This is a transcript of the Sept. 20 edition of Dear Prudence. These transcripts are lightly edited and may contain errors. For the definitive record, consult the podcast.
Mallory Ortberg: Hello, and welcome back, I am your host, Dear Prudence, also known as Mallory Ortberg. With me in the studio today is Lindy West. Lindy is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. Lindy, welcome.
Lindy West: Thank you for having me.
Ortberg: Thank you. I just want the people to know that I just had to retake the top of this episode because I accidentally called myself Lindy West because I was looking at your name.
West: It’s the most flattering thing that’s ever happened to me.
Ortberg: It’s just really good for everyone to know I have so much strength of character and ability to focus and concentrate that sometimes when I’m doing my own show I forget my own name. So you should absolutely turn to me for all your advice-giving needs.
Lindy, I was originally going to open the show by talking about how the greatest episode of television in human history is the “Deathtrap” episode of Frasier where they reignite the Crane Boys’ Mysteries, but actually something came down the pike this morning in the live chat that was so—I think I blacked out for a minute—it was so intense that I have to talk about it right now on the show with you. I hope that you are emotionally prepared.
West: I think so.
Ortberg: The question was from this woman who, usually when somebody sends me a letter, even if I think it’s pretty clear that they’re in the wrong, there is at least some attempt on their part to mitigate or justify what action they have taken where you kind of have to read between the lines. I have never before gotten a letter that so clearly and perfectly indicted the letter writer themselves as this one did.
This woman’s daughter was getting married. The daughter had a best friend named Katie, who she had known since they were four. They were best friends. Katie was going to be one of her bridesmaids and Katie walks with a limp. The letter writer said, “I think it’s going to look unsightly and so I asked my daughter if we could have Katie sit down during the ceremony and maybe have her just take video or hand out programs while sitting instead of being your maid of honor so that she doesn’t ‘ruin the aesthetic aspect of the wedding.’”
West: Oh my God. “If I could just have Katie positioned behind a screen. Maybe in the other room.”
Ortberg: A tree, yeah. Then it just ends with my daughter is no longer speaking to me. We were never that close but this is her wedding and I want it to be perfect. I just… it’s changed me on a chemical and genetic level. It’s so “Do you hear yourself?” I have to apply the usual test to it, which is if you reread your own letter, do you sound like the villain from a Reese Witherspoon movie? If so, how can you change your entire life?
West: What advice is she looking for?
Ortberg: It closed with “Is it wrong to have her friend sit out?” Which, at the very least, is the right question to be asking, right?
Ortberg: She’s at least not saying, “How do I get my daughter to forgive me or see my point of view?”
West: Right. “Don’t you agree that Katie is a little unsightly?”
Ortberg: Yeah, and so I was at least able to answer that question. For what it’s worth, listeners, I do believe that it’s wrong and addressed it more fully in the column, but this one was just remarkable. It’s been a while since I got a letter that was that clear-cut, like cartoon-ish villainy, you might as well be twirling your mustache and tying somebody to the railroad tracks—just bad.
West: I wonder if you could somehow remove that letter from its context and show it to her as though it was written by somebody else, if she would be aghast. You know what I mean?
Ortberg: That’s exactly what the prophet Nathan did to King David in the Old Testament and it totally worked. So good with that strategy.
West: I was thinking of that Mr. Show sketch when the metal-band videos of them having gay sex and they think it’s awesome. Then they’re like, “Now we’re going to swap this video with a video of gay porn.” Then it’s the same video and they’re like, “Oh, sick.” Anyway, never mind.
Ortberg: I’m just really glad that we got to work in Mr. Show and the Bible as two references for how we could handle this person. Either one is good. Just, yeah, what a time to be alive. Yeah, I try not to run too many letters that are just clearly the letter writer is being a jerk because I don’t want it to become a column where I just yell at people, but sometimes someone really needs to be yelled at.
West: I mean you could write a novel based on that prompt. You know?
Ortberg: It’s just ... Oh, I cannot imagine how you make that suggestion to someone.
West: Also, can we make a Go Fund Me to send Katie an Edible Arrangement or something?
Ortberg: I want Katie to have all the good things in life. Hopefully Katie never finds out, right? Hopefully this is never communicated to Katie because she doesn’t need to carry around the psychic weight of that garbage. Anyway, so there you go. If anyone was curious, is Dear Prudence for or against kicking people out of bridal parties because they walk with a limp?: I’m against it. I think that that’s bad. Ableist and bad, and you shouldn’t do it.
