Can men and women ever be "just friends"? The correct answer is: "Yes, obviously, so why in God's name do magazine editors, authors of dating books and headline-seeking psychologists keep asking?" My evidence is as follows: one, I'm male (and heterosexual, as the question implies); two, a majority of my oldest and closest friends are female; three, the prospect of romantic involvement with them strikes me, in most cases, as absurd. Yet the "debate" rages on. The latest round came a few weeks back, following a study from the University of Wisconsin that showed, even Scientific American claimed, that men and women "can't be 'just friends'". What it really showed was that men – specifically undergrads, which seems relevant – were likelier than women to feel attracted to opposite-sex friends, and that this might have "potential negative consequence[s]". The death knell for platonic cross-sex friendships? Not even close.
What's striking about the "just friends" debate is how useless it is. If you believe such friendships are common, it's meaningless to be told you're deluded. (Maybe I am – but if so, it's a delusion that contributes to my quality of life.) Conversely, if you are a man tortured by unrequited love for a female friend, it's little use to learn that some other men and women don't feel that way: you still have an issue that needs addressing. The real reason some people continue to deny the possibility of such friendships, I believe, is that they subscribe to what you might call the Harsh Realities school of relationships. Not, let's be clear, because they're more in touch with reality, but because they derive such enormous satisfaction from believing they are.
Just as the Harsh Realities position on male-female friendships is that sex always gets in the way, the Harsh Realities take on dating is that it's a battlefield, where playing mind-games is essential; relationships, meanwhile, are mutually manipulative power struggles. The US megaseller Act Like A Lady, Think Like A Man, which urges women to impose a 90-day no-sex vetting period on prospective boyfriends, is the Harsh Realities dating book of the moment, though its forerunner, The Rules, is the canonical text. The worst proponents come armed with a half-grasp of evolutionary psychology which, they seem to imagine, proves that everyone's motivated, all the time, by sex. Their arguments follow a standard structure: Do you really believe human relations are about X? Get real! Deep down, they're all about Y.
The problem isn't that this is always wrong – it isn't – but that its claim to insight is unearned: if you always pick the most cynical explanation, you'll sound "brutally honest" every time. The tips in The Rules (don't call men, let them call you) or its male equivalent, The Game (subtly insult women, so they will try to prove themselves), might "work", in a narrow sense. But so might approaching strangers and asking them to sleep with you, as per the old Russian joke. ("But you'll get slapped if you do that!" "Yes, most of them slap me, but some of them…") Just because a strategy works as a numbers game doesn't mean it gets at anything true about human nature. The Wisconsin study and others suggest that some cross-sex friendships are more platonic, others less so. Some people are more manipulative, others less so. And so, boringly, on. The real harsh reality is that reality isn't always harsh.