August 5, 2008


The term romantic friendship refers to a very close but non-sexual relationship between friends, often involving a degree of physical closeness beyond that common in modern Western societies, for example holding hands, cuddling, and sharing a bed.

Up until the second half of the 19th century, same-sex romantic friendships were considered common and unremarkable in the West, and were distinguished from the then-taboo homosexual relationships. But in the second half of the 19th century, expression of this nature became more rare as physical intimacy between non-sexual partners came to be regarded with anxiety.

Several small groups of advocates and researchers have advocated for the renewed use of the term, or the related term Boston marriage, today. Several lesbian, gay, and feminist authors (such as Lillian Faderman, Stephanie Coontz, Jaclyn Geller and Esther Rothblum) have done academic research on the topic; these authors typically favor the social constructionist view that sexual orientation is a modern, culturally constructed concept.
Historian Stephanie Coontz writes of pre-modern customs in the United States:

Perfectly respectable Victorian women wrote to each other in terms such as
these: ‘I hope for you so much, and feel so eager for you… that the expectation
once more to see your face again, makes me feel hot and feverish.’ They recorded
the ‘furnace blast’ of their ‘passionate attachments’ to each other... They
carved their initials into trees, set flowers in front of one another’s
portraits, danced together, kissed, held hands, and endured intense jealousies
over rivals or small slights... Today if a woman died and her son or husband
found such diaries or letters in her effects, he would probably destroy them in
rage or humiliation. In the nineteenth century, these sentiments were so
respectable that surviving relatives often published them in elegies....
the 1920s] people’s interpretation of physical contact became extraordinarily
‘privatized and sexualized,’ so that all types of touching, kissing, and holding
were seen as sexual foreplay rather than accepted as ordinary means of
communication that carried different meanings in different contexts... It is not
that homosexuality was acceptable before; but now a wider range of behavior
opened a person up to being branded as a homosexual... The romantic friendships
that had existed among many unmarried men in the nineteenth century were no
longer compatible with heterosexual identity.

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