Harry Was Wrong: Lust Doesn’t Have to Ruin a Platonic Friendship

One of our great myths about men is that lust invariably cancels out empathy.

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.

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.

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.

Too many of us speak about attraction as if it were an irresistible and destructive force, like a tornado or a tsunami.

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, something I wrote about here. 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.

Interested in a different view from another man? Read Damon Young’s “Platonic Schmetonic”

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About Hugo Schwyzer

Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college's first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. He serves as co-director of the Perfectly Unperfected Project, a campaign to transform young people's attitudes around body image and fashion. Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and six chinchillas in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his website

Comments

  1. Hugo, do you know how amazing you are? Everything you write… I’m always nodding my head in agreement or at the very least, see clearly where you are coming from. In my experience, it is very difficult to have a platonic relationship with the opposite sex without one of them feeling something more. As you said though, maybe it is the romantic coming out and distorting the perspective that the friendship has just moved to a deeper level of connection.

  2. This is just amazing and I agree wholeheartedly. My closest friends through life have been opposite gender. I have to say this article just made my day.

  3. As a gay man. I wonder if this means that all gay men just want sex from all their gay men friends.

  4. Another fab article!

    One thing, though, that I feel moved to point out. The notion of “platonic friendship” is rooted in the platonic ideal and when we use that phrase to mean a “non-sexual friendship,” that implies that sex removes the connection from the more pure form. That reinforces the idea that sex is dirty, or sinful, or stains and that is the root of sex-negativity.

    I know that that wasn’t your intention at all, but I think it’s important to call them “non-sexual friendships” instead of “platonic friendships” to avoid reinforcing those ideas.

  5. David Wise says:

    Friends with benefits.

  6. I could not agree more wholeheartedly. I’m not sure I trust people of either gender who have no platonic friends. At a certain point we (hopefully) outgrow the seemingly omnipresent need to continually prove our attractiveness to ourselves.

    Well done, well said.
    Jackie

  7. I think platonic relationships can be damaged by sexual attraction if the parties act on it. That can make things really awkward later. I had had a very close platonic relationship with a guy many years ago. We worked together and started spending a lot of time together outside of work. We had a ton of things in common. I considered him to be my best friend. After several months of this, we ended up having sex one night after he said he was really attracted to me. I said yes because I thought it seemed like a natural progression of our relationship. A few days later, unfortunately, he told me that although he loved my personality and was physically attracted to me, he was on a hunt for “Miss Right” and I wasn’t it. Basically, he wanted someone who was a Perfect 10 and I was more like a 7. In retrospect, I knew that about him from many conversations we’d had about our past relationships. He was very very picky about women, which is why he was single. But he was a nerdy guy who was not particularly good looking himself (if I was a 7, he was a 5 at best) so I hadn’t taken it too seriously. turns out he was one of the shallowest guys I’ve ever met when it came to judging women he deemed acceptable to date.

    When I asked him why he had initiated sex, in that case, he actually quoted When Harry Met Sally. That was the end of our friendship.

    • That sounds really painful, Jill. :(

    • I think the problem wasn’t that you acted on it – it was because the guy you thought was your friend and slept with was an a$$hole. Pure and simple. This would be true even if you weren’t “buddies” first – with friends like these, who needs enemies? I think it is important to know what escalating the connection to physical intimacy means to each person. The lack of clear communication and intent is the root of heartache – not acting on physical attraction between two people who truly like each other well enough to call each other friends.

  8. mythago says:

    What I’m a bit surprised you didn’t touch on is the “unattractive friends” line – the idea that men will have sex with any woman, even women they find unattractive, and that men are unable to think of women as anything other than potential sexual partners. This paints a pretty ugly (and untrue) picture of men.

    • SpudTater says:

      I had more sympathy for that line, I think, because I read in it that physical unattractiveness is not always a barrier to a sexual relationship — that a man would be happy to jump into bed with a woman on the basis of personality alone. Something not entirely untrue of women too, I would guess.

      Nonetheless, it does kind of contribute to the overall implication that men are ruled entirely by their penises.

  9. I like your line about “background noise”. That is particularly true for me. I found that once I focused on why I was attracted to this person instead of just the lust for physical intimacy, it allowed for a deeper friendship.

  10. Estwald says:

    mythago says:
    July 5, 2011 at 7:07 pm

    …men are unable to think of women as anything other than potential sexual partners. This paints a pretty ugly (and untrue) picture of men

    Why is it ugly?
    =

    • Because it dismisses the way a lot of men actually are. It feeds into the generalizing manner that “men think with only their dicks” type commentary is used. Sure some of us do but its naive and downright insulting to men to think its a universal truth or something.

      Hell my true bff (as in that one friend that you can literally tell ANYTHING to no matter how bad, embarrassing, etc….) is actually a woman and I’ve never thought about her in a sexual manner.