With that out of the way, I want to start with the very first letter, which is also about someone who is making a bad choice. I’m really excited to get to address this one with you, Lindy. I’m going to go ahead and read it and then we will take turns reading the letters because I care about reciprocity.
The subject line of this one is just “Irregular Periods”:
Dear Prudence, my boyfriend is very disgusted by period blood, which is understandable. Period blood is gross and because of that we don’t have sex when I’m on my period. I’m perfectly happy with this and I feel that all my needs are fulfilled. However, I’m on a type of birth control that messes up my cycle so I have irregular periods, which means I don’t always know when it’s going to start.
Because of this, about every two to three months I find out I’m on my period in the middle of sex with my boyfriend who proceeds to freak out, immediately end our intimacy, and usually never picks it back up again, then try to distract himself from what just happened for the rest of the night and doesn’t want to talk about it. Meanwhile, I’m left feeling hurt and neglected, abandoned in the middle of sex, and since I’m extra-hormonal, I end up crying.
My boyfriend always says that he’s not mad at me and doesn’t blame me. He knows I can’t help it, but I can’t help feeling that he resents me and that he’s making my period all about his trauma from touching and seeing the period blood, which 50 percent of the population has to deal with as a normal fact of our lives. As a result we both end up angry with each other. I’m mad at him for ignoring my emotional needs and he’s mad at me for bleeding on him and then crying about it. Do you have any advice for how we can avoid this mutual anger every time I’m on my period?
Normally I try to read letters as neutrally as possible. I don’t like to give a lot of clues about where I’m at when I’m reading them, but I just gave up on that one real quickly in this letter. I gave up and I sailed away to Feelings Island. I sure do have some advice. Lindy, what advice do you have for these folks?
West: I’m really curious to hear which Feelings Island you’re on.
West: My instincts are men need to get a grip. I mean obviously it’s not nice to bleed all over someone nonconsenually, but generally in heterosexual intercourse, women have to deal with a not super-pleasant male bodily fluid. I don’t know.
Ortberg: Oh my gosh, that’s just a normal part of sex. Not a freaky witch eruption that menstruation is.
West: I just feel like the way that we treat menstruation like this, it’s this unspeakable act.
Ortberg: Yeah. I’m not here to tell you that unless you are animatedly eating your girlfriend out while she’s on her period that you’re a bad person. You don’t have to enjoy having sex with someone who’s actively menstruating to be a good boyfriend, but this is fucking ridiculous. Frankly, the fact that you haven’t chopped your boyfriend in half with an ax is a remarkable act of restraint.
Ortberg: Once again, I do not advocate chopping anyone in half. I don’t think that you should resort to violence. This is outrageous. This guy is—if this were a 12-year-old, well, first of all I’d be concerned that a 12-year-old was having sex—but his response to period blood is, it’s embarrassing for a child, and that he’s a grown man doing this on a semiregular basis, oh boy. I just want you to know, letter writer, this is not two reasonable people disagreeing. Your boyfriend is being absurd.
West: Yeah. You know what might help is if he didn’t run away every time he saw period blood. You know what I mean?
Ortberg: You know what else might help? Breaking up with him.
West: Well, sure. Absolutely.
Ortberg: I don’t want to come out of the gate with “Dump him, he sucks,” but dump him, he sucks.
West: Yeah, the fact that she cries and then he gets mad at her, it’s so ... Even just that part of it is beyond—
Ortberg: No, he freaks out, jumps out of bed, spends the rest of the night rocking back and forth in a corner trying to calm down from the trauma of having come near a period, like she’s ridden with cooties. Is just like the enormity of his response and the degree to which he will flee from you, as if you should be confined to a menstrual hut and shunned until you are clean again is, I can’t believe that you even a little bit feel like “How do we compromise on this?” There should not be a compromise. He needs to get a grip.
West: You know what’s a great fix? Turn the lights off. Can’t see it. You’d never even know it was there. You know what I mean?
Ortberg: I can’t imagine. It’s one thing to generally prefer not to have sex with someone when they’re on their period. Fine. Whatever. If that’s not for you, that’s not for you. If you find out someone’s bleeding a little bit in the middle of sex and it just kills the mood for you, your boner moves away to the moon and you’re just absolutely done, fine. But then just calmly remove your genitals from her genitals and get a paper towel, wipe both of yourselves off, and then say something like, “Hey, sorry about that.”
Check and see, does she want to finish? How is she doing? How is she feeling? This is going to keep happening every month-ish for a long time. It’s just blood from her uterus. That’s all it is. You don’t have to love it. It doesn’t have to be your favorite thing in the world. You don’t have to put some in your morning smoothie every day. But if this guy, like just the thought of his dick touching something that was inside your uterus makes him throw himself in a basement for 24 hours and ignore you when you cry, then this guy’s an immature, misogynistic asshole.
