Forget all of that When Harry Met Sally you-can’t-be-friends-with-people-of-the-same-gender-you-happen-to-fancy nonsense. I’m straight and my male friends are brilliant, and I couldn’t do without them. I’ve never had brothers but I imagine it’s a similar sort of feeling – mine stick up for me, make fun of me and challenge me to think differently about the universe, in roughly equal proportions.
And so in a world which sometimes still eyes heterosexual girl/boy friendships with a cynical leer, here’s my ode to my friends who happen to be boys.
First things first, then – diversity is an excellent thing and male friends absolutely offer different perspectives on everything from dating to mental health. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that the presence of excess testosterone and external genitalia somehow grant men a magical friendship advantage or that men have certain immutable qualities that you can’t also find in women.
But the world still treats men and women differently, and it’s a good thing to have friends with experiences across this spectrum.
So yes, I love my male friends for sometimes being clichéd boys – for coming to my rescue when I forget to put fuel in the car or for changing the lightbulb in the bathroom when I just can’t reach it. But, actually, these generic ‘man’ skills are far less important than the quirky, complex, vulnerable individuals underneath them – and I’m so glad that because of this I’ve never viewed men through some Mars/Venus lens. Ultimately, they are just people – not mythical beasts with penises rather than horns.
Speaking of which, as Salt-N-Pepa would say, let’s talk about sex baby. Having conducted a completely unscientific straw poll of my Facebook friends list, it would appear that sex is the number one reason why people imagine that sometimes men and women can’t be friends – that all of our interlocking parts somehow get in the way of grabbing a coffee and talking about that embarrassing thing that happened at work the other day.
But really this is a bit weird, because I definitely don’t fancy every man I like enough to be friends with and I’m pretty sure that they don’t all fancy me. Otherwise surely we’d all be caught up in a Game of Thrones-style perpetual orgy and there would barely be time to take the bins out, let alone engage in other forms of meaningful social interaction?
More than this, even when there is a spark of attraction in a friendship, this doesn’t somehow invalidate it. Yes, relationships sometimes start with friendships but this progression isn’t inevitable. It’s more like a roller derby than a set of train tracks – you can choose your direction of travel but if you don’t think about it carefully then you might well get smacked in the head. And a smiley, sparky moment with a friend can actually be a great life-enhancer without ever needing to ‘lead’ anywhere. Attraction doesn’t have to preclude friendship, and it definitely doesn’t have to change it either.
And thank goodness, because the other thing about allowing friendships with men into your life is that it pretty much doubles your potential friendship pool. Frankly, it’s hard enough to find people who like impromptu games of hide and seek, any TV show Joss Whedon has ever been near, and experimental cooking involving dippy eggs. Apply some arbitrary gender-selection test to the whole process and you’re becoming the friendship equivalent of those people who list dietary requirements and minimum salaries on their dating profiles. There is literally one person in the world I’ve found who has the same taste in films as me – and I was never going to let his beard get in the way of us bonding over it.
I also think that if you’re interested in finding a life partner at some point, then friends of the opposite sex are effective PR. If I’d created some kind of slightly creepy "Hey, go out with me!" poster back in my single days, I’d almost certainly have asked my male friends to feature in the background, entourage-style – as proof of my general well-adjustedness.
These days, I’m married and most of my closest male friends are in long-term relationships too. But when I first met my husband, their opinion mattered hugely. And this ‘love me, love my friends’ attitude means that our social group now is big and messy and actually pretty successful.
Because male friends, just as much as female ones, genuinely can become part of your community. They can be the thing that holds you up when your world is falling down. They can even leap into the Father of the Bride breach left when your dad dies before your wedding.
And men can do emotional support just as well as women; there's the friend who once came and sat with me for hours while I was out of my mind with anxiety. Or the one who never says "I told you so", even when I ignore his statistically sound advice. Or another who approaches problems with a gentle empathy that would put Oprah to shame.
In the name of research, I asked some of my male friends for their perspective on this whole issue and I got a range of answers as eclectic as they are. “The main benefit of a female friend,” one declared, “is that, in the event of a zombie apocalypse, some zombies will probably prefer female brains and that’s like 50% fewer zombies chasing me.”
But while this one made me giggle, other answers genuinely made me have a little cry instead and I’m keeping those ones to myself. Because your very best friends act as a mirror that reflects your best self back at you, even when you know they’ve seen you at your worst, too.
Sometimes, they think more of me than I do of myself. And yeah, I love them for it, despite their XY chromosomes…