Mallory Ortberg, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Readers! Ask me your questions on the voicemail of the Dear Prudence podcast. Just leave a message at 401-371-DEAR (3327), and you may hear your question answered on a future episode of the show.
Q. Resentment over free food: Because of circumstances beyond my control, fate, and bad timing, I am underemployed and having to use the local food bank to help supplement my family’s grocery needs. I only go once a month and only take what we can use. While having to deal with my own embarrassment and shame, I find myself resentful of the other people there.
I get extremely angry when noticing people with expensive accessories and clothes vying for a limited number of resources, when I have had to sell pretty much everything I own just to stay in my apartment and keep my daughter in clothes and shoes. How can they justify coming for free food or other amenities while still owning an iPad, $500 purse, and more jewelry than Mr. T?
I am trying to contain my jealousy and downright envy, but it is difficult.
How can I avail myself of features that I need and still be civil? This is eating at me. I feel so guilty judging the others that I get nauseated when it is time for my trip. This is not me and I do not know where this attitude is coming from.
A: Let this be your mantra whenever you visit the food bank: “Everyone is here due to circumstances beyond their control, fate, and bad timing. I don’t know the details of anyone else’s situation. No one else’s life is my business.”
You don’t know how long ago someone bought their $500 purse; losing a job can move a person very quickly from being able to splurge on a status item to needing help keeping food in the house. The iPad might be a loaner from work, the jewelry might be costume or inherited. Most people who use a food bank are not bored, rich dilettantes looking to game the system. Many of them, just like you, may have never thought they would end up needing the help a food bank provides. They might even be dressing their best before picking up groceries in order to avoid embarrassment and looking like they “need” help.
On your next visit, take a few deep breaths and pause before stepping inside. When you find those judgmental thoughts rise up—and they will, if only to distract yourself from your own embarrassment and shame—say to yourself, “That’s none of my business. I don’t know their situation,” and refocus your attention on the task at hand. Remind yourself that it is not your job to determine whether someone else is “genuinely” suffering from food insecurity. It’s your job to look after yourself and your family. Best of luck.
Q. Lesbian woes: I’m a 27-year-old lesbian living in a major metropolitan city. Most of my friends are straight women. When I’m out with them, and being a wing woman, men hit on me a lot. I usually just try to say I’m gay and dance away from them, but sometimes they’re really persistent. And since I look really “femme,” often they either don’t believe me or get this whole shocked vibe like, Oh, wow, a lesbian?! Last weekend some guy gave me this whole life story about how he wasn’t OK when his little brother first came out but now he’s fine with it and yadda yadda. It’s honestly really exhausting.
Walking home last weekend, after all my friends paired off with men they met, I just felt so out of place. Is there anything I can say to get guys to just leave me alone? Also, how can I avoid getting down when it feels like everyone else can find someone but me? I know there are queer women everywhere and I’m likely just overlooking them. I feel like I’m throwing myself a pity party here, I don’t know.
A: Go out dancing with your straight friends less often! That doesn’t mean you have to move to Lesbian Separatist Island tomorrow, but you sound drained and exhausted, and that suggests to me that you need to spend less time operating as a wing woman in straight bars and more time cultivating relationships with lesbian and bisexual women. Go to gay bars, go to lesbian meetups, check out your city’s Pride schedule (there are often events all summer long, not just in June).
Treat dancing with your straight friends like the “fats, oils, and sweets” block on the old food pyramid—as an occasional treat, not your usual Friday-Saturday night mainstay. That doesn’t mean you have to abandon them. You can still go to movies and get dinner and go on hikes or whatever it is that you do together; just skip the meat market three times out of four. Your friends don’t want you to be miserable, and what you’re doing now is making you miserable.
When it comes to the short term (namely, how to deal with persistent men on the soon-to-be-rare occasion that you go out dancing), it’s an unfortunate truth that a lot of the time—especially with drunk strangers—saying “I’m a lesbian” to a would-be suitor does not result in “Oh, OK, best of luck, thrive and be well in the sisterhood of women.” A lot of guys take it as an opportunity to either try harder or to discuss any and every thought or feeling they’ve ever had about homosexuality with you. Since your goal is to cut a conversation short, not open up a new topic for discussion, you should stick with a simple “No,” without offering a reason. It’s hard for someone to gain conversational purchase on “No” and nothing else. These men aren’t your friends, and you don’t owe them a reason for why you don’t want to dance with them.
