As someone with a lot of female friends — in fact, two of my three closest friends in the world are women — I found this study of platonic relationships and how men and women perceive them to be quite interesting. But I don’t find this at all surprising:
The results suggest large gender differences in how men and women experience opposite-sex friendships. Men were much more attracted to their female friends than vice versa. Men were also more likely than women to think that their opposite-sex friends were attracted to them—a clearly misguided belief. In fact, men’s estimates of how attractive they were to their female friends had virtually nothing to do with how these women actually felt, and almost everything to do with how the men themselves felt—basically, males assumed that any romantic attraction they experienced was mutual, and were blind to the actual level of romantic interest felt by their female friends. Women, too, were blind to the mindset of their opposite-sex friends; because females generally were not attracted to their male friends, they assumed that this lack of attraction was mutual. As a result, men consistently overestimated the level of attraction felt by their female friends and women consistently underestimated the level of attraction felt by their male friends.
But here’s why I think this may be making too much of that unsurprising fact. I’d be willing to bet that if you did the same study with casual acquaintances or even total strangers, you’d get a similar result. I suspect that men are much more likely to think that women find them attractive sexually, and have a wider range of women that they find attractive sexually, than women — even if they don’t know the woman very well, or at all.
Nor do I think that the article is correct when it says that the study “suggests that there may be some truth to this possibility—that we may think we’re capable of being “just friends” with members of the opposite sex, but the opportunity (or perceived opportunity) for “romance” is often lurking just around the corner, waiting to pounce at the most inopportune moment.” Or rather, I don’t agree that this fact means that men and women can’t really be friends. I don’t think the existence of some sexual tension, on the part of one or both of them, dooms a friendship between a man and a woman.
I think that such sexual tension can be a real problem for such a friendship, but it doesn’t have to be. The situation may well depend on circumstances (whether one or both are in a relationship with someone else), on the particular personalities involved, on their sense of ethics, and many more things. Almost any outcome is possible, depending on all these variables.
As someone who has mostly female friends and has always gotten along better with women than with men, I’ve been on almost every conceivable side of these situations at one point or another. I’ve been in situations where I was really attracted to my friend but either they weren’t attracted to me, or they were in a relationship, or there was some other emotional difficulty. I’ve been in situations where my female friend was attracted to me but I wasn’t to them, or where I was in a relationship. I’ve also had one very unfortunate situation where one night of sex ruined a friendship.
All of these are possible, as well as many other outcomes. And yes, they often do result in unfortunate drama and even the destruction of a relationship. But those results aren’t inevitable. They don’t have to prevent a really deep, profound friendship from developing. Two of my three closest, most important friendships — relationships that will undoubtedly last until the day one of us dies — are with women. I love them dearly and can’t really imagine my life without them.