Afternoon InquisitionSkepticism

AI: Hey baby, wanna be friends?

There was an article in Slate recently about male-female platonic relationships and why they work or don’t work. As someone who has always had a mix of friends that skews more male than female, I am always a little wary of the ‘men and women can’t REALLY be friends’ argument. The Slate article, however, puts a slightly different spin on the idea of platonic cross-gender relationships, positing that perhaps they work for people who don’t identify as clearly with their ‘normal’ gender traits.

Research shows that cross-sex friendships are more emotive than male-male relationships and less emotive than female-female ones. In my own survey of nearly 600 Slate readers, I heard from men who said that what they like about their cross-sex friendships is the ability to share without fear of judgment, and from women who said they valued the opportunity to watch sports, for example, without having to pick apart their feelings.

What do you think? Do you have close platonic friendships with members of the opposite sex? Why does it work or does it?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 3pm ET.

Masala Skeptic

Maria Walters (a.k.a. Masala Skeptic) has spent a lot of time in ‘furrin parts,’ including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Pittsburgh. Although her passport is from India, she’s spent most of her adult life in the United States. She currently lives in Atlanta and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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22 Comments

  1. I’m lucky enough to have an approximately 50/50 split. My best guy friends have been in my life for so long that any potential sexual tension has long since dissipated. If I was in my 20’s, maybe I’d be more aware of it?

    All my friends offer something different but it seems to be more about their worldview or our shared history than gender roles. A few years back, everything went bad. My friends got me through it by being there, no matter how they handled helping me out.

    It wasn’t like the gal pals were more loving and the guys more willing to get drunk. It was the fact that they, in their own unique way, were willing to show that they cared. In fact, it was one of the guys who cried with me when my awesome mom-in-law passed away and he had never even met her.

  2. My best friend ever is male. Of course we are both gay, so there is no chance for ulterior motive. I have many good friends, both male and female and they both give me different opportunities to express myself. People who claim that there cannot be mixed gender friendships have never had one

  3. in my case it’s a bit rough to have a friend that’s a woman.simply because i’ve never had a gf,or even so much as a causal sex partner as it were.it’s completely on my end but still.i mean i think men and women can be friends.but it depends on the individuals involved.

  4. I think so. I’ve had female friends that I haven’t had sex with. It would be akward to hit on them. But I also know who I am. If the opportunity arose and I reallly believed that it wouldn’t hurt the friendship I am sured I would. I adore women. I am happiest in their company. I think it is because women are almost always kind. It is just easy to be with them. You can relax in their company.

  5. I’m gonna have to agree with everything Bookitty said. My group of friends tended to be a genuine 50/50 split, and it worked because there were no expectations as far as who would be “emotional” vs who would be the “sports watching” ones. Assumptions about who would be caring or whatever varied by individual personality rather than gender. Also, rbray18, I’m sort of the female equivalent of your situation (never had a bf), but then a lot of the girls/guys in my friend group (well, my high school friend group since I just went to college) hadn’t either, so we didn’t see that as an issue. Depends on the group, I guess.

  6. I’ve always had friends of both genders. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. One of my oldest friends is an ex-lover – we were friends, we tried romance (it didn’t work) and now we’re friends again. The biggest factor whether the cross-gender relationship works seems to be whether one (or both) people are in stable relationships. I went through a divorce and a lot of my single guy friends (and two of the married guy friends) promptly started hitting on me. Not what I needed. I lost several good friendships then.

    One of my best friendship moments came at a guy friends’ wedding. It came about a month after my first marriage broke up. He noticed I was no longer wearing my rings and pulled me aside to ask if I needed to talk or needed a shoulder DURING HIS OWN WEDDING RECEPTION. Now THAT is a good friend.

  7. I was always a bit of a loner growing up, usually with a lot of male friends balanced out by a single female BF(F?). Being a SF fanatic and an exercise enthusiast in that day and age guaranteed male buddies. Some wanted to cross into friends-with-benefits. It didn’t seem to matter whether we tried it out (and usually decided it didn’t work) or not, our relationships tended to survive.
    These days, the situation’s similar to captsam’s. My husband is my best friend. Maybe we need to get out more, but we’re enjoying our little hermitage of a marriage.