Q. May–December fantasy: I’m in my mid-20s and happily married to someone close in age. The older man/younger woman pairing has always been a turn-on for me (in fantasies, porn, etc.), but I would never want to be in a real partnership with someone 20-plus years my senior because I want to be on the same path as my partner and build our lives together. I have an older, attractive co-worker that I’ve found myself sometimes fantasizing about. We’re friendly, but nothing inappropriate, and I am sure I would never cheat on my husband by taking things further. I’m definitely sexually attracted to my husband and loyal to him.
Is it OK to fantasize about someone you know in real life if you are assured that you’ll keep it at just that, a fantasy? Furthermore, this co-worker and I have a chance to work together more closely on a freelance project. Should I turn it down because of my attraction? I’m fairly certain this is just a fantasy-level attraction and I know I would not act on it.
A: The answer to your first question is an unqualified Yes. It is not immoral to fantasize. But your second question is substantially different—you’re asking whether or not it’s wise for you to base your actions on increasing your proximity to the object of fantasy, and my answer to that is No.
That’s not to say that if you agree to this freelance project that you’re doomed to cheat on your husband, but it is true that the times we’re likeliest to lie to ourselves about our own motives are generally also the times we’re overestimating our own willpower. If you want to keep this fantasy a fantasy, why would you go out of your way to spend more time with this guy?
Q. Re: Resentment over free food: My cousin is a single mother with almost no income and I often give her my old clothes and accessories, including designer bags that I no longer use. I have also given her gift cards for clothing, massages, and manicures for her birthday/Christmas. Maybe these people have friends or relatives who do the same for them, or maybe they’re buying the items at a thrift store. Maybe they’re just trying to keep up appearances.
If they’re at the food bank I’m guessing their situation isn’t great and there’s probably nothing to be jealous of. All you can do is focus on your family, and it may take time but you’ll get where you’re going. Good luck.
A: I’m getting a lot of comments like this one. Having one nice handbag or single luxury item doesn’t mean someone still doesn’t need help making ends meet. It’s easy to underestimate how important “keeping up appearances” is to people, especially when they’re experiencing a sudden, surprising downturn in their personal fortunes. My guess is a lot of the customers at the food bank are putting on their nicest clothes, or bringing their iPads or expensive purses on purpose—no one wants to look like they “need” help.
Q. Is an open relationship the solution to mediocre sex?: I’ve been seeing a great guy for just over two years. Our relationship is fantastic on every level with one exception: sex. I’m very experienced, but I’m his first sexual partner. Our sex is OK, but despite our best efforts it doesn’t seem to be improving.
Recently, I suggested moving to an open relationship. He’s known about my skepticism toward monogamy and exclusivity. Many gay couples are open. It’s an easy solution for the 10 percent of my life that isn’t fantastic, and having casual sex isn’t going to make me love him less. But I also feel selfish, since he isn’t interested in sex with others. He also doesn’t want to “restrain” me.
I love him more than I love sex (which is saying something!), so I don’t want to end our relationship. Do we keep trying to make our sex work, or is sex with others an acceptable workaround?
A: There are ways and there are ways to have an open relationship. You say that your boyfriend knows about your disinclination for monogamy, but you don’t say anything about his inclinations, other than the fact that he doesn’t want to have sex with other people. What are his feelings about you sleeping with other people? Is he indifferent? Excited? Does he hate the idea, but wants to make you happy? What specifically isn’t working about your sex life right now? Would having sex with other people genuinely help you care less about having less-than-great sex with the man you love? You can certainly give an open relationship a shot, but make sure you continue to make your sex life together a priority so that it doesn’t fall by the wayside.
Q. Re: Lesbian Woes: Buy a cheap but flashy cubic zirconia engagement ring to wear when you’re out dancing with the gals. That should ward off all but the grossest offenders, whom you should feel free to treat with utter disdain.
A: I think that would address the symptoms but not the underlying cause! The letter writer already feels isolated and out of place; adding a fake fiancé might discourage a few guys, but in the long run will only exacerbate her feelings of alienation.
