*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].