  8. It totally works. There is generally at least some sexual tension, but not always. I adore my female friends and wouldn’t trade any one of them for any kind of sexual relationship. I would trade a couple of my old video games in for a sexual relationship, however I don’t think that’s a service Game Stop offers…

  9. I’m a man from a large extended family – many girl cousins & aunts, including some formidable matriarchs among my great-aunts – and something of a tribe (a group of families close for several generations, including women with whom I grew up and have maintained friendships), and I think it was that, first of all, which made it more possible for me to grow up conceiving of a variety of ways to relate to women.

    Thus, I’ve had a number of female friends, a few of them very close, relationships quite distinct from the romantic/sexual relationships I’ve had with women. I’ve also remained good friends with a number of ex-girlfriends; that always depends on the quality of the relationship during the involvement, how well we treated each other. If there was full presence, communication, respect, then great, we could be friends, no matter whether we decided at some point that we shouldn’t be together in that way. Some I recall with great affection; on the other hand there are two or three I’ll never speak to again. But I’ve always had both friends and lovers among women.

    It hasn’t necessarily meant that I was much better at the latter; I’ve been an idiot at times, been inadequate as a lover, been insensitive on occasion, made a few poor choices (including one GF From Hell almost twenty years ago), but I do think my formative experiences with the women of my family and tribe, by providing a prior store of varied and contrasting experiences for comparison’s sake, have kept me from emotionally overreacting to the more traumatic experiences and forming simplistic notions about women – among such notions the idea that men and women can’t be friends because of sexual tension. (Thus, the movie When Harry Met Sally seemed quaint and faintly puzzling to me.)

    (My mom once observed that part of the reason for my little brother’s failed first marriage was that his first wife couldn’t really trust his close platonic friendships with some women – his high school friend Liz in particular – as she didn’t have anything analogous in her life. To us it was obvious what the nature of his friendship with Liz was – he was never going to be interested in her That Way, not in a million years – but to the wife, it was, tragically, a mystery and a threat.)

    Having already grown up with a number of women as peers, as equals, as friends whose friendships with me were and are based on a variety of interests reflecting their variety as people first of all, I could see that the successes and failures of my romantic/sexual relationships weren’t generalizable into statements of the nature “Women always ____” etc. While there are often commonalities in the dynamics, in the end each of those relationships, just as with each of my other friendships, rose or fell on its specifics, and it’s my early history which I think I have to thank for my becoming more aware of that.

    The strong emotional charge of romantic/sexual relationships brings with it the tendency for simplistic conceptualizing about them; that’s the nature of emotions; at their worst, as an evolutionarily ancient aspect of cognition (yes: part of cognition, essential to its overall optimal function, and not separate; see Damasio’s work), they “can only count up to two”, they’re binary, yes or no, all or nothing, in their parsing of reality. If one does not have an extensive alternate, non-sexual experience of the opposite sex, with a nuanced variety of qualities to it, then it’s easier to succumb to the distortions of the strong emotions involved in romantic/sexual experiences, and turn one’s momentary outbursts of “women can’t be trusted!” or “men are pigs!” into poorly examined, grudge-based ad hoc philosophies. Even if it never is quite that extreme in many people’s psyches, the tendency remains.

    All that said, one question about me no doubt remains in your minds: how is it that I formed friendships with some women, on the one hand, and pursued more than friendships (or went straight to romantic/sexual without first really getting to know them as friends first, as we all do some of the time, or even most of the time, with the friendship component only fully developing later) with others, on the other hand? What are the differentiating criteria? I’m still trying to figure that out. The chemistry of friendships can be no less mysterious than the chemistry of deeper involvements.

    Some of my women friends have been and are quite beautiful, quite desirable, in addition to their intelligence and emotional warmth – potential mate material – and yet at some point early in my relating to them, I made a decision, usually quite subconsciously, to set aside my automatic attraction to them and know them, essentially, as sisters.

    In some cases it was quite conscious: because they were already involved with someone, and one of my core ethical principles is never to interfere, by becoming romantically involved with one party, in an existing relationship (this is based partially on the golden rule, but also on the observation that one can never really know the dynamics of any existing relationship as fully as do the two involved know together, and thus one can’t go on the word of just one or the other as to its state, and the danger of acting unfairly to one or both of them, if one does interfere, is strong.) Once the relationship had been established on those lines, I stopped considering them as mates; even if later they were “free”, I’d already gotten in the habit, there’d been a shift in my perspective. That doesn’t mean that will always be the case, just that it hasn’t happened yet that I’ve gotten involved with a woman friend who had been involved with someone else previously. And a lot of it simply has to do with timing: my attention’s been elsewhere, on other women, involved with them instead, when these women became free.

