Near the end of last year, a couple of young filmmakers walked around a university campus and asked people one question: can men and women be just friends?
Something interesting happened. All the women said “yes, of course,” with dubious looks on their faces as if the answer was obvious. And yet every man responded with some variation of “no, you cannot.”
The video went viral, spawning the platonic friends debate in cafes and bars alike. The parties, more or less, fit into two categories. One person would say “Of course you can, we’re not children, what a stupid question,” while the other maintained that “it’s more complicated than that.” Let me begin by clarifying that I am of the “complicated” party.
You would be accurate to argue that this video made by college students does not necessarily count as a scientific, psychological study yet nevertheless its evidence proves beyond a doubt that male/female platonic friendships are impossible. I would agree with you. The small size and narrow age group sampled does not give us enough empirical evidence, but that’s not really the point. What this video does do, however, is provide interesting insight into the difference between men and women’s thinking.
One of the common reasons why men believe that it is impossible to be “just friends” with women is the sexual attraction issue. If you are attracted to someone who is either a good friend or a best friend, what is keeping you from pursuing something more? The men interviewed in the video admitted that, if given the chance, they would “hook up” with a girl who is a friend.
Perhaps one explanation (albeit a strictly reductionist one) may be that women, biologically speaking, seek out security and comfort when it comes to male friends or partners. To be surrounded by supportive, non-threatening individuals is considered healthy and important. On the other hand, men (while still desiring comfort and support) are biologically created to “spread their seed,” to put it crudely. This is not to say I wholeheartedly agree with this possibility; I am no scientist myself, but perhaps this is one aspect that should be kept in consideration.
In an article titled “Strictly Platonic,” Pamela Johnson relates platonic male/female relationships back to the original Greek philosophical concept. Put glibly, she says “you either don’t have the hots for the other person, you pretend not to, or you reroute the energy into conversation.” Based on my own personal experience, this claim seems mostly accurate. Of all my friendships with men, there has either been a point where I considered the possibility of romance, or he did (whether that was strictly based on attraction or a greater admiration). Again, my personal experience alone does not suggest some wider truth, but rather indicates that cross-sex friendships tend to be more complex than same-sex ones.
The complexities in cross-sex friendships is explored in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships in the article “Cross-Sex Friends Who Were Once Romantic Partners: Are They Platonic Friends Now?” Schneider and Kenny admit that “the potential for sexual attraction [is] a challenge that men and women face in a friendship between them.” According to one study, 53 percent of males and 31 percent of females admitted that they started a friendship with the hopes that it would turn into something romantic (Kaplan and Keys 1997). It was also found that “a majority of men and women reported wanting to be more than just friends at one time with their opposite-sex friend” (1997).
As these studies suggest, opposite sex friends sometimes consider or act on sexual or romantic desires, thus complicating the friendship. This does not mean that every friendship a man has with a woman is fraught with sexual undertones; indeed, it is possible for two people to be friends without anything romantic ever occurring. The complication that I mean to point out is the “just” friends part. If one individual is in a relationship, or if the hangouts occur within a group, the chances of anything “complicated” happening are less likely. Yes, men and women can be friends, but the trajectory of that friendship will not always be so simple as “just friends.”
Originally published in Mars' Hill, March 1, 2012