Can Men and Women Be Just Friends?

This extremely popular video argues they can’t:

Via Andrew Sullivan who relays an article from a decade ago that makes the case for the value of male-female friendship (based in part on the work of Kathy Werking of Eastern Kentucky University. Werking’s book is We’re Just Good Friends). That same article gives advice to avoid potential pitfalls:


Overcoming Attraction: Let’s Talk About Sex

The reality that sexual attraction could suddenly enter the equation of a cross-sex friendship uninvited is always lurking in the background. A simple, platonic hug could instantaneously take on a more amorous meaning. “You’re trying to do a friend-friend thing,” said O’Meara, “but the male-female parts of you get in the way.” Unwelcome or not, the attraction is difficult to ignore.

In a study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Sapadin asked more than 150 professional men and women what they liked and disliked about their cross-sex friendships. Topping women’s list of dislikes: sexual tension. Men, on the other hand, more frequently replied that sexual attraction was a prime reason for initiating a friendship, and that it could even deepen a friendship. Either way, 62 percent of all subjects reported that sexual tension was present in their cross-sex friendships.


Establishing Equality: The Power Play

Friendship should be a pairing of equals. But, O’Meara said, “in a culture where men have always been more equal than women, male dominance, prestige and power is baggage that both men and women are likely to bring to a relationship.” Women are at risk of subconsciously adopting a more submissive role in cross-sex friendships, he said, although that is slowly changing as society begins to treat both genders more equally.

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Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • jesec

    I have a pet theory that our societal attitudes toward sex and sexuality play into this. There’s still a very strong idea that friendship and sexual desire can never coexist. I suspect that this also accounts for the difference in how men and women feel about sexual tension. There’s a lot more suspicion that women have of men’s attitudes than the other way around…how many of us have heard “he’s only being nice to you because he wants in your pants”? There’s an implication that if a man expresses sexual attraction to a woman, it somehow makes all his other expressions to her insincere. Of course they can’t be friends, because society frames sexuality as this all-encompassing desire that must overrule all others.

  • Stevarious

    It depends on how you define friendship. The question rather strongly implies that if a friendship contains sexual activity or desire, it’s not technically ‘friendship’. I reject that definition. I have a number of friends that I’m sexually attracted to or have had sex with. We are still ‘just friends’.

  • ischemgeek

    I’m a female with many male friends. Maybe because I’m a huge tomboy, but throughout most of my life, between a third and two thirds of my friends have been male. Currently it sits at about 50-50.

    My major issue with cross-sex friendships hasn’t been the friendships, but how others respond to the friendships. Girls would shun me and call me a boy and boys who weren’t friends with me would make fun of my friends in elementary school, in middle and high school, girls would call me a slut and boys who didn’t know me would pretend to want to get to know me because the girls told them I was easy. My mother disapproves, my dad is uneasy, my sister still refers to me as her brother sometimes (she thinks it’s funny) and so on. I was bullied a lot throughout my schooling, and I think my refusal to fit to gender stereotypes had a lot to do with both the bullying and the general complete lack of anything even resembling action on the bullying that I received from the adults in my life.

    In university, I encountered the first environment where people didn’t judge me for it. Other girls might think the group more approachable because I was there, and guys might want to talk video games with me, but there was no social stigma attached. Now, at work, I sometimes get winks and knowing smiles when I talk about male friends, but I’m lucky to work in a workplace where those who care know it’s not their place to cause trouble about it and most just don’t care.

    I’m not going to get punished here because some catty brat started the bajillionth rumor about my pregnancy (yes, it happened in high school – I got an in-school suspension because someone else started a false rumor about me…. after all, if I didn’t hang out with those boys, she wouldn’t have reason to start the rumor, would she?). That said, I’m careful about how much I talk about my friends at work now. I’m not ashamed, but on the other hand, I’m very new in my career and don’t need it torpedoed by a false and petty scandal.

    • jesec

      Ditto. To all of this. I get it at work/school as well (I’m a graduate student). Thankfully my professors and fellow students have been good about it, but a lot of the people I know from outside, including my family, are constantly making assumptions. Nevermind that there are no other female students in the program – apparently I’m supposed to be going out and finding other women to hang out with, rather that spending time with my fellow students where I can talk about our research and interests.

    • Daniel Fincke

      apparently I’m supposed to be going out and finding other women to hang out with, rather that spending time with my fellow students where I can talk about our research and interests.

      Nooo, if you’re a graduate student, you’re supposed to be in the bowels of a library or a laboratory and not emerge into the sunlight until you have a PhD in hand, young lady!

