Can a single man and a single woman be friends without sexual tension arising?

I’m a freshman in college, and I see a lot of close male-female friendships.  My question is, if neither is in a relationship, can they be friends without an underlying sexual tension arising?  A lot of people swear that they can, but I don’t believe them.

The Harvard MBA says:

A single man and a single woman can definitely be friends without sexual tension, as long as at least one of them is gay or hideously unattractive.

Otherwise, you’re right and your friends are wrong.  Sex will always be a part of the equation.

In an earlier era, this was called the “When Harry Met Sally” principle, after the hit movie starring Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal.

Unfortunately for the sake of this response, “When Harry Met Sally” was released in 1989, which means you probably weren’t born yet, and are wondering, “Who’s Meg Ryan?” and “Who’s Billy Crystal?”

Regardless, this famous snippet of dialogue is illustrative:

Harry Burns: You realize of course that we could never be friends.
Sally Albright: Why not?
Harry Burns: 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 Albright: That’s not true. I have a number of men friends and there is no sex involved.
Harry Burns: No you don’t.
Sally Albright: Yes I do.
Harry Burns: No you don’t.
Sally Albright: Yes I do.
Harry Burns: You only think you do.
Sally Albright: You say I’m having sex with these men without my knowledge?
Harry Burns: No, what I’m saying is they all WANT to have sex with you.
Sally Albright: They do not.
Harry Burns: Do too.
Sally Albright: They do not.
Harry Burns: Do too.
Sally Albright: How do you know?
Harry Burns: Because no man can be friends with a woman that he finds attractive. He always wants to have sex with her.
Sally Albright: So, you’re saying that a man can be friends with a woman he finds unattractive?
Harry Burns: No. You pretty much want to nail ’em too.
Sally Albright: What if THEY don’t want to have sex with YOU?
Harry Burns: Doesn’t matter because the sex thing is already out there so the friendship is ultimately doomed and that is the end of the story.
Sally Albright: Well, I guess we’re not going to be friends then.
Harry Burns: I guess not.
Sally Albright: That’s too bad. You were the only person I knew in New York.  

Humorous, but true.

Trying to deny the existence of the sex drive is absurd.  Sex is nature’s way of fooling us into having kids.  Given the hassle and risks of childbearing, I’m pretty sure that if we humans didn’t have an overwhelming urge to bone, the entire population would die out within 100 years.

In the old days, this wasn’t a big deal.  By the time you were old enough to have sex, you were pretty much expected to get married and start a family.  Marrying a 21-year-old was like getting hitched to Demi Moore.

Unfortunately, modern life has made a hash of the whole business.  Plentiful food (and possibly hormone-laced milk) is causing kids to mature at an earlier age.  At the same time, marriage and childbearing are being deferred later and later.  Rather than becoming sexually mature and getting married at 16, now you hit puberty at 10, and don’t have kids until your late 30s.

Small wonder that abstinence-only sex education has been a miserable failure.

Now take a bunch of males and females at the peak of their sexual voracity, put them together in shared housing (usually with coed floors), remove all parental supervision, sprinkle liberally with a porn-infused pop culture, and add a generous dollop of judgement-impairing alcohol and drugs.

Basically, my friend, you live in a sexual powderkeg.  It’s frankly amazing that the average Friday night at the dining hall doesn’t devolve into a massive Roman orgy.

I can’t speak for teenaged girls, but as a former teenaged boy, I can testify to the truth of Harry’s assertion.  Alas, just because said tension exists, doesn’t mean it’s always acted on!


  1. Alex
    Posted May 11, 2008 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    This topic comes up a lot – my answer is that its a good rule of thumb but it has its exceptions. Most people can think of at least one. Still, many women are too quick to think their life is full of such exceptions.

  2. Mihaï
    Posted May 17, 2008 at 7:14 am | Permalink

    What about the relation of tutoring between a man and a woman?

    Is the tutoring relation a way to relax the sexual tension?, or everybody is prone to the Oedipus complex?

  3. Jeremiah
    Posted May 17, 2008 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    Came here via penelope’s blog and i had to bookmark you after reading “Roman orgy”…looking forward to more

  4. admin
    Posted May 18, 2008 at 6:09 am | Permalink


    I’m afraid that a tutor/student or teacher/student relationship is no bar to sexual tension. If anything, it probably adds to the provocation.

    Boys everywhere fantasize about hot young teachers, and girls love handsome young professors.

    When I was a tutor at Stanford, several of my female students developed crushes on me. (These were confirmed by either direct communication or from trusted sources)

    Naturally, given the ethics involved, I never become romantically involved with any of my students while we had a professional relationship, but many of my colleagues did not show the same restraint!

  5. admin
    Posted May 18, 2008 at 6:10 am | Permalink


    I will endeavor to work in as many “Roman orgy” references as I can, but a lot depends on the questions that people ask!

  6. Matt P.
    Posted May 19, 2008 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    I think this is probably true – at some point the thought is going to cross one of your minds. On the other hand, there is no reason why you can’t be friends despite sexual tension – whether or not you act on it.

  7. Greg
    Posted May 20, 2008 at 1:43 am | Permalink

    I definitely disagree. I am single, not gay and am able to communicate and get along with women that I consider friends with no sexual leanings at all. Yes, if the woman happens to be very attractive to me, then the issue becomes more difficult. However, if there isnt that sexual attraction….I dont find it hard at all!!

  8. Posted May 20, 2008 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    So does that mean there is sexual tension between you & Penelope?

  9. admin
    Posted May 20, 2008 at 2:15 pm | Permalink


    There is no tension between Penelope and I because I’m happily married, which puts me in the “not single” category.

    As a married man, I am an honorary eunuch to other women, which makes me safe for platonic friendship (at least with those women who have some sense of morals).

    On the other hand, Ben is definitely *not* married, so draw your own conclusions.

    “Koo koo cachew, Mrs. Robinson…”

    I kid, I kid.

  10. admin
    Posted May 20, 2008 at 9:40 pm | Permalink


    By definition, if you find a woman completely unattractive, then there isn’t a problem.

    But my guess is that any woman you find unattractive is probably unattractive in an absolute sense.

    This situation then falls under my original assertion, “A single man and a single woman can definitely be friends without sexual tension, as long as at least one of them is gay or hideously unattractive.”

  11. chris
    Posted April 20, 2009 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    great article, but then if you can tell the guy is attracted to you, why won’t he act on it?

  12. admin
    Posted April 20, 2009 at 10:16 pm | Permalink


    There are three reasons a guy wouldn’t make a move on a woman he’s attracted to:

    1) He’s already involved with someone else

    2) Her dad/brother/ex told him they’d kill him if he made a move on her

    3) He doesn’t think she’d reciprocate

    Why not make a move on him? If the issue is 1) or 2), he’ll tell you. If the issue is 3), problem solved!

  13. PR
    Posted May 6, 2009 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

    What’s with the comment about Demi Moore being ancient? I for one still think she’s hot. Some of us actually do like older ladies who have stayed in shape. And I will point out that older ladies usually know what they’re doing and tend to be generous with favors, unlike so many young hotties.

  14. admin
    Posted May 7, 2009 at 5:42 pm | Permalink


    I also think that Demi Moore is hot, and I love older women (in a figurative sense). Just making the point that she is definitely older than she once was.

    But when you go to college when you’re 15, you’d better like older women, or you end up facing statutory charges pretty darn quick.

  15. It'scomplicated
    Posted July 1, 2011 at 12:20 am | Permalink

    OK, I have the perfect example, ME! My best friend happens to be a straight man. When we met, he was not involved and neither was I, but we both liked other people at the time (relationships that didn’t work out) I did develop a crush on him that lasted over 8 months, but has slowly faded. As we have both maintained clear, we are only friends (I lied when he asked before). However, we have hooked up (never gone all the way, 3rd base is the most) twice, and both times he was drunk. We make jokes about it, and he emphasizes our FRIENDship all the time. I guess it’s important for you guys to know I had never being with a guy before, in fact, he gave me my first kiss (which is honestly why I think I developed the crush). We talk about everything, there is no holding back, and that is priceless in a friendship. I have tried to introduce him to girls that I think are a good match for him, but it never works out (he is a bit of a man-whore, and is very emotionally damaged by his first and only relationship when he was in HS), he keeos saying if he knew guys that are good enough for me he would introduce me to them, but that has not happen…ever! And he is very overprotective, which he cover on our “brother-sister” affection.
    So, analyze away and please enlighten me a little bit…I would love to listen to your responds. (I know this is an old blog, but hopefully you guys are interested)
    Oh and we are 25 years old…I know, shameful!

  16. pent up
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    i gave up on that a long time ago i was in this good christian church,
    i got to know this girl but the more i knew her she was turning into a pcycho person. wigging out at little thing’s and then running away if you said something wrong to her.

2 Trackbacks

  1. By Jackie Danicki » Platonic, schmlatonic on May 11, 2008 at 7:41 pm

    […] from Ask the Harvard MBA, on whether or not it’s possible for men and women to have strictly platonic friendships. The short answer, from my shrink is: No, because it would be counter-evolutionary; the tension is […]

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