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Guy Talk: Lust Doesn’t Have To Ruin A Platonic Friendship

There are few more famous snippets of film dialogue than this exchange from the 1989 Blly Crystal and Meg Ryan classic, “When Harry Met Sally”:

Harry: You realize of course that we could never be friends.
Sally: Why not?
Harry: What I’m saying is — and this is not a come-on in any way, shape or form — is that men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.

We assume that male sexual desire is so powerful that it overrides everything else, including friendship.

Sally: That’s not true. I have a number of men friends and there is no sex involved.
Harry: No you don’t.
Sally: Yes I do.
Harry: No you don’t.
Sally: Yes I do.
Harry: You only think you do.
Sally: You say I’m having sex with these men without my knowledge?
Harry: No, what I’m saying is they all want to have sex with you.
Sally: They do not.
Harry: Do too.
Sally: They do not.
Harry: Do too.
Sally: How do you know?
Harry: Because no man can be friends with a woman that he finds attractive. He always wants to have sex with her.
Sally: So you’re saying that a man can be friends with a woman he finds unattractive?
Harry: No, you pretty much want to nail ‘em too.

I was a 22-year-old graduate student when the film came out, and I’ve long since lost count of how many heated discussions I’ve had about platonic friendships in which those unforgettable lines were quoted. Most of the arguments (I’ll bet you’ve had a few of these debates yourself) center around the question of whether “Harry” is right that straight men always want to have sex with their female friends.

What gets missed in all this is that Harry and Sally (and most of us) implicitly agree on something: sexual desire makes platonic friendship impossible. Sally denies her male friends all want to have sex with her; Harry insists that they do. But in the film – and, unfortunately, all too often in real life — no one asks the most important question of all: why can’t you be friends with someone to whom you’re attracted?

In the modern world we expect men and women who are in long-term romantic relationships to be friends. Husbands and wives will often say affectionately of their spouses, “we’re not just married to each other, but we’re good friends.” That’s part of our contemporary ideal of companionate marriage. It’s evident to all that men can be friends with the women with whom they are currently sleeping.

But what about a heterosexual man and woman who’ve never been sexual with each other? Conventional wisdom claims their friendship will only work when neither lusts after (or has a crush upon) the other. Since, as Harry says, men “pretty much want to nail” every woman they know, this makes friendship impossible.

We assume that male sexual desire is so powerful that it overrides everything else, including friendship.

One of our great myths about men is that lust invariably cancels out empathy. Call it the sexual equivalent of being unable to walk and chew gum at the same time: Harry, Sally, and too many of the rest of us were raised to believe that men can’t experience lust and practice non-sexual friendship simultaneously.

The truth is that men and women alike are capable of being platonic friends with someone to whom they are powerfully attracted. That’s true regardless of the reasons why someone can’t act on his or her desires. Perhaps it’s because the attraction is one-sided, or perhaps it’s because one or both of the friends are in monogamous relationships with other people. Sometimes the attraction is openly acknowledged, more often it’s something of which both are aware but about which there isn’t necessarily much need to speak.

There are a couple of keys to making a platonic friendship work despite the presence of sexual attraction. First off, it helps to demythologize sexual desire. Too many of us speak about attraction as if it were an irresistible and destructive force, like a tornado or a tsunami. If you’ve genuinely fallen in love with a buddy who considers you “just” a friend, that’s one thing. But if all that’s happened is that you find yourself sexually attracted to someone who isn’t attracted to you (or isn’t your significant other), it’s worth saying, so what? We’re hardwired to be sexual creatures. But we’re also equipped with the ability to “override” those desires for a host of other reasons – including preserving friendship.

Second of all, we need to remember that most of us are taught to sexualize emotional intimacy. We get close to someone of the opposite sex (assuming we’re straight or bi), and we find ourselves fantasizing about them. But while some of what we’re experiencing may be a natural physical reaction, some of it is the result of our cultural programming that tells us that intimacy must always be sexualized or romanticized. What often happens is that an initial “flare” of sexual interest quickly diminishes – if we give the relationship time to grow.

I know that my life would be infinitely poorer if I’d limited myself to being friends only with those people to whom I was not in any way attracted and whom I was certain were not the slightest bit sexually drawn to me. This is a particularly important issue for me because I’ve known I was bisexual since my teens. One of the things about experiencing sexual desire for both men and women is that I learned early on that if I were only going to be friends with folks to whom I couldn’t possibly be attracted I’d need to limit myself to hanging out with close blood relatives. That doesn’t mean I was attracted to all my friends of either sex, not by a long shot; it did mean that when I was younger, sexual desire was enough of a constant that I learned it really didn’t need to (and I couldn’t afford to let it) get in the way. In time, I realized I could even have a sexual daydream about a platonic friend – and still empathize with them and hear what they were saying to me. Attraction might linger, but I found that if I gave the relationship time, it would often drop to the level of background noise, like the sound of a radio playing at a volume low enough for a conversation to happen.

I saw “When Harry Met Sally” when it first came out 22 years ago. I remember debating Harry’s words, sure that he was both right in one sense (in my early 20s, I did want to sleep with a lot of my friends) and wrong in another (I was just starting to know that unrequited lust, however real and powerful, did not invariably poison friendship). 1989 was half my lifetime ago, and as the years have passed, I’ve become more and more certain that while Harry wasn’t necessarily wrong about what men want, he was utterly wrong about those wants meant for friendships between men and women.

This piece was originally published The Good Men Project Magazine.

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