Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up below to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at email@example.com.)
Q. Underage S&M: The day after he turned 17, our son was clutching his bottom and having trouble sitting down. We asked what happened; after some evasion, he confessed that his girlfriend had paddled him for his birthday. We believe this was consensual, but it does sound like fairly extreme sadomasochism. The girlfriend is 18, so I don’t plan on telling her parents about this. We have previously talked to our son about contraception, but he assured us that he wouldn’t have sex until marriage. I’m not quite sure whether he has stuck to that, but clearly he and his girlfriend have gotten quite physical in some ways. Is 17 too old for us to interfere here? We just don’t want anyone to get hurt.
A: Oh, the black and blue bottoms Fifty Shades of Grey has wrought. Your son made this your business with what sounds like rather melodramatic display of distress; he clearly wanted to tell you what happened. He may be on the verge of young adulthood, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t need your advice and counsel. I agree with your not notifying the young woman’s parents about her interests, but you need to talk to your son about his. Ironically, since he’s apparently been raised to believe one stays a virgin until marriage, this prohibition may have driven him to explore an aspect of sexuality that is not really of interest to him, and even felt degrading, because more standard expression was verboten. It’s time to renew the contraceptive discussion. Anyone messing around with B&D might end up doing the deed. It’s better for all if this doesn’t happen “accidentally.” You also need to have a more philosophical discussion about what consent really entails and about how he needs to express his own desires and limits. And maybe you need to express the view that it’s probably unrealistic for him to vow to “save” himself for marriage.
Q. Am I Really a Debbie Downer?: I am a woman in my mid-20s who has always been the butt of “Debbie Downer” jokes. I frequently get told that I need to lighten up and not take things so seriously. These remarks typically come from men after I fail to laugh at a distasteful joke, or to recognize a sarcastic remark and start to give a meaningful response. I am American, but I live in the U.K. and recently a co-worker told me I had no sense of humor because I don’t like that he makes fun of my accent in every interaction we have. Many of our colleagues agreed with him and said I need to learn to take a joke. These remarks have happened for years, in many different social situations, so I am starting to think I really am a Debbie Downer. But do I really need to pretend I enjoy being made fun of or that I find rude jokes amusing to avoid offending the people who are offending me?
A: Apparently anywhere you live in the Anglosphere, people find you to be thin-skinned and literal-minded. So perhaps it’s you and not just the Brits. The British do have a particularly sarcastic sense of humor, and if you respond with obliviousness or anger, that’s just going to egg them on. Everyone has a particular personality style, and you are never going to be Oscar Wilde. You also have to recognize that you tend to miss social nuance, so maybe you need to be less defensive and practice taking off-hand remarks less seriously. I suggest you start rolling with things more, which is going to require some work and preparation on your part. Have a bunch of Britishisms ready for when the American accent mockery starts: “I say, cheerio and bollocks to that, mate!” You might also do well to memorize some of Winston Churchill’s brilliant put-downs. Think how much fun it will be to deploy their own history to devastating effect.
Q. Re: Underage S&M: A similar situation occurred with my son and his first boyfriend. They were doing some really amateurish and dangerous stuff that could have easily sent one or both to the hospital or worse. If nothing else, you need to make sure if your son and his girlfriend decide to stay on this road, they take some responsibility and do some research before they continue. I’m guessing your son won’t have the advantage of learning his dad has some expertise in the subject, though …
A: Good advice, and this requires being able to have this kind of conversation with your kid, so you’re not having it in the emergency room.
Q. Office Decorum: My office consists of about 20 people, the majority of whom are young women in their early 20s, for a number of whom this is their first job. (I am a woman in my late 30s and accomplished in my field). On a daily basis, these employees complain about their work and having to adhere to basic office decorum. Our office is pretty relaxed; the dress code is not formal, and there’s a casual communication structure. These employees regularly complain about their treatment when they are being asked only to dress professionally, be on time, and complete tasks without egregious errors. I’m certainly not advocating that these young women need to “go through what I did” on my way up, but I struggle with this sense of entitlement. My question is, is it wrong to want these young professionals to be proficient in their work before looking for advancement? I want to help them grow and learn, but if I hear one more time “I have a college degree and this task is too menial,” I may snap!