Ortberg: Yeah, if this is me I’m dumping this guy. I don’t care how great he is the rest of the time. If he is responding with this level of paralysis and panic and terror and “Get your cooties away from me” every couple of months, there are guys out there who are not like that. There are guys out there who are like, “A period. It’s a biological function that some people have. Fine.”
West: Yeah. Also, I’m going to make you touch my ejaculate or potentially put it in your mouth, so maybe I could chill out about ... Not to get too graphic. I apologize. I just feel like ...
Ortberg: We left not being graphic behind a while ago.
West: The degree to which women are expected to be delighted by semen is oppressive.
Ortberg: Transported with joy.
West: Yeah, exactly. Like, “Listen man, you can get a little bit of ...” It’s not even like ... No, that was going to go too far. No, it’s not too far. It’s not like it’s old and it’s been sitting around. It’s like fresh and clean blood from the inside of a human.
Ortberg: Look, here’s the deal. I don’t want to litigate whether or not somebody needs to like period blood. That’s not the issue. The issue is not ...
West: I don’t personally like it. I don’t enjoy it, personally.
Ortberg: But he says he’s not mad at you and doesn’t blame you. The fact that that’s where he’s at emotionally, is like yeah, he fucking shouldn’t. That’s like saying, “Look, darling, I’m not mad at you for converting oxygen into carbon dioxide several times a minute.” The fact that he even thinks that he has the right to say that he’s not mad at you for sometimes menstruating is bananas. This is baby-town frolics, bonkers.
West: Bare minimum it should be framed as him having a hang-up, not her making a mistake.
Ortberg: Right. Like, “Guy, she’s not bleeding on you on purpose.” It’s not like she secretly knows when her period’s about to start and then it’s like, “Yeah, I’m going to bleed all over his dick and not tell him.” It’s also just period blood. It will wipe off. Lots of people have periods. You should be OK with that. Bare minimum your response to her menstruating in the middle of sex should just be like, “Oh, let me go grab some baby wipes.” Maybe shake it off a minute in the bathroom.
I mean emotionally shake it off. I don’t mean actually shake it off your dick. Clean yourself better than that. Then move on with your life because you’re an adult human being who touched a little blood for a second. Again, it’s not like he has some sort of traumatizing blood phobia. He’s just being a misogynistic piece of shit. Frankly, I would dump, I would take joy in choreographing a dumping that would result in me pirouetting away over a bunch of synchronized swimmers or something like that. It would bring me so much joy to dump this guy.
West: Yeah. I feel like I should say that this happened to me once. This exact thing happened to me.
Ortberg: Once? Not every two to three months the whole time you were together?
West: No, just once. I’m not particularly interested in having sex when I’m on my period. It’s not something that I do—
West: —on purpose. Because I feel disgusting when I’m on my period.
Ortberg: Everybody has super-different responses. Some people are into it.
Ortberg: Some people hate it. Some people are kind of in the middle. All of them are fine.
West: But I did have a surprise period one time during sex just like this gal and the guy, we had been dating for a couple months, and he never called me again. He freaked out, ran away, jumped in the shower, was super-weird and then dumped me, which was fine. I was kind of relieved, but...
Ortberg: Yeah, but I think in general it’s just a good idea if there’s something that nearly half the population experiences on a monthly basis and they are able to deal with it without ... Do you know what I mean? Most people who menstruate aren’t every month screaming in horror at themselves, like, “Oh no, it’s here again.”
Even if it’s really unpleasant or really unwanted, it’s still generally like, “Yeah, I can handle this. I know how to deal with this. I know how to keep myself clean and deal with the hygiene of menstruating.” So for somebody who doesn’t menstruate to have that response is just ridiculous and unnecessary and I hate him.
West: Hate him too.
Ortberg: Yeah. I bet he likes all the things that I don’t like and I bet he doesn’t orderly get in line on a zipper merge on the freeway and I bet he doesn’t use his blinker when he turns lanes and I hate him.
West: I bet he doesn’t give a courtesy wave ...
Ortberg: When people let him in?
Ortberg: I bet you’re right. I bet you’re so right.
West: I bet he gives the finger instead.
Ortberg: I bet he doesn’t come to a complete stop at stop signs because they’re red and they remind him of menstruation and the thought of that is so terrifying he has to flee. All right, we’ve got stop just hating on this one guy because I could dedicate the rest of my life to doing that, but I really shouldn’t. Would you please read our next letter?
