You think the theme of When Harry Met Sally is outdated, even archaic, in the modern times of 2013? Think again. Recent research from Breske-Rechek and colleagues (2012) suggests that, even when heterosexual men and women try to be ‘just friends,’ there is often an ulterior motive that lurks underneath the platonic surface.
The study included 88 pairs of undergraduate opposite-sex friends, and the overall results show large gender differences in how men and women experience opposite-sex friendships. Men were much more attracted to their female friends than vice versa. (The study’s other findings – for example, that men were also more likely than women to think that their opposite-sex friends were attracted to them, which betrayed the women’s true lack of interest – will not be the focus of this article.) What strikes me about this study is that it seems to regurgitate all those notions of the sex-obsessed male caricature.
I came upon this research when preparing for a seminar, and the findings that men and women have different motivations in friendship surprised me at first. The research brought me back to all the awful gender stereotypes about the differences between men and women, stereotypes I have wanted to believe have fallen by the wayside as society has become more open-minded and progressive. Apparently, I was a fool to believe that men’s and women’s gender roles have become less rigid when it comes to sex. In my clinical work, I focus on the similarities between men and women, rather than dissecting the differences because I believe that men and women are far more similar than dissimilar. What’s more, I believe it makes more sense for men and women to focus on what is shared between men and women because this approach can benefit their relationships. After all, in marriage, a man and a woman's relationship will be most successful if they each see each other as an ally, as opposed to someone another other team - or worse, world (John Gray, anyone?).
Much of the research on sex and gender differences shows a significant difference in the way men and women think about and engage in sexual experiences. For example, research has historically shown that men have a higher sex drive than women (Baumeister, Catanese & Vohs, 2001). Similarly, Fisher (2012) found that men had an average of 19 sexual thoughts per day, while women had only 10 sexual thoughts per day.
As I read through the details of Breske-Rechek’s study on male-female friendships more closely, I learned that the sample of male and female subjects in the study were pulled from a university, which means that these subjects were young (or “emerging,” as the authors label it) adults. Factoring the age into the equation, it really isn’t that surprising that men think about sex with their female friends more because this is the age when men’s behavior is largely driven by hormones and image consciousness. Aside from the obvious hormonal differences that may impact sexual interests during the college years, there are also psychological factors at work: University is a place where a man may feel more pressure by peers to live up to some ideal of the Big Man on Campus who can always 'get the girl.' In college, a young man’s interest in sex with a female friend may not even be so true to his actual feelings, but rather may reflect his engagement in behaviors that serve to boost his social status and his own sense of masculinity.
Though the reasons behind the sex differences in male-female friendships in college are not exactly clear, it is fairly clear that the research bodes poorly for the purity of plain ol' friendships between young men and women. While I don’t see such grand differences in my clinical work with middle age adults and believe that such differences diminish over the life span, I can understand the study’s assertion that gender differences in the college years are alive and well – no matter how hard we try to tell ourselves that sexual stereotypes aren’t valid in reality.
It’s unfortunate that sex plays a recurring role in the backdrop of male-female friendships because men and women could seriously benefit from the ability to forge more pure friendships. Friendship is supposed to be about mutual support and caring, not ulterior motives and sexual preoccupation. Part of what allows us to be so close to a good friend is the fact that we can trust that our friend will never take advantage of us when we’re vulnerable. It's during such vulnerable periods that the lines of friendship can be blurred and two people can find themselves in engaging sexual behaviors out of loneliness or confusion. So much for the safety of friendship, right?
As far as we have come as a society and as much as therapists might like to tell themselves otherwise, sexual differences between men and women continue to exist and play a role in how they interact with each other. Perhaps the more each sex can own and talk about such differences with each other, the less those differences will contaminate their friendships.
Baumeister, Catanese, and Vohs (2001). Personality and Social Psychology Review.Is There a Gender Difference in Strength of Sex Drive? 5 (3) 242-273.
Breske-Rechek et al. (2012). Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Benefit or Burden? Attraction in Cross-Sex Friendship. 29(5) 569–596.
Fisher, T. The Journal of Sex Research, January 2012.