Study: Why Straight Women Are Often Close With Gay Men

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A zeitgeisty psychological experiment combines straight/gay friendships, the "mating game," and fake Facebook profiles.

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The gay best friend, or GBF, may be a cliché, but it's a powerful one. Powerful enough -- at least in the minds of straight girls -- that a helpful article from Wikihow feels obligated to warn GBF seekers that, "Even if you believe you must have that flamboyant gay man to be your BFF, consider first the person inside -- what you are looking for is a soul mate friend, not a decorative accessory."

But when it avoids teetering into decorative accessory territory, the "unique and important bond shared between straight women and gay men" is both observable and understudied. So researchers at the University of Texas at Austin designed an experiment aimed at empirically evaluating how, exactly, both parties benefit from being soul mate friends.

To do so the researchers designed a fake internet persona -- "Jordan" -- and evaluated participants' ability to form a relationship with him based solely on his Facebook profile.

Not that Jordan was always a "he": The 88 heterosexual women who signed up for the study experienced Jordan as either a straight woman, a straight man, or a gay man. For the 58 homosexual men who participated in a similar experiment, Jordan was either a straight woman, a gay man, or, in a "novel 'lesbian female' target condition," a gay woman. All other factors of Jordan's personality, aside from gender and sexuality, remained constant, and both the male and female profile pictures were consistently rated as "average" in terms of attractiveness.

After getting to know Jordan by reading his (or her) profile, the subjects were asked to imagine themselves in a number of hypothetical scenarios with their new, hypothetical friend. The situations took place at a party, in which Jordan would offer them "mating-relevant advice," such as commenting on their interaction with a potential romantic interest. How trustworthy did they theoretically find their fake friend's advice to be? And how likely did they think Jordan was to help them in nailing down "a fling," "a date," or even "a potential relationship"?

The results, published in Evolutionary Psychology, showed that straight women are more trusting of mating advice (the authors' preferred term) when it comes from a gay man, although they don't put any more faith in gay men's ability to help them find a mate than they do in straight men or women.

Gay men, too, were more likely to trust advice from straight women than from straight men or lesbians. They thought that straight women were more likely than gay men, but not significantly more likely than lesbians, to help them find a mate.

In all this, the researchers see support for their hypothesis that "close friendships between straight women and gay men may be characterized by a unique exchange of unbiased mating-relevant information that may not be available in their other relationships." This works, they propose, on two levels: first, the two aren't competing for mates; and second, they otherwise have a lot in common -- namely, being attracted to men. As the study's title puts it, they're "Friends with benefits, but without the sex."

"One-sided sexual attraction on the part of lesbian women may further complicate [relationships between straight and lesbian women] and decrease the perceived trustworthiness of advice [lesbians] provide to straight women," the authors write, and same goes for gay and straight men. For gay men, facing shared social challenges, as they do with lesbians, appears to matter much less in the formation of deep emotional bonds than the ability to mutually assist one another in the dating world. 

When they attempt to explain why straight women, although trusting of gay men, find them more or less useless in helping them find a mate, the researchers' theories become more theoretical. Maybe, they posit, the women understand that gay men don't tend to have many close, straight, male friends. Or maybe the dating pool is large enough for straight women than they don't need help identifying potential partners, while gay men are more likely to benefit from a straight female friend's help in tracking down other gay men. And, bringing it all home, they remind us that straight women tend to be good friends with gay men: "Therefore, it is likely that gay men perceive women to have close connections with other gay men who could become romantic partners."

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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