BBC Three Counties Discussion on Platonic Friendship

// 27 September 2009

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Unfortunately, popular wisdom still seems to have it that women and men can’t be platonic friends. Society might oh-so-tolerantly let you off the hook as a so-called “exception” if you’re both gay (if you’re lucky) but if one or both of you is at all sexually orientated towards people of the other one’s gender, you can bet that some know-it-all observer will be ready to help guide you towards your apparent reproductive destiny by informing you the whole friendship is futile because at least one of you is bound to be “carrying a torch” for the other. Women and men genuinely enjoying each other’s company and identifying with one another in a non-sexual way? How unromantic!

I briefly talked about this kind of social pressure in a feature on BBC Three counties radio with Jonathan Vernon-Smith on Friday, centred on the question of whether members of the “opposite” sex can ever have a truly platonic relationship. (The bulk of the discussion kicks off from 2.01.26 and the section I took part in begins at about 2.48.00.)

There was a lot of ground that didn’t get covered (for example, there was little acknowledgement of asexuality, aside from Susie King from the Platonic Partners website briefly alluding to it as one of the many possible reasons why two close friends might prefer to have a non-sexual relationship) but I still think it’s worth a listen and that there’s plenty to think about from a feminist perspective. Just consider the following choice quotes from the show:

A lot of guys are of the opinion, perhaps, that we have our friends and we do blokey stuff with our mates so there’s almost no real need sometimes to have girls there unless it’s a sexual thing or a relationship thing or… they’re going to constantly be taking you down the shops, sort of thing… Sometimes we ask what’s the point of having them and also I think it’s very rare for one of the parties, as you were saying about your friend, not to have feelings. I just think it’s very, very unlikely that one party is not going to develop something along the line (Charlie Parish from Zoo magazine).

I really don’t think you can have a platonic relationship with a woman, no… Speaking as a man I’d say no, not at all, absolutely not. Not a chance. If I find a lady attractive, I become friends with her and my primeval instinct is procreation, mating… (Brian, Milton Keynes)

Comments From You

Cassie // Posted 28 September 2009 at 1:37 am

I love how everyone lurrves to talk about their ‘primeval instincts’. We might not even have these – why so desperate to admit you do?!

I believe I genuinely have the respect of a lot of guys – admittedly some have tried it on at some point, but along with my female friends I have a load of male friends i get on fine with without the dreaded sexual tension.

thebeardedlady // Posted 28 September 2009 at 7:36 am

Men are brought up and trained to think of women’s primary function as sexual availability. So it really doesn’t surprise me that some men (and women) feel that they couldn’t have a relationship which didn’t involve sex at some level.

I have certainly, many times, been disappointed and let down when platonic male friends have decided to make passes at me or worse. I think that, especially when younger, some men use friendship as a sort of ‘cover’ to get close to women. It’s not genuine friendship, but it hides their true intentions.

I do have platonic relationships with men and women but I don’t always completely trust men not to try it on. I find it’s much easier to have friendships with men when there is a good age gap, or when one or both of you are in an exclusive partnership with someone else.

Kate // Posted 28 September 2009 at 8:23 am

Oh, man. And I say that advisedly. I have platonic female friends, even ones who are, like me, lesbian or bisexual; sometimes I find them attractive, sometimes I don’t, but I appreciate their friendship and enjoy their company whatever. What’s so different about my straight/ bi male friends that mean that, if they’re not shunning me, they must want to get in my pants?

j // Posted 28 September 2009 at 8:38 am

The only reason these guys can’t be friends with women is that their sexist ideas of what women are blinds them. If they just thought of us as regular people, the world would look very different.

JenniferRuth // Posted 28 September 2009 at 9:12 am

they’re going to constantly be taking you down the shops,

How true! I’m always shopping or dragging my male friends down the shops. Even when I’m working, I’m online shopping. Nothing else will fit in my tiny lady brain apart from shopping. In fact, even though I hate shopping, I do it anyway because it’s encoded in my genes (you know…the lady shopping gene – seen in the last issue of Nature…) and you can’t escape destiny! Of course, this excludes when I’m thinking about babies, which is at least 28% of the time.

