A couple of weeks ago, Scientific American released an article stating emphatically that men and women cannot be just friends.
Needless to say, most people are just saying that it confirms what is common knowledge. As Harry said so many years ago, “…men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.”
At a first glance, the Scientific American article certainly makes it appear that way. The article points to men being more attracted to their female friends, men being more likely to want to date their female friends, men overestimating how attractive their female friends find them, men see hooking up as a benefit. As someone who has a man as one of her closest friends, I was disheartened by the article. I know the truth about my relationship with Rich, but it makes it difficult to write about the beauty of cross-gender friendship when a well-respected journal says that they can’t exist.
But on further examination of the source material, I found hope. While the SA article points to some discrepancies between the way men and women view friendship, the actual study does not paint so grim a picture.
The questionnaire used a 9-point scale, for determining attraction, 1 being not at all attracted to your friend, 5 being moderately attracted, and 9 being extremely attracted. Among men, the mean was 4.94, with women coming in at 3.97.
The dating questionnaire also used a 9-point scale, 1 indicating no interest, 5 indicating neutral/unsure, and 9 indicating definitely yes. In this area, men’s self-reported desire to date their female friends was 4.55, while women reported a 4.25.
Additionally, when looking at the benefits of cross-sex friends, the top three overwhelming reasons for both men and women were: better understanding of the opposite sex, conversation/advice, companionship/shared activities.
None of these are friend-killing results.
I don’t want to brush off the differences between the way that men and women relate to one another. It is important to note that the cost/benefit numbers do show some discrepancies. And certainly men do have a tendency to be more attracted to their female friends.
However that attraction is on the low side of moderate. And the desire to date is on the low side of neutral. And what people really want from their friendships is someone to talk to and someone to do things with. Not sexual things, but boring activities like tennis or shopping or playing in a wedding cover band together.
But these benefits to friendship also indicate a desire for intimacy. Better understanding, advice, companionship – these are things that require us to give of ourselves in a relationship. Certainly they can’t be achieved simply in perfunctory interactions. They require an opening of one’s self to another and an affinity that reaches beyond superficial conversations.
We have so entangled attraction and sex with one another, that if we see even moderate attraction, we assume that the inevitable result must be a sexual encounter. It’s what leads us to make statements like, “if we all thought like men, we’d probably be facing a serious overpopulation crisis.” It’s what cause us to demand that we “guard our hearts.” It’s what makes us wary of getting too close to someone of the opposite sex, even though Jesus prayed that we all would be one in our relationships, just as he and the Father were one.
So how do we begin to disentangle attraction from sex? How do we begin to move beyond fear and see someone of the opposite sex as a close friend? How do we stop viewing cross-sex friendships through the “When Harry Met Sally” lens and find our way to the oneness that Jesus desired?
Tomorrow we will examine these questions. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts about the implications of the study and how that affects your views of cross-gender friendships.