How do sexuality and gender affect friendships?

8 Jul

More than 25,000 people “from all walks of life” were surveyed for what researchers from Chapman University in Orange, CA, claim is the most inclusive study of friendship ever. The results of the study are published in the journal PLOS ONE.

gay male couple
Gay and bisexual men did not report having more male friends than female friends.

Author David Frederick, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Chapman University, says that the role of friendship for gay men, lesbians and bisexual men and women (collectively known as GLB) has previously been understudied.

“To our knowledge, this is the first national study to provide comprehensive comparisons of the same-gender and cross-gender friendship networks of GLB men and women,” Frederick says.

“What we learned is the similarities in friendship patterns observed by gender and sexual orientation may reflect growing gender egalitarianism and increased social acceptance of GLB individuals throughout the US.”

Frederick and colleagues were particularly interested in finding out what difference sexual orientation might make to friendship variables, such as number of friends, or how friendship contributes to the well-being of GLB groups.

Another area of interest for the study was “gender homophily,” which is described as the idea that people naturally gravitate towards people who are similar to themselves, such as being the same gender.

Gender homophily is believed to be so prevalent in heterosexual friendships as it removes the prospect of possible romantic or sexual tension as well as preventing potential jealousy from significant others.

The survey was completed by 25,185 participants with an average age of 42, who consisted of:

  • 11,924 heterosexual men
  • 387 bisexual men
  • 343 gay men
  • 220 lesbian women
  • 511 bisexual women
  • 11,800 heterosexual women.

Gay men more likely to have female friends than heterosexual men

The study reports that GLB men and woman and heterosexual men and women have comparable numbers of friends. Gender homophily was also found to be common in most groups. However, gay men and bisexual men did not report having more male friends than female friends.

The researchers also asked the respondents about friends they felt they could discuss their sex lives with and friends who they can rely on to celebrate their birthday with.

They found that young gay men had more female friends they could discuss their sex lives with than young heterosexual men. The researchers think this finding may be because women are less likely to be prejudiced towards gay men.

Another interesting finding was that the quality and/or quantity of close friendships had a much stronger association with overall life satisfaction among GLB respondents than for heterosexual participants.

However, across all groups, friendship satisfaction and job satisfaction – rather than number of friends – were the strongest predictors of life satisfaction. Lesbian and bisexual women and bisexual men were the groups that demonstrated the strongest associations between friendship satisfaction and life satisfaction.

Frederick says their findings support the idea that friendships satisfy important needs:

“The need to bond with someone like us in some ways and unlike us in others, having someone to call on for comfort in times of turmoil, and someone with whom we can share memorable experiences. The study found, however, that older people tend to have fewer friends as they get older, suggesting the importance of encouraging ways for older men and women to make friends.”

A recent friendship study published in the British Journal of Psychology found that close friendships helped both boys and girls cope with adversity. However, in that study, girls were found to be more likely to advise their friends to engage in risky and ineffective ways of coping than boys were.

Written by David McNamee