — I found this study of platonic relationships and how men and women perceive them to be quite interesting. But I don’t find this at all surprising:

The results suggest large gender differences in how men and women experience opposite-sex friendships. 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.

But here’s why I think this may be making too much of that unsurprising fact. I’d be willing to bet that if you did the same study with casual acquaintances or even total strangers, you’d get a similar result. I suspect that men are much more likely to think that women find them attractive sexually, and have a wider range of women that they find attractive sexually, than women — even if they don’t know the woman very well, or at all.

Nor do I think that the article is correct when it says that the study “suggests that there may be some truth to this possibility—that we may think we’re capable of being “just friends” with members of the opposite sex, but the opportunity (or perceived opportunity) for “romance” is often lurking just around the corner, waiting to pounce at the most inopportune moment.” Or rather, I don’t agree that this fact means that men and women can’t really be friends. I don’t think the existence of some sexual tension, on the part of one or both of them, dooms a friendship between a man and a woman.

I think that such sexual tension can be a real problem for such a friendship, but it doesn’t have to be. The situation may well depend on circumstances (whether one or both are in a relationship with someone else), on the particular personalities involved, on their sense of ethics, and many more things. Almost any outcome is possible, depending on all these variables.

As someone who has mostly female friends and has always gotten along better with women than with men, I’ve been on almost every conceivable side of these situations at one point or another. I’ve been in situations where I was really attracted to my friend but either they weren’t attracted to me, or they were in a relationship, or there was some other emotional difficulty. I’ve been in situations where my female friend was attracted to me but I wasn’t to them, or where I was in a relationship. I’ve also had one very unfortunate situation where one night of sex ruined a friendship.

All of these are possible, as well as many other outcomes. And yes, they often do result in unfortunate drama and even the destruction of a relationship. But those results aren’t inevitable. They don’t have to prevent a really deep, profound friendship from developing. Two of my three closest, most important friendships — relationships that will undoubtedly last until the day one of us dies — are with women. I love them dearly and can’t really imagine my life without them.

27 comments

Skip to comment form

  1. 1
    Ellie

    I’m perfectly willing to agree with the conclusion…they studied undergrads (unless I missed something). Hormones are still raging at that point, on both sides. I have male friends now, who are nothing more than friends, but I don’t know that the same would have been possible 50 years ago.

  2. 2
    alanb

    I suspect that men are much more likely to think that women find them attractive sexually…

    Here’s Dave Barry’s take on that:

    I have never met a woman, no matter how attractive, who wasn’t convinced, deep down inside, that she was a real woofer. Men tend to be the opposite. A man can have a belly you could house commercial aircraft in and a grand total of eight greasy strands of hair, which he grows real long and combs across the top of his head so that he looks, when viewed from above, like an egg in the grasp of a giant spider, plus this man can have B.O. to the point where he interferes with radio transmissions, and he will still be convinced that, in terms of attractiveness, he is borderline Don Johnson.

  3. 3
    brucegee1962

    This is interesting. I have to admit, I let several of my friendships with women wither away after I got married. I had to admit to myself that my attraction to them was, at least partially, one of the things that kept the friendship going — and that simply wasn’t something I wanted to distract me once I had a wife.

  4. 4
    Ed Brayton

    alanb:

    The late Richard Jeni had a similar line: “It doesn’t matter how much of a three-toed troglodyte a guy is, he thinks he’s two or three situps away from being in a hot tub with Elle Macpherson.”

  5. 5
    Argle Bargle

    I have a friendship with a woman who I find extremely sexually attractive. I doubt sincerely she has any sexual attraction to me (I’m 30 years older than her, overweight and balding). But we find each other intellectually attractive. We’re both interested in history, we read many of the same books, and we enjoy discussing many topics. We’ll never have any kind of sexual or romantic relationship, but we will continue our intellectual relationship for the foreseeable future.

