The following letter to the editor appeared in the July 17, 1992 issue of the Boston Phoenix:
I just read your latest piece in the Boston Phoenix, and it looks as if you need some advice for a change. Having been a fan of your famous column for many years, I’m only too happy to oblige.
First, to answer your most burning question: Of course men and women can be friends. They can be pals, they can be good friends, or they can be true intimates, the sort who think nothing of calling each other at 3 A.M. for sympathy and consolation. All varieties of friendship—platonic and otherwise—are possible between males and females, but as with so many things in life, you have to believe they are possible.
It sounds as if this is a big part of your problem, Abby. You have obviously been brainwashed by persons both feminist and anti-feminist into thinking that men and women are separate species, doomed by biology to remain forever incompatible. Not only is this crap, it’s unoriginal crap. As a general rule, whenever Andrea Dworkin, Norman Mailer, and your parents all agree on something, that is a sign that truth has left the scene.
You might begin by giving men more credit than you do, and by expecting more adult behavior from them in return. From your description of what happened, it seems as if you were awfully quick to pidgeonhole your ex-pal Billy into a penis-brain stereotype. He was a jerk for breaking off the friendship when it became clear you wouldn’t sleep with him, and his sense of tact needs serious polishing, but I think you are wrong to accuse him of “reducing you to an orifice.” When you feel sexual attraction towards a male friend, as you admit you sometimes do—in fact you list the “certain spice” of sexual tension as one of your reasons for seeking out male friendship in the first place—does that mean you are reducing him to a protuberance? The fact that Billy had sexual feelings towards you that he didn’t know how to handle doesn’t mean he didn’t have other, “more noble” feelings for you as well; it just means he needs to grow up a little. A heart-to-heart talk might have helped—or it might not—but you simply assumed the worst and didn’t even try.
Even more telling is your response to Billy’s claim that he was hormonally incapable of sustaining a platonic friendship with you: “I hung up the phone, feeling a little annoyed but not really angry. After all, I thought, he nailed it—how could I blame him for being a slave to his sexuality?”
The fact that you would accept such a transparent excuse without argument makes me question the sincerity of your own desire to maintain a platonic friendship with Billy, or with any man. What would your reaction be if a close woman friend suddenly said she could no longer bear to be around you because you aggravated her PMS? Would you simply say “Well, that’s a woman for you” and let her go? It may well be that the intensity of Billy’s feelings makes it difficult for him to accept your wish to keep things on a platonic level, but that’s not a male problem, it’s a personal problem. By copping to a sexist excuse, Billy is trying to duck out on the hard emotional work that might still save your relationship—and you’re letting him do it.
You claim to be frustrated by the lack of rules covering “the sex thing” in cross-gender friendship. I can think of one rule right off the bat that would help you immensely: Learn to speak up as soon the ambiguities in a relationship start to bother you. If I sense that a woman friend (or a man) is developing more intense feelings for me than I can comfortably reciprocate, I sit that friend down for a talk. I may not always want to talk—my gut reaction, like yours, may be to ignore the problem in hopes it will go away—but if I truly value the friendship, I force myself to talk, and I try to be as compassionate as possible while remaining clear about my boundaries. I don’t condemn my friend for having the “wrong” feelings; it’s no sin to desire greater emotional or physical intimacy with someone, just very inconvenient if the desire is not mutual. Part of my own definition of friendship is having the patience—trying to have the patience—to deal with such inconvenience, even if it means getting the cold shoulder while the friend resigns herself or himself to the platonic reality. Blaming the friend for behaving “just like a man” or “just like a woman” may be momentarily satisfying—particularly if their advances have left you feeling panicked—but it will also make the friend angry, guilty, and distrustful of you in the future, none of which is especially helpful.
Finally, Abby, a word regarding your plan to head west “to the land where all women would reside in a perfect world.” It’s true that we all need an occasional week off from “the sex thing,” but you should ask yourself whether you’re running away to rest and recharge or just to get yourself even more wound up than you already are. Spending time with other women talking about how impossible men are will not improve your attitude toward male-female bonding; neither will reading more books of feminist theory, which, forgive me, are no substitute for real life trial-and-error in this particular instance. You might be better served by devoting your summer to treating your male friends as if they were “honorary” women: i.e., by drawing them out on emotional, “feminine” topics of conversation, which believe it or not they do have opinions on, by expecting and encouraging them to be attentive and supportive, by refusing to accept spurious gender-based excuses for bad behavior, and by not resorting to such excuses yourself. I don’t promise you that any of this will be easy—a lot of men share the belief that cross-gender friendship is a pipe dream, and you will sometimes feel as if you are beating your head against a brick wall (don’t worry, the men feel the same way about you)—but once you get the hang of it, you’ll be glad you made the effort. When you start thinking of your male friends as friends, rather than “full-fledged penis-bearing individuals,” you’ll know you’re on the right track.