    • jesec

      But our library only stays open until 3am…and us philosophers don’t do labs.

    • Daniel Fincke

      But our library only stays open until 3am…and us philosophers don’t do labs.

      A philosophy grad student? That’s great. If you ever need advice from a philosopher outside your department feel free to write me. You may do anonymously, if need be. Good luck!

  • tarian

    Ew. You got your heteronormative gender essentialism all over me. If (the potential for) sexual attraction were a barrier to friendship, I wouldn’t have any friends at all.

    • Daniel Fincke

      hahaha, I know, tarian. But it’s gotten over 4 million views on YouTube since December 1, so it’s worth calling attention to its existence and raising it for discussion in a skeptical environment like this.

    • tarian

      It’s absolutely worth the discussion; to be clear, my response to the video was kind of “meh, what do you expect”. The Psychology Today article was what gave me a sad. The authors apparently live on some planet that contains no people like me. One more round of men and women are just different, yo. Men get together and play sports, women get together and talk about their feeeeeelings, men get more out of relationships with women than women do because feelings, but then! a wild sex appears! what will you do? It’s like the authors are stuck on a model of human relationships gleaned from Choose Your Own Adventure books. Can we tear down this system yet?

  • mikespeir

    To think we’re ever going to be non-sexual is absurd. Our sexuality is too big a part of who we are. But of course a man and a woman can be “just friends.” (Speaking of a heterosexual man and woman here.) But there’s no natural barrier as there would be between two heterosexual men or two heterosexual women. (Ignoring the complication of the variety of repulsive forces that can also come into play in individual instances.) So in order for it to work and stay “just friendly” an intentionally respectful distance has to be maintained; respectful, that is, of the sexual “gravity” that’s a constituent of all of us. At a certain closeness there’s a tendency for a man and woman to, um, go into orbit around one another. And in worst case scenarios they may even collide.

    I’m glad the point was brought up about equality. As someone who’s been married and failed at it twice (and thus has probably forfeited his right to comment), I’ve had plenty of opportunity to think about why. I’ve become convinced that if a couple wants to keep their relationship together, they had better put more emphasis on the friendship than the romance. Friendship is an egalitarian affair. To the degree a relationship is dominated by one participant or the other it’s not friendship, but despotism. Now I’m perfectly aware that there’s no such thing as true equality between any two people. Achieving it won’t be possible. But that should be the grounding ideal.

    • Daniel Fincke

      It’s nice to see you, Mike. It’s been awhile!

    • mikespeir

      Thanks. I look in from time to time (usually from where you’re echoed on Planet Atheism), but I don’t comment anywhere as much as I used to.

  • Stevarious

    So in order for it to work and stay “just friendly” an intentionally respectful distance has to be maintained; respectful, that is, of the sexual “gravity” that’s a constituent of all of us.

    Again, the underlying assumption that sexual attraction or activity is somehow ‘outside’ of friendship. I’d be a little more annoyed except…

    I’ve become convinced that if a couple wants to keep their relationship together, they had better put more emphasis on the friendship than the romance.

    …There you have it exactly. A successful relationship (in the most common form, or at least the most commonly hoped-for form, IMHO) is an extremely close friendship that ALSO includes romantic love (ideally) and sexual monogamy (unless it doesn’t), and can be bound up in a tidy little contract that serves as a socially recognized symbol of commitment (and a few legal benefits). The contract is optional. The monogamy is even optional (but very popular). The only two things I see as being required are the first two – and I’ve even seen a marriage between two very good friends that include neither sex nor romance that works nicely for both of them.

    (It’s amazing how much you have to qualify these things in order to avoid excluding other, equally valid relationships – in my experience the only way to be wrong in these conversations is start talking about what you can’t do.)

  • Amy Clare

    Imo the article makes a lot of assumptions about what men and women think and want, based purely on gender stereotypes. We’re all individuals and what we want out of friendships differs, surely.

    Two heterosexual people of different sexes don’t necessarily fancy each other, and there are different levels of fancying in my experience, which also depends a bit on whether the attraction is mutual. Do you simply appreciate that they are physically attractive or could you fall in love with them? Etc.

    I have a lot of cross gender friendships and they differ enormously. Some of my male friends I have banter with, some I share feelings with and confide in. Some in the past have led to drunken ‘things’ happening, some have stayed purely platonic. Like all friendships some can come and go, and some have endured for many years.

