Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Platonic Friendship

Can men and women be (just) friends?

I first began thinking about this question years ago after watching the quirky and timeless classic, When Harry Met Sally. The movie revolves around the idea that men and women can never be just friends because "the sex part always gets in the way." They try to navigate through the conversation by setting obscure rules like they can only be friends if both are in committed relationships because then "the pressure of possible involvement is lifted."

Aside from being a heteronormative question, assuming that all men are attracted to women, it is also a question engrossed in strict gender roles and stereotypes. For these two reasons I hoped this would cease to be debated in 2009, when apparently we live in a post feminist society where men and women are equal and free thinking... (that was snark if you couldn't tell).

Fast forward to today as I engaged in my sleepy morning let's-get-the-day-started routine, pouring coffee and turning on the often trite Good Morning America. In the segment I linked they too discuss this "timeless question" of an impossible platonic friendship between men and women. The segment was an obvious scheme to promote Steve Harvey's new book, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man (which i won't link because of the strict gender roles and stereotypes that even the title doesn't fail to perpetuate). For 'empirical evidence' GMA referenced a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that found that an opposite sex friendship can end in an affair 15% of the time. (emphasis mine.) What about the other 85% of the time? That sure doesn't seem like enough statistical evidence to back up the claim to me...

The whole "timeless question" leaves me more than prickly. It assumes that men can't think with their appropriate brain and that they are sexually attracted to every woman they meet. It also ascertains that women are 1) naive and 2) not sexually driven. This sort of thinking is damaging for men because it sets men up to be the ultimate perpetrators. They are always on the prowl and are singly sex minded. It promotes the idea that it's always a man's responsibility to get into a woman's pants and it's solely a woman's role to guard her virginity, pureness, sex, whatever.

For women it's a double whammy. Not only are women once again regarded as naive, helpless, and meek, doing whatever they can to protect their one and only precious commodity, but they are determined to not have the same sex drive that their male counterparts posses.

Continuing to think in the heteronormative way in which this question is presented, I think that mature and responsible men and women can absolutely have platonic relationships that don't deteriorate into a let's rip each other's clothes off and make passionate love in the bedroom situation. I think the dynamic between opposite sex friends has to be different, and that your partners have to be involved in the friendship (for example, it shouldn't be a secret friendship because that sets up a sketchy relationship from the beginning). But all in all, i think it is entirely possible for heterosexual men and women to have close friends of the opposite sex.

Readers, what do you think?

(cross-posted at feministing community where there is some discussion going on in the comments sections)


baileythebookworm said...

I absolutely agree with you on all counts. Male-female friendships do tend to set up (or seem to set up) the possibility of sex or an affair, but in my experience it's pretty easy to maintain non-romantic relationships with plenty of guys. To me it's all about establishing boundaries, especially if there's a situation where attraction could become a factor. I would never hide a friendship from my significant other nor would I appreciate it if he hid one from me. With my guy friends, there's an established rule of respect that we all maintain, and that way the sex thing is never even a "thing" at all.

Kandeezie said...

I agree with you. Not everybody does. The trick is to surround yourself with people who do (to keep yourself sane) and keep on fighting the fight against heteronormativity.

Dan Brennan said...

I am happily married to my wife, Sheila (for 27 years). I have a deep friendship with a single woman. We've been friends for seven years. In 2005, my wife's Christmas present to me was tickets to go see U2 with my single friend. I talk with my single friend two or three times a day. Just last week we went canoeing together--alone. We've spent a lot to time alone (with the blessing of my wife), we 've spent time with my wife, and we've spent time with others. I totally agree with you about the stereotypes.

Angela Williams Duea said...

I don't know the answer but I like your opinions about this. Conersely, I resent the fact that the opposite-sex friend has to be an issue.

I had a best friend (male) for 25 years, but the sex thing always got in the way. Whenever I was between relationships he put steady subtle pressure on me to date him. It was difficult to maintain a friendship even though I really liked his company.

My daughter (22) has had similar problems, and her guy friends tell her that they can only be friends with girls they aren't attracted to.

I think maturity must be a factor in this issue, too.

Anonymous said...

It's not always the man who oversteps the boundaries. It's not always the man who becomes sexually attracted, and women do not have to be portrayed as "naive, helpless, and meek". I think because friendships require at least a degree of admiration, it's more vulnerable to becoming a sexual thing when heterosexual male and females are involved. So yeah, platonic friendships are possible but unlikely.

DJ Dual Core said...

To me the message should be that gender isn't THE deciding factor in a relationship between two people. It is a factor, inescapably, but still just one of many.

Sweeping statements like "X can never have a relationship of type-B with Y" are always too reductive and therefore never true. Human relationships are way more complicated and subtle than that.

hrumore said...

First of all, thank you for your emphasis on how problematic our heteronormative society is.

Secondly, I have platonic friendships with persons of all genders (cisgender and transgender) and orientations, successfully. Regardless of whether I'm attracted to them or they're attracted to me or we've had a sexual relationship in the past, I am able to still be friends with them and (believe it or not) not sleep with them! Platonic friendships are absolutely possible with any combination of individuals.

Ironically enough though, nearly all of my current closest platonic friendships were at one time sexual, and many are exes of mine. I think neither gender/orientation nor sexual attraction/activity need to be a roadblock for a true friendship, they aren't necessarily mutually exclusive.

Josh said...

This was something that has really helped to open my eyes. I really do not have much to say at this time and will do more thinking on the subject. but at the same time I thank you for the beautiful article. I do fear of losing one of my greatest friends ever meg. She is getting married to one of my friends and I am worried about being able to be friends like before after that. we have been strictly platonic friends for 5 years now, and I guess I am worried about it being weird after she gets married..I guess it has never mattered before..and maybe I am just a worrying type person.

Confessions of a Fashion Editor (Amy) said...

I absolutley believe that platonic friendship is possible. I have three very close male friends, two of whom are like brothers to me: hence any other thoughts about them would just be... weird.

If you genuinly want to be "just friends", and both parties understand that that is all the relationship is about, then of course you can.

Anonymous said...

Since moving to the US, I have found that it's very difficult for men and women here to have friendships. Where I'm from, I always had lots of male friends and our relationship was always platonic because that's how I wanted it to be, and my male friends respected that (I have no idea if they were attracted to me, or not...). Over here, though, it's so different. Men don't seem to know what to do with a girl if their penis is somehow not involved. I'm in the South where gender roles are perhaps more traditional, so perhaps it's different elsewhere in the US.

darklogos said...

If either party wouldn't be satisfied at any point in the realtionship of it staying platonic then problems occur. That is the real issue. I've seen women fall hard for guy friends/mentors and try to pull some stunt.

At the same time many women put males that are interested in them sexually, but they have no intrest in sexually in the friend-zone. Most guys try to do what they can to get out of the friend-zone because they want more. Then when the male friend walks away from the relationship he is the villain because he didn't support her. The truth is the relationship wasn't balanced from the beginning and the other needs of the female (friendship, someone to fix stuff, an ear that listens) were paramount. In the end the woman uses the man in a form of emotional/role objectification. I've seen men do this when they are in emotional fragile or weakened states. They put a woman that is clearly atracted to them in the friend-zone and the whole time she is trying to get into his pants. She walks away from the relationship because she turns into a psudeo-mother figure.