West: Yes. Subject line, “Cold Feet”:
Dear Prudence, my fiancé and I have been together for seven years now and engaged for the past five. Every time we try to move forward with the wedding something happens and we postpone it for a later date. I should note that I don’t live with him, nor do I have a copy of his house key. He doesn’t want me to have one for some weird reason and I respected his wishes and stopped asking for one.
In fact, every time I’m about to move in with him the month or two before we’re supposed to get married, something happens. The first time he was moving and didn’t want to get married in transit. The second time he let his friend who was going through a divorce live with him for two months so we had to postpone again.
Then his father died and then he moved again to be closer to his mother. Then he took in another friend who needed a place to stay. This keeps happening and the latest postponement came at a time when I needed to renew my lease but wasn’t sure if I was moving in with him or not. I don’t have an issue with him helping his friends. What I have an issue with is that he talks about since we’re going to get married, that we’re a team, but he only gave me a heads-up on them moving in after the fact.
I never got to have a discussion with him about how this might affect our relationship and plans. Our wedding that was supposed to be in October has been canceled and he didn’t seem to even care and overall he seems to have an attitude towards me. It’s like he’s got tunnel vision because it’s his friends and forget any plans or promises made with me. I’m getting tired of having to put our plans on hold because he’s got to play the knight in shining armor. Sometimes I feel like I’m being too sensitive about all of this, but the few family and friends that I’ve told about this have all said I’m not wrong for being upset.
They don’t think he wants to get married, and honestly, I’m starting to think so too. I’m tempted to just call everything off, the engagement and relationship, but I feel stuck due to our long history. I don’t know what to do. Any advice?
Ortberg: Lindy, I just want you to know that originally this letter was roughly three times longer than this.
Ortberg: With just further detail on how many times this dude has called off their wedding.
West: Right. I mean, don’t get married, obviously.
Ortberg: I mean, I honestly don’t know that she could get married, do you know what I mean?
Ortberg: I don’t know that getting married to this guy is an option.
West: Right, but what is their relationship? There’s nothing. Usually it seems like when people are conflicted about not wanting to break up they list some things that they like about the person.
Ortberg: Right. This does not have that. That was not something that I edited out, by the way. There was never any of that in here.
West: There’s just nothing. Just, “Oh well, we’ve put in seven years so I guess we should stick with it.” Which is not ...
Ortberg: I think that’s what it is, right? The only thing that the letter writer mentions is towards the end is “I feel stuck due to our long history.”
“Just don’t,” is my advice. Don’t feel stuck because of that. That is the sunk cost fallacy and I understand it’s a little dismissive to say just stop feeling that way and make a decision, but you just wrote an incredibly long letter to an advice columnist basically giving a list of reasons why you think this guy doesn’t want to marry you.
I agree with you. He doesn’t want to marry you. He does want to keep putting it off indefinitely. He will continue to prioritize everyone else in his life before you. This is not a series of accidents. These are a series of choices. He doesn’t want to marry you. The long history between the two of you is not an incentive to stay. It is a millstone that will keep you from moving in a direction that actually makes you happy.
If you want you can stick with this guy for as long as he’s willing to jerk you around. I’m sure he would be willing to pretend to want to set a wedding date a couple more times and then invite a bunch of other people to move in with him instead, but getting married to him is not an option. You can either keep getting rejected by him while you’re with him or you can say, “I’m done here. I have sufficient information to know that even if we got married tomorrow I would not feel like I was marrying someone who was excited about me.” You’ve got to walk away.
West: Yeah. Generally, if you’re putting up, if you’re even entertaining these two choices, like, “Should we get married, or should we break up?”, you should break up.
West: If that’s even on the table, do not marry that person. Also, even if this was all innocent, which it’s not, but imagine that he really does desperately want to get married but things keep getting in the way, there’s going to be things for the rest of your lives. Parents die, friends get divorced, people need help. If you’re a couple and you are a team, you go through those things together. They don’t interrupt your relationship.
That’s never going to go away. There’s never going to be a time when you don’t have any distractions or any interruptions in your life. Life’s only going to get more complicated and you only get to live one time. This sounds miserable. He has an attitude with you.
Ortberg: For wanting to marry him.
West: My God. Run, don’t walk away from this horrible person.
Ortberg: Yeah, I want you and the woman whose boyfriend shrieks in horror whenever someone has a period near him to just go on like a long Thelma & Louise–style road trip.
West: Oh my God, seriously.
