*The other day on a television news program, comic/actor Steve Harvey,   promoting his newest I’m-tellin’-you-like-it-’tis  book on the man/woman relationship,  made it official: Men cannot have friendships with women.     

Harvey, who hosts the TV game show, “Family Feud,”  said that no matter what men say,  if  they could, they’d most likely have sex with  women they call their platonic friends.  The carnal  urge, he insists, is just too strong.  

It is for this reason that Steve Harvey says he has no female friends.  None. Women are  always surprised  to hear  this particular nugget of relationship factuality, he said, but he’s just keeping it real.

Harvey’s stance struck me because (a)  he says what I’ve long told  women about a certain kind of man and (b)  because, when declared out loud, as  Harvey did, with placid temerity, on national television, no less,   the very idea that many men   cannot  be friends with women–that they don’t allow themselves to–sounds like sheer and utter lunacy.

It’s not like asking lions, wildebeest  and crocodiles to hang out together.  Men and women  are  human beings.  We’re supposed to be intelligent, with the ability to reason.   Men should be able to get along with the opposite sex, unencumbered by the crazy urge to insert  our penises in them.    

Harvey did allow that his solemn  pronouncement isn’t true of all men–only “99.9” percent.  Which leaves in the other column just me–of course, I’d say me, I’m writing this–and maybe five other guys.

I do have female friends I find physically attractive that  I’ve never hit on.  There is no sexual tension.  There isn’t The Game.  We  discuss  a myriad of  topics,  including sex, without me suddenly trying to make it about us or  secretly yearning for something physical.  I can do this without being in a cage, behind a fence or chained up.

However, based on the boys and men I’ve known in my life, I am clear on the fact  that  when  many of them see or meet a female they find attractive,  be it classmate, coworker, neighbor  or convicted  murderer,  often the first thoughts are of  sex.

Manhood, among many great virtues,  has also bestowed man the undiscriminating  compulsion  to see a female, almost any female, and  say to ourselves, “Hmmm.…” And it’s not enough that  we can think this way on our own; there is pressure from other men for us  to be this way, too.

The first time I recall feeling that  pressure was in  the late ’70s,  when  I met  Charlene.  I was in my mid 20s, in Los Angles writing about pop music.  “Charlie,”  born two days before me, had migrated  from her family’s farm in upstate New York.

We met while she was a  personal assistant  at  a high-powered  entertainment public relations firm.  Her boss was someone I had to deal with often, and before doing so, either on the phone or when visiting  his office, I’d chat with Charlie. What did she think of the new Caldera album?…Did I really see the Temptations, after leaving Motown, being  successful at Atlantic? (a resounding no, it turned out). I loved that she was as curious about  the music industry as I was.

It was Charlie who suggested  lunch  one day at the sandwich shop in the Sunset Blvd.  building  where she worked. Effortlessly,  we gabbed about  the melody and the groove,  our personal lives and the fickle, breathtaking ways of the City of Angels. Somehow, over tuna salad on wheat and pastrami on rye, and without actually spelling it out, Charlie artfully established the perimeters of our relationship: we’d be buddies.

I was doing a pretty good job of buddying, too,  until one night at the Roxy Theater. Having enjoyed a great set by Roy Ayers Ubiquity, I was waiting for Charlie to emerge from the ladies room, when a male writer friend of mine came over. “Congratulations, brother,” he said, grinning wickedly and pushing his gold rim glasses up on his nose.  “I know you’re tearing that up.”

“Actually, I’m not,”  I said. “We’re just friends.” I felt a bit embarrassed, as if I should have a more exciting  revelation to offer.    

“Right.  Listen, you’d be pokin’ that  if she was your own  sister, and no man on the planet would be mad at you.”  Gee.  

I should  mention here  that  I   did find Charlie physically attractive.  With a short, curly brown afro,  big, forever inquisitive brown eyes and  a distinctively winsome little face,  the lithe,  bronze 5’11 Charlie  routinely stopped rooms and street traffic.  

My writer friend  didn’t invent my amorous thoughts  of Charlie. However, his  purposefully lascivious remarks and  grunts  made me reconsider my position.  What was the point in knowing a pretty lady if I couldn’t have more with her?

In the weeks to come, my hints were like rat droppings–not immediately apparent, but  disappointing when  identified.  “For a second I thought someone had stolen you from me,” I quipped into the phone after we didn’t talk for  a week. At the Hollywood Bowl, literally bringing up the rear as we climbed  the steps to our seats, I remarked, “The manufacturer of those jeans would be proud right now.” Groan.

Using wit or feigned ignorance,  Charlie would vaporize my tacky jibes no sooner than they left the launch pad.  Sometimes, she simply didn’t say anything.

However, the straw that broke the gazelle’s  back came  during a glamorous  Motown listening party for the Commodores one warm and sexy evening at the Design Center in West Hollywood.  My writer friend  lit  upon our table and said something flirty and  uncouth to Charlie. Instead of allowing his words to fall flat, I impishly endorsed them.

Charlie laughed with us, but as her smile  waned,   in her face I could see a light dimming and  a door closing.  Fading before my misguided machismo was the rare access I’d been given to  the intimate, unfettered  thoughts, hopes, dreams,  whims, silliness  and seriousness that Charlie shared with me as her friend.

To her, I’d been a sho-nuff  anomaly–a  guy  she thought she could trust and communicate  with freely,  who didn’t seem to want to have sex with her. Until  now.    

After that night,  Charlie  treated me the way women handle certain male “friends” whose perpetual horniness, no matter how  muted,  women can intuitively smell over so much cologne.

She was friendly, but ever wary and never again completely relaxed,  unsure of when, amidst a lively discourse regarding politics, the best  ribs in town or the Mahavishnu  Orchestra, my penis might rudely  interject. I’d betrayed her.

Three years after she’d come to L.A., Charlie packed it in and  returned  to her family’s  New York farm.  There,  the animals wouldn’t  bullshit her  and no one asked  if she’d considered modeling.

I heard Steve Harvey’s words the other day and pondered the lesson Charlie presented me years earlier.

I can only imagine  who and where I’d be if I earnestly and systematically denied myself the opportunity to relate to all people, no matter their race, gender, size or taste in clothes.

Can I still  meet a stranger who is female and  have a particular  thought?  Sometimes.  I am a man. However, today  I am certain that the key to completely knowing myself as a whole and healthy human being lies in my willingness to know a woman as a human being first and nothing more.

In the meantime, I am gratified that some of the most important things I know and understand  about women  come from the minds and hearts of women.  Friendship, true and unyielding, is a mighty and wonderful thing.

Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love  (Simon & Schuster),  has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].