For serious though…wow. Just, wow. It is 2009 and people still believe that men and women can’t have platonic friendships? I suppose that I shouldn’t be surprised that Zoo should have such a pathetic attitude. I guess I shouldn’t have been hanging out with a load of guys playing Street Fighter last night then…I was probably invading their dude space. I mean, they probably just resented me being there and when they lost to me it was probably just that they were distracted by their “primeval instinct…procreation, mating”. It couldn’t possibly be that we were just all having a great laugh together! That sort of thing just doesn’t happen between men and women!

I mean, seriously – men and women are not Ambassadors from the Planets Testosteronia and Estrogenia (or Mars and Venus). We are all PEOPLE. Y’know, humans. Our genitals are not the seat of our personality or our interests. And frankly, if you think they are, then I feel sorry for you.

Lastly, if you are a man and your only interest in your girlfriend is because she is sexually available to you then I can’t think of a word vile enough to describe you. You don’t deserve her.

(Btw, I don’t think there is anything wrong with shopping as a hobby and I do know men and women who love to shop – I just find it stressful!)

Imogen // Posted 28 September 2009 at 9:19 am

I always wonder in these kinds of discussions what on earth bisexual people are supposed to do. I mean, if it’s impossible to be friends with someone who you might potentially have sex with…

Feminist Avatar // Posted 28 September 2009 at 10:21 am

IMNSHO, it is this sort of belief- that men and women can’t be friends- that feeds rape culture. It suggests that men and women are imcompatible except for in a sexual context, and ultimately removes men and women’s humanity by reducing them to sexual objects. I find it interesting that there were no quotes from women suggesting they couldn’t be friends with a man!

It raises interesting questions for marriage- a) who is you wife/ husband to you if not your friend, and b) in a context where sexual fidelity is prized, how do men and women relate to other people outside of marriage, if their relationship cannot be perceived as sexual or eventually leading to sex/ sexual desire.

Anji // Posted 28 September 2009 at 11:07 am

Oh for crying out loud. I really hate these sorts of ‘discussions’ because they totally invalidate my own experience.

My best friend in the world is a heterosexual man, a ginger Northerner with a lisp, a wicked sense of humour and a penchant for military history. He gets on brilliantly with my (male) partner and is honorary Uncle to my little boy.

Many, many years ago we had a ‘thing’ – more of a fling, for a couple of weeks. When we look back on it now we realise that we had both been sucked in by the theory that a man and a woman can’t ever be just friends, so we’d both thought “I really really like this person, this means we must get together” and it was utterly disastrous.

Since realising that yes, men and women can not only be friends but best friends, that we can love each other in a platonic sense with all of our hearts, the friendship has gone from strength to strength.

So when people say “Men and women can’t ever be just friends, there has to be something more, some flame burning in one of them” they’re basically telling me that my friendship with my best friend doesn’t exist. And that bothers me and invalidates me, and is bloody insulting to not only both of us but the millions of men and women involved in friendships with members of the opposite sex.

On top of the personal angle I clearly have on this, it just goes to show the massively heterosexist slant we have in this society and especially the media. “Men and women can never be just friends” sort of implies that all men and women are attracted to the opposite sex, doesn’t it?

This was a really long-winded way of saying “Oh god, not this one again”. ;oP

Laura // Posted 28 September 2009 at 11:07 am

I almost can’t believe anyone thinks platonic relationships are impossible: who the hell are these people?! They must lead a very sad, blinkered existence if they only see the opposite sex as an opportunity to get off.

Kit // Posted 28 September 2009 at 11:20 am

Sounds like they had some classy blokes on there.