Ortberg: That’s what I want for you, but yeah. No, this is incredibly clear-cut. You’re not really in a relationship at all. I think you should go ahead and acknowledge that and say, “I’m done.” I think that that is the only way that you are going to ever possibly be in a relationship that makes you happy, and don’t let the length of your previous relationship convince you to throw more time into it. You’ll just lose more time.
West: Yeah. Oh man, and she’s going to feel so good when she’s away from him, you know? I’m so excited for her.
Ortberg: And she’s going to realize, “Oh right, forward momentum in a relationship isn’t weird and impossible and I don’t have to accommodate someone else’s sudden wild changes in strategy constantly.” It’s not that hard to get married, you know what I mean?
Ortberg: It can be hard to plan a wedding. There can be a lot, but people dumber and worse than you, letter writer, who get married all the time. It’s not hard to get married if you have two people who really want to marry each other. If what you have is one person who wants to get married and one other person who is for whatever reason happy with the status quo, it will seem like Oh, it’s just so hard. Life’s so dramatic.” These things keep getting in the way. It’s like, “No it’s not.”
People get married in prison. People get married at sea. People get married in the midst of a painful diagnosis and when their family members are dying and during times of war. It is not hard to get married if both people want to get married.
Ortberg: All right, so getting even further into the sort of thorny weeds, the next letter is just called “Was I Raped?”:
Dear Prudence, I’m a woman from North America living in a rural part of the country in Latin America. Recently I met a young man and we went out a few times. Things progressed physically and after a romantic dinner at his house we moved to his bed.
We both took our clothes off and I knew we were heading towards having sex, but I wasn’t physically ready so I asked him to slow down. When he didn’t, I used my hands to slow him down and push him away gently. He moved my hands out of the way and kept going. It was very painful. He did eventually stop at which point he berated me and told me I wasn’t normal and I left crying shortly thereafter. I don’t think there’s any point in talking to the authorities here as I would not be taken seriously as a woman, particularly against the word of a well-respected man. Not to mention there’s no privacy in this town and my professional reputation would be ruined.
But I am upset and I do think it would help me to have clarity for myself to know was I raped or was he just a run-of-the-mill jerk and I was foolish to put myself in a compromising situation? I keep replaying the situation over and over in my head and the ambiguity of it is causing me a lot of distress. To be clear, I did not say the word no, but I did say “Wait” and “Not yet.”
For what it’s worth, this does not read like an ambiguous situation to me.
Ortberg: I realize part of what you are asking for, letter writer, is just somebody else to kind of affirm what it is that you experienced and I realize that when you don’t feel safe going to the authorities where you live that you know your own situation best and I understand if you decide not to report. For whatever it’s worth, this was not run-of-the-mill jerk behavior.
This was not ordinary, I mean, it can be ordinary in the sense that it can be common, but it’s not ordinary in the sense that it’s understandable or appropriate. This was not ambiguous. You pushed him away and you told him you weren’t ready and he persisted and he didn’t stop. That is what rape is.
West: Yes. It’s not for us to define the letter writer’s experiences, but certainly by any definition it is a sexual assault. I guess I just, I don’t want to tell people that they have to call their own experiences a rape if they’re uncomfortable with that terminology, but I certainly would. It sounds pretty clear that this person almost certainly behaves this way with other women, that it’s not an isolated incident and the sort of personal politics around reporting are so complicated and so fraught and ...
Ortberg: Right. Especially, I don’t know what country this is, I don’t know what the legal framework is there.
West: Right. I trust the letter writer to know what’s best for her and how to keep herself safe, but man, that’s a bad guy.
Ortberg: Yup. Just for what it’s worth, and I do get questions like this more often than I would like that sort of include some sort of “I was foolish to put myself in a compromising situation,” there’s nothing foolish about going on a date with someone and wanting to fool around or be intimate in some way, but not have penetrative sex. That’s not teasing or misleading. That’s not putting yourself in a situation where someone should be able to hurt you.
That’s pretty normal, appropriate behavior. Anyone who goes on a date with someone and responds to some sexual contact with “I am now owed maximal sexual contact as much as I want regardless of whether or not you are enjoying yourself,” that’s not an appropriate expectation. That’s not an expectation that you somehow raised with your earlier behavior.
That’s wrong. That’s cruel and that’s sexual assault. Life and dates are nuanced and sometimes complicated and sometimes when you’re getting to know someone you’re comfortable doing some things together but you’re not ready to go all the way or whatever all the way is. I don’t want to make it sound like there’s only one way or one direction to go in, but of course, it’s also fine if things are going really well and for whatever reason you would like to stop. That is OK.