    In other cases, it was either because I felt that either they or I (or both) was not emotionally ready for that level of involvement. In some of those cases, it was my feelings of inadequacy at the time; in others, my sense that they were still at a stage in their lives, a stage especially common to attractive women who have a greater sense of choice among men, of making determinedly foolish choices (“bad boys”, etc.) and I’d be better off not trying, against that sometimes astoundingly dogged determination, to assert myself as an alternative, instead trying to be a tacit example of reliable male friendship available to her whenever the inevitable turn from “oh, he’s so self-assured! so dynamic!” to “what a fucking egotistical and hurtful jerk he is!” occurred – I’d be a tacit reminder that Men Are NOT Always Pigs. But I’m not in the business of trying, by inserting myself directly, interferingly, between parties in a relationship, to change people that fundamentally, where such strong emotions and even more basic drives are involved. They have to work some things out for themselves. And my friendship, for the sake of all the things I valued about her, quite apart from her romantic foolishness, would be more likely to survive.

    And in still other cases, it was simply that, despite her sexual attractiveness, there was something else about her personality that hooked me first, something I’d long associated with longterm, steady friendship, perhaps, and the spark just fizzled, perhaps just because what it was I liked about her fulfilled more immediately and intensely some other need in the spectrum of needs that drive friendships, and/or my sexual interest was sparked by some other woman at the time. Whatever it is, sometimes the overall chemistry, despite a particular woman’s great beauty and my overall automatic hormonal response, just isn’t there or if there at first, fails to sustain. Someone else would comment, “Hey, your friend ____ is really cute! How come you’re not….”, and, I’d think, oh yeah, she is, isn’t she, yet my response would be that, well, yes, I know she’s cute, but I just don’t see her that way.

    So, to answer the question “why does it work?”:

    Well, it works for as many reasons as there are reasons for being friends. (And it fails for as many reasons are there are reasons to betray friendships. Only some of those reasons are sexual.) To give primacy in relationships between men and women to the sexual fascinations and repellences that can occur, to assume that those have some special zero-sum relationship to friendship, that it’s either sex or friendship, is mistaken. Yes, stronger emotions are involved with sex (though we often try to deny that), and, yes, in some cases it’s impossible to be friends with someone after they’ve poisoned the well of friendship via abuse of you within a romantic/sexual context, and refuse ever to acknowledge the abuse, let alone apologize, but that isn’t the whole story. We’re more than that. The bonds and emotions of friendship have their strengths too.

    If anything, Advocatus Diaboli’s comment makes this last point most emphatically. Gay people distinguish all the time between friends and lovers, out of a complex variety of social, emotional and biological needs nearly the same as possessed by the rest of us (the only differences being sexual orientations), and also acknowledge that there can be overlap; but it would be stupid (and insulting) to assume (as many ignorant homophobes seem to) that they’re constantly lusting after everyone of the same gender in some monomaniacal way. Gays aren’t driven helplessly by their sexual drives any more than heterosexual men and women are. Thus, friendships of any sort are always possible.

  10. For most of my life I’ve had female friends. My best friends today are female. There can be issues if one person is attracted to the other, and the feeling isn’t returned, but that I can be worked out, and the friendship strengthened over it.

  11. I’ve actually been closer to my female friends, maybe because I’ve never really fit in with the guys. But only a very few friendships have stood the test of time. Usually, they get married and drift off.

    It might be because I come from a long line of strong women, or because I don’t have as much of a hangup with feeling as most guys.

    And, yes, I’ve had strong sexual feelings for alot of friends, but you have to be an adult, and if the feelings aren’t returned, well that’s that.

  12. I have lots of female friends, though I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have occasional sexual feelings for many of them. I find it fairly easy to prevent that from interfering with the friendships in question, though.

  13. General point: Sexual tension doesn’t *always* have to ruin a friendship. It can actually be part of a friendship.

    Depends very much on the individuals involved, of course. But a few female friends I have? Flirtation plays a big role in conversation. Admittedly, it probably helps that I’m in a relationship and I’m not built to cheat, so any flirtation stays innocent and fun. I enjoy the attention, and so do they.

    Wouldn’t work with *all* my female friends of course. But it works with a few.

    Just another case where the assumption that the open expression of sexuality is always a bad thing turns out to be wrong.

