“Platonic love” is a problematic term.

I do my best, these days, to avoid using it. Let me tell you why.

First of all, the original meaning of “platonic love” comes from Plato’s The Symposium, where the ideal kind of love was described as a kind redirecting the lover’s focus from the beloved (and sex with the beloved) to “the divine” or “philosophy,” basically to an interaction of the mind or some outside pursuit of knowledge. Plato (and Socrates) did not mean to exclude sexuality altogether from this ideal. They condemned the kind of erotic love that keeps two people obsessed with sex and each other’s body, to the point of neglecting those higher ideas, pursuits, etc, but they did not quite say that the ideal love is totally nonsexual.

The contemporary use of the term “platonic love” is obviously an inaccurate one. It is not true to Plato’s philosophy. In English, we understand “platonic love” to mean love that is not sexual—and that’s problematic for reasons beyond the disconnect to the original idea.

Usually, when people use the term “platonic love” to describe love that isn’t sexual, a simultaneous lack of romance is implicit too. In other words, if you “platonically” love someone, you don’t want to have sex with them and you don’t want to be a couple either. This usage does absolutely nothing to acknowledge the complexities of possible relationships. It conflates romance and sex and makes couplehood or primary partnerships synonymous with a romantic-sexual relationship.

Here’s the thing:

  • You can have a romantic nonsexual relationship.
  • You can have a nonromantic sexual relationship.
  • You can have a nonromantic nonsexual relationship.

Everybody would probably agree that the last kind—a nonromantic, nonsexual relationship—is “platonic.” But what about the other two? If we use the word “platonic” to mean a nonsexual relationship, then the romantic nature of the relationship makes no difference, but ask any romantic asexual or cross-orientation sexual person if their nonsexual romances fit into their understanding of “platonic love,” and they’ll most likely say, “No.” Then, there’s the nonromantic sexual relationship. Is that “platonic” because it doesn’t involve romantic feelings, despite the fact it’s sexual? The problem you’re most likely to run into if you love someone you have sex with but don’t have romantic feelings for them is that no one can believe that nonromantic love and sex can coexist in the first place. To say, “I ‘platonically’ love this person I’m fucking” just sounds weird and dishonest, to most people. You can have sex with someone you don’t love at all, but if you do love that person, the impulse is to label it “romantic” love.

Of course, all three types of relationships can’t be called “platonic” if we go by the original, actual meaning of “platonic love.” But because the term has already adopted its erroneous meaning on a widespread level, we can’t really go back to the true meaning either. “Platonic” probably got hijacked to describe nonsexual love because it’s useful to have a qualifier for the word “love” in English when we have such a fucked up, poor habit of using it to exclusively mean romantic-sexual love and otherwise, tossing it around in the vaguest ways possible.

It’s nice to have a way of saying “I love this person nonsexually and nonromantically” without actually phrasing it like that, simply because what I just wrote is wordy, clunky, etc. People like it when language flows, when we can get our point across in a way that’s short and sweet, but when it comes to emotions and relationships, this “short and sweet and simple” linguistic approach only holds us back. Emotions, love, and relationships are NOT short, simple, and sweet. There’s nothing more complex in our experience. It’s utterly fucking ridiculous that we’re so reluctant to use more sophisticated language to talk about love and relationships, when our actual experiences of them are frequently complicated as hell.

The asexual community inadvertently points out that the “romantic-sexual/platonic” love dichotomy is useless, problematic, and inapplicable for a lot of people. Romantic asexuals, whether they consent to sex or not, love their romantic partners romantically but not sexually. They would not use the term “platonic love” to describe their romantic feelings, even though those feelings stand without sexual desire/attraction. Cross-orientation sexual people can say the same of their romantic attachments.

Likewise, aromantic sexual people run into the problem of labeling their relationships/feelings when they have sex without ever feeling romantic love for their sexual partners, no matter how much they care. Yet obviously, you can’t really categorize a nonromantic sexual relationship into the same box as your nonromantic nonsexual relationships. Calling them all “platonic” misses the differences between the two, both sexually and emotionally.

Then, there are the aromantic asexuals and aromantic sexual people who want primary nonromantic partnership, aromantics whose nonromantic love for others can be just as intense as textbook romance. And almost no one understands them and what they want or how they feel because in the world’s understanding of love and relationships, if you don’t love someone romantically, you love them “platonically,” which means that you want to be friends and not a “couple,” because only romantic-sexual pairs can be couples with a primary relationship.

“Platonic love” is usually equated to friendship in our minds. If you love someone “as a friend,” meaning you don’t want them sexually or romantically, that love is “platonic.” Except—people do sometimes love their friends nonromantically but want to fuck them (and do!). And it’s now a very common thing in 21st century English-speaking societies to conceive of the ideal romantic-sexual relationship as inclusive of friendship anyway (which is a relatively new idea in civilization and still doesn’t exist in many different countries all over the world). I also happen to think that you can love someone romantically without being friends, just as you can be sexually involved with someone who isn’t your friend. So which relationships are “platonic” and which aren’t? And if they aren’t “platonic” but they aren’t “romantic,” then what are they?

What Plato was getting at in The Symposium was essentially: the ideal love may include sex but the intellectually-based friendship in it is far more important, without which the relationship is base and carnal in a way we shouldn’t settle for. The main problem with using “platonic love” to mean friendship is that friendship itself is the most ambiguous kind of connection between two people in the first place! I say this as someone who has been studying friendship and nonsexual love for years, from literary, historical, and philosophical perspectives. Philosophy in particular makes a big deal about the ambiguity of friendship. Erotic love is relatively simple in comparison!

The “romantic-sexual/platonic” love dichotomy leaves no room for the real emotional nuances people experience in their attachments, and I think that it often causes us to live with simplified relationships not because we want to or because we have simple desires and feelings but because we have no experience, cultural context, or language to accommodate a complex social life or set of relationships. This is why language is so important. This is why words and labels matter. How can you have the kind of relationships you want with anyone, if you don’t even have the words to accurately express how you feel? Hell, half the time, people don’t even understand their own feelings and relationship desires because what they feel is not simple at all, but the only relationship framework they know makes everything seem simple and clear cut: romance and sex go together, friendship is separate from both of those things, couplehood/primary partnership is exclusive to romance and sex, etc.

But if we are to accept the possibilities and realities of asexual romance, primary nonsexual/nonromantic love, nonromantic sex and sexual friendship, romantic (nonsexual) friendship, queerplatonic nonsexual relationships and sexual relationships, etc…. we have to drop this way of thinking and speaking about relationships and love in a romantic-sexual/platonic dichotomous way. None of those “complex” relationships fit into that model, which is why the average romantic-sexual person who has no exposure to anything other than normative relationship style will almost always react to those other kinds of relationships with total confusion, rejection, etc.

Unfortunately, I don’t have an alternative to “platonic”, for describing nonsexual/nonromantic love or nonromantic love coexisting with sex or primary partners who are neither sexually nor romantically involved. Right now, I’m just going through the trouble of saying “nonsexual” and “nonromantic.” The one thing I like about using those words is their specificity. They clearly communicate what I mean, with no room for confusion other than the kind that might arise when the relationship or love in question appears “complicated” to someone else. If a relationship is romantic but nonsexual, I’ll say so. If it’s nonromantic but sexual, I’ll say so. If it’s nonromantic and nonsexual, I’ll say so. Clarity is worth a little wordiness.