    I think rather than asking the (pretty heteronormative) question ‘can men and women be friends?’ the question should be, can you be friends with someone you’re attracted to? Which isn’t the same thing, and to which I think, it’s possible, but not always, and depends on how strong your feelings are for the other person (or theirs for you), and whether friendship is enough. There is a risk of heartbreak, to be sure.

    Interestingly my mother (in her 60s) thinks our current culture of men and women mixing more socially and being friends with each other is quite dangerous, as things can get messy, and it was ‘simpler’ when the only opposite gender people you really got to know were your spouse and members of your family. I disagree with her strongly. I wouldn’t have half the friendships I do have if I enforced a ‘same gender only’ rule.

    • Daniel Fincke

      I think rather than asking the (pretty heteronormative) question ‘can men and women be friends?’ the question should be, can you be friends with someone you’re attracted to?

      Part of what was interesting about the video though was both how adamant the girls were that guys and girls can be strictly platonically friends and yet how embarrassed the girls were confessing they realized their guy friends liked them. It’s that asymmetry that is most interesting in the video.

      Part of the reason this is interesting is because when one half of a friendship is there partly because of sexual/romantic attraction it is possible (and the guys are probably assuming) that without that level of attraction the friendship would not be happening. Whereas, the girls are trying to avoid acknowledging it’s a factor because they don’t want to either (a) feel like they’re leading someone on or (b) feel like they are only able to get guy friends because of their sexual/romantic attractiveness and that maybe the guys would not like them as much strictly for their personality otherwise. Both of those possible implications I think have the girls wanting to insist that there can be relationships where guys just enjoy the girls without their being attractiveness being a big factor. And, then also, the giddiness in their embarrassment at admitting all their guy friends do have sexual and/or romantic motives towards them betrays they also like the self-esteem boost and (possibly) the power this gives them.

      So, yes, this is a heterosexual-specific issue. But that doesn’t make it heteronormative (except in the universal phrasing of the question). This is about interesting disequilibriums of power and while they can also occur in homosexual relationships (and would be interesting there too) there are interesting facets to the ways that heterosexual men and heterosexual women are as groups seeing the issues differently and for different reasons based on the nature of their specific power relations, etc.

    • Amy Clare

      Hmm. I get what you’re saying, but I guess my experience has been very different. I’m quite skeptical that *all* a (straight) woman’s (straight) male friends could be harbouring sexual or romantic feelings for them. I just don’t think that can be possible. I’m basing that purely on the facts that a) I don’t fancy every man I’m friends with, and b) I’ve approached male friends in the past who I have fancied, confessed my feelings, and they’ve had to tell me they don’t reciprocate them – but they still wanted my friendship.

      So I suppose I don’t accept that sexual or romantic attraction necessarily plays a role in forming friendships. It certainly hasn’t in my experience, if anything, it’s the other way round – when one person develops romantic feelings, it can often mean the end of the friendship as what each person wants out of it becomes significantly different and feelings get hurt.

      I’m not denying the experiences of the women in the video but it just doesn’t fit with my experience. I find it interesting but I guess I can’t relate to it. If I found out a platonic male friend had feelings for me that I didn’t share, I wouldn’t enjoy it, I’d be worried as I wouldn’t want them to get hurt, and I wouldn’t want to lose the friendship.

      The idea that if you like someone enough to be good friends with them then you must fancy them a bit too… just not true in my experience. But then, I haven’t done a straw poll of my male friends!

  • jesec

    Incidentally, as a non-heterosexual woman, I find this kind of thinking can be a significant contribution to homophobia from other women. They start with this idea that you can’t be friends with men because they are or could be attracted to you. So they seek to form “safe” friendships with other women. Then all of a sudden they find out that one of their female friends is attracted to other women, and it makes their safe friendship feel unsafe. I have had this problem before – often the first question a female friend will have is “are you attracted to me?”, with a significant implication that she would not be ok with the friendship if I was.

    I don’t know if or how this works for gay men, but I would not be surprised if something similar happened. I do know that many men who have a lot of female friends are stereotyped as “gay” – because obviously no normal heterosexual male would have female friends that he’s not trying to sleep with.

  • Anat

    Had several friendships with guys back in the day. With one of them we tried dating, it didn’t work out, we stayed friends for a while later. With another I had a ‘friends-with-benefits’ relationship that we broke up when another friendship upgraded to full romance. My husband had several close friendships with women that never became romances. He now has one very significant and long-lived friendship with a woman (I consider her a friend too, but she is more his friend than mine).