People can do that and a good sexual partner will say, “Of course. Thanks for letting me know,” and they will stop. They will not act like, “Well, the train’s out of the station. I’d have to call a conductor to get it all stopped now.” That’s not how anything works except for trains. That’s not how sex works with humans. That’s how trains work.
West: Yeah, and any person with healthy sexual boundaries does not want to have sex with someone who doesn’t want to be having sex. That’s about the least-sexy thing I can think of, you know?
West: It’s a bad, it’s a very bad sign.
Ortberg: Yeah, and I think I would encourage you, letter writer, to not continue to give yourself a really hard time for only pushing him away, moving his hands, telling him to wait and saying not yet. Those were all very clear demonstrations of “I don’t want this.” No is not some magical word that unless you say it someone else has the right to trample all over your boundaries. Do you know what I mean?
West: Oh yeah. This big cartoon shrug motion that certain men make about “Oh, how could I possibly read your nonverbal cues about whether or not you want to have sex with me?” It’s just, it’s so, are we allowed to swear?
Ortberg: I swore a lot earlier, so go for it.
West: Oh, you did?
West: I forgot.
Ortberg: That’s all right.
West: It’s just bullshit. It’s just such transparent bullshit. It’s such self-serving, disingenuous bullshit. Of course you can tell if someone wants you to stop putting your penis inside of them. Of course.
Ortberg: Look, if I’m working as a waiter and I come to a table and I say, “Can I take your order?” and they say, “We’re not ready yet,” that’s clear. I don’t need to say, “Can you tell me no please, so that I know?” Do you know what I mean?
Ortberg: There are very few other areas of life where people pretend not to be able to tell what someone is communicating to them. So I think you can just apply like, if I said “No, thank you, not yet” to a waiter and they understood me, why do I assume that this person I am in bed with somehow, because I didn’t say “No,” they have the right to do what they did or I didn’t do enough to stop them? You made yourself very clear. He disregarded your boundaries and assaulted you and I’m really sorry.
West: I also think, my God, it’s OK to trust people. If someone violates your trust, that’s something that they did. That’s their choice.
Ortberg: Right, that’s not on you for trusting a guy you went out with.
West: How are we supposed to live? I’m supposed to move through the world every single day with the presumption that any man might rape me at any time? It’s just not a realistic way to expect women to live and it’s very confining and it’s a trap also because then, obviously, the way that the system works is that when you are sexually assaulted, if you are sexually assaulted, we rigged it so that it’s your fault because you were supposed to be on high alert at all times. It’s just to remove the blame for sexual assault from the person who did it, it’s a really audacious move. It’s like, wow. Impressive.
Ortberg: Yeah, so letter writer, for whatever it’s worth, what you described was absolutely assault. You did nothing to merit it. It is not just because you said, “Wait, not yet,” and pushed him away but didn’t say the magic word of “no” does not mean that you are culpable or responsible. Whatever steps you choose to take next, whether you do ultimately decided to report or whether you even just want to share this with someone that you trust, whether they live near you or far away or whether it’s a therapist, just to feel like you can discuss it and the feelings that it brings up and that you can do whatever you feel that you needed to do to take care of yourself. Give you that permission. I’m really sorry.
West: Yeah, even if law enforcement is not a reliable option, there are almost certainly some sort of nonprofit groups that work with sexual assault victims in that region. I don’t know, but it seems like there are often survivors on the ground doing this kind of work, especially in places where you don’t have any recourse legally. There might at least be people that you could find who you can talk to and feel a little bit less alone and a little bit less afraid.
Ortberg: Yeah. All right, well in a similar vein, actually, is this next letter, so would you please read it to us and then hopefully we’ll be able to end on something a little less intense.
West: Yeah. Subject, “Sex Offender in the Family”:
Dear Prudence, my husband’s family is pretty close. They all live in the same small town and regularly drop by. Our niece, who is 3, is watched daily by her grandparents who live a few doors down. The issue is that her grandfather is a sex offender as well as a functional alcoholic.
His offense was committed against a very close family member, but it happened in the ’80s so he’s not listed in any of the registries. Also, the grandmother is my husband’s stepmom because his biological mom divorced his dad after the incident. I’ve heard that the grandfather’s wife never believed her husband committed this crime even though he was jailed for it. Apparently the great-grandparents stood up for their son, blaming the young family member for the indiscretion.
We do not think my husband’s brother and sister-in-law who are entrusting their child, our niece, to her grandparents know about the sex offense, but maybe they do know and have decided to trust him anyway. I would not allow my daughter to be in that house on a daily basis without myself or my husband present. I would definitely want to know if my father-in-law was a sex offender, but for years we have remained silent because of the possible repercussions by spilling the beans.
My husband loves his family and doesn’t want to cause waves. Also, my husband thinks the family member who was molested needs to be the one to share this info, not us. He says it’s her news and her life. I partially agree. I believe my niece may be in danger, especially because her grandpa is an alcoholic. I’ve been stewing for years wanting to tell my sister-in-law, but haven’t. I’ve also encouraged my husband to bring it up. Again, maybe she already knows. What should we do?
I mean, make sure that she knows, first of all. Right?
West: She should know. I wondered when I was reading this letter if there’s a level of awkwardness there where it’s been years that they’ve been watching their niece go over to this house to be taken care of by a sex offender and haven’t said anything, that if the sister-in-law doesn’t know, it’s kind of horrifying to bring it up now. “Hey, by the way, we’ve had this information all this time, but we didn’t mention it to you.”
Ortberg: Right. It’s pretty, and this is distressingly common, is when somebody in the family commits sexual assault, even if they do something like go to jail for it, oftentimes the extended family will kind of close ranks around the offender and imply or outright say that the person who was victimized is a troublemaker or making things up or just generally not on their team.
They will sort of let that person go and protect the person who committed the offense. That’s just really awful and it’s a real failure of the moral imagination. I want to also acknowledge too that I don’t think that an appropriate response in general for someone who has been convicted of a sex offense is that they should always be followed around everywhere for the rest of their lives and prevented from pursuing rehabilitation or changing their lives. I do want to acknowledge that.
But, I would say this. There does not appear to be any sign of acknowledgement or remorse on the grandfather’s part, especially given that he married someone who believes he did not commit the offense for which he was not only arrested, but convicted, suggests that he has really latched on to that fantasy where he did not in fact molest a young relative, which does not speak much of his ability to pursue change.
I think also there are ways in which, without saying someone is doomed to never be redeemed or rehabilitated, is also really appropriate to say a person who has gone to jail for molesting a child probably does not need to be looking after children ever. If for no other reason than why would you put yourself in the position of putting yourself in the way of temptation? You’re not interfering with his right to work or to pursue a new life. This pretty clearly seems like a bad situation where dishonesty and deception are abounding.
With all that said, I think you should absolutely tell the girl’s parents. I think you should “I’m really sorry for not bringing this up sooner. I have felt uncertain and uncomfortable. Grandpa was arrested in the 1980s for sexually assaulting a child.” His conviction is probably a matter of public record even if he’s not on a sex offender registry. My guess is there is an arrest record of some kind and because the child’s name would have been redacted in the original report you don’t necessarily need to name or point to the person it was.
I think your husband, his desire to let the victim decide whether or not she wants to tell her own story, is a good one, but there are also ways to make it clear that he has done something violent and wrong to a child without sort of naming names. I think to put the burden on her of “Well, if she wants to make sure she doesn’t babysit kids in his old age she has to follow up and make sure she knows what he’s doing,” that’s too much to put on a victim, I think.
West: Especially, yeah, she’s already been through the incident, the abuse itself. Then she was rejected by her family. Now it’s her responsibility to bring all that up again, face the same possibility if being told that she’s a liar again by her same supposedly close family. What a horrible thing to put on a person.
Ortberg: Right, it’s too much.
West: Especially when it is, yeah, when it is almost certainly public record and it’s not easy to get convicted of abusing a child. Our system is set up not ... If our system has a sort of bias, it’s in the other direction. The idea that there are kids going around falsely accusing beloved family members of abuse for fun and then those false accusations routinely end in false convictions, that’s ...
Ortberg: There was the Satanic day-care panic in what, the early 1980s? That was a very sad and upsetting moment, but I think that was one or two people. You’re absolutely right, the way in which that looms large, yes, if he was convicted that’s plenty to talk about without bringing the person into it.
Frankly, now that I’m looking over this letter again, the fact that your husband says he loves his family and doesn’t want to cause waves makes me think he’s not exactly concerned about this person’s autonomy and wants to make sure she tells her own story. He doesn’t want to have an uncomfortable conversation about the fact that his father is a convicted child molester. That’s just too fucking bad.
West: Yeah, I mean, can you imagine? There’s no universe in which that child, if they are being abused, wouldn’t grow up and say, “Oh my God, I wish someone had stepped in and done something.” You can be that person, whether it’s happening or not. Maybe it’s not happening, but you have the opportunity to be that person who changes that child’s life.