A: Gen X faces down the millennials! You know that people, no matter what their generation, love to grouse and blow off steam. But if there is an office culture that’s not “can do” but “won’t do,” you should feel free to offer some advice. I like the way you put it here, and these young people would benefit from hearing from someone only slightly older pass on the hard-earned (and self-evident) wisdom that any office is going to expect them to dress professionally, be on time, and do their work well. You can say that no matter how “menial” the task, doing things excellently will not only benefit the office, but themselves.
Q. Re: Underage S&M: Really, Prudie? What a narrow-minded view of abstinence you have. There is nothing “unrealistic” about expecting someone to save themselves for marriage—it’s not even unusual or abnormal. Many people choose it, for many reasons, and there is no reason for you to disrespect it like that. I’m really disappointed that you would hold such a bigoted opinion.
A: I just think that before making a lifetime commitment, one needs a test drive. I’ve gotten too many letters from people who believed in abstinence before marriage, and then found out that their partner believed in abstinence after marriage. Yes, I advocate losing one’s virginity before marriage. How much of a violation is it to lose it to the person you plan to marry? It may be a prejudice of mine, but I think checking out one’s sexual compatibility before saying “I do” is a good idea.
Q. Hypochondriac Girlfriend: My girlfriend of seven years is having a major bout of hypochondria. Four weeks ago her 49-year-old sister was diagnosed and underwent a major surgery for Stage 4 ovarian cancer. During this same time, my girlfriend has been experiencing stomach pain and, despite my pointing out the odds of such a coincidence, she is convinced she also has ovarian cancer. I don’t know what else to do, and it’s very frustrating. Any offer of advice would be welcomed.
A: Your girlfriend is terrified of losing her sister and of succumbing to the same disease. This is all perfectly understandable, especially since this devastating diagnosis just happened. This kind of cancer can tend to run in families, so frankly it would simply make sense for your girlfriend to get checked out. Encourage her to see her gynecologist and discuss her fears and her need to make sure she doesn’t have cancer, too. Then if she gets a clean bill of health, likely her symptoms are due to extreme emotional distress. Instead of being frustrated with your girlfriend, be supportive. She is going through a crisis, and you need to hold her hand, dry her tears, and tell her you will be there for her. If she needs more help than that, encourage her to see a therapist, not because there’s something wrong with her, but because her distress is only too normal.
Q. Re: Underage S&M: I think that a boy who wants to save himself for marriage but thinks that S&M is all right might need to think harder about what sex is. (That conversation with the mother is overdue.) Abstinence does not mean “anything but penetration goes.” I think it takes just as much trust and intimacy to play such sexual games as it does to go all the way. He sounds somewhat confused (which is normal at 17).
A: Good point about what “abstinence” actually means. And let’s get Dad in on this conversation!
Q. Nickname: I go by my full name, whereas most people with my name go by a very common nickname (think “Kate” for “Katherine,” etc.). Nearly everyone I meet automatically shortens my name without my consent, even though I always introduce myself by my full name. In social situations I’m quick to correct people, but I wonder if it’s appropriate to do at work. If a superior calls me by my nickname, is it rude for me to correct him/her? I think I have a right to be called by my name, but those around me tell me to suck it up and accept the inevitable nickname.
A: At least you’re not getting a pitchfork with the O’ guy! Of course it’s appropriate to let people know in any setting what you like to be called. You can say it in a totally pleasant way, “I go by ‘Katherine,’ not ‘Kate.’ Thanks.” Then don’t get mad if people slip up. Just keep that smile pasted on and remind gently.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone! Talk to you next week.