Thirty years ago this summer, the film When Harry Met Sally was released — and instantly reignited the battle of the sexes with its assertion that men and women can never be ‘just friends’ without the issue of sex rearing its ugly head.
While it all worked out for Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) in the end, the idea sparked furious debate. Today, the state of sexual politics has altered hugely, with increased workplace rights for women, new tolerance of different sexual orientations and, not least, the impact of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment. But has anything really changed? Can men and women be ‘just friends’ in 2019? We asked a team of top writers for their views . . .
MEN MY AGE DON’T MAKE GOOD CHUMS
I hate to say this, but men of my generation who make good friends for women are thin on the ground. They don’t tend to be as interested in women’s innermost thoughts, taking refuge instead in hobbies, military history or shouting at politicians on the television. Female friendships, on the other hand, often centre around exchanges of intimate information.
As When Harry Met Sally (pictured) marks thirty years since its release, top writers debate how social changes since then may have impacted the friendships of men and women
It reminds me of the stats that show men can be reluctant to read novels by women, while women read across gender and genre.
But I can see things will be different for my sons’ generation. They’ve been alongside girls throughout their education and have grown up knowing women provide insight and emotional refuge when male friends are being bullish or obtuse.
They laugh with their female friends and don’t express amazement at the notion a woman can be just as funny as any man. One of my favourite photos is of my 11-year-old, Torrin, in football strip enjoying an improvised foot spa, courtesy of his great friend Elodie.
At that age, Torrin’s father was incarcerated in a brutish prep school where older boys peed on his teddy bear and feelings were not allowed.
I’m thrilled my sons are learning this as they grow up, because when a man of any age does really care about getting to know women — in a non-sexual way — he’s in hot demand. I’ve got a new pal called Max, and he has a zillion female friends, because he’s genuinely interested in what we are thinking and feeling.
That said, some of my dearest man friends are those I slept with years ago.
There’s a bit of a question mark hanging in the air otherwise. I remember one male pal saying after my wedding: ‘As you walked up the aisle all I could think was, “I never slept with her, now I never will!”’
Toby Young whose 14-year-old son doesn’t have a single female friend, argues that men have become afraid to make a pass at women (pictured: Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan star as Harry and Sally in the classic 1989 rom-com)
YOUNG MEN ARE SCARED TO CHAT UP WOMEN
Young Englishmen now daren’t risk making passes at women for fear of being accused of harassment or labelled a sex pest.
If you have any kind of career, women are better feared than loved.
The upshot is that male millennials don’t seem to have as many genuine female friends as my generation did. Instead of going to parties and chatting up members of the opposite sex, they stay at home playing video games. My 14-year-old son doesn’t have a single female friend, unfortunately.
It’s a shame because cross-gender friendships are enriching and beneficial. There are things I can talk to female friends about that I wouldn’t dream of raising with my male friends — such as the romantic lives of our mutual acquaintances.
The #MeToo climate today means my teenage son’s generation has far fewer female friends than we did – and that’s a shame – Toby Young
Same-sex friendships are often complicated by competition, which can be a barrier to intimacy. You don’t want to reveal a vulnerability to someone who might be a rival one day. But no such issues contaminate male-female friendships, which in my experience are more relaxed.
Maybe the benefits of a more heavily policed sexual arena outweigh the costs. But it feels like we declared a truce in the sex war 30 years ago . . . now we’re at each other’s throats again.
MALE PALS ARE MY SOURCE OF SANITY
I detest When Harry Met Sally and one of the things I hate most is its principle that men and women cannot be friends — that and the way Harry thinks he’s the best while being boring, balding and thyroidal. As a lifelong tomboy, I’ve always found (most) men easier than (most) women, just as I find my brothers easier than my sisters.
I adore my sisters, but there’s just so much potential for misunderstanding, so much subtext to every comment. Growing up, girls en masse made me feel claustrophobic; their bitchiness as suffocating as the fog of Elnett hairspray and hormones permeating the school lavatories.
Hannah Betts revealed she hates When Harry Met Sally (pictured) and has often gone on holiday with male friends without a second thought about their gender
My male friends make me feel I can breathe — and this is as true for me at 48 as it was at 18. There’s been no societal change in this respect.
After all, the #MeToo campaign affects abusive maniacs, not normal male-female relationships.
Men friends are my refuge and my source of sanity. I can be frank and receive frankness back, without any bitchiness or hidden meaning. I rely on them however dire the circumstances: when I was sexually assaulted, it wasn’t a female friend I confided in, but a male.
Male friends frequently come on holiday with me and my boyfriend. And we don’t give our gender a second thought — because, really, it’s the least interesting thing about us.
NEVER SLEEP WITH FRIENDS YOU LOVE
When I was 11, a debilitating illness meant I had to take a year off school.
When I returned, pretty much the only person who’d speak to me was a ginger-haired boy called George. This earned him my instant, undying friendship.
For the next two years, we sat together in maths class talking non-stop, and for hours on the phone every night as well.
Emily Hill (pictured) says she’s had to fend off advances from a male friend on more than one occasion
Then, tragedy struck: he watched When Harry Met Sally and declared that men and women can’t be friends. Then he sent me a Valentine’s card declaring his love. Maybe back in the Eighties that could have been the start of a beautiful, lifelong friendship that slowly turned to love. But we live in a more cut-throat world now.
