It was a warm night in Brooklyn, N.Y., a few weeks ago, and the gallery reception was winding down when I arrived. The artist, a successful West Coast painter with an encyclopedic knowledge of indie rock, sat with me in a corner drinking wine, sneaking chocolate truffles from behind the bar, and singing along with the Hoodoo Gurus. “I’m so glad you made it,” he said, squeezing my hand. And then we spent the rest of the evening talking about my work and his wife and kids. That’s right: We are red-blooded heterosexuals. And we are not doing it.
Ours is a world where female friendships are celebrated by Oprah and the Traveling Pants and bestsellers like “The Girls From Ames.” The bond between women and their hilarious gay male BFFs has been touted by, well, every romantic comedy ever made. Even gay-straight bromances get their due. But friendships between straight men and women wind up mangled by clichéd claptrap like “The Ugly Truth.” Men are only interested in spreading their seed! Women are uptight prisses! And the only thing to do, of course, is to fall hopelessly in love.
Frankly, I’m a little fed up with it. Some of the deepest, sweetest, most enduring friendships of my life have been with males. Men I went to college with, men I’ve toiled in crappy jobs with, men who stuck around long after I lost touch with the ex-girlfriends who introduced us. Guys who bartend. Guys who play in bands. Guys with black belts. Guys who make stuff with metal and soldering irons. Awesome fracking dudes. But does the radical notion of girl-on-guy friendship get its own greeting card, made-for-TV movie, or Styles section trend piece? Why do straight men so rarely get props for being good buddies?
It’s been exactly 20 years since Billy Crystal eradicated platonic relations, uttering the immortal proclamation in “When Harry Met Sally” that “Men and women can never be friends, because sex always gets in the way.” But Harry missed the point (for which his punishment was to wind up with Meg Ryan’s high-maintenance flibbertigibbet Sally). Sex doesn’t get in the way of male-female friendship — sex is just along the way. Even the most platonic of friendships smolder from time to time from the embers of attraction, and sometimes friends wind up becoming lovers (they often make the best ones). So what? Most rational adults can accommodate an array of feelings without acting on all of them. Even when they do, ex-lovers can wind up the tenderest of friends.
Yet that suspicion of opposite sex fraternization, that notion that anything between a straight man and woman is inherently prurient/doomed, persists. I know women who cluster defensively together on the playground, eyeing any male in their sightline as an interloper. I know men who seem incapable of carrying on a conversation with any woman who isn’t a colleague or potential conquest. For those people, life is an eternal junior high dance, each side firmly planted on its own side of the gymnasium, and a presumed hotbed of lust in the middle.
One can understand the concern. People get up to all kinds of trouble every day from relationships that started innocently. But the answer isn’t a lockdown in the man cave. For every Mark Sanford who falls into a tempestuous affair with a woman who started out as a “dear friend,” there’s an Eliot Spitzer, who hires an old-fashioned hooker. How silly and pointless to cut oneself off from half the species because there’s a possibility of sexual frisson.
That frisson is part of the package. A few months ago, when I was going through a simultaneous health, personal and career crisis, my girlfriends offered comfort and support. My guys, on the other hand, offered welcome respite from the comfort and support. They didn’t ask questions. They didn’t pity me. They took me out for BLTs and horror movies and burned me Lil Wayne mixes. They pried me for the details of my business negotiations and insisted I demand more. They emboldened me in a way that was very different from the care I got from women. They were as generous and loving as my girlfriends, in their uniquely, endearingly male ways.
That’s what I appreciate about the men in my life — their masculinity. Similarly, I doubt I fill a “one of the guys” role to any of them. A male friend is not a slightly hairier substitute girlfriend. If I want to get my nails done, I’ll call a lady. If I want to talk about motherhood, I’ll call another mom. My guy friends, on the other hand, will hang out for an entire evening and never once mention anything to do with feelings. If one of them forwards me an e-mail, there’s an 85 percent probability it involves “Star Wars” and zero chance it contains a quote from Maya Angelou. If a man I’m not sleeping with tells me I’m beautiful, I believe him. I have had guy friends gallantly toss me over a shoulder and carry me through big puddles. They have, when I’ve been blue, asked if I needed somebody’s ass kicked. My guy friends have never asked to split an appetizer because they were really trying to stay in the Zone, nor looked at me like I was a war criminal for ordering dessert. And while I’m no fan of sweeping gender generalizations, I will note anecdotally that if you’re the sort of woman who finds fart humor hilarious, you will never lack for male companionship.
When I look at the rampant success of Greg Behrendt’s “He’s Just Not That Into You” or Steve Harvey’s “Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man” — two advice books that have spent roughly a bajillion years on the bestseller lists — I have to wonder what’s behind it. Could it be that too many women don’t have a regular straight guy in their lives to give them a male perspective? That women and gay men, while expert at offering comfort and support, are less willing to call someone on their bullshit? If you want to get a sense of how guys think, you can actually ask some who don’t tell one-liners for a living. They’ll tell you. Talk to a straight guy for a while; let him tell you about his crazy exes and his heartbreaks and his career insecurities and how much he loves his kids. Though he’ll never know what it’s like to walk in your high heels, he’ll remind you when you’re burned out on the day’s latest misogynist outrage that you don’t have to be a woman to be a feminist.
As my friend Larry, an unabashed aficionado of females, says, “I just get women really well, and that’s infectious — they get me back — which made me one good boyfriend, and now husband. My wife loves how very much at home I am in the company of women. Most of them make me a better man.”
You want to have good relationships with the opposite sex? Get to know a few members of it. That’s what friends are for. To hear you out. To keep you in check. To make you a better person. And your girlfriends and wives and boyfriends and husbands will thank you for it.
If you let guys into your life and your heart, you can’t hear the phrase “there are no good men out there” without recognizing it for the stupid sexist bullshit it is. You can likewise toss out the male canard that they’re all just booty-chasing simpletons as the smokescreen that is as well. So when you see two people of the opposite sex at the end of the bar one evening, laughing as they try to recall the words to the Hoodoo Gurus’ “Bittersweet,” don’t bother asking yourself if they’re “just friends.” They’re friends. And that means the world.