Why Men and Women Are Always 'Friends with Benefits'

Cristen Conger

Last week on Stuff Mom Never Told You, Molly and I discussed the plot-driving question of When Harry Met Sally: can men and women really be friends? Of course, we'd all like to think that the answer is clearly yes, but when we started researching the topic, anecdotal and empirical evidence always circled back around to sex (this also assuming a friendship between heterosexual men and women). While opposite sex friendships (OSFs) are common and possible, sexual attraction tends to muddy the waters at some point.

After hearing the podcast, listener Diane sent us a study from 2001 further confirming that sexual attraction is a major determining factor for why men initiate and end platonic friendships with women. Evolutionarily, men have always benefited equally from both long-term and short-term sexual opportunities, in contrast to women who might end up pregnant. For that reason, it isn't surprising that men seem to view OSFs as perpetual "friends with benefits" opportunities.

It's also worth noting that the two-part study involved both undergraduate college students and adults in the surrounding community to capture a broad age range. And considering how much Carrie Bradshaw & Co. shaped my perception of the male sex when I was an 18-year-old freshman, that's a good thing.

The male participants differed significantly from the females in the following three areas:

• Men judged women's sexual attractiveness as a greater motivator for initiating OSFs.

• Men reported a greater desire to have sex with female friends.

• Men were more likely to cite a lack of sex - but not sexual attraction - as a reason to end an OSF. Interestingly, women are just the opposite; sex with male friends was an OSF deal breaker.

• Men tended to use OSFs as a "mate acquisition strategy," viewing female friends as potential long-term partners.

While sex wasn't one of the top reasons men started and ended OSFs, it was clearly on their minds more. Nevertheless, men and women shared similar altruistic reasons for forming OSFs, including kindness, good conversation and companionship. Feelings of distrust and betrayal also were the two major reasons for breaking up with an OSF. And speaking of breaking up, when you look at these motivating factors, platonic OSFs look an awful lot like dating. Really, sex is only missing ingredient, which is why the hackneyed When Harry Met Sally question isn't so easy to answer.

Women don't get off the hook in terms of wanting opposite sex friends with benefits, however. In my next post, I'll discuss the gender-specific asset women look for in their guy friends. And, no, it's probably not what you're thinking.

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