  6. 6
    Akira MacKenzie

    I suspect that men are much more likely to think that women find them attractive sexually…

    Riiiiiight. What Bizarro universe are you reporting from, Ed?

    “Oh yeah, ladies! Check how these moobs! Yes, they’re real, and they’re spectacular! And who needs six-pack abs when you’ve got a whole freaking KEG under your t-shirt? Oh, and I just between you and me, I guarantee that I’ve got three inches of throbbing manhood for you, baby! I’m one hot hunk of big hunk of beefcake… well, beef Jell-o, but what woman doesn’t like dessert? Hey? Where are you going?”

    I can’t say I blame them, though. I can’t look at myself naked in the mirror and not want to throw up, either.

  7. 7
    Avicenna

    About the bald thing?

    It’s one of the most horrific things to occur to a young man.

    I lost my hair at a young age. It’s gone. There are no techniques to bring it back. Trauma followed by stress of work has ensured I am a 27 year old who looks like he is 47. People genuinely don’t believe that I am 27… 18 years old and bald is NOT a good time. At all. In India this means people stop me in the street to ask me what happened to me… In the UK it was just growing up listening to all the jokes about bald being bad.

    Fat men can be attractive. Barry White is still considered sexy. Bald men are rarely considered attractive and rarely treated as such in the public eye. Only recently are we seeing a change.

    It really destroys your self confidence. There is a lot of body issues with men.

    Us fat and bald men have to make do with being funny and avoiding turtle necks. And for the love of god avoid combovers. The only time a combover is acceptable is halloween…

  8. 8
    pinkboi

    My experience mirrors Ed’s quite a bit. I’ve had the non-mutual attraction, the ruined friendship, everything. But I don’t see how the challenges that come with two people who could potentially be lovers are really all that unique. It’s just two people wanting different things out of the relationship. Is the time I was “friendzoned” (I really hate that term for a lot of reasons) really all that different from the time me and a friend had a band together and he lost interest? Our friendship survived the death of our joint creative venture and it’s not that different from a couple of my friends who were once lovers in my mind.

    There was a touching moment I saw on Japanese TV where a gay man confessed his love to his straight Japanese friend and… they remained friends. Which brings up another question – do people who take the study’s conclusion seriously think gay men can’t be friends with gay men?

  9. 9
    Gretchen

    I’m baffled that this question still has to be asked. But then, I’m also baffled by any gathering of friends in which the males and females segregate themselves– or where one gender doesn’t show up at all. Restricting yourself to enjoying someone’s company based on what they’ve got between their legs makes no sense to me, providing you’re not doing it mainly for the sake of getting at whatever’s between their legs. In other words, I understand gay male bathhouses…

  10. 10
    sgailebeairt

    @Avicenna –Patrick Stewart has been considered one of the sexiest men in the world since ST:TNG. in a TV Guide interview he wished he knew that would happen when he lost his hair in his 20s. And in America guys often shave their heads to look older/tougher (or to avoid dealing with the stress of hairstyling, i think…) personally I like long hair on guys if its well kept but it’s the attitude that is sexy or a turnoff more than anything else!!

  11. 11
    Nathaniel Frein

    I’ve never had an issue with bald, in and of itself. The men on both sides of my family are somewhat split between losing hair with age and magically keeping it all, so I think it’ll be a coin toss what happens to me.

    I like bald in guys, just like I like long hair in guys (as in, physical attraction). It looks good when the man takes the time to make it work. Where it gets silly is when men try to cover it up instead of working with it. Combovers, hair plugs, toupees all look ridiculous to me.

  12. 12
    Noadi

    Here’s the thing with bald guys: Too many try to hold onto their hair and that is rarely attractive. I have a friend who started going bald young, his hairline was already receding at 23 and by the time he was 25 he had accepted it and proceeded to start shaving his head. He looks pretty good, it does make him look more mature than his 30 years but not in an unattractive way. Embrace the hair loss and you will be happier than fighting it, you will look better and the confidence that comes with accepting yourself is the most attractive thing there is.