Even at 13, I knew no one ends up with whoever they date in school. I was sure I wanted him in my life for ever. So I said no. Over the years, I watched as he changed from gawky redhead to fully-fledged womaniser.
Harry made it look charming, but George was a demon on the dating apps. At one point he was using Bumble to sleep with eight different women at once.
I fended off his advances a couple of times and I congratulate myself that I did. He’d have broken my heart and we’d never have seen each other again.
Today, we’re still best friends and he’s matured out of his millennial dating ways — probably because he’s finally met the right woman.
Now I’m focusing on making a friend of her, too, so I get two mates for the price of one.
With the divorce rate so high in the 21st century, would Harry and Sally have lasted for ever?
If you love your friends, it might be best not to sleep with them.
ONE MAN ISN’T ALWAYS ENOUGH
I was in my late 30s when Harry met Sally and made clear it was impossible for a man and a woman to be friends. I couldn’t have agreed more. There was one friend — let’s call him Harry.
We worked together without a hint of romance, until one evening we decided to get a bite to eat. An offer to walk me home, a ‘do you want to come up for a coffee?’ and the inevitable kiss.
The next morning I couldn’t wait to get him out of the house and things were uneasy until he changed his job and moved on. It may be rather different now.
Jenni Murray (pictured) says she agreed that it’s impossible for a man and woman to be ‘just friends’ after watching When Harry met Sally
There must be some reluctance for a young man, or plenty of reluctance for an older man, to make an approach to a female colleague, given the power of the #MeToo movement.
No one wants to lay themselves open to any accusation of sexual harassment, so few liaisons are engendered at the office these days. Just about every relationship between young persons of my acquaintance appears to have been started on the internet where sex comes first and, if it works, friendship follows.
But things have changed for my generation as we got older. After years of marriage, you realise one man in your life really isn’t enough — especially when you don’t share the same hobbies.
So you find someone who does, and who’s married himself, and he agrees to be your ‘walker’ for watching rom-coms and all those things your husband hates.
I don’t know if it’s just that I can’t be bothered with fumbling sexual encounters when there’s someone at home who never disappoints, or if people my age have grown out of the need for romance or jealousy, but it works.
MAYBE HARRY WAS ON TO SOMETHING
Long before Billy Crystal said it, Charlie Chaplin did. No man can spend time with a woman without privately measuring ‘the potentiality of sex’ with her. Mind you, he was a famous old goat. We’re not all like that. Or are we?
When I spend an evening out with a woman who’s not my wife, even one of my sisters, I’m always vaguely aware that other people probably think we’re an item.
Do women think that way? Probably not.
Occasionally, as this paper’s film critic, I also like to get a female perspective on a movie I’m seeing.
Brian Viner who says his northern grammar school for boys stunted his emotional growth, revealed he sometimes watches films with dear female friends who aren’t his wife
My wife Jane can’t always come, so from time to time I ask one of her dear friends.
They’re my dear friends too, and so are their husbands, but asking them directly feels awkward.
I ask Jane to ask them on my behalf . . . like being whisked back to the school playground, circa 1969, and asking Alison English if she’ll ask Helen Plumtree if she likes me.
So maybe, while I wouldn’t go nearly as far as Billy Crystal and Charlie Chaplin, they were on to something.
On the other hand, my two sons have lots more close female friends than I ever did — a legacy of going to a co-educational school.
My old-fashioned, northern grammar school for boys stunted my emotional growth for no more than about three decades.
I’M GAY BUT A FEMALE FRIEND FELL FOR ME
I should tell you that I dance on the other side of the ballroom from Harry.
In some ways it’s easier for gay men to have close friends who are female — the yucky side of things will hopefully never intervene.
Having said that, I did have a very good woman friend who I was constantly warned was deeply in love with me.
I pooh-poohed it, but it turned out to be correct. Awkward.
In the gay world, sex doesn’t complicate friendships so much.
Iain Dale (pictured) says several people who he’s had flings with have become lasting friends
In my younger days I had several flings with people who then became friends, and remain so to this day.
And then there’s the other side of the coin. I have a friend I’ve known for close on 20 years.
I’m happily married, he’s been with his partner for more than a decade. But we both know there’s something there.
We’ve never acted on it. If we had, would our friendship have been affected? I doubt it very much.
Iain Dale is appearing at the Edinburgh Fringe from July 31- August 11 in Iain Dale All Talk.
ROMANCE COULD RUIN OUR FRIENDSHIP
I have lots of male friends and insist that platonic friendships between the sexes can flourish.
But things have changed in recent years, and men are more careful since #MeToo. It’s still perfectly possible to be friends, or to be lovers, but young people these days insist on clarifying which is the case.
A young man I know asked my permission to kiss me in a taxi.
I declined — he wasn’t for me, not to mention being around 15 years younger — and I couldn’t help remembering how in my 20s and 30s, men his age used to pounce in taxis (or lifts) without a word of warning.
Ultimately, the core of male and female friendships hasn’t really changed.
I’d guess if I wanted to sleep with my male mates, nearly all would be willing, as men tend to be more opportunistic (particularly artists, who are invariably as randy as bunnies).
Women are more cautious. A dashing, well-known TV presenter has been a close friend of mine for more than ten years — like Harry and Sally, I’d say we have a certain erotic tension, but we have never slept together.
I value his friendship too much to risk romance.