  11. svollga says:

    I find the stereotype ‘can’t be friends with someone you want’ unrealistic, though it often ruins good relationship, especially when combined with heteronormative idea that men can’t control their desire (which also turns into stupid idea that ‘men and women can’t be friends because they want to have sex with each other’). I’m pansexual and I find many people sexually attractive, including most of my friends. Some of them, I have been in love with; some of them, I have had some kind of sexual encounter with. It never interfered with our friendship; if anything, it made it deeper and closer.

  12. I remember seeing this movie back when it came out and questioning the main premise that everyone seemed to so blindly accept even then.

    Sexual attraction can make being “just friends” interesting, to say the least. It really depends a lot on the people involved and the level of sexual attraction and how good you are at coping with that sort of thing. But dealing with it in a sensible way without ending the friendship is certainly a possibility.

  13. What about the fact that Harry found out he was wrong, and that most of the characters in the movie disagreed with him?

    • IDK, I think the fact that both Harry and Sally admit they love each other and get married kinda proves the meta-point of the movie that heterosexual men and women can’t simultaneously be just friends and be attracted to one another, especially since they ended up sleeping together. If that happens they have to GET MARRIED~!!1one

      I hate this fucking movie. As far as I’m concerned, in Rob Reiner’s filmography, it’s just as bad as North.

  14. Natalie says:

    Duh… Have being saying this for 20 years now.
    It was about time someone else said it too. Thank you Hugo.
    When will we stop taking Hollywood’s twisted morals for gold? We are far more than^our sole sex drive.

    • Thank you.

      As an employed feature film director in Hollywood who is reading this article, you just asked the one question I and other entertainment industry personnel often wonder when we, too, happen also to be ordinary people off-set and read interesting self-help articles online:

      Why are you people taking the silly two hour bullshit we come up with to entertain and amuse you as THE GOSPEL FOR HOW TO LIVE YOUR LIVES?

      It’s A MOVIE for god’s sake… if you could peek behind the scenes at how we Hollywood people fumble and traincrash through our own personal lives, you’d run screaming from us as cultural gurus and learn to lead your own lives by your own light. We’re authorities on nothing but constructing a good set-up, lighting it so it looks terrific, and distracting you for two hours.

      Stop looking to us, and especially the actors in front of our cameras, as the compasses to guide your lives. We’re barely in charge of our own!

      Thanks!

  15. Richard Aubrey says:

    ‘nother “myth”. Take something hardly anybody believes and call it a “myth”, implying lots of people believe it, wrongly. Demolish. Cheap column.
    Thing is, if two people start out as what might be called “congenial colleagues” and follow mutual physical attraction to sex, things will change. Can’t not. Doesn’t mean they can’t also be friends at the same time. If there’s any anecdata to the contrary, it’s likely that one or both parties were doing the friend thing as a tactic and, once the sex happened, decided the friend thing was no longer relevant. Or perhaps it looked different as friends.

  16. SpudTater says:

    Yes, men can be friends with women they are attracted to, but on the other hand I have learned that it is very difficult when the man is feeling chronically unloved. I have hurt myself, and I have hurt others, through a “friendship” which I desperately wanted to turn into something else.

    Since getting into a stable relationship (now marriage), I have found no difficulty having friendships with women, no matter how attractive I find them.

  17. Do you know what I want? I want women not to be afraid of men. Yes there are alot of bastards out there and we are trying real hard to stop them.

    My name is Morgan and I’m tired of being worried.

  18. You can have non-sexual friendships with people you are attracted to, but you need to be careful to set proper boundaries if you don’t want the relationship going down a road you don’t want to end up on. I’m happily married, over 15 years, but I still occasionally meet someone that I find attractive and vice versa. I have no intention of doing anything to hurt my wife and family, but at the same time, I do appreciate the friendship with another woman when an attraction is there. In some ways, maintaining a good friendship and keeping it non-sexual can be very rewarding — you appreciate the friend, appreciate the fact that they are attracted to you, but you both care enough about your other relationships that you don’t do anything stupid. Just be careful, and don’t put yourself in a situation where it would be too easy to slip up….

  19. This has always been a fact of life for me. I have a lot of platonic male friends, a couple of which have turned into something more, but most don’t. Like you say Hugo, it’s not as if there’s never been sexual attraction involved – working in close quarters with someone you really like and respect tends to be a turn-on, no doubt. :) But I don’t see that as a bad thing, and it doesn’t have to mess up the friendship. That has rarely ever happened in my experience.

    Like you say, I think it boils down to maturity level. Sex isn’t really an uncontrollable force. I’m used to being able to control myself when I’m around a male friend that I’d like to jump all over, and they’re used to being able to do the same. This is a good skill to have in a long term relationship anyway – in fact I’d be a little wary of dating a guy who didn’t have any female friends, because that would signal to me that he wasn’t capable of relating to a woman on anything other than a sexual level, and it’s more likely that he will treat women as something other than human (thus the loss of empathy).

