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Can Straight Men and Women Be “Just Friends”?

Can heterosexual men and women be friends, or do they only bond for the hope of some sweet, sweet lovin’ down the road? We investigate the science behind male-female friendships.
Can Straight Men and Women Be “Just Friends”?
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As a heterosexual woman, I firmly believe heterosexual men and women can be “just friends.” I have also dated, made out with, or had romantic or sexual thoughts about the vast majority of my male friends (and, by various friends’ admission, been thought of in that way). I’m no math major, but even I can see something here does not compute. After a healthy debate at Greatist headquarters, we decided to let science answer the question once and for all. Can heterosexual men and women really be “just friends?”

Photo by Lisa Goulet

Sex Has (a Lot) to Do With It — The Need-to-Know

Before we dive into the science, let’s start with the public perceptions. A survey of more than 1,450 members of the dating site Match.com (perhaps not the most unbiased sampling) found some interesting stats: 83 percent of those surveyed believe men and women can be platonic friends, while 11 percent disagree and six percent aren’t sure. At the same time, 62 percent of respondents admitted they’d been in a “platonic” friendship that turned romantic or sexual. And 71 percent said they hoped a hypothetical future romantic partner would be their friend first.

Given the statistics above, it’s not surprising that heterosexual male-female friendships often involve some element of sexual attraction — though this might depend on gender. Men, more than women, report maintaining opposite-sex friendships for the chance of having sex; men are also more likely to prioritize physical attractiveness in their female friends (whereas women tend to prioritize economic resources and physical abilities) [1]. And men seem to be more attracted to their female friends than the female friends are to them, regardless of either party’s relationship status (so that’s where jealousy comes from!).

Public perception echoes the science: According to the Match.com survey, 67 percent of respondents said women are better at keeping sex out of a platonic relationship (13 percent said men are more able to abstain, and 20 percent said they weren’t sure). But despite either party’s best efforts, sex in supposedly “platonic” male-female relationships does happen. A lot. Some studies have found around half the heterosexual college student population has engaged in sexual activity (not surprising) in an otherwise platonic cross-sex friendship (only sorta' surprising). Interestingly, the majority of these friends-with-benefit situations don’t transition into a romantic relationship, suggesting people prefer the friendship over the sex (or at least over any romance).

Platonic Impossible? — The Answer/Debate

Even if friends remain friends (instead of romantic partners) after doin’ the deed, sex definitely changes things. One study found past sexual involvement made friends feel both more negativity and more romantic desire for each other than they did prior to the sexual relationship (complicating things, indeed!). Friends who’ve hooked up are more likely to flirt with each other and communicate about their relationship, while friends who desire each other romantically spend more time together, provide more emotional support to each other, and talk less about relationships outside the friendship (perhaps because of this, cross-sex friendships can negatively affect external romantic relationships).

All this brings us to the heart of the question: Are platonic relationships possible?

Platonic love does exist, some experts maintain. There are various reasons for keeping a relationship platonic, but the most common include a lack of physical attraction, fear of disapproval from friends or family, third party involvement (i.e., a boyfriend or girlfriend), and not wanting to disrupt the relationship. Studies find both men and women benefit from cross-sex friendship (be it through protection or simply learning from the opposite sex how to best attract a mate), which might explain why people are sometimes reluctant to rock the boat.

Whatever the motivation, staying platonic often requires some maintenance strategies to keep sex at bay. And even when people staunchly describe a relationship as “platonic”, the reality might be there’s sexual tension one or both parties are choosing (subconsciously or not) to ignore.

Call It As You See It — The Takeaway

Even though we’ve just written an entire article about people being “friends” (or not), the truth is friendship in general is still poorly understood. Researchers hold that we don’t really have the language to discuss the different variations cross-sex friendships can take, and this complicates the ways we’re able to think and talk about the subject.

Still, the basic takeaway is this: Heterosexual men and women can be friends, and these friendships can be good for all parties involved. These relationships are also more than likely to involve some sort of sexual tension — and it’s up to both parties to decide whether they’ll maintain the status quo or open themselves up to “benefits”. But even if friends have sex, that doesn’t mean they aren’t friends. Perhaps “sex” and “friendship” aren’t always mutually exclusive; we might just need new words to describe them.

What’s your take? Share in the comments below, or get in touch with the author on Twitter via @LauraNewc. Also check out Laura's story on Open Relationships and Monogamy.

Works Cited +

  1. Friends with benefits: the evolved psychology of same- and opposite-sex friendship. Lewis, DM, Conroy-Beam, D., Al-Shawaf, L., et al. Department of Psychology, The University of Texas at Austin. Evolutionary Psychology, 2011 Dec 8;9(4):543-63

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