Dear Prudence: My ex-dominatrix sister may have molested my son.

Help! I’m Worried My Ex-Dominatrix Sister May Have Molested My Son.

Help! I’m Worried My Ex-Dominatrix Sister May Have Molested My Son.

Advice on manners and morals.
Aug. 18 2016 6:00 AM

Mistress Auntie

I’m worried my ex-dominatrix sister may have molested my son.

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg.

Photo by Sam Breach

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Woman thinks her former dominatrix sister may have molested letter writers son.

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Dear Prudence,
My sister used to be a professional dominatrix. She was quite open with me about this and said that she stopped because she was tired of being “topped from the bottom”; she wanted “real” control. We haven’t discussed this for some years now, and it never occurred to me that it might not be a good idea to leave my preteen son alone with her. The other day, I arrived early to pick him up, and it took my sister a while to answer the door. It appeared that she and my son may have both hastily put their clothes back on. I later asked my son what happened in general terms, so as not to sound accusing of anyone. His answer was plausible, but it almost sounded rehearsed. I’m not sure what to do. Maybe nothing untoward happened and I’m just being paranoid. I love my sister, and I really think she would know better than to do anything remotely sexual with her nephew or anyone his age. Should I talk to my sister and hope she can assure me that everything’s OK? Or should I just assume the worst and never again leave my son in her care?

—Worried About Sister and Son

I am trying to imagine why, if you had a suspicion that your sister was molesting your son, you did not ask more questions of her immediately. Her past work as a dominatrix has nothing to do with your current situation, although it sounds like at least part of you believes that if she was willing to tie up adult, consenting men for a living she’d be equally willing to abuse a prepubescent child, which is a horrific false equivalence. Set aside your assumptions about her former employment. You say they “may have” been rushing to put their clothes on—how do you know? Did your latent fears about your sister’s past cause you to imagine that as an excuse for the delay, or did you truly see something (a missing button, your sister pulling a shirt back over her head?) that ought to have prompted a serious, in-the-moment investigation? You missed an important opportunity to gather information. Don’t make that mistake again now. Tell her that you were concerned and upset by what you think you saw when she babysat him, and ask her to tell you exactly what happened. If you haven’t already, talk to your son about privacy and the right he has not to be touched by anyone he doesn’t want to be, no matter who they are, and that he can come talk to you about anything. You can make this clear to him without directly accusing your sister.

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It concerns me deeply that you consider “not molesting children” to be a question of “knowing better,” as if it were a mere lapse in judgment or matter of taste rather than a violent crime. Talk to your sister immediately. Either you’re working on the assumption that a woman who once had a sex work–adjacent job is thus likelier to molest a child, which is unjustifiable paranoia, or you saw something incredibly suspicious about your sister, and your child, and failed to follow through.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
My girlfriend and I are in the process of ending our relationship. We’ve done therapy, tried everything, but it’s over. We still love each other and intend to stay in touch even after we move apart. If we move apart. Right now, we’re still sharing a flat (although it’s a big place, so fairly easy to carve out personal space) for practical and financial reasons, and maybe emotional too—we’re not quite ready to part. We’d initially agreed to talk about ways to separate—her staying in the flat, me moving out, both of us leaving, etc.—and I thought things were going well. I mentioned moving out by spring at the latest. But now, she’s talking about living together indefinitely—she mentioned five to 10 more years! I know she’s scared of living on her own (she’s already dating someone new, which is actually a relief for me), but I know I can’t go on like this forever. I’ll miss her, but I have to move on, and there’s only one way of doing that. She insists that this needs to be a joint decision, i.e. I can only move out when SHE is ready. I think that’s unreasonable. What do you think?

—Ready to Move On

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Right now about a million alarm bells are going off in my head. No, you do not have to wait until she is ready for you to move out. That is how exactly zero percent of relationships and living arrangements work. You get to leave when you want to leave, and it’s incredibly disturbing that she would try to manipulate you into agreeing to live with her indefinitely until she gives you her “permission” to move out a decade or more from now. That’s not “waiting for a joint decision,” that’s coercion. I think the sooner you move out, the better—you deserve a chance to disentangle your life from hers. If she continues to try to guilt you for wanting to find a place of your own to live in after your breakup, consider yourself lucky for getting away from her, and reconsider whether you intend to stay in touch after you move out.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
My brother has flunked out of two colleges and worked at a few menial jobs but is now a recluse. He still lives with my parents, who have been supporting him financially (student loans, car and health insurance, food). However, they’re not going to be able to keep supporting him in six months when he’s too old to stay on their health insurance plan. The complication is that he received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder a few years ago. He’s inconsistent about taking his meds, which throws him into downward spirals, and then he won’t do anything for days. I think the diagnosis is bunk, since I’d never seen him manic until his first month on medication, but regardless the issue is that he seems to be using the diagnosis as an excuse to avoid ... everything. Any ideas?

