just friends

Harry Had It Wrong: Men, Women, and Friendship

Photo: Twentieth Century Fox

If you’re a single woman with male friends, you’ve heard it a million times: “So, are you guys dating or what … ?” I’ve gotten this question about Josh, my childhood bestie who’s basically my brother. About George, the friend who dated so many of my friends that he and I were just never gonna go there. About Tim, my former co-worker with whom things were always simple and delightfully platonic. Then there are a handful of male friends with whom it hasn’t always been so clear-cut, but we’ve settled comfortably into friendship without benefits anyway. It’s rom-com gospel that “men and women cannot be friends because the sex part always get in the way.” But in my own life, the purported wisdom of When Harry Met Sally has never really held true. Sexual tension has never been the chief barrier to befriending straight men.

And it’s not just me. Harry’s assertion that all men secretly want to bone their female friends doesn’t hold up to scientific scrutiny. In 2012, researchers interviewed both the male and female friends in a pair, and found that men were only slightly more likely than women to report they were sexually attracted to their friend. Indeed, when I sit next to one of my straight male friends at the bar or accompany him to a barbecue, I am not worried that he is secretly harboring a desire to bed me. But to be totally honest, I do sometimes worry about their behavior when my back is turned — particularly when it comes to other women, not me. Finding out that someone I once considered a friend was making vulgar comments about women’s bodies or spreading sexual rumors about another woman, or, god forbid, being abusive to a woman he was dating? That would destroy me. Friendship is an endorsement, after all, and I don’t want to endorse any man who does the sorts of things I know my female or gay male friends would not.

This might sound mean, like I don’t believe women are capable of bad behavior or like I don’t trust my straight male friends. I do trust them. But if I’m honest, that trust is shakier than the one I feel in my female friends. I know the way privilege works: It means my straight male friends aren’t constantly aware of the social capital awarded by their gender and sexuality. So even though I would vouch for all of them, a little part of me is always hoping they’re not acting like a feminist over drinks but being a jerk to women when my back is turned. This, I think, is the nugget of truth in that idiotic, decades-old Billy Crystal line. Something does get in the way of hetero friendship — but it’s not really the sex; it’s the trust factor.

I was thinking about all of this as I watched Hugo Schwyzer, sometime Jezebel columnist and token guy of the lady blogosphere,” have a very public meltdown over the many not-so-nice things he’s done privately while publicly declaring himself a feminist. He slept with his students, he sent Weineresque texts, he supported the abusive ex-boyfriend of a woman he was pursuing. Of course, he didn’t mention any of this in his extensive writing about how to be a true friend to women. After he came clean, the publishers and readers who had trusted him to speak for “good” men were devastated. Jezebel editor Jessica Coen compared her coping process to the stages of grief. This is the media-world equivalent of any straight woman’s worst nightmare about her straight male friends: that really, underneath it all, Harry was right.

We all know the stereotype of that sleazy guy in the women’s studies class who’s there because he’s pretty sure he’ll get laid someday for dropping a little bit of knowledge about bell hooks. He’s probably right, and he wrecks it for men who are genuine. There’s a professional equivalent: In the realms of activism, politics, and media, we expect men who share our basic values and political views not to horrify us by tweeting a dick pic or sexist slur. A few weeks ago, Grist reporter and liberal blogger David Roberts called a Weiner campaign staffer a “social-climbing mercenary hobag” on Twitter. His female followers and colleagues were aghast — and later, Roberts published a thoughtful apology, examining the ways his tweet had disappointed women who’d previously considered him an ally and a friend.

Of course, female friends betray each other all the time, too. Somehow, though, those betrayals feel situation-specific, not like proof of deep-seated fears about an entire gender. Because we have to reach outside ourselves a little bit more to form platonic bonds with men, the stakes are higher, and the trust is harder won. It’s probably one reason I have fewer male friends, but the closest ones are core friends for life. Our friendship is ultimately stronger for having confronted and acknowledged the problems of privilege. It’s not an exact parallel, but I try to sympathize with my male friends’ occasional ignorance by thinking of all the deep breaths and slow explanations I’ve received over the years from my friends who aren’t white, and thinking about the amount of trust they’ve placed in me.

The worst thing about that When Harry Met Sally quote isn’t that it stereotypes all men as horny teenagers or that it reduces the myriad issues of cross-gender friendship to sexual urges. It’s that it encourages us all to give up before we even begin to get to know each other — when ultimately, leaning into this discomfort is one of the best things we can do for ourselves. And for gender relations more broadly. Not every male-female relationship features awkward sexual tension and culminates in a dramatic New Year’s Eve confession of love. Some of us are content to settle for a lifetime of fulfilling friendship.

Harry Had It Wrong: Men, Women, and Friendship