Do Cross-Gender Friendships Always Have a Sexual Element?

Breaking the stereotype of men's and women's friendships

Posted Nov 18, 2008

Female friendships are well-known for their passionate nature. A female friend is a "soulmate," or, if the relationship turns sour, she is a "betrayer" who dashes one's faith in all friendships. But for some reason, there is a general cynicism about passionate closeness between a male and female friend. The question is not whether men can be friends with women, but whether men and women who are very close friends can be just good friends. In other words, does sex inevitably come into friendship between a hetersexual man and a heterosexual woman?

Some years ago, I was asked by the Guardian newspaper (UK) to comment on the revelation that the novelist Hammond Innes had bequeathed his valuable Kensington house to the actor Celie Imrie. Although this bequest amounted to only 10% of Innes's estimated fortune, it was, by any measure, a generous one. According to Imrie, the generosity stemmed from "just" friendship - that is, not one that included sex.

"Yeah, right," was the common response. We live in a cynical world: there's no such thing as a free lunch, no one gives something for nothing and wealth is never exchanged outside the bonds of blood or sex. Cynicism makes us feel wise, but in fact it often makes us stupid. Friendships between women and men are often passionate, and they are rarely simple. Like all human attachments, they involve a range of emotions. It is the quick shifts of feeling that make them so interesting - and a wonderful subject for romantic comedy. And that question, "Can a woman and man be close friends without sex coming into it?" remains unanswered.

It's difficult to approach this question today without referring to that astoundingly clever 1989 film When Harry Met Sally, which has a few scenes and themes that cling tenaciously to our culture. But a vivid story is very different from an illuminating one. Harry and Sally are great friends. They can talk about just anything, and see the world anew as they speak. They are one another's "date" when they have no real date. And although they are just substituting - at weddings and New Year's - for "the real thing," they have as much fun as they would with a romantic partner. Then sex (inevitably?) enters the friendship and there are two possible resolutions: separation or marriage.

It's a pity, really, because life offers so many more possibilities. There is a distinctive flavour to male and female friendships. Women enthuse about their supportive and irreverent conversations with other women, but they positively glow when they speak about friendships with men. Men are known to have strong friendships with other men, but these rarely involve the play of conversation that their friendships with women do. Instead,  they play competitive games and "discuss issues" with their male friends. Friendship with a woman can offer a great release. With women, they can reveal their vulnerabilities and explore their own and others' inner lives. Man/woman friendship can be so intimate that some men say that when they learn their partner has had an affair, they are far more jealous of the talking that has gone on than of the sex.

In the close encounters between friends, there are often flare-ups of sexual interest and sexual appreciation. But this is very different from having sex. It may be a revelation of possibility - of what might have happened under different circumstances. It may offer reassurance that we can still be attractive or "sexy." With a friend, we can signal our need for such reassurance without burdening anyone with the extreme complications of an affair.

Friends meet the deep need for support systems beyond those of our family. In certain circumstances, these attachments can be equal to any bond. Celia Imrie describes Hammond Innes as her mentor, one who encouraged her to develop her thoughts and skills. After all, this friendship developed when Innes was in his 70s and 80s, when the urge to participate in rising generations is strong, and its satisfaction overwhelming. But, like all good friendships, this one was reciprocal. When Innes's wife died, Imrie provided what comfort she could - in the form of company and conversation.

Friendship, especially between a woman and a man, is one of those relationships that has no well-defined script: each friendship has to define its own rituals and routines, its own cache of meanings, and its own symbols of exchange. As a result, people outside the friendship read their own meanings into it. But while friends themselves tend to be subtle and creative in building the relationship, outsiders' guesswork tends to be pretty crude. That's another reason why qualitative research is so important to psychology. The stories of real people challenge the emptiness of general questions about men and women.