—Brother Failing to Launch

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I hope you can attempt to imagine the possibility that your brother’s diagnosis is not dependent upon your having seen “sufficient” manic episodes with your own eyes. If you’re asking for suggestions on how best to undermine your brother’s already-shaky treatment by questioning his diagnosis based on a vague feeling, I’m afraid I don’t have any. If you’re not interested in offering concrete, material support to your brother or your parents as they struggle to treat him, my best idea is for you to keep your skepticism to yourself. And if you can’t help your parents with cash, support them in other ways, whether it’s helping to scout for jobs that he might try out for, or just stopping by to visit and let him know he has a network, however small, he can rely on.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
My husband and I have been married 25 years, and have had trouble for a recent number of them. I tried explaining what I was concerned about; we went for a few visits to a marriage counselor but stopped after he admitted to me he wasn’t going to be truthful. As soon as I try and talk about something important, even something I don’t expect to be a big issue, he shuts down. All communication stops; he just leaves the room. And if I bring it up again, he is gone. If I do something he is not happy with, he gets angry (clenched fists and storms out) or shuts down and barely speaks to me for days. If we do have a conversation, the few words I do get are from him are “why can’t you accept it the way it is” and his saying he is doing the best he can. He has become a very unhappy, angry man. All joy is gone. We haven’t had sex in over a year, and that is due to the fact I can’t have sex with someone whom I have no emotional intimacy with and I don’t trust. And yet I am having trouble even writing the word divorce. I keep thinking, I married this guy! How did we get from there to here? And how do I make the change I need to make?

—Why Am I So Afraid?

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I hope so much “the change you need to make” refers to wanting to become willing to file for divorce, and not any suggestion that you are somehow responsible for, or capable of changing, your husband and your marriage singlehandedly. If you’re having trouble writing the word divorce, take another look at your letter: You’ve described life with a partner who leaves the room every time he experiences a feeling more intense than mild sleepiness, a partner you can’t bear to touch because of his incapacity for joy, who gives you the silent treatment at the first sign of conflict, who bears almost no resemblance to the man you married 25 years ago, and shows absolutely no sign of being willing to change. No amount of effort can force him to discuss his feelings honestly with you if he’s determined to stay closed off. You’ve tried talking to him, you’ve tried therapy, you’ve tried waiting it out. Nothing’s worked, and nothing is likely to work.

Try to picture yourself after you separate—in a room that’s quiet because it’s at peace, not because your husband is sulking and grinding his teeth, in a house that’s peaceful because you’re alone in it, not because you’re with someone who prefers strained silence to honest conversation. Imagine relaxing, really relaxing, knowing that you’re not about to be ambushed by someone who insists that “everything is fine” while he can’t even bear to look at you. Then, for your sake, make this vision a reality.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
My husband has a daughter from his first marriage, while we have two elementary-age children together. My youngest has disabilities that require my full-time attention right now, so housework falls by the wayside. My husband wants to hire a cleaner to come in twice a week, and my stepdaughter asked if he would pay her to do it. She is in college (which we pay for) but she has had trouble keeping a job that doesn’t interfere with her classes. I am very leery about this. Our relationship is mostly neutral, but I feel this will be a disaster, not to mention the Cinderella parallels. What should I do?

—Hire My Stepdaughter?

This could go wrong in nine different ways and is guaranteed to go wrong in a minimum of four. Trust your feelings of impending doom and hire a professional.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
Our whole family is very worried about my nephew. He is a terrific 30-year-old who has wanted a home and family since he was at least 10. He finally found the love of his life. The two of them have a lot of fun and adore each other. But she was clear from the beginning that marriage was not her goal, and neither were children. Much to the amazement of the intended bride (I think) and delight of my nephew, she accepted an engagement ring. She also compromised on the location of a house they bought together (groan). When family, friends, and fiancée try to discuss wedding dates and plans with her, she leaves the scene. Now my nephew and her BFF are making the wedding plans. Also, whenever she is around children, she is kind to them but obviously has no intrinsic interest in them. They don’t fascinate her or appeal to her. Apparently, they have talked about children, but she will only go as far as to adopt—no pregnancy for her. This whole thing looks like heartbreak in the making for our beloved nephew. Do you see any way the family can assist without alienating my nephew or making the situation worse? So far, we are all on the sidelines.

