Can men and womenreally be friends?

Friendships between men and women.
Sept. 29 2010 7:05 AM

The Sex Part

Can men and womenreally be friends?

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Our advice columnist, Prudence, received a letter in May from a woman who barred her partner from sharing a hotel room with a female friend. "I am extremely uncomfortable with the arrangement," she wrote. "Even though she is also in a relationship, and I trust them both, I think this is very inappropriate."

Prudence advised the letter writer to back down: "Even you acknowledge that … the two of them are being upfront about just catching up and are not scheming to get some on the side." But our comments section erupted in dissent. Here's one typical response: "[They're] just asking for trouble. …Things do 'just happen.' " Here's another: "[S]haring a hotel room with an 'old friend' of the opposite sex simply isn't appropriate for people who are in committed relationships with each other." And here's my favorite, which has a sort of propulsive logic: "If the woman is planning on staying with him overnight, they are planning more than conversation. At the very least, they are planning on drinking or using other substances to excess and whatever that leads to."

For skeptics, it doesn't matter that the letter writer claims to trust her boyfriend, or that forbidding the shared use of a hotel room is not a failsafe against infidelity. What matters is the basic arrangement: A man and a woman, alone, with access to a bed. Prudence believes that men and women can meet platonically (even in a hotel). The commenters do not. It's a classic disagreement—one that rehashes the big question about cross-sex friendship in both academic literature and the popular imagination: Are straight men and women able to forget sex and engage with each other in a truly non-romantic fashion?

Hollywood thinks the answer is no. The sociological research is mixed. It suggests, briefly, that some men and women can ignore sex, while others cannot. In a 1997 study of 186 heterosexual college students, for example, 32 percent of females and 57 percent of males reported at least moderate levels of attraction to their closest cross-sex friend. For her 1997 book We're Just Good Friends, on how men and women manage platonic relationships in daily life, Kathy Werking interviewed 50 adult pairs between the ages of 21 and 46. She found that the overwhelming majority had never raised sex as a serious issue.  

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As for my own research: This past winter I asked Slate readers to fill out a survey on "platonic friendship." I said I was looking for subjects with a "platonic friend," so it's unsurprising that more than half of the 549 respondents who answered all of the relevant questions profess no attraction of any kind—they've never had sex with their friend, never talked about sex, and never thought seriously about it. Just over 5 percent are on the opposite extreme, and report significant sexual tension or ongoing sex. There's a range of experience in the middle—mostly versions of the dating-to-friendship narrative, or accounts of fleeting romantic interest.

The survey indicates that the question "Are straight men and women able to forget sex and engage in a truly non-romantic fashion?" is too narrow. It's wrong to think of platonic friendship as a binary proposition—in which couples either avoid sex entirely and make the relationship work, or they don't and it doesn't. Sexual feeling within friendship exists on a Kinsey-type scale, and moderate attraction does not necessarily ruin or invalidate the relationship. The stories below, picked out from the survey, represent points on a continuum.

(One caveat: I rarely heard from both parties to a friendship, so nearly all of these accounts are one-sided. It's possible that the silent parties have a wildly different perspective on their relationships from what's laid out below. But then again I have no special reason to think that's the case.)

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The Platonic Ideal: Brandon & Sue

Brandon and Sue, now in their late twenties, met several years ago in an elevator. It was the first day of graduate school—he was wearing a suit and tie; she was wearing flip-flops. Sue thought Brandon was striving. But by the end of orientation, they had gravitated toward one another, largely because, attire aside, they were superficially compatible: They were two of the only recent-college grads with no professional experience.

Sue and Brandon had an intense workload and found that they studied well side by side. A narrative momentum was pushing them together (they even met cute), but it never led to romance, maybe because Sue was seeing someone else or because they were too busy to think about it. Years later, they have jobs at the same company and live together. They have never slept together.

It's this sort of friendship that most people have in mind when they use the term "platonic friendship." It's also the sort that requires the most robust defense—you need to answer the skeptics who think you're either lying to them or lying to yourself. A colleague of mine suggests that researchers could settle the issue by hooking cross-sex friends up to a plethysmograph machine, then gauging their level of arousal. Short of that, Sue explains the situation by drawing a comparison that, judging from the survey, is a bona fide cross-sex friendship cliché. Brandon, she said, is like family, a "brother type … it would feel incestuous to ever be more than friends." Sue and Brandon are so figuratively familiar that sex is inconceivable. It's on the order of taboo.

Meet Brandon and Sue, Platonic Friends

Falling Into Friendship: Sean & Jody

The first week of college, Jody and Sean met in the laundry room, and, imitating brainy freshmen everywhere, talked for hours about their favorite authors. Sean quickly developed a crush and wrote Jody a passionate note about his feelings. But she was already dating someone else, and she devastated Sean with what he thought was a rather lame offer of friendship.

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