Can men and women just be friends?

Can men and women just be close friends or is it inevitable that it will eventually end up in a sexual relationship or the two becoming estranged? This was, of course, the question that was central to the 1989 hit comedy film When Harry Met Sally and as I recall the answer given in the film was the former. But Johanna Leggatt argues that not only is a close non-sexual relationship possible, she feels that a desirable quality that she looks for in a man is that he have female friends.

When women are single, and they would rather not be, they will often talk about what they’re looking for in a relationship. What they will and will not put up with, where the lines are.

My own chief criterion has always been about whether or not he has any female friends. And by friends, I don’t mean women he is hoping to one day wear down to date or sleep with. When I met my partner, this was one of the many things I liked about him. He had male friends, yes, but lots of female friends, too, many of whom he is still close to. Some people asked me tentatively if I was OK with it. Of course, I replied, why wouldn’t I be? Well, you know men, they would say, they can’t help themselves.

And that is of course the issue, that society has still not quite come to terms with the fact that two unrelated members of different genders can have a close personal friendship and nothing more, which is a little strange especially these days when same-gender romantic relationships are so common and yet it is assumed that same-gender friendships can be platonic. Why is it that two people of the same gender can have a friendship and do things together but there is social pressure that looks askance when it is people of different genders?

Leggatt continues:

Last year, a Morning Consult poll found most Americans were wary of male-female interactions, with nearly two-thirds saying workers should take “extra caution” around members of the opposite sex. Most stunningly, a majority of women and nearly half of men said it was unacceptable to have dinner or drinks alone with someone of the opposite sex other than their spouse.

This kind of thinking is antithetical to the expansive quality of great friendships, which may not be romantic, but are no less important for it. Any successful and enduring male-female friendship is a tiny rebellion of sorts against anachronistic notions of uncontrollable male desire and the female sirens that lure and distract them.

She argues that not having female friends helps create the conditions of sexual abuse and harassment that we are hearing so much about now because it seems to force men into thinking in purely binary terms and in fact creates a sexual dynamic when there need not be one.

Is it any surprise then that some men see women as either mothers or sex partners? That in their minds womanhood is made up of two distinct and mutually exclusive categories of Madonna and whore?

On the opposite end of this spectrum is the male-female friendship, which involves the whole-hearted recognition of the other person’s humanity and our many shades of grey.

But we are a long way from the kind of climate that Leggatt wishes to see, at least in the US. If a man and a woman go to see films together or eat out or visit museums and attend sporting events, it is not taken as a given that they just happen to share similar tastes in films or food or whatever they do. It is assumed that there must be something more. And that is a pity because it is closing the door on many friendships that can be fulfilling and mutually beneficial and widen our horizons.


  1. anat says

    My husband and I got together thanks to a woman who was then a friend of his. To this day he has some women colleagues he is very close with. They are a positive contribution to our lives.

  2. jazzlet says

    My best friend is male, we’ve been friends for over thirty years, shared houses, and done so much together. Mr Jazz and I were his Best Man when he got married because he couldn’t choose between us.

  3. invivoMark says

    What world are these people living in? Is this just a generational thing, or do I live in such a bubble that I don’t realize how unusual I am? I’m confident I don’t know a single person who would think there was anything wrong with opposite-sex friendships between straight people. There’s never been a time in my life when I only had friends of one sex, and I simply can’t imagine such a world.

  4. says

    I’d say it depends. There have been one or two friendships in my life it was better to end for my mental health. Others I had no problems with.

  5. cartomancer says

    I’ve never really had female friends myself. It’s not that I’ve consciously avoided it, it just hasn’t happened. Of the four friends I do have all of them are male. Though I have no sexual interest in female persons either, so I guess my situation is a little different from that of the people described here. I suppose I just hung out with the other boys at school -- the age when I was making friends -- so it’s somewhat coincidental.

