Sex matters between friends. No, not in the way you might think -- or the kind of sex that you might think. Sex matters in terms of gender: Male friendship and female friendship really is different from each other. Of course, there are always exceptions to statements as broad as this, and other traits of any individual dyad matters a great deal. Race matters as well as gender, and age, and physical disability, and personality.
But aside from all of these factors there are substantial differences between the ways in which men and women (and before them, boys and girls) conceptualize and practice the art of friendship. These differing definitions of friendship reflect larger social and cultural ideas about gender, a point that will be taken up below in this paper that examines how sex -- that is, gender -- affects friendships.
The basis for this paper is a miniature qualitative study that included semi-structured interviews with two individuals, a man and a woman. Of course, this is a very small sample indeed and if one were conducting quantitative research it would have no validity, both because of its size and because the subjects were not selected randomly.
However, for the purposes of this paper (and setting their answers within the framework provided by previous research on this topic), the answers that they give can be considered to be valid and as a possible stepping-off point for a larger study should that be desired.
While there is a high level of agreement among scholars from different disciplines that male friendship is very different from female friendship in key ways, there is not a lot of agreement about why this should be. The variety of explanations arises in part precisely because the answers are being offered by scholars with different backgrounds. An evolutionary biologist, for example, will no doubt offer a different explanation of why men and women bond differently than will a social psychologist.
To some extent, the different explanations for different types of friendship can be divided into the nature v. nurture divide. Researchers who study non-human primates have tended to focus on how purely biological concerns affect friendships, with cross-sex friendships being common in primate groups in which there is a relatively high potential for violence, especially infanticide. In non-human primate groups where there is a low potential for violence, friendships tend to be single-sex dyads or groups.
In other words, female primates choose male primates for friends when they need to be protected from other males. Absent such threats of physical violence, primates tend to choose friends among their own sex. Rather, female primates tend to choose female friends, leaving males no course but to associate with other males (Moscovice et al., 2010).
But what does this have to do with human friendships, one might ask? Baboons or chimps or marmosets, after all, are not people. True, but researchers agree essentially without exception that the behavior of non-human primates parallels and helps to explain the behavior of humans as well, given that other primates are evolutionarily close to us. And when one watches other primates, it is indeed difficult not to feel a close connection to their behavior, as males and females gather with their same-sex friends to groom each other, share food, wrestle, and inspect potential mates (Hamilton & Busse, 1982).
Other researchers take a middle-ground approach, arguing that the sex-segregation that is common to humans is partly biological, partly cultural and social. For example, Mehta & Strough (2009) argue that sex-segregation in friendship begins in childhood and continues through old age based on a combination of the following factors as each of them intersect with the biological factors of human development:
Individuals' socio-cultural contexts in childhood, adolescence, and early and later adulthood
Third-party resistance to other-sex relationships
Institutional barriers to other-sex relationships
Still other researchers focus entirely on cultural aspects of friendship and how friendships come to be focused on same-sex individuals. Benenson & Alavi (2004), for example, examine how from a very early age, girls (and then women) invest more in friendships than do men. Girls are willing to do more for their friends than are boys.
This dynamic leads girls to choose only each other for friends. When girls do try to befriend boys, the researchers found, they do not feel that the boys are giving them enough in return, and so turn to other girls, who will find that these same-sex relationships are much more rewarding because they get as much as they give. Likewise, after boys attempt any friendships with girls, they are likely to retreat to having friends with other boys because they are not therefore required to offer up more of themselves than they would like to.
Data from Interviews
The two interview subjects offered answers on how they conceive of friendship, what they want from friends and what they are willing to offer. One thing that is striking right away is that while both the man and the woman are using the same word, the idea of friendship is in fact very different for the two of them. It is a well established finding of linguistics that there can be a great deal of difference in the ways that two different sociolinguistic groups use the same word. This should provide a warning to us that we should not assume that there is a significant degree of overlap between the way in which males and females use the word "friendship." There may be, but there may not be.
Alexander presents a view of friendship that accords with what other researchers have found, which is that his friendship with another male is a casual one, satisfying in its own way but lacking in a great degree of depth:
Both, well I suppose we just sat about sometimes, we also sort of played footie as you do and uh em & #8230; he em, after our GCSE's, we em, he had a villa in er Minorca em so there was a group of us planning to go out so we basically, we sat in er, during lunchtime planning what we were going to do, and we just sort of went to the pub, I mean my mum kicked me out at the age of sixteen and told me to go to the pub with the lads, and it's like 'Er yeah cheers mum' [laughs]. Er so you know we went to the pub every Friday and yeah just general stuff, you know just hanging around, meet up with some girls and stuff.
It is quite easy to imagine a young woman reading the above description of an important male-male friendship and wondering what the whole point of such a friendship would be, given that it seems to contain so little personal content. This is the same friend that Alexander tells the interviewer that he would want to have as the best man at his wedding. It is hard to think of a woman describing her future maid of honor in such a way.
Alexander also describes one of the dynamics that can limit the depth of male friendship, which is the degree of bullying and even brutality that can occur between boys and young men:
Some were ok [laughs], erm I haven't had an easy life with friends, I've always been sort of erm bullied, I know when you erm, some of my friends you know the hard way, erm so there are a few folks like that but I always got on, tried to get on with everyone, erm I can't dislike, erm I fail to dislike people in a way, there's only took, I got taken advantage of, I'm a nice guy, you know does everything for everyone, doesn't say no, and people took advantage of me so, I sort of learnt very rare people that I dislike and that's a very good reason, only if they upset my family or something and that's it, but otherwise I get on well with people in general.
Despite the fact that Alexander does indeed seem to be a nice guy, as he describes himself, he has been subjected to same-sex relationships that are far from rewarding.
The potential for other males to be brutal would tend to make any friendship that does arise between males is likely to remain guarded. Women do not in general trust men to become good friends; it seems that this may well be true of men as well. There is also the dynamic that boys and men may avoid forming closer friendships with each other because of fears of accusations of homophobia, or fears of actual homosexual desire.
The interview with Deborah also suggests that she fits into well-established patterns of gendered friendship. While Alexander (above) describes a long-term friend in very casual terms, Deborah describes a short-term friend in much more intimate terms: