Why I Dislike The Term “Platonic Relationships”


There have been quite a few articles and blog posts lately discussing whether men and women can have friendships without sexual desire getting in the way. There’s something in them that I see over and over that annoys me.

Quite often, the shorthand for non-sexual friendships is a “platonic relationship.” Of course, that’s generally used to discuss male/female friendships, though the issue of non-sexual same-gender friendships for gays and lesbians does have some similarities. But what bothers me, regardless of the gender or sexual orientation combination is the idea that a non-sexual friendship is “platonic.”

If you’re not familiar with the history of the word, the Platonic Ideal comes from Plato’s Theory of Forms. Plato thought that the things that we perceive in the world are a dim, imperfect reflection of the ideal. So the trees that we see are like fuzzy photocopies of the ideal, abstract tree that exists in a state of perfection.

The idea behind Platonic love is that:

the most correct use of love of other human beings is to direct one’s mind to love of divinity. In short, with genuine platonic love, the beautiful or lovely other person inspires the mind and the soul and directs one’s attention to spiritual things.

Granted, this definition comes from wikipedia, but you get the idea. So at the root of the term is the idea that sexual interactions sully the more pure form of love that people should strive for. The notion that having sex makes a relationship less pure is solidly grounded in the belief that sex somehow taints or soils it. Seems pretty sex-negative to me.

I certainly don’t think it’s a problem to discuss non-sexual relationships, to explore how they differ from sexual ones, or to examine the challenges and rewards they offer. And I know that most people who use the term “Platonic relationship” are unaware of its erotophobic history. But it’s still there and I see no reason to reinforce it.

And anyway, calling it a Platonic relationship rather than a non-sexual relationship is a euphemism. There’s no reason to hide what we’re talking about behind a veil. I’d much rather use language that makes it clear what we’re discussing: non-sexual relationships.

So I invite you to stop calling them “Platonic relationships.” They’re no more pure than sexual relationships and we don’t need to keep reinforcing the idea that they are.

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7 Responses so far.

  1. Plus, the phrase is pretty hilarious in terms of Plato’s actual relationships. 

  2. Craig Carley says:

    Here’s another quick reference: IEP-Entry Platonic Love.

    I’m no Platonist.

  3. I’m not so sure that “Platonic” necessarily equates with “erotophobic,” even if Plato himself may have been so.

    I invite you, in turn, to consider that there may be a spectrum of “Platonic” love, with the erotophobic style at the pathological end of that spectrum.  Perhaps it is possible that, with a particular focus on divinity—I’m thinking here of states variously described as non-dual, equanimous, cosmic—the opposite end of the spectrum represents a state where one is not rejecting eroticism, but more transcending it.  Not a rejection so much as a lack of interest, focus, or attachment.

    If this is true, then a given run-of-the-mill, colloquial “Platonic relationship” could fall anywhere along that spectrum, without needing to be pathologized.

    Also, it seems that you are assigning a value judgment to the idea of “purity,” though again Plato may just agree with you there as well.  For something to be “pure” simply means that it is nothing other than itself.  If one is striving for a life of X, whether sexual relationship are pure or impure in that context depends solely on whether sex is or is not a subset of X.  FWIW, I don’t personally see sexuality as incompatible with divinity, but to each their own; and even there, the entanglements that generally accompany sexual (or sometimes even “Platonic”) relationships can impede spiritual practice on occasion merely by providing powerful distractions.

  4. Charlie says:

    Frater Pralixus, that still begs the question- why is non-sexual love or a non-sexual relationship seen as more pure than a sexual one? What is it about sex that moves it away from the Platonic Ideal? Of course, many people who use the term don’t know that it refers to the Platonic Ideal, but that doesn’t change the point I’m making.

    I do assign a value to the idea of purity because sex is consistently seen as incompatible with purity. I think the links between that and sex-negativity are pretty clear.

    I agree with you that there’s a whole range of forms that non-sexual relationships can take and that there’s no reason to pathologize any of them. And there’s also no reason to privilege any of them or even (IMO) see them on a spectrum. They are what they are and we don’t need to grade them based on how much erotic/sexual energy or attachment there is.

  5. When it come to Purity Balls, I think they’re misusing the term “purity” (and in a rather amusing way as well: they’re probably all tea-baggers).  I totally get you that this whole thing is usually evidence of sex-negativity.  However,

    Charlie: why is non-sexual love or a non-sexual relationship seen as more pure than a sexual one?

    Let’s suppose for a moment that for a particular person or group, the spiritual goal is to love everyone (or even everything) equally.  If we posit further that they are not erotophobic, in that they see sexuality in all its variety as an expression of love, we can see that, for those who are choosing the path of equanimity, sexuality becomes a hindrance.  It is manifestly impossible to have equal sexual relations with everyone: without even having to get to the issue of consent, there simply isn’t time to meet, let alone fuck, 6 billion people. Going back again to the concept of purity as “that which is nothing other than itself”—e.g., “pure gold” is nothing but gold—we also can see that it is exceedingly rare to have a “purely sexual” relationship.  Even most sex-workers generally engage in something additional to sex, even if it’s only a quick conversation or financial transaction.  The only example of “purely sexual” I can even think of would be a glory hole. A key element of the problem you seem to be seeking to address is IMHO not so much the (largely incorrect) use of the term “Platonic” to mean “non-sexual” (often also a lie, if wishes were fulfilled), but rather the conflation of “pure” with “holy” or “most valuable.” Finally:

    Charlie: They are what they are and we don’t need to grade them based on how much erotic/sexual energy or attachment there is. 

    Everything is what it is.  A purpose of language is to convey information about distinctions.  A language within which all relationships were just “relationship” without such adjectives as “Platonic,” “sexual,” “business,” “casual,” “serious,” etc. would be severely impoverished, even if it served to nullify the negative aspects of judgment—right along with the positive aspects which presumably led you to adjudge the term “Platonic relationship” less than ideal.

  6. Mindet says:

    Very interesting, thank you.  I would decline the invitation right now, since I can’t think of a way of saying “platonic” that doesn’t make it sound like a sexual relationship is the default one (which “non-sexual” does to me), or devalues non-sexual relationships.  For example, I would much rather say that my relationship with someone was platonic than say “we’re just friends”, since that sounds so dismissive.  At least “platonic” doesn’t sound devaluing of anything in itself.
    Food for thought, though, certainly.

  7. Ken says:

    Frater Pralixus,
     I agree with your unspoken admonition to avoid jumping to cinclusions about meaning. Amongst those of us who refrain from such limited thinking, all you have said goes without saying (ironically).

    But for the larger majority of people who use the word platonic and the manner in which they connect to sex, it IS erotophobic. The larger majority of our brethren (and sistren) are caught up in the religious dogma that has taken pure and spiritual to regard anything other as “lesser” or debased.

    Religious doctrine in the Abrahamic faiths paint sex and the corporeal as inherently evil. This paradigm of thought inculcates society so subtly at this point that it is inherent that people regard sex and the erotic as dirty.

    Despite what you write, the terms slut and whore are bandied about with even greater negativity today than ever before.

    Common connotations continue to perpetuate negative attitudes about sex and the body. Fear of HIV and STD’s as well as the consequences of unplanned pregnancy leave the act of sex as no more than a villain. And anyone who desires sex is seen as a demon.

    You are preaching to the choir.

    I believe Charlie is speaking to the unwashed masses and is asking them to think a little less reflexively and be more deliberate about the words they choose.

    Connotation is the rule of the masses and it is disruptive to useful conversation. Particularly when denotation is lost.

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