  6. says

    Of course men and women can just be friends, but it does require a strong sense of mutual respect to not step into the intimate zone. One of my best woman friends left her useless drunken husband and I’ve helped her set herself up as an independent person with her own tools and what skills I could teach her. The she recently found a new romantic partner and I wished her all the success in the world and we’re still very good friends, as is my wife.

  7. vucodlak says

    I’m a cis-man, and I’ve always had quite a few friends who are not cis-men. I would estimate that at least half of my friends over the years have been women, perhaps more.

    The very first friends I ever had were girls, and I distinctly remember many of the adults around us making it out like they were romantic relationships. Three-year-olds don’t have romantic relationships, obviously, but even though the adults around us were joking (I hope) about it their attitudes did have an effect on us.

    Thus, my ‘first kiss’ took place when I was 6, with a girl (who was also 6) atop a tractor in my grandfather’s garage. We got in a lot of trouble when my grandfather caught us, but the fact is that we probably wouldn’t have done it at all if all the adults in our lives hadn’t been referring to us as ‘boyfriend’ and ‘girlfriend’ for over a year. And that’s what boyfriends and girlfriends do, right?

    At the very least, our friendship likely wouldn’t have ended without the expectations placed on us by the assumption that boys and girls, even very young ones, couldn’t possibly be friends. We really were just friends; but the labels created a different dynamic that was, ultimately, destructive to our friendship.

    She moved after first grade, but returned in third grade, and we more or less picked up where we had left off. The difference is that in the intervening time she had learned that ‘girlfriends’ are supposed to be jealous if their ‘boyfriends’ spend time with other girls. I had other friends who were girls (which meant I got ridiculous comments about being a ‘ladies-man’ from adults); she got angry when I played with them, and demanded I stop. I refused, and that was the end of our friendship, all because ‘boys and girls can’t be just friends.’

    Jealousy seemed to spread like a plague through the third grade that year, dividing the class along gender lines. I refused to choose, and so I didn’t have a female friend for at least a year after that. I was glad when that ludicrous state of affairs ended towards the end of the next year. I’ve always been more comfortable around women (or girls, when I was a boy), anyway.

  8. Mano Singham says


    In Sri Lanka too the ‘adults’ would tease you unmercifully if you had a friend of a different gender. As a result, little boys and girls would studiously avoid each other even if they were the only age-similar children around.

  9. says

    The short answer is, of course, yes. Some portion of humanity can just be friends with someone that they might otherwise find to be an attractive sexual partner.

    The longer answer is that if the veneer of civilization and reason is thick enough, then the possibility exists at some non-zero point, but, in the end, the Billy Crystal character was pretty much was right.

  10. John Morales says

    “Can men and women just be close siblings or is it inevitable that it will eventually end up in a sexual relationship or the two becoming estranged?”

    (Even in Sri Lanka)

  11. Mano Singham says


    Thanks for the clip! It captured perfectly the central theme of the film and this post.

  12. mnb0 says

    @10Hyphenman: thanks for reminding me why I think that Billy Crystal character a total goof. Surprise: while I’m straight as an arrow there are millions of women I don’t think sexually attractive at all (that doesn’t mean I think them ugly; they just don’t do anything for me in that particular respect) -- so no, sex won’t get a chance to play a role as I don’t want it. Granted, I have been friends with women I actually thought attractive, but we simply decided to not let sex get in the way.

  13. deepak shetty says

    Can men and women just be close friends or is it inevitable that it will eventually end up in a sexual relationship or the two becoming estranged?

    Is this really a serious question ? I know more than 20 women , some of whom I am reasonably close with , yet have had or wanted to have had , sexual relations with one of them. Im guessing while the number may vary , almost all of us have the same answer. I dont know anyone , male or female who has sex with all their close friends or is estranged with them.

  14. says

    I’m transsexual. But even when I was presenting as male, I always enjoyed female company, generally preferring it to male company; and I never understood why there was this assumption that a man and a woman left alone together would inevitably attempt some sort of sexual activity.

    Hell, I’ve even shared beds with both men and women, with no sex expected, let alone involved.

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