“A lot of guys are of the opinion, perhaps, that we have our friends and we do blokey stuff with our mates so there’s almost no real need sometimes to have girls there unless it’s a sexual thing or a relationship thing or…” – this kind of explains a lot really. Even though all the men I know aren’t your stereorypical “Lad” (they’re all geeks :)), I get the feeling most of them tend to have this “women aren’t really there to be best buds with” idea too. I don’t feel as close or as part of the friendship group as I might if they were all women/even mix.

sianmarie // Posted 28 September 2009 at 11:45 am

ha! but imogen – you know what us bisexuals are like! a roving eye, indecisive, never satisfied, we see everyone as a potential sexual partner!…blah blah heavy sarcasm…

this all makes me cross. i have always had very close friendships with men, have lived with men, hang out with men…sometimes i have slept with my male friends but in the main this has just brought our friendship closer and seeing as i have been with my boyfriend for two and a half years now, i haven’t slept with any of my male friends for a while!

what i don;t get is what about your female friends’s boyfriends? i am really good friends with lots of guys who are going out with other friends, and we don’t split into girls and boys, we are all a close group. am i trying to sleep with my friend’s boyfriend? is he trying to sleep with his girlfriend’s friends? no.

i think it is so sad to deny platonic friendship. i know my life would be a lot emptier without my rich wonderful group of friends, men and women.

Aimee // Posted 28 September 2009 at 1:04 pm

This is so bizarre. I have male friends and female friends and it doesn’t make a difference to me what gender they are. They are my friends. I don’t see them in a sexual way and they don’t see me in a sexual way. What an odd thing to assume that every member of the opposite sex is a potential romance. It’d be too much to take!

Laurel Dearing // Posted 28 September 2009 at 1:24 pm

hmm… i dont think when they said something sexual it meant more than finding them attractive, not necessarily trying to get anything out of it. for me personally, though i have a lot of male friendships ive never had one where there wasnt something one way or another, even if it was to just get it out of our system, because if i ever get really close to someone then i tend to idolise them a bit and never really be close friends with women because i dont feel that way towards them. i dont really know the line between platonic and not. im an only child and havent really grown up around anyone attractive but off limits. that said, once it is off our chests and out of our systems (through actions or just talking) it pretty much goes away unless i was in love or something. i suppose the difference between me and the people on the radio is that i dont use my experiences to nullify other peoples. i wondered about married people and bisexual people too

Shreen // Posted 28 September 2009 at 3:12 pm

Laurel: “i suppose the difference between me and the people on the radio is that i dont use my experiences to nullify other peoples.”

True, and I think radio discussions of that nature don’t generally pick the most appropriate ambassadors for the argument against the sensationalist idea being discussed.

I mean, what excellent car crash telly/radio if the stronger argument says that all your friends secretly fancy you! What a revelation!

I believe the truth is much more boring, that although some of your friends may fancy you, chances are a whole bunch of them don’t.

90% of my friends are male, so the idea that this radio station are even questioning platonic friendships offends me.

Helen S // Posted 28 September 2009 at 3:22 pm

As much as I’m saddened by the kind of comments from the show itself (although anyone from Zoo magazine should be immediately discounted!), I know a lot of men who do believe that claptrap.

My friend circle is mostly male and although I enjoy practically everything they do (big footy fan, love most sports and a big CAMRA-supporting ale fan) I find myself usually excluded from platonic activities unless my husband is also invited. In fact now, I won’t usually get invited to anything unless another ‘girlfriend’ is too, in case I feel ‘left out’ by all the ‘guy talk’. I get the impression that I’m seen as my husband’s ‘property’ so to invite me out as part of a big group of men without him is overstepping some invisible boundary.

Platonic relationships between the sexes ARE possible without anyone holding a flame, but I think it’s only when both parties believe that it’s possible.

Holly Combe // Posted 28 September 2009 at 3:30 pm

Well, I guess I would say this, Shreen, but I didn’t think the people who took the conventional view were shown to have the stronger argument! I mean, yes, that was the view the presenter seemed to be taking himself (frequently seeming to pose the question of whether it’s foolish or strange or whether people are “kidding themselves”) but plenty of us questioned that. In particular, I thought the caller Sam held her ground very well while being interrogated over her friendship with a guy. And, anyway, sex sometimes coming up at some point doesn’t necessarily lend any weight at all to the theory that women and men somehow just can’t be friends. As Sian and Anji indicate, it doesn’t have to signal the end of the friendship (which can continue regardless of how your sexual relationships might develop away from each other after that point).