  13. 13
    Nepenthe

    Well, obviously the answer is no, men and women can’t be friends, at least straight ones.

    And bisexuals can’t have any friends.

  14. 14
    matty1

    A related thing that bugs me is the assumption people make that sexual relationships are always more important than non-sexual ones. OK I guess if you are talking about marriage or other long term commitments but don’t try and tell me that I am closer to someone I picked up in a club than someone who been there for me most of my life just because I didn’t fuck my friend. Buddies is not second best to fuck buddies.

  15. 15
    Nemo

    This seems to echo the classic 1989 study by N. Ephron, R. Reiner, B. Crystal and M. Ryan.

  16. 16
    iknklast

    “I don’t think the existence of some sexual tension, on the part of one or both of them, dooms a friendship between a man and a woman.”

    This. My best friend since 7th grade is a male, and I know that he was attracted to me, because he made no secret of that fact. I think this was at its most difficult during adolescent years, because teenage boys don’t always know how to behave around each other, let alone around girls. (I’m not being sexist here; girls have the same problems). At that age, our socializaing skills are still developing, and certainly haven’t matured, and we try out all sorts of different ways of interacting with people. A friendship that can withstand through all of that is a fine friendship indeed.

    Now, as a mature woman (50+), I find that my friendships with males are very nuanced and satisfying, and there has been no hint from them of any sexual attraction. If they feel that at all, they know how to keep it to themselves better. Is there sexual tension? Well, if there is, it certainly hasn’t made the relationships impossible at all. Maybe just a bit more work, which for those who are socially lazy may not seem worth it, but for the rest of us, can lead to a very satisfying lifelong friendship that we cherish.

  17. 17
    Ed Brayton

    Gretchen wrote:

    Restricting yourself to enjoying someone’s company based on what they’ve got between their legs makes no sense to me, providing you’re not doing it mainly for the sake of getting at whatever’s between their legs.

    Yeah, I really should have said this in my post. It’s exactly right. I guess I just don’t think finding someone attractive is all that overwhelming. I find lots and lots of women attractive, including many of my female friends. But it’s not as if that one factor is so dominant that it drowns out every other trait they have. If I made a list of all the things I liked about my close friends, they’d probably be pretty long and pretty similar. That one might also be attractive to me sexually and another is not doesn’t really change anything. One really should be able to ignore that and keep it compartmentalized, especially when there are all those other things that you value about them much more than that. I suspect that when that aspect becomes a problem, it’s because their attractiveness is the primary thing they value about the person — and that’s never a good basis for a friendship (or a romantic relationship, for that matter).

  18. 18
    pilch62

    Just a thought on the tendency of men to find themselves sexually attractive: during the DADT debate, gay men got very tired of hearing how problematic showering with straight men was going to be . . . from straight men for whom being jumped in the shower by any gay man ever was not going to be an issue. Tho’ there are plenty of gay men who also seem to have that “I’m hotter than Don Johnson” thang going on. It must come with the testosterone.

    Baldness? Accept it–the alternatives are all significantly less attractive. I speak as someone who knew he was going to lose his hair early, and did . . . Make the most of what you have, instead of pretending to have what you don’t.

  19. 19
    caseloweraz

    Avicenna wrote: “Fat men can be attractive. Barry White is still considered sexy. Bald men are rarely considered attractive and rarely treated as such in the public eye. Only recently are we seeing a change.”

    I can sympathize with your situation. However, I think you’re overgeneralizing about bald men. I don’t think Yul Brynner had any trouble getting dates.

    Also: Patrick Stewart (already mentioned); Bruce Willis; Telly Savalas; Vin Diesel; The Rock… The list is long.

  20. 20
    Michael Heath

    caseloweraz writes:

    However, I think you’re overgeneralizing about bald men. I don’t think Yul Brynner had any trouble getting dates.

