Shockingly, there might be a scientific explanation for bro codes.
The “Can women and men really be friends?” debate is a dizzying merry-go-round without any real answer. Amongst the contention is a set of social laws that ensures these precarious cross-sex relations don’t disrupt inter-male bonding. I can try to suit it up, but what I'm talking about is the Bro Code. According to the trusty Urban Dictionary, one contributor defines the bro code as, "A series of rules defining how a set of Bros should act. Such as, 1.Thou shalt not sleep with your Bro’s ex-girlfriend. 2. Bros before hoes. and 3. Never drink the last beer, unless you have been granted specific permission that it is OK."
And, of course, one of the mainstays of the bro code is not sleeping with your buddy’s current girlfriend or wife. Still, adultery is pretty damn pervasive. More than half of people own up to cheating (and I would venture to guess that people are severely underreporting). Today I saw the headline, “Men May Have Natural Aversion to Adultery With Friends' Wives,” and began to wonder why it’s okay to sleep with a stranger’s spouse but not your friends’.
It might all come down to biological social conditioning. The study by the University of Missouri reports that men may actually be less attracted to their friend's wives than other attractive but taken women who are dating strangers. "Although men have many chances to pursue a friend's mate, propositions for adultery are relatively rare on a per opportunity basis," claims Mark Flinn, professor of anthropology in the College of Arts and Science. "Men's testosterone levels generally increase when they are interacting with a potential sexual partner or an enemy's mate.” But when men were interacting with the spouse of a friend, their testosterone levels dropped. If men’s body's have cock-blocks programmed into their systems, then maybe Bro Codes aren't just laughable Urban Dictionary fodder.
The study only focused on a limited number of men, and didn’t take into account the friend’s spouse’s reaction or their previous interactions together. So, I asked a few guys around me how they felt about the bro code. Do they feel instinctually less attracted to their friends’ girlfriends and wives (regardless of how physically attractive their partner is)? 8 out of 10 men said yes, they were less interested in their friend’s girlfriends and wives than other women, even if they were taken. "I definitely turn it off," says one married man. While another single man in his twenties claimed to be, "virtually unattracted" to his friend’s lovers. One 24-year-old mentally demarcated his friend’s lovers. “I actively attempt to try to consider them as a sister,” he explained.
Sister? This siblingization of friends’ girlfriends seemed like a built-in self-distancing method for men. We immediately sort people into categories of “brothers” and “sisters” when we want to explain our intimacy with them, but also reassure that it is not of a sexual nature. Perhaps men must translate women who their friends are sleeping with as “sisters” in order to combat the biological and social tension they feel—the pull between male camaraderie and sexual attraction.
The bro code is especially interesting in light of studies that claim that men are more likely to be attracted to their taken female friends than their single girlfriends, whereas women were less likely to be sexually attracted to their taken guy friends. If there is clearly a natural drive towards the forbidden in men, and there are books like Sex at Dawn telling us that a human propensity towards monogamy is a fiction, something else is at work with the bro code.
Our decision to respect one another's relationships is a cultural agreement. The evolutionary kickback for not stealing your friend's girlfriend or wife has to be the preservation of our communities. Male bonding and female bonding alike builds neighborhoods, cities, and makes life a hell of a lot more pleasant and smooth. And while we’re still apparently not sure whether men and women can enjoy real friendships (ugh), at least we have implemented a structure to navigate the murky waters of friendships with our friends’ lovers, whether that structure is social conditioning, hormones, or just the bro code itself.