Holly Combe // Posted 28 September 2009 at 3:38 pm

…And, of course, we can probably all think of loads of friendships with both women and men where the question of sex just hasn’t come up at all and, if it has, that’s at least been partly (or sometimes completely) because other people have insisted it’s so important and expected justifications at every turn. The media would like us to believe men are somehow all unstoppable sex beasts when it comes to whichever gender/s they fancy and would hump anyone who fits the description but, as Shreen says, the reality is often much more boring. Everyone has preferences so it’s a shame that traditionalism is so keen for us to believe that the male part of the population who fancy women are incapable of valuing our company and camaraderie as highly as they do men’s.

Melanie // Posted 28 September 2009 at 3:44 pm

Unbelievable. I can kind of overlook Charlie Parish’s comments, because he obviously has to make a name for himself making deliberately outrageous, provocative, sexist comments on any TV or radio show which will give him a platform, as he’s not a good enough writer to make his living in real journalism, but what’s Brian from Milton Keynes’s excuse? So he couldn’t be friends with a “lady” he finds attractive as his “primeval instincts” would take over? So what’s to stop him having a friendship with a “lady” he doesn’t find attractive? Oh, silly me! Of course! I’d forgotten – unattractive women have no right to exist. Also it’s nice to see he has the humility to speak on behalf of the entire male sex.

maggie // Posted 28 September 2009 at 4:52 pm

But, but…this makes no sense. What about your friends who are in stable relationships and those with kids etc, does this mean we are all ogling each other, OR avoiding eye contact in case we get an invite to go shopping? And what about older couples? Does this ‘primeval instinct’ thingy extend to the end of life?

It’s just such a base and reactionary approach to every day living. Ugh.. if they think like that what are they like in bed?

Holly Combe // Posted 28 September 2009 at 5:02 pm

Hey Maggie- As it happens, the presenter (Jonathan Vernon-Smith) did mention older people when anticipating the possible situations callers might be in and, unfortunately, he invited an imaginary older women to consider whether she was looking for a “gentleman friend” but finding the older men wanted more. Obviously it was just a hypothetical example and, if I remember rightly, I think his treatment of some other gender issues in the past has been fairly even handed. However, the implication here did seem to be that older women are capable of having a platonic friendship while the older men are still randy old devils. Very stereotypical!

Steph // Posted 28 September 2009 at 5:12 pm

Good grief!!! Does ‘Brian, Milton Keynes’ go around trying to ‘hump’ every woman he’s friendly with, coz he can’t keep it as a platonic relationship?

Sam2 // Posted 28 September 2009 at 10:02 pm

Hi,

just my 2ct to the Harry and Sally debate.

One of my three best friends is a woman, at this point possibly my closest friend. She’s married. I’m single. We’ve known each other for more than a decade, but only in the last couple of years have we grown really close. And there *IS* erotic tension between us. And I think we both like it – we can turn it on and off, in a way. We can discuss our mutual problems, well, in the realm of sex mostly my issues, as she’s married (but I think I know more about her sexual desires than her husband), and do this in a completely matter of fact-supportive way (over the phone even with her husband in the room), and still later turn on a bit of the flirty move, just for the fun of it. She once said something that made me wonder if she wanted more, but we’ve talked about it and she didn’t and so we both know that if something should change in the emotional setup for either one of us, we’d discuss it first – openly and fairly. I don’t think either one of us would want to lose the intimacy we have due to some unreflected move. And I think we both would be able to deal with it, if one of us developed romantic feelings. Personally, I think this is the only way to have such a close relationship with a woman with whom I do not have a sexual relationship.

Anne Onne // Posted 29 September 2009 at 4:39 pm

Why is it so hard to believe that just because we find X gender attractive, doesn’t mean that we will want to screw every single person of that gender we come across? do people honestly believe that every woman or every man harbours an attraction for every single member of the (the always presumed to be) opposite sex? Just thinking logically that ain’t gonna happen. Let’s face it, people all have preferences, and even the most open-minded of us aren’t going to be attracted to every person we meet, regardless of ‘primeval instincts’.