—Reluctant Bride

I think “on the sidelines” is a very appropriate place for you to be in relation to your nephew’s marriage. Whether he and his bride-to-be have had sufficiently frank discussions about their goals and what they’re willing to compromise on or not, you’re not helping anyone by monitoring your future niece-in-law’s response every time a child drifts into view. What would you say? “Lesterton, we’ve noticed that Skamaranth seems insufficiently fascinated by passing toddlers. Have you considered breaking off the engagement?” I’d leave the scene, too, if I could feel my extended family-to-be scanning my face for signs of baby and/or wedding fever every time someone brought up invitation cardstock and place settings. (And why the groan at compromising to purchase a house together? That sounds like a perfectly reasonable decision for couple about to be married.)

If you and your nephew are genuinely close, and you are truly concerned that he has not listened to his fiancée’s lack of interest in having children, you might consider bringing it up with him—once. Tell him you’re concerned because you know he’s always wanted a wife and children, but you’re not sure that his intended wants the same thing, and then genuinely listen to his response. What looks like “inevitable heartbreak” to you may feel like commitment, compromise, and love to him.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
Every year for the past five years, I’ve attended my husband’s family reunion with him. There are usually about 60 attendees, most of whom are lovely people I enjoy seeing and spending time with. My problem is this: Every year, I am forced to hug my husband’s 80-year-old great-uncle (this is the only time I ever see him). These hugs are tight, long, and uncomfortable, usually involving his entire torso. He’s also come up to me from behind, wrapping his arms around my front and pushing himself against me. This year, I tried to avoid the hug but was made to feel as if I did not have a choice. When I told my husband about it, he said he was sorry but didn’t know how we could avoid it next year. This uncle only hugs the women in my family, which just makes it worse. I dislike hugging him to the point where I was sobbing telling my husband about it the next day. The only other uncles or family members I hug are my husband’s direct uncles, whose hugs are light and brief and are therefore not uncomfortable. How can I still go to this reunion and avoid this unwanted and inappropriate manner of affection?

—Unwanted Affection

I’m so sorry your husband has been so inert and useless in this situation. If you have been made to feel uncomfortable to the point of tears and his response has been, “Sorry, but I don’t see any way out of it,” he lacks both courage and consideration for your well-being, at least where this particular uncle is concerned. You are under no obligation to hug this dirty old man. If you feel that you can’t go this year, don’t go, and tell your husband why. If you otherwise enjoy the reunion and don’t want to let the old man ruin your good time, state clearly, “Please don’t hug me” when he approaches. Don’t just try to avoid the hug: State clearly that he does not have your permission to touch you. If he ignores you, or tries to sneak up on you from behind, you have every right to remove yourself from his embrace and repeat yourself loudly. “I asked you not to touch me, so don’t touch me.” If he can’t do that, you are not obligated to endure his touch, and have every right to remove his hands from your body, with or without your husband’s support. I can guarantee you there are dozens of other women at this reunion who dread the long, lingering touch every year, but whose fear of “making a scene” makes them reluctant to insist he leave them alone. This is one scene that deserves to be made.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I attended a childhood friend’s wedding recently with my live-in boyfriend. The reception venue was wonderful, complete with a great band. My boyfriend and I danced during the dinner course even though no one else was. This was after the toasts and the first dance, so we assumed the floor was open. We were bewildered that no one else was dancing. Finally, a fellow guest, whom I had never met before, came over to my table and publicly accused me of being drunk (I wasn’t) and of stealing focus from the bride and groom. The bride and groom were not even in the room at the time. I was so embarrassed, I got up and went outside. I later learned that a guest (possibly the same one) had complained that we were being “too affectionate” on the dance floor. My boyfriend and I were not grinding or doing anything I thought was inappropriate, though we were in a more conservative crowd. If I had been politely approached about any of this, I might have understood, but the guest was so needlessly nasty, I didn’t know what to do. I wish I had been stronger, but by the time I felt comfortable returning to my table, the reception was basically over. I spoke to my friend and he assured me he had no idea, and felt terrible, but I’m still incredibly confused and guilty. I want to make it up to him, but I also don’t feel I did anything truly wrong.

—Wedding Bell Blues

I know this feeling well: the lingering discomfort that comes from Having Been Yelled At. It is the worst feeling in the world, and is entirely distinct from the lingering discomfort that comes from Having Done Something Truly Wrong, and distinct yet again from the lingering discomfort that comes from Knowing a Friend Is Mad at You. Thankfully, neither of these last two is the case. Your friend isn’t angry with you, and it doesn’t sound like anyone aside from this individual crank thought you and your boyfriend did anything wrong; there’s nothing for you to do here. Which can, in a way, make the discomfort worse! You have nothing obvious to apologize for and responded to the affront discreetly, and so now there’s no active way to get rid of the feeling that someone, somewhere, thinks badly of you for no good reason. You just have to live with that feeling until, as I’m happy to assure you, it will pass.

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