Can men and womenreally be friends?

Friendships between men and women.
Sept. 29 2010 7:05 AM

The Sex Part

Can men and womenreally be friends?

(Continued from Page 2)

Sex aside, Nancy and Eric spend time together as other friends do—they talk for hours about their relationships, their careers, their kids, and how strange it is that they've gotten old. (They're in their early fifties.) Eric and Nancy are clearly on the opposite extreme from Sue and Brandon in terms of sex, but neither couple tussles with romantic feeling—they're just friends.

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A few months ago a Slate reader e-mailed me to explain that "platonic friendships exist between men, they exist between women, but 99.99 percent of the time a man doesn't have a platonic friendship with a woman, he has an unconsummated sexual relationship with a woman." He added, "However, as a journalist, you've already reached your conclusions."  

It's true I had already reached my conclusions, largely because I've experienced a Brandon-Sue type relationship with my closest friend, Jeff. (Or something between a Brandon-Sue and a Sean-Jody.) I'm also not vain enough to think that all the other men I'm friends with secretly wish we were sleeping together. And I don't share my correspondent's mechanical understanding of male sexuality, which posits that men are incapable of seeing a biologically viable sex object as anything but that. If a man does from time to time reflect on a female friend's good looks and feels a stirring of sexual feeling, so what?   Does that really mean he can't lay claim to platonic love? Many intense same-sex friendships have an occasional erotic tinge to them, too. In 1903, the Austrian philosopher Otto Weininger wrote that "there is no friendship between men that has not an element of sexuality in it. … Much of the affection, protection, and nepotism between men is due to the presence of unsuspected sexual compatibility"—but he didn't go on to suggest that, therefore, there is no such thing as same-sex friendship. Surely what matters is the persistence or centrality of sexual feeling, rather than transitory attraction.

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All that said, having read through hundreds of survey responses, I find the angry reader more deserving of sympathy. There seems to be a linguistic problem with the word friendship—it's used too expansively. Only a cynic with an extremely puritanical understanding of friendship would argue that Sean's feelings as an 18-year-old must forever taint his relationship with Jody. But are Kevin and Lucy really "friends"? For them the phrase unconsummated sexual relationship (as my correspondent put it) may be more accurate.

Maybe this linguistic morass is partly to blame for the existential debate on male-female friendship—that is, whether or not they actually exist. If you meet too many Kevins and Lucys who call themselves "platonic friends," maybe you start to doubt the Brandons and Sues. Which brings me back to the Dear Prudence letter writer. She should probably have let her boyfriend have his way, but it's worth asking—do he and his friend have a Brandon-and-Sue, or a Kevin-and-Lucy?

Click to go to an article on the origins of the term "platonic friendship."

Juliet Lapidos is a staff editor at the New York Times.

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