Strictly Platonic

Jeff Responds …

A platonic friendship, from the man’s perspective.

Juliet and Jeff with their significant others, summer 2009

As a former film major, I can understand why someone would look at that photo of me and Juliet from 2001 and imagine a Pretty in Pink backstory: a teenage boy hopelessly in love with his best friend, but never able to tell her. When you’re interpreting art, you’re supposed to take cues from limited information and make assumptions about what exists outside of the frame. But real people and real relationships are never as simple as characters in movies and books. Even I don’t remember exactly what I was thinking when I put my arm around Juliet for that photograph at a summer camp reunion. I can only guess that it was something similar to what ran through my mind all the other times I’ve put my arm around friends for photos: cheese.

Here’s what I can say for sure: I currently have no desire for any form of romantic relationship with Juliet, and haven’t for a very long time. That was the point of Juliet’s series—that a boy and a girl, a man and a woman, can have a friendship that is sincerely platonic, and that the “sex part” doesn’t always get in the way. Yet many readers have taken issue with her basic premise: No such relationship can ever exist, they say. Either the man is secretly in love with the woman, or he secretly wants to have sex with her. Or maybe he’s gay. How come we’re not hearing Jeff’s side of the story, they asked again and again. As if I had something to hide.

Well, I don’t. At no point does Juliet argue that a platonic friendship means no attraction ever. Obviously I did feel something at one point—at least enough to kiss her a couple of times. And so did she. Perhaps the question is why we were able to develop such a meaningful friendship afterexploring a potential romance. Here, I can only speculate because my 13-year-old feelings are almost as obscure to me as they are to Slate’s readers. My recollection is that the level of my physical attraction to Juliet when we were teenagers was somewhere close to indifference. There were girls whom I pined after and Juliet wasn’t one of them. It’s not that I found her unattractive, but both times we kissed, I would rather have been with someone else. (Our first kiss was instigated by the social pressure to have someone—anyone!—for a Fourth of July fireworks make-out session. I think we “broke up” the next day.)

I feel comfortable saying these things about my good friend because I’m as certain as one can be that she felt the same way about me. She has told me as much over the years, and her assertions have been corroborated by the guys I’ve witnessed her date. Despite being “physical matches”—that’s how Juliet described us in her piece—we are not each other’s “romantic types.” For a brief moment in 1996, we were backup-options-come-to-fruition.

In other words, I agree with those who wonder why a straight man and woman who are emotionally, intellectually, and physically attracted to each other would choose to have a friendship without sex. The only way this would make sense is if there were logistical issues keeping them apart. Maybe if one or both were seeing someone else.

But I disagree with others who suggest that any straight man would rather have sex with any woman than pursue another kind of relationship. I’m sure there are some men like that. It’s called having no standards. As for me, besides Juliet I have other very close female friends with whom I have never pursued any kind of physical relationship—because I’m not physically attracted to them.

Juliet and I had plenty of opportunities to consummate a romantic relationship. But we weren’t physically attracted to each other in any significant way, and as a result, we were able to explore a different kind of relationship. Having known Juliet as a platonic friend for 14 years now, our familiarity with each other is like that of a brother and sister. So even if, say, our appearances or our tastes morphed over the years to a point where we became physically attracted to each other, it’s now inconceivable that we’d get together. Hence, the male-female platonic friendship becomes not only intermittently possible (as in When Harry Met Sally …), but sustainable over the long term. What might happen to our friendship if and when we get married (to other people) remains to be seen.

None of this negates what I take Juliet’s thesis to be. Her point is not that we are some kind of ideal poster couple for the Platonic Friendship, but rather that what we have a) was not always possible, and b) is, even now, assumed by many to be impossible. The second half of this thesis has been proven many times over in the comments section to her article.

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