I do think Thebeardedlady’s got a great point: if men (or women) are brought up to see the other sex as primarily a sex object, something to lust after, and always a potential conquest, then it’s not surprising if they cannot spend more than 5 mins with a woman without thinking they are entitled to have sex with her. But this isn’t all men or all women.

I agree with HelenS in that I think this platonic friendships are very possible whatever your sexuality (of course, everyone’s experiences will differ), but that if someone doesn’t believe in this being possible, they’re obviously going to focus on seeing all members of X gender as ‘potential sexual partner’ and not as ‘new person I might be friends with’.

I believe the truth is much more boring, that although some of your friends may fancy you, chances are a whole bunch of them don’t.

Shreen for the win. I suspect that there are some people who secretly wish everyone they know did fancy them…

Besides, where would this ridiculous assumption put LGBTQI people? Would bisexual people be expected to fancy everyone on the planet? Absurd. And what about asexual people? How can they even exist if people MUST fancy everyone?

Holly Combe // Posted 29 September 2009 at 8:47 pm

…we both know that if something should change in the emotional setup for either one of us, we’d discuss it first – openly and fairly. I don’t think either one of us would want to lose the intimacy we have due to some unreflected move. And I think we both would be able to deal with it, if one of us developed romantic feelings. Personally, I think this is the only way to have such a close relationship with a woman with whom I do not have a sexual relationship(Sam2)

Well, getting things out in the open in situations where there is an erotic tension certainly sounds like a potentially positive thing to do. But exploring the possibility of romantic interest as “the only way” when it comes to close non-sexual relationships with women? What about female friends who don’t say anything whatsoever to indicate they might want more? What about female friends who you aren’t physically attracted to?

Sam2 // Posted 30 September 2009 at 2:27 pm

Holly,

“But exploring the possibility of romantic interest as “the only way” when it comes to close non-sexual relationships with women? What about female friends who don’t say anything whatsoever to indicate they might want more? What about female friends who you aren’t physically attracted to?”

No, not the only way. I’m just saying *IF* things changed in the emotional setup things need to be discussed openly. That would be the only way to deal with these things. And I think *HAVING* such an intimate relationship with a person of the sex I am attracted to, there always *is* the possibility of that, if only as some kind of “transferance” as in psycho-therapy (which is also a very close relationship, in a way).

And that’s difficult and requires a lot of emotional maturity, particularly if the change would be (and presumably so) only one-sided. In our case, I think we’d be able to handle it one way or another, but I’d say that sexual attraction can always be a result of intimacy with people of the sex one is sexually attracted to.

So basically, what I said was contingent upon the development of erotic tension not the assumption that it is inevitable. But I think it would be careless to not be emotionally prepared in case it does happen.

And, yes, I have a couple of female friends I am not attracted to and some of whom aren’t attracted to me (although I also suspect there are also some who are waiting for the right moment to make a move), I suppose, but I’m not as close to them as I am with this one female friend – I think it’s the intimacy that can make it difficult, in my opinion.

There’s a great French film (what else ;)) about this that recently was released in the UK – http://www.shallwekiss.com/

Suzie King // Posted 1 February 2010 at 7:41 am

Hallo wonderful wimmin…and others of course!

http://www.platonicpartners.co.uk

Thanks for mentioning the website – just thought I would say we have reached 3,000 members and are offering free Full Membership to all on Valentine’s Day – so be welcome! We have gay and asexuals onsite, and associate membership is free to everyone.

Warm wishes

Suzie

Have Your say

To comment, you must be registered with The F-Word. Not a member? Register. Already a member? Use the sign in button below

Sign in to the F-Word

Further Reading

Has The F-Word whet your appetite? Check out our Resources section, for listings of feminist blogs, campaigns, feminist networks in the UK, mailing lists, international and national websites and charities of interest.

Write for us!

Got something to say? Something to review? News to discuss? Well we want to hear from you! Click here for more info

  • The F-Word on Twitter
  • The F-Word on Facebook
  • Our XML Feeds