Come to think of it, why not ask one or two of her friends to act as her wing woman at a gay bar? She’s been such a sport about helping her straight friends meet guys, I think she should enlist a few of them to help her meet women.
Q. Moral question about my work: We have two security/maintenance guys who work at my office. In the last few weeks, one of them has really been slacking off on the job, not cleaning out the garbage cans and vanishing for hours at a time. Very often I end up opening for him.
A few days ago, I saw him walking up the block, away from the building, in the morning. I got to the office around 7:30 a.m. and found the front door left unlocked and wide open, with no one in the building. He didn’t get back until well after 9 a.m., so if I hadn’t arrived early (my shift starts at 9 a.m.), the building would have been left open and unattended for 90 minutes. I didn’t want to get him fired, so instead of telling our boss, I told the other security guard, technically his supervisor, asking him to keep it low-key.
This morning, after this employee left early, I was sitting at the security desk. We have two teenage interns who have been helping out this summer, and one came down and asked for the first-aid kit. While getting it, I noticed several porn DVDs in his desk. While this would be unacceptable in any office, it’s especially bad because we have two underaged interns in the building.
At this point, I’m really not sure what to do. I’ve known this guy for years, and I really don’t want to get him fired. But at the end of the day, he’s doing things that are putting my office at risk for huge liability issues. And not to mention that he’s just not doing his job even on a good day.
A: I think “not doing [your] job even on a good day” and “putting the office at risk for huge liability issues” are very good reasons to be fired. Tell your boss. It’s possible the guy will be put on a performance improvement plan or given a warning; it’s also possible he will be fired for cause and have to make some changes in his life. Either way, it’s not your job to protect him by covering up these huge lapses in judgment.
Q. Should I leave another note on the car I hit?: Last week, while helping a friend move, I parked on a hill in my small pickup truck with manual transmission. I was a bit nervous about moving it, so my friend offered to back it up for me. She (lightly) hit the car parked in front of mine. We decided that we would split the cost of whatever damages resulted. I took pictures of a very small smudge and even smaller dent on the other person’s car (with plates visible) and left a note with my first name and phone number on the windshield. I did not leave my insurance information because for a very small bumper dent, I would rather pay cash than see my rates go up.
I have not heard from the owner of the red car. It is parked there often, as I continued to help my friend move during the week. I’m considering leaving another note on the car. My moving friend agreed that might be a good idea, but she thinks the owner is probably letting it go. She’s left it up to me.
This leaves me in a difficult position. I have mixed feelings about leaving another note, or providing my insurance information—I’ve got student loans! I’d rather not spend more money, but I’ve been feeling really guilty because, to me, leaving another note feels like the “right thing to do.”
A: If you left a note over a “very small” dent and smudge, and the car’s owner declined to call you, I don’t think you should assume they lost your phone number or forgot to get in touch. The simplest explanation—that the car’s owner did not consider this minor ding worth getting professionally fixed—is the likeliest one. You’ve already done the right thing, and can let it go.
Q. My friend is an idiot: My pregnant friend, Kat, is staying with me because her boyfriend threw her out to bring another woman in. Their relationship was always bad but this was the last straw—or so I thought. I found out Kat’s been texting him and asking if she can come back. Should I kick her out? I’m thinking about taking back the baby items I bought her, too.
A: Will the baby need these items any less just because your friend is contemplating dating a guy you don’t approve of? If the answer is “no,” don’t take them back.
You can certainly encourage her not to get back together with her ex—he sounds like a total dirtbag. You can also set a deadline for when she has to move out, although I think out of consideration for her circumstances you should give her a little time to make other arrangements, rather than kicking her out today. You’re not obligated to take on her problems, or to support bad decisions, but you also shouldn’t behave vindictively in order to get her to do what you want. Those gifts for the baby were just that—gifts. Don’t give anything, or try to take anything back, in order to control your friend.
Q. Re: Broke and scared: Most importantly, use a birth control method that your boyfriend cannot tamper with! If possible, look into long-acting reversible contraceptives, like an IUD or implant.
A: That’s excellent practical advice, although it should come with the added caveat that if even a part of you believes that your boyfriend would tamper with your birth control in order to trick you into getting pregnant, then you should break up with him immediately.
Mallory Ortberg: Thanks for helping to maintain the delicate social balance for another week. See you next Monday.