  20. Thank you for writing this, Hugo. It gives a refreshing perspective on things. A friend sent me this link and I’m glad he did. Will be sure to check out your personal blog as well as the Perfectly Unperfected Project.

  21. I think it’s also important to put desire into context and understand it. I read somewhere else (I think the Daily Telegraph, ugh) where a guy was writing that he wanted to screw every woman he knew AS IF it was an overwhelming urge. But it obviously wasn’t. I know I can’t sit in a meeting, or have a conversation with a member of the opposite sex without speculating on what it would be like. But speculation is not desire. It’s not even fantasy. It’s something the back of the brain does while wondering how much longer this loser is going to keep talking — “and I wonder what he would think if I just pulled his pants down and blew him.”

    We have become so immersed in the message that all sexual thoughts = dirty that it’s easy to confuse the two.

  22. Harry says, men “pretty much want to nail” every woman they know, this makes friendship impossible.
    –> if that was true, I would have had waaaaay more sex in my live than I actaually had…! ;-)

  23. I totally think it is possible to be friends with someone after having a sexual relationship with them.

    My wife has had a close male friend since junior high. They became friends with benefits when they were about 20 and have maintained that kind of relationship off and on ever since. And they are still good friends, but it never went beyond FWB, even though I am sure they love each other a lot.. Whenever my wife was in a LTR, she would go back to just being friends with him, but as soon as she was single again, they would take up where they left off sexually. He has been married but in an open relationship for over 20 years.

    My wife tells me her friend is one of the best lovers she ever had. And yes, he has a much larger penis than I do; God didn’t use a cookie cutter when he made us and I am definitely average in that department. But I find this a healthy thing and am not threatened that my she has loved this man in one way or another for most of her adult life. In fact, she has my permission to resume a FWB relationship with him any time she wants, and though I know this interests her, it is something she has yet to act on and maybe never will. Like most things in life, it all comes down to timing and opportunity and the choices we make. It is also one of our fantasies to one day have a threesome with him.

    • Hater4Hire says:

      Damn, Edgar. I’m not trying to be a jerk, but it sounds like you are in an awful situation. Your wife is telling you that a “friend” she has had sex with off and on for years is the “one of the best lovers she ever had,” and you’re still cool with her going to him? And you want to be around while he has sex with your wife? You’re nuts, dude. Tell me, why even get married? Honestly, I’d be willing to bet that they are probably still doing it. I feel for you. I really do.

  24. AnonymousDog says:

    I think that once two people have sex, their relationship will be forever changed, whatever it may have been previously. They may remain friends, but the relationship WILL have changed. That’s the issue that you don’t really engage, Hugo, and it’s the thing that people worry about.

  25. Im friends with plenty of women who I would have sex with the moment they asked me to. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy spending time hanging out with them and talking to them or that we’re not “real” friends. It also doesn’t mean that I pursue them or show that I’m attracted to them. It just means that I’m attracted to my friends and would sleep with them if it somehow wouldn’t ruin our friendship.

    • Hater4Hire says:

      Bullshit. That’s simply not how it works. You’re telling me that when it is you and one of your female friends, and she is wearing something skimpy, you’re not thinking about having sex with her? You’re probably not “real” friends either. Chances are you get pushed to the back burner when she has a new bro around…or you push her to the back burner when you have another dame around. Would you do that to your boys?

  26. Soullite says:

    The only females friends I have are women that I’ve slept with. I won’t start up a ‘friendship’ with a woman. I might end up there after we hooked up or dated, but I’m not going to start out with a friendship. It isn’t what I want, and I don’t owe her my friendship any more than she owes me sex.

    If I know a woman won’t sleep with me, then I don’t want her to be my friend. That’s the problem with this argument: if you like someone enough to be their friend, but won’t sleep with them, then at some point you made a judgment that they aren’t ‘good enough’ for you. Either they aren’t attractive enough, or they don’t make enough money, or whatever. Why would I want to be friends with someone who didn’t think I was good enough? Why would I want to be friends with someone *I* didn’t think was good enough for me? If you aren’t getting what you want out of a relationship, then leave. Nobody has any right to try to keep you in a situation where you aren’t happy.

    It isn’t just about the male sex drive. I think this argument over-all severely underestimates male pride.

  27. Great article. I think the perception that hetero men can’t be “just friends” with women is an indication of just how love-starved most men are and how unworthy they feel; particularly young men. Because often the only place they can get affection and validation is from romantic relationships, and because their sex drive is so strong, they can’t help but conflate the two. If they weren’t desperate to find a deeper love and acceptance, they might not be so ready to risk complicating a friendship.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] famed exchange in When Harry Met Sally about the possibilities of male-female nonsexual friendship: Harry Was Wrong: Lust Doesn’t Have to Ruin a Platonic Friendship. [...]

  2. [...] since we’ve discussed sex in the Wednesday Weigh-In. Over the Good Men Project, Hugo Schwyzer challenges the conventional wisdom that you can’t be friends with someone to whom you’re sexually [...]

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