Tammy* thinks her high-school sweetheart Alonzo* is as close as any man can get to being her male complement. The green-eyed architect is not only fine but a fountain of stimulating conversation. He's well-raised and his relatives grew up with hers for generations in the same Southern "church" family. "We're equally yoked," says Tammy, a 25-year-old Boca Raton, Fla.-based fashion designer. Alonzo doesn't quite blaze up the bed sheets, but that's a minor issue for Tammy.
So minor that it didn't stop Tammy from calling Alonzo after a two-year hiatus from their on-again, off-again relationship that has spanned a decade. Within days they slept together, and it was just like old times. They'd go to the movies or a restaurant, where he he'd listen to her talk for hours, mostly about family and work. Then they'd get busy, with Alonzo eagerly following Tammy's instructions on how to thrill her.
The fling didn't last long: Alonzo was already committed to another sister. But what kept Tammy coming back? It wasn't so much the sex, she says. Alonzo met many of her qualifications for a "gentleman" -- he had "home training," he treated her well and he actually listened to her.
Ladies prefer gentlemen
Tammy revealed the details of her affair with Alonzo in answering ESSENCE.com's recent poll question: "Do you prefer a 'gentleman' or a good lover?" Of 1,488 responses, 1,103 (74 percent) ESSENCE.com visitors said they preferred a gentleman. The remaining 385 (26 percent) chose the good lover.
Tammy agrees with the majority: If forced to choose between a good guy or a good lay, she'd snatch up the gentleman. "I want someone who is going to be mentally stimulating," says the sweet-faced sister whose almond-shaped eyes and innocent smile hide enough freaky tales to fill a Jackie Collins novel. "I can teach a man to do what I want in bed."
While Tammy thinks you can take a gentleman and teach him good sex, Tina Lewis, 29, a single mother of two sons, sees it differently: "gentleman" refers only to mannerisms like pulling out your chair, but good loving comes from a good man -- in and out of bed. "A good lover is someone who can love you, not someone who will just freak you," says Tina, who regrets past lusty romps that were devoid of love. "Sex is not just a physical act. Your sex is connected to your soul. I take it very personally. Every kiss, every touch means something."
Tina's current man fires up the foreplay when he offers to clean up after she cooks dinner. He turns her on -- and out -- with the books he chooses for them to read together. No, he's never bought her chocolates, never taken her to a play and doesn't open up her car door -- all chivalrous acts that Tina associates with the term "gentleman." And he doesn't sound like Barry White or dress hip-hop-sexy like a brother in a R&B video.
But the sex is banging. Tina's man is gentle the way she likes it and gives her wet, wild love when she needs it. More importantly, he asks her what she wants. A good lover, she says, is not the opposite of gentleman. "Just because a man can bang your brains out doesn't mean he's not a good man," Tina said in defense of ESSENCE.com visitors who say they prefer a good lover.
Good lover or gentleman -- or both?
So, is Alonzo a gentleman because he listened to Tammy when she needed to talk? Or a good lover because he followed Tammy's cues in bed? Is Tina's man a good lover because he's sexually stimulating? Or a gentleman because he'll wash dishes after dinner?
Dr. Gail Wyatt, a sex researcher and therapist at UCLA's department of psychiatry, says we need to define the terms. "Is a good lover a technician, like a plumber who just performs job? What does a gentleman offer other than good manners?" she says. Once we examine our definitions, we may find, as Dr. Wyatt has, that our sexual behavior reflects active "partner seeking."
"A lot of Black women think a relationship is going to develop because of sex and intimacy, which is very risky because you can end up making a lot of mistakes while selecting a partner to settle down with in today's world," said Dr. Wyatt, author of Stolen Women: Reclaiming Our Sexuality, Taking Back Our Lives, about Black women's sexuality.
Conversation on this topic can fill hours on the phone with your girlfriend, but in the end, we need to know this truth: Each of our men is too textured to be reduced to fitting the label "gentleman" or "good lover." More importantly, our needs and desires demand that our men be both -- and more.
*Names have been changed.