Friendships between heterosexual men and women can be tricky to navigate, especially when it comes to tactile contact. Is that touch on the arm a gesture of platonic care and affection? Or an unwanted signal of sexual interest? A new survey by US researchers shows the situation is complicated by the contrasting attitudes of young men and women towards touch in cross-sex friendships.
Michael Miller and his team quizzed 276 undergrads at an Eastern US University, including 128 women*. The participants were asked to consider a current or recent cross-sex friendship, and then they answered questions about the intimacy of this friendship, and their feelings about physical touch in the relationship. Friendship intimacy was gauged through a number of factors, including trust and spontaneity, uniqueness of the relationship, feeling close, and enjoying activities together.
Overall, men wished for more physical touch in their cross-sex friendships than women, regardless of the friendship’s level of intimacy. Perhaps the most intriguing result was that as friendship intimacy increased, men tended to say that they wished for less physical contact, whereas women showed the opposite pattern – with more friendship intimacy, they desired more physical contact.
Mitchell and his team interpreted these results in line with evolutionary theory and contemporary social pressures. Evolutionary theory states that men are motivated towards having more sexual partners, whereas women are more invested in each of their offspring, and therefore more motivated towards finding a reliable partner with the resources to support the family. In this context, the researchers said, men are more averse to physical contact as friendship intimacy increases, for fear (either consciously or unconsciously) that “such behaviour may lead to a monogamous relationship and/or limit their ability to mate with other partners.” For women, by contrast, greater friendship intimacy may provide them with the “comfort and security” they desire for touch to take place.
This interpretation was supported by the participants’ answers about their sexual arousal in response to touch in their friendship. Overall, men reported more sexual arousal than women, and their amount of arousal didn’t vary according to the intimacy level of their friendship. By contrast, women reported more sexual arousal in response to touch in more intimate friendships.
Taken together, the researchers said this suggests that men are more interested in the sexual possibilities of the friendship (regardless of the closeness of that friendship), whereas women interpret friendship intimacy as a sign of commitment, making more appealing to them the possibility of the relationship becoming sexual. Also, in terms of cultural pressures, the researchers said that women may have less fear of being labelled a “slut” if touch occurs in a more intimate friendship (this is in the context of research showing a double-standard, whereby women are judged more harshly than men for partaking in casual sex).
Two more findings worth noting – women with a romantic partner were more desiring of “safe haven touch” from their male friend (e.g. receiving comforting touch when distressed), as compared with single women. Men’s attitudes towards safe haven touch in the friendship didn’t vary according to whether they had a romantic partner. And finally, women were more uncomfortable than men about touching their male friend in public – again, perhaps because of the social stigma of female promiscuity.
The study has its limitations: the dependence yet again on a Western student sample; the self-report methodology (how honest were the answers?); the lack of information on the cross-sex friendships; and the cross-sectional design, which means we can’t know which factors are causal. For example, is it greater friendship intimacy that leads women to find friendship touch more arousing, or does the arousal influence the friendship intimacy? Nonetheless, the researchers said their findings suggest men and women have divergent attitudes towards touch in cross-sex friendships “due to the driving forces that stem from evolved differences related to parental investment and the different manner in which they are socialised to perceive their roles in cross-sex friendships.”
MILLER, M., DENES, A., DIAZ, B., & RANJIT, Y. (2014). Touch attitudes in cross-sex friendships: We’re just friends Personal Relationships, 21 (2), 309-323 DOI: 10.1111/pere.12033
*The sexual orientation of the participants is not stated, although the authors refer to “heterosexual cross-sex friendships” throughout the paper.