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Science Says Men and Women Can't Be (Just) Friends

The "When Harry Met Sally" effect is alive and well.
October 25, 2012, 4:53pm

The When Harry Met Sally research effect is alive and well in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationship. A new study, Benefit of burden? Attraction in cross-sex friendship (PDF), presents a study’s findings on heterosexual men and women’s experiences with cross-sex “platonic” friendships.

But doesn’t it seem like sociological researchers are always asking this question? They are, and this time their answer is yes, platonic friendships are possible if you’re a woman. But since a platonic male-female friendship requires both a man and a woman, it seems their real answer is no.


The main study highlighted in the Scientific American’s coverage of the research is one performed, not surprisingly, on a college campus. Researchers brought in 88 pairs of opposite-sex friends, separated them, then asked each participant questions about their physical and romantic attraction to their friend and their perception of how attracted their friend was to them. They used a 9 point rating scale: 1 (not at all attracted), 5 (moderately attracted), and 9 (extremely attracted).

The full-text article, not some annoying abstract or hyped-up press release, is available online, which meant I actually looked at the numbers. The results of the study aren’t especially surprising, but they are sort of funny. Men were more likely to express sexual or physical attraction for their friend. Women tended to view their male friends as, well, friends.

If you actually read the data, the differences are statistically significant, but not insanely different. Men’s self-reported attraction to their friend was a mean 4.94, while the mean for women was 3.97. Additionally, men tended believe that their female friends were more attracted to them (mean 4.54) than they were. Whereas women tended to believe that their male friends weren’t as physically attracted to them as they actually, statistically, were (mean 4.25). Both sexes apparently projected their own feelings of attraction onto their friend: women weren’t as attracted to their male friends and thus they thought their male friends probably weren’t into them either.


Though importantly, the men were more likely to think their friend wanted to date them (a separate category from physical/sexual attraction) than to actually want to date their lady friend themselves. When the opposite-sex friend was already involved in a romantic relationship, women were less likely to be sexually attracted to that friend and much less likely to want to date them. However, when the woman was already partnered, men were more likely to be sexually attracted to them and to want to date them, as compared to the uncoupled women. Men, y’all conniving.

Harry Mansplaining the World to Sally

Since every sex/relationship study ever seems to be performed on poor, extra-credit-desperate undergraduates, it’s good that this one included some non-collegiate participants. In the second part of their study, researchers compared the results of “emerging adults” (extra-credit-desperate undergraduates) with those of young/middle-aged adults (over the age of twenty-three) on questions investigating the importance and value of opposite-sex friendships. Women in both age groups were more likely to cite “Fun/Laughter” as a reason they saw value in their opposite-sex friendships than men were. Maybe because women aren’t funny?

As participants got older, the discrepancy between men and women valuing the possibility of romance with their opposite-sex friend grew. In the older adults, ten percent of men valued “Sexual Attraction/Mating Desires” in their friendship, while only one percent of women did. So, ladies, that 40-year-old married man friend might have some ulterior motives.


The authors of this study present a wealth of well-trod evolutionary biological rationale to contextualize their research. Remember, women have the babies and men are always looking for someone new to make babies with. They contend that, “Our findings offer preliminary support for the proposal that
men’s and women’s experiences in cross-sex friendships reflect their evolved mating strategies.” Evolutionary biology is obviously important, but our genes don’t define our entire experience. Viewing social experience through a restrictive, deterministic lens doesn’t reveal the entire picture.

Our cultural expectations doubtlessly play an important role: i.e. men are more likely to speculate that their opposite-sex friends wants to date them than that the woman is sexually attracted to them. But how different are these terms, really? And what does the statistic difference reveal about how language reflects gender norms, while perhaps not making an important distinction about reality? Most people who date also have sex.

Based on the scale used in the study, most of the results from men and women show that they are slightly less than “moderately” attracted to their opposite-sex friend. But this makes sense. We choose our friends because we like them. Because we think they’re fun and we have common interests or experience. These are some of the very same reasons we choose to become romantically involved with a partner. It would be weird if no one were even slightly attracted to his or her friends. Maybe men and women have different levels of comfort with the experience of being attracted to someone but not acting on it. Maybe women are less likely to “admit” they’re sexually attracted to their male friend, while men are traditionally quite culturally comfortable asserting sexual attraction.

So while it’s possible to read the findings of this study as another “men are egotistic and they want to sex everyone” headline, I think it’s more complicated than that. The researchers are right that we exist in an unprecedented time for human interaction. Never before have so many men and women interacted, socially and in the workplace, in professional and platonic ways. As gender lines break down in the office, men and women are forced to forge new territory and re-imagine what it means to be friends with those of the opposite sex. I think it’s becoming increasingly possible to have real and meaningful friendships with those of the opposite sex. But, then again, I’m a woman.

Follow Kelly Bourdet on Twitter: @kellybourdet