On Monday, Salon published a letter sent to the man, Cary Tennis, who writes their advice column. The letter was from a reader who was upset because his or her husband or wife had been having an affair with someone from their office. Cary felt for them, but he didn't feel for the way they didn't mention the gender of anyone involved.
Before doling out his advice, Cary wrote:
"I am having a very hard time coping with the lack of gendered pronouns in your letter. God gave us gendered pronouns so we don’t have to write 'spouse.' He gave us 'sister' and 'brother' so we don’t have to write 'sibling.'
If you’re all three men, or all three women, you could just tell me. I can handle it. Instead it’s all 'spouse' this and 'other person' that. I’ve never met anybody who had no gender. I’ve met people who were all genders at once but that’s San Francisco."
Commenters jumped on Cary for deciding that the letter-writer was "a woman married to a man who had an affair with a woman where he works," deeming his assumption that it was a man who had cheated – and not a woman – as sexist. His use of the phrase "God gave us" didn't help.
On Thursday evening, Cary wrote an apology piece, explaining that he has "some sincere and serious thoughts about the matter in general":
"I can see now that I was wrong to take the tone I did and to say the things I said the way I said them. I apologize for my tone of overbearing, hectoring intolerance and arrogance, and for the careless ignorance that underlay it. I berated the letter writer for doing something that was quite well-meaning — carefully avoiding gendered pronouns in the text.
Now, just to clarify: I thought I was talking about language in a humorous way. I really did. But I was wrong. The 'God gave us …' part: That also was meant in an ironic vein. I can see now, though, that it didn’t come off that way. That’s the only clarification I wish to make."
Cary asked letter writers in the future to be particularly explicit about their "progressive thoughts on gender" if they have them. "I would ask that letter writers not just avoid using gendered pronouns but openly draw our attention to the issue," he writes. "Please say, 'I am purposefully not using the pronouns "he" and "she" because I think they are wrongfully narrow.'"
But that seems to be asking a lot of people, and also become totally distracting from the situation at hand. Does knowing the gender of the participants in a scenario change the advice for the better? Can an advice columnist give better advice when they know the societal pressures and circumstances involved in the gender of the people being mentioned? Or does it just distract the columnist, revealing biases and leading to suggestions that women should make different choices than men and vice versa?
In his book American Savage, fellow advice-giver Dan Savage writes about the type of advice given to women versus men around a variety of topics, particularly when it comes to couples who have sexual issues, culminating in one inevitably cheating on the other:
"...as the advice industry is biased in favor of women – women are our primary customers, you see, as women are likelier to ask for advice (and directions) – I'm supposed to blame the husbands. When the people complaining about sexless marriages are male, I'm supposed to tell them they're to blame. When the people complaining about sexless marriages are female, I'm supposed to tell them that their husbands are to blame."
For Cary to assume that the person cheating here was a man speaks specifically to Savage's issue with the way his advice-giving is supposed to be gendered. A look at his column doesn't necessarily lead one to think his advice would have been different if it had been a man talking about his wife cheating. Cary told the woman who was angry about her husband's cheating that her feelings were valid, but that they needed more open lines of communication, to see if they each could give the other what they wanted. That sounds like pretty typical advice, something that would be said even if the genders had been switched.
Though Cary's letter has the tone of someone who is confused and wants to be further educated on this topic, he doesn't really need to be. He knows why people use gendered words to begin with:
"I am interested in the gender of people. Aren’t you? The absence or refusal of gender is surely the most interesting and newsworthy of all. I want to know.
I am not a fan of keeping things mysterious. I want to know what is the deal."
Most people want to know what's going on. Most people aren't comfortable with grey areas. That's the problem and it's pretty simple. Cary certainly isn't alone in feeling the way he does. That doesn't mean, however, that there's any really popular advice out there on how to fix it.
Image via Everett Collection/Shutterstock