Sunday, September 30, 2007

Whatever happened to platonic relationships?

This is the text of my That's Men for You column in The Irish Times on Tuesday, 25th September, 2007:

Platonic relationships are little talked about today. Whether they are between men and women, women and women or men and men they are likely to be seen as a sort of cover for a sexual relationship.

For many centuries, the non-sexual platonic relationship was quite accepted. But in the 20th Century, a growing scepticism about the possibility of passionate affection without sex has made such relationships unfashionable.

When the BBC’s Woman’s Hour recently broadcast two programmes on platonic relationships, the programme makers appeared to regard these as relationships in which one or the other partner either would not or could not have sex, though the other person in the equation still wanted it. (First programme is here. Second programme is here.)

Sometimes the decision not to have sex was made by the man, sometimes by the woman. Their partners said they missed the affection that went with sex.

In a sense the programmes were misnamed. A platonic relationship in the sense derived from philosophers such as Plato and Socrates involves a deep feeling, even a passion for the other person. It is non-sexual but the passion is there nevertheless.

When the American poet Emily Dickinson wrote to her friend Sue Gilbert in the 19th Century, “If you were here - and Oh that you were, my Susie, we need not talk at all, our eyes would whisper for us, and your hand fast in mine we would not ask for language... I try to bring you nearer...” she was expressing a platonic relationship. There is no reason to believe there was any sexual wish involved.

And when, three centuries earlier, Shakespeare wrote to his “Fair Lord” in one of 126 sonnets addressed to him,

"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate."

this was not taken at the time to refer to homosexual love in the sexual sense.

So what is the state of the platonic relationship today? I have no doubt that such relationships are more likely to be found between men and women than between men and men or between women and women.

If your same-sex friend was to tell you, in the equivalent 21st Century language, that “we need not talk at all, our eyes will whisper for us” or “thou art more lovely and temperate than a summer’s day” you would be likely to assume that this person fancied you and wanted to get you into his or her bed. And that assumption, in most cases, would wreck the relationship.

For men and women to have a non-sexual, deep relationship on the other hand is not all that uncommon.

When two friends in the UK, Susie King and her friend Jeanne, set up a website called they found that half the people who joined up were men. The website describes itself as “celebrating celibate, platonic, non-physical or partly physical relationships, where you can meet other like-minded people, explore a holistic, integrated lifestyle and get ideas of where to look for support.”

Susie told Woman’s Hour that what people most miss in a sex-free relationship is the affection linked with sex, the cuddles and intimacy. I think this again is a new, 21st Century definition of the platonic friendship. In the old definition deep affection, though it might not be physical, would have been regarded as something without which the platonic relationship simply would not exist.

People who have seen sex leave their relationships for medical reasons also miss the physical affection, yet there is no particular reason why that level of affection should not continue. Again, it is a peculiarly 20th and 21st Century idea that physical affection is necessarily a prelude to sex.

If the concept of the platonic relationship has lasted so long I think it is because it meets a need in humans for a close relationship with another which doesn’t necessarily have to include sex.

So the next time you hear people sniggering about somebody having a platonic relationship with somebody else, remember that it might just be a more genuine and deep relationship than any currently experienced by the people doing the sniggering....

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