Friends Without Benefits (FWOB, baby)
This week's AM New York column (on the difficulty of male-female friendships) is admittedly not one of my most original - both in terms of subject matter, and literally, as I quote from an old column of mine. I felt a little guilty for writing about such a hackneyed topic, but it just keeps popping up in my life (and so, I would guess, the lives of others). Why are guy friends so damn hard to find and keep??
Below, my old column on the subject, which, although slightly collegiate, has a more comprehensive take on the subject matter.
The Georgetown Hoya
"Just Friends" Continues Its Timeless Debate
October 25, 2002
Like partisan politics in Washington, mixed gender friendships elicit strong and divergent opinions. Can men and women really be friends? From the casual “Sure, why not?” to the hard-line “HELL no!” and all the hesitant “yes … but” qualifiers in between, one thing is certain – it’s complicated.
While most people do acknowledge the theoretical existence of male-female friendships, almost all agree that in practice such ideal relationships are elusive and difficult to maintain. At best, they are described as precarious balancing acts, requiring constant vigilance to avoid stepping over the line of romantic-no-return. At worst they are said to lead either to stalking or, according to one bitter platonic friend, “destruction of the spirit and ego, followed by slow shredding of the heart.”
Avoidance of such emotional devastation seems to be dependent on both members fitting an extremely limited set of criteria. That is to say, a non-sexual gender-diverse friendship MIGHT ACTUALLY OCCUR if:
A) both parties are unattractive
B) both are unattractED
C) both have a significant other “to keep them satisfied”
D) one or both are gay
E) one or both are eunuchs
And for the incredibly naïve, if:
F) one is dating the other’s best friend*
*(F) remains highly questionable, due to overwhelming anecdotal proof in the magazine Cosmopolitan (“I Slept with My Best Friend’s Boyfriend – 10 Times! But We’re Just Friends”).
A clear theme should be evident by now – the main obstacle to platonic relationships is…yep, sex.
Ah, sex. Is it always about sex? (When is it not about sex??) According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a friend is “a person whom one knows, likes and trusts.” Nowhere in the definition does it say “and with whom one would never have sex.”
And yet, clearly there is a line between the sibling-like love in friendship and the passionate amour of eros. What does separate platonic and romantic relationships?
The 12 year old in the classic About a Boy had a very similar question. “What’s the difference between a girl who’s a friend and a girl-friend?” he asks Hugh Grant, the older (but no wiser) confirmed bachelor. Good question, Hugh thinks to himself. They decide together that it must have something to do with wanting to touch her, to be with her all the time, to tell her things they wouldn’t tell anyone else. And, they conclude, it also involves not wanting her to have another boyfriend.
In other words, it’s about sex – defined broadly, of course. Yes, it’s true that wanting to “tell her things they wouldn’t tell anyone else” may not scream “sex!” to the average reader. Still, I would contend that this desire is a clear prerequisite for the intimacy of pillow talk – an intimacy unrivaled by almost any other type of conversation, save that of people trapped in an elevator or roadtrips with non-relatives. And maybe hostage situations.
Indeed, it is the seemingly innocuous nature of these “borderline” activities that makes platonic relationships so difficult to navigate precisely. Does wanting to hug him constitute more than a platonic interest? Probably not. Wanting to kiss him? Pretty much, yes.
One male friend of mine (see letters B and F, and sometimes I think D, but he would never admit it) seemed confused about how to draw the line. “I don't understand,” he said. “Does ‘friends’ just mean you don't want to sleep with them?”
Well … it helps.
Webster’s defines platonic friendship as “a pure, spiritual affection, subsisting between persons of opposite sex, unmixed with carnal desires, and regarding the mind only and its excellences.” Doesn’t leave a lot of room for unmitigated lust, eh?
Sure, there may be other compelling (non-sexual) reasons women and men are less likely to become friends. “Economic, political, psychological, and other differences between the genders result in the fact that women find it difficult to be friends with men and vice versa,” says Mary Hunt, author of Fierce Tenderness: A Feminist Theology of Friendship (1991).
That having been said, there is no doubt that latent sexual attraction is far and away the greatest impediment to mixed-gender friendships. Even Nietzsche agreed, writing that “Women can enter into a friendship with a man perfectly well; but in order to maintain it the aid of a little physical antipathy is perhaps required.” In other words, you’d better find the other person physically unpleasant, or your friendship is going the way of J. Lo and Ben Affleck. One day, you’re “just friends” with a ridiculously good-looking movie star, the next you’re divorcing your husband (there goes letter C) and making out in a convertible Bentley. It’s a slippery slope.
No question, the level of attraction between two people determines their ability to be friends. But does that mean that good looks and mixed-gender friendship is a zero-sum relationship? If Nietzsche is right, the answer would be yes – the less attractive one is to one’s friends, the easier it is to maintain that friendship in a non-sexual manner. Perhaps the question should be rephrased to: “Can one really be friends with someone you’re sexually attracted to?”
One Hoya Senior laid out his thoughts on the issue quite bluntly, “If she’s too ugly, part of you doesn’t want to be friends with her in the first place. If she’s too hot, you can pretend to be friends but secretly really want to bone like crazy.”
Well, there you have it – friendship and attraction aren’t mutually exclusive after all! It seems that you can be friends with good-looking people, as long as you keep your “desire to bone” on the down-low.
I was surprised at the number of guys who agreed. One fellow seemed fairly blasé when I asked him whether sex-appeal interfered with companionship. “Nah,” he replied. “Any straight guy will entertain thoughts of sleeping with an attractive woman – that doesn't necessarily affect the friendship. You just don’t act on the what-ifs.”
While in the library yesterday, I queried a passing freshman about this methodology, fully expecting him to deny that anyone would advocate such an approach. Instead, his eyes lit up with recognition while he nodded vigorously, “Oh sure, that’s normal. We all do it.”
I’ll never look at my guy friends in the same way …
It’s clear that 1) these young people haven’t read their dictionary lately (carnal desires + platonic friendship = not platonic friendship) and 2) they don’t fully realize how transparent their “secret” desires – boning or otherwise – can be.
Unfortunately, in circumstances involving emotions as strong and unruly as lust, both women and men are frequently less-than-subtle. The power of erotic attraction is difficult to conceal – people simply act differently around those they find attractive. As one senior says, “You think about what you’re saying or doing more than you normally would. You act like an idiot.”
“But,” he adds, shining a ray of hope in the direction of attracted platonic friends everywhere, “if you stay friends, after a while you become comfortable, and it doesn’t matter anymore. You’re so close and know so much about the other that you don’t want anything to ruin that.”
Least of all your secret desire to bone, right?
Perhaps there’s hope for male-female friendships after all.