  14. The Slate article, however, puts a slightly different spin on the idea of platonic cross-gender relationships, positing that perhaps they work for people who don’t identify as clearly with their ‘normal’ gender traits.

    “Normal”? Well, then, therein lies the rub. I don’t know what “normal” gender traits I’m supposed to be following. (I think I missed the memo or something.)

    There seems to be an implicit subtext that the core of the supposed problem is men’s desire for women (and not also women’s desire for men) and a correlative assumption that this desire is uncontrollable by most if not all men. I have heard, on many an occasion, statements to that effect by some women. (Sometimes delivered in a joking context, but as the guitarist in my first band was fond of saying, “Much truth is said in jest.”)

    So, is the presumption of normality something like “Normal (heterosexual) men are always trying to get laid, even with women they say they only consider as friends?”

    If it is, it’s a bit like the whole “metrosexual” thing: define anything that doesn’t fit one’s preconceptions about “normal” as an outlier. (There’s an interesting subtext of “non-urban normality vs. cosmopolitan deviance” going on with the choice of “metro”. Kind of like the “pretentious coastal elites vs. the genuine heartland” false dichotomy. But that’s another topic.) Maybe the norm (statistically) is actually closer to what’s half-disparagingly termed “metrosexual” – and closer to the reality reflected in the comments here.

    There may be something of an emotionally-reinforced confirmation bias at work in the casual assumption by some women that most if not all men are always on the prowl: one tends to remember the jerks who hit on you when you haven’t invited any advances far more than one notices the guys who don’t; unpleasant casual encounters stand out more in our memories, thanks to the activation of the amygdala, than routine ones. Furthermore, if a woman has few or no examples of men-as-just-friends in her life, she’s more likely to have formed assumptions about what’s normal that skew towards “men are lust-crazed pigs”. (The same can be said about hetero men who are the targets of the very few gay men who do hit on them: if they are generally unfamiliar with gay people – haven’t been friends with any – they’re likely to generalize unwarrantedly from statistical outliers, due to the emotional trauma involved. And if they’re particularly ignorant of gay reality, they can misconstrue behaviour and imagine that they’re being hit on when they’re not, with tragic and often deadly consequences for the gay person.)

    This sort of “men always on the prowl” junk psychology may be widespread, but, as many of our comments show, at least some and probably many of our individual experiences contradict it. I doubt that such a claim, with its presumption that men are just gonads with legs, is true even of the majority of men. Reality is more nuanced than that.

  15. Well, I have had more female friends than male friends, although that is more due to the fact that there seems to be more females in my classes than males. Anyways, of course it is possible to be friends with the opposite gender. And even if you feel attraction, why can’t one be friends anyways?

  16. It works sometimes, but I’ve also seen it not work. There are times when one person is hoping the relationship will turn romantic, and the other person is using that affection to fulfill some need. These “friendships” tend to be like emotional affairs. They seem like a romantic relationship, but without the physical part. Ask yourself this, would you invite your friend to a party? Would they be comfortable bringing a date? Can you all comfortably hang out with your partners?

  17. As a physicist, 90% of my friends are male. This has always been the case for me and it’s something I enjoy a lot.
    Something that I do not enjoy, however, and something that is going on right now, is when the 10% of friends I have that are female start speculating and gossiping about my “relationship” with my male friends. That is where the social construct begins to break down and I am not saying that it is only females who partake in this, but in my case it is.
    It has been destructive to my friendship with this particular male friend as I am afraid of seeming like I am too enthusiastic or “flirtatious” around him. I consider him my best friend because when I moved here by myself a year and a half ago, he was the first person to show me around and introduce me to people. Through that, I see him like a brother as my friendships here mostly grew from those introductions. The fact that people feel the need to poison that friendship by insinuating something more is hurtful and dangerous.

  18. This is a silly question, I have had sex with about half of my close female friends. And guess what, we are still friends. Separating friendship from sex is as silly as connecting love with sex. I thought this was a sceptical blog, and yet here we are uncritically repeating old stereotypes and false assumptions.

    Recommended read – Christopher Ryan’s Sex At Dawn.

  19. Since my teens I have always related much better to women then men. Not that I haven’t had great male friends, I have. It is just that, emotionally, I track much more closely to the female side of things. Its the old, “I’m in touch with my feminine side” thing, not that I really know what that means.

    Can men and women just be friends? Of course they can. Can they be more than friends and still stay friends? Of course they can. Should they just be friends? That’s up to them.

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