“I Love You Too Much to Ever Start Liking You”: Men, Women, and Platonic Friendship

Posted by Sappho on November 10th, 2012 filed in Sexuality


My friend from Quaker meeting, David Kammerzelt (who, being both married and much younger than me, is very unlikely to secretly want to sleep with me), pointed out, on his Facebook page, the Scientific American article Men and Women Can’t Be “Just Friends”. The title annoys the heck out of me. It’s also, I suppose, inevitable. The more accurate titles I’d like to substitute aren’t nearly so catchy, and, so even though the article following the title may nuance the statement a bit, any article on research about heterosexual male/female platonic friendships is bound, more than half of the time, to have a title that’s some variant of “you may think you have male platonic friends, but you’re severely mistaken.”

There are a couple of obvious reasons why I think that the answer is, yes, duh, it’s possible for men and women to be platonic friends. The first is acknowledged right away by the Scientific American article that I just linked:

Daily experience suggests that non-romantic friendships between males and females are not only possible, but common—men and women live, work, and play side-by-side, and generally seem to be able to avoid spontaneously sleeping together.

The second is, well, having had gay male friends, I do know that it’s possible for a man to want to be friends with me even if he doesn’t want to sleep with me, and, even though I was pretty darn sure, in my youth, that a fairly large number of men did want to sleep with me (I’d listen to one platonic male friend sing Bruce Springsteen’s “I’d drive all night … to taste your tender charms” and think, well, yes, of course a guy would drive all night to taste my tender charms), I was never so vain as to think that every man I knew wanted to sleep with me. Still less am I that vain now, at over 50 and with my hair just barely beginning to grow back after chemotherapy.

There are also reasons why I think it’s a bad idea to become all that convinced that platonic friendship with someone of a gender that you could be attracted to is impossible.

  1. If you take “platonic friendship between men and women is impossible” completely seriously, that sucks majorly for women in mostly male fields, who are then limited in their ability to find mentors.
  2. It also sucks for gay and lesbian people trying follow the “Side B” view that they’re obliged by their faith to be celibate. However quixotic such a goal may seem to many, it’s needlessly cruel if its hardship is increased by encouraging the people who support it to be suspicious of platonic same-sex friendships among people who are attracted to the same sex (and occasionally I’ve run into that point of view, that if you’re gay or lesbian you should both abstain from sex and expect devout people to be suspicious of your same-sex friendships, which strikes me as a special kind of hell).
  3. It further sucks for bisexual people trying to be monogamous in any way, shape, or form. It’s possible to invest all your sexual energies in one person. Investing all your friendship in one person, even your husband or wife, is a recipe for unhappiness.

These beefs with the title aside, the article, and the study it’s based on, prove interesting. What the study says, in fact, is not that it’s impossible for men and women to have platonic friendships, but that many outwardly platonic friendships do include some sexual attraction, and more of that attraction is on the men’s side than on the women’s.

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.

This summary piqued my curiosity. Just how much difference between men and women are we talking about here? Are 90% of my platonic male friends driven to distraction by my fading beauty? 10%? Men are women differ, sure, in their approach to sex (we can argue about how much of this difference is nature and how much nurture, but that there is a difference is clear), and that difference is pretty consistenty in the direction of women being more sexually cautious and having higher barriers to having sex. But the operational measures of that difference can go anywhere from very little overlap between men and women to a whole lot of overlap. Either almost no woman likes to “have sex like a man” or many do, depending on just what “having sex like a man” may be.

There is, on the one hand, that famous “Would you go to bed with me tonight?” experiment. To no one’s surprise, the results show that if you walk up to a random woman on a college campus who doesn’t know you from Adam and ask if she wants to go to bed with you, the answer is no. If, on the other hand, you’re an attractive woman and ask the same question of a random man on a college campus, 75% of the time the answer turns out to be yes. To which my reaction is to wonder what the hell those 75% of men find so attractive about a total stranger, and to be unsurprised that women won’t immediately go to bed with total strangers who are acting unaccountably weird (and who are bigger and stronger than they are – most of us do after all tend to be wary of people who are unknown to us, capable of beating us up, and acting very odd).

On the other hand, there’s the survey on one night stands by Durham Professor Anne Campbell in which, again unsurprisingly, women reported more regrets than men over one night stands, but, when you actually looked at the results, it turned out that

According to the survey, eighty per cent of men had overall positive feelings about the experience compared to 54 per cent of women.

which is, when you think about it, a lot of overlap (even if also a significant difference).

So, how much overlap is there between men and women in sexual attraction to platonic friends? More than in willingness to accept propositions out of the blue from total strangers, for sure. And also, it appears, more than in satisfaction with one night stands. Here is the actual study, “Benefit or burden? Attraction in cross-sex friendship,” in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Its novelty is that the researchers recruited pairs of cross-sex friends and questioned them separately and confidentially (after extracting promises from them not to speak to each other about the study) to get men’s and women’s views of the same friendship, with all friendships platonic in the sense that, whatever fantasies either friend may have had, they weren’t actually dating or having sex.

Perceptions of attraction to and from friend were reported on nine-point rating scales ranging from Not at all Attracted (1) to Moderately Attracted (5) to Extremely Attracted (9).

Men’s mean self-reported attraction to their female friend was 4.94. Women’s mean attraction to their male friend was 3.97. Men’s mean perception of their female friend’s attraction to them was 4.54, while women’s mean perception of their male friend’s attraction to them was 4.25. This is both a clear and significant difference, and one with a whole lot of overlap. Probably at least a few of my male college friends didn’t want to bone me. Sure, many of them would have, given the opportunity. For all I know, maybe even most of them would have, given the opportunity. But, if I was right in my perception that a lot of men wanted to go to bed with me, I was also right in my perception that the desire wasn’t universal. (And another part of the study shows that the gap between men and women vanishes in middle age, when, it turns out, everyone finds his or her opposite sex friends a little less attractive than he or she did in college.) On average, men and women differ, but it’s an average with a lot of overlap.

And, what, after all, does it mean to be able to be “just friends”? Are you not really platonic friends the minute any sexual thought about your friend crosses your mind? I think a more realistic view would be that, if you’re able to find the friendship worthwhile even if you never go to bed together, then you can be “just friends.” If never getting to sleep with this person will leave you too frustrated at being in the “friend zone” to be happy with the friendship, then you’re not able to be “just friends.”

Not long ago, I saw a woman in a thread at the Good Man Project grumble that a male friend who once quit seeing her because she determined that she didn’t want a romantic relationship with him couldn’t have liked her that much. If you really like someone, she asked, wouldn’t you still want to be friends with her if you couldn’t sleep with her? If your willingness to be with her depends on her having sex with you, you just can’t value her that much. On the other side, I’ve seen people suggest that of course, if you really want to go to bed with someone, you won’t be happy just being friends.

Real life seems to me more complicated. Sometimes “I love you too much to ever start liking you” really is the right answer, and it’s best, with an ex, or even with a never was, to “just let the story kind of end,” and not try to stay friends through the sexual tension. You may like the person, and want to be around him or her, but it’s not worth the pain of seeing his or her romantic desires always turned toward someone else. Other times, desire can be sidelined, or sublimated, and you can find a friend occasionally sexy, accept that those thoughts are where it will stay, and stay platonic friends while directing your desires toward other people. There’s no one size fits all answer. Platonic friendship between people who could be attracted to each other’s gender is possible, even common, and in some particular cases not possible. Just be as honest as you can with yourself about which situation you’re actually in.


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