The When Harry Met Sally Question

Can men and women be just friends?

Posted Nov 11, 2008

Can Men and Women Be Platonic Friends?

Can men have friendships with women that are nonsexual in nature—the When Harry Met Sally question? Opposite-sex friendships are relatively recent. Before the 20th century, platonic friendships between men and women were rare given the rigidity of gender roles, segregation of the sexes, and religious customs that forbade certain kinds of cross-gender contact. Even today, these friendships can have ambiguous sexual boundaries. Common sense says that platonic friendships are possible. Men often feel more comfortable disclosing intimacies to women than to men because many were raised, particularly at an early age, primarily by mothers and women teachers and because of the way men are socialized to compete with other men. For a man, talking openly with another man about what is bothering him could be seen as giving the other man a competitive edge, if the speaker feels made vulnerable by what he is discussing.

Three-quarters of the men in this study said that they have platonic friendships with women, and one-quarter said they do not. Take, for example, Barry, a 44-year-old white married electrician, who seeks out women to avoid the world of male competition, "I am more comfortable with women. I don't have to prove anything to them, especially if I am not in a dating situation with them. They give better advice than guys. They are easier to talk to. Guys are always trying to figure out who's the big dog. Whatever it is, the guys are always competing. They compete about how much money you make, what college you went to, what your skills are. They try and ‘one up' each other. Women don't do that."

This second quote, from Leland, a 40-year-old married, African-American bank manager, focuses more on the positives of a female friendship, rather than on what he is avoiding in male friendships, "I have a lot of female friends that are nonsexual in nature. To maintain those, I'm open and honest with them. When they want to talk about their relationships, I can tell them from the male perspective about how a man is thinking or how they should be treated, and I'm proud of that because a lot of men don't have platonic relationships."

Casey's observations of his sister have clearly affected his understanding of the possibilities of platonic friendships between women and, ultimately, between women and men. He has a platonic relationship with a female. "I think females are cool. My very best friendship now is with Diane. I go to her house and sometimes I see her boyfriend there. The first time he was mad at me. I said, ‘Listen, I've known her for many years. It never crossed my mind to ask her to go to bed with me.' Even my wife thought I was dating her. It's normal for people to think that about a close relationship. I can go to her house, and she is wearing whatever she wants. I don't see her as a woman, but as a friend. She sent me a birthday card that said, ‘I never had a friend like you: A man who will hug me as a friend without wanting something.' We laugh, drink. I can stay at her house late. I sleep on her bed. We have no sex. She talks to me about her boyfriend, and I talk about my girlfriend."

David spoke of not being able to be friends with a female when he was younger but that now he has developed the capacity for such a relationship. "By drawing the boundary-and I couldn't until a few years ago-I was never able to have a close friendship with women because I didn't equate them as people, which was horrible. In my early years, it was more like a trophy, more physical of ‘I want the hot chick.' They were not really human but actually now I draw healthy boundaries for myself because I want to be able to respect a woman as a person. If you don't make them a friend then, by having sex, you could lose a beautiful relationship. I can do this now because I did all my partying when I was young."

Greg has a nonsexual friendship with a woman but acknowledges the inherent difficulties. "I don't get to see her that often but when we do, we pick it up again. I knew her in high school. We flirted briefly with going out in college but never did. The sexual tension passed years ago. If you act that out, then what happens to the friendship? Does it make it too complicated, so the friendship can't survive?"

Hal also remarks about how friendships with women can have a sexual tension but how they also change with age. The second part of his response shows that he has not adjusted to the new culture of a touch-free workplace. His wife had to clue him in, although he was not happy that she did so. "I used to have a lot of friends with women-there was a sexual component to it when I was younger. I still have women friends, but there is no sexual component to it now. I tend to be touchy-feely and, when my wife came to a party here in the department, she chided me for touching people on the arm or on the shoulder. She said that level of touching in the workplace was inappropriate."

As a gay man, the question about close nonsexual friendships with women takes on a different meaning. Isuko does say that commonalities link him and his female friends-an attraction to men. "In college, it was weird. I discovered one woman who challenged my sexual orientation. But we've become friends; we've come to an understanding that it is not going to happen. There are women who are looking for gay male friends. I don't want to speak for them, but I think there's a comfort level for them with a gay man and so I'm open to it. I guess we have something in common about how hard it is to maintain relationships with guys. So I have nonsexual relationships with women. I invite them because, for me, it's easier. I don't have to worry about stepping over the boundaries."

How did the 122 women answer this same question? Stay tuned.