    Also: Patrick Stewart (already mentioned); Bruce Willis; Telly Savalas; Vin Diesel; The Rock… The list is long.

    Others: Jason Statham, Michael Jordan, Sean Connery, and Samuel L. Jackson

  21. 21
    Tony! The Fucking Queer Shoop!

    avicenna:

    Bald men are rarely considered attractive and rarely treated as such in the public eye.

    I don’t doubt that you feel this is true in your experience, but that doesn’t mean it translates to the wider population. I’ve chosen to shave my head since 1992 (I recognize that my baldness and yours aren’t for the same reasons, but the end result is no hair) and I continually have women and men that adore bald heads. As a bartender, I’ve encountered *many* women who insist on rubbing my head. In various gay bars I’ve been in, many guys love to do the same. So in my experiences, there are many people who are attracted to bald heads.

  22. 22
    Tony! The Fucking Queer Shoop!

    Oh hell yes to Jason Statham.

  23. 23
    lofgren

    All of those men are also wildly successful, which is an aphrodisiac that can overcome almost any physical handicap. (They also have the benefit of very symmetrical skulls, something that is not as common as you might think.)

    I dunno, my cousin the IT guy lost his hair when he was 21 or so. He’s five years younger than me and suddenly he looked at least ten years older. As far as I know he still does alright with the ladies, but it seems like it would put a significant crimp in your style to be going to parties where 20-year-olds are hanging out and have them wondering who the creepy old guy is. By the time he hits middle age, it’ll probably be, if anything, a blessing to have gotten comfortable with himself as a bald man twenty years earlier, while his peers will still be struggling with the idea. But I don’t think anybody sees baldness and equates it with youth, energy, daring, and ambition, which are the qualities most 20-year-old guys have to work with. It’s not like he can play wise, world-weary, and comfortingly paternal.

  24. 24
    =8)-DX

    Odd, Ive never thought about it this way. As a man the rare occassions Ive considered myself attractive at all is when some woman or girl told me that – which has happened about three times. How I interpret the study is that ANY female attention will tend to be associated with attractiveness. My Catholic-induced self-shaming outlook was that there had to be some magic going on for a female to even talk to a small, nervous, boring individual like myself. On the other hand – women underestimating their attractiveness, thats no news to me. And I absolutely hate and despise it. Its miserable and I wish I could do something about it.

  25. 25
    cry4turtles

    How about sexual attraction in same sex friendships? I have two female friends (none of us are gay, 1 may be bi, but she’s not sure), and there’s lots of sexual energy between us. We often flirt; our men love it! Sometimes we steal kisses (mostly for the benefit of male observers, but I like it!). These are the closest relationships in my life. Does anyone think the sexual attraction strenghtens these ties as I do?

  26. 26
    lofgren

    As a man the rare occassions Ive considered myself attractive at all is when some woman or girl told me that – which has happened about three times.

    Yeah, studies like this make me nervous. I think of myself as pretty OK looking. I’ve got a baby face that attracted a lot of attention from gay men when I was in my 20s, but I suspect looks a bit less appealing on a gradually spreading middle age man. My face is mostly symmetrical, although my nostrils are completely different – I didn’t even notice that until I was in my 30s, so hopefully it’s not noticeable to others. At this point I am hoping that, like the grandfather I resemble, I’ll go through a second awkward phase around middle age and emerge as a quirkily handsome old guy. But if men regularly overestimate their attractiveness, and I think I’m only OK, what does that mean about the way the rest of the world sees me? It’s enough to make a guy consider using Hot or Not.

    Its miserable and I wish I could do something about it.

    Luckily, construction workers around the world are doing their part to help stem this plague by assuring every woman who passes that she is a beautiful flower, in the most strident terms possible.

  27. 27
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    In addition to a compass, my next watch needs a decade hand I can pointedly check.

Leave a Reply

Switch to our mobile site