She says in the letter, “We’ve remained silent because of the possible repercussions by spilling the beans,” and then she doesn’t list any repercussions. What are the possible repercussions? Some uncomfortable conversations with your family members, with your alcoholic family member that you think might be molesting a 3-year-old?
Ortberg: Yeah, that sounds like a good repercussion, actually. I think repercussions are necessary and I think you need to say to your husband, “I would love it if we could do this together. It’s important and meaningful to me. If you’re not willing to do that, if you’re more afraid of making waves than of naming reality, I will do this without you.”
That’s going to be scary and I’m sure your husband is going to come up with a lot of good reasons why you should all just plug your ears and look in the other direction while singing loudly, but this is the right thing to do. Frankly, if you say to your sister-in-law, “I have been remiss in not talking about this with you sooner. I’m so sorry I didn’t do this sooner, but I want you to know that our grandfather is an alcoholic and a convicted child molester and I wanted to make sure you knew that because he looks after your daughter,” if her response is, “Yeah, I knew,” then that was still worth having that conversation frankly because then I think you will have an opportunity to express your concern about her daughter’s health and safety to her.
That is a conversation you should have. I understand it will be embarrassing. I understand it will be painful. I understand people may get defensive and angry with you for making waves. This is worth making waves for, whether or not you get your husband’s support. Just say, “I’d love to have it if I can, but if you lack the courage to have a difficult, uncomfortable conversation about the care and safety of a 3-year-old girl, I’ll do it without you, man.”
West: Yeah, and if you do have that conversation with your sister-in-law and she is angry with you for not telling you sooner if she didn’t know and she says, “My God, why didn’t you tell me?” she’s justified in being angry.
Ortberg: Yes. That’s OK.
West: That’s OK. You need to absorb that discomfort.
Ortberg: Especially because like you yourself say, I would never leave him alone with my kid and I would want to know, so go ahead and treat her like you would want to be treated. You already know what the right thing to do is. The family’s general fear and aversion to the truth is starting to get to you and you’re starting to think “Well, maybe I shouldn’t do something for her that I would want someone to do for me.” No, you already know what the right thing is and you need to do it and you need to do it now.
Ortberg: Man. All right. Yeah. We’ve got one more letter that’s on a slightly less, I mean it’s still complicated, but it’s slightly less soul crushing and that’s always a good note to move to. But the subject of this one is “A Mixed Orientation Marriage”:
Dear Prudence, I’m a woman who’s been married to a man for 12 years. We have two small children. Before we got married I told my husband I was bisexual, which I thought was the correct way to describe myself at the time.
Now over a decade later it would probably be more accurate to say that I’m gay. My repressed sexuality bothers me sometimes, but most of the time I tell myself that I have a good marriage. For me a cohesive family unit is much more important than sexual fulfillment. I fully acknowledge that other people might feel differently in this situation.
I do however experience isolation at times. Everyone in my life for good reason thinks I’m straight. I’ve thought of attending some type of LGBT support group, but I’m concerned that I might be harshly judged for my choices to live a straight life while gay. I also don’t want to offend anyone and I’m afraid the queer community will be personally offended by my lifestyle. Do you think trying to find some type of LGBT community while in a heterosexual marriage will cause more harm than good?
West: I kind of feel like this letter’s kind of sweet. Like it just doesn’t go in the direction that you expect it go.
Ortberg: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
West: It’s not “I feel like I’m worried about betraying my husband by living my identity.” It’s “I’m worried about betraying, like am I betraying my identity by staying with my husband?” She doesn’t seem to be very, she doesn’t seem to be interested in leaving her husband, which is ... I mean, do you get that impression?
Ortberg: No, it’s not even an impression. She outright says that she is more committed to keeping her family together in a marriage than in coming out and being with a woman. So her choice was really clear. God, I just, I had a letter this morning in the live chat from somebody whose mom just came out as being a lesbian after being married to their dad for 20 years, and ways in which the oldest child had helped her hide dating apps from her husband. It was a real mess.
Ortberg: That’s not to say that that’s necessarily in this letter writer’s future. I just want to throw out there that sometimes our ability to predict how long we will be able to continue to do something is sometimes a little bit skewed. I don’t want to say you should or you have to leave, especially with two small children. I really do understand that the choice you’ve made feels worth it to you, but I think you’re going to need that support, especially as your kids get older and it feels a little bit less immediate, like I need to stay in this family and be a mom and be married to their dad, that there may come times when the choice you have made right now feels harder and more painful.
You may meet somebody who kind of sets your world upside down and you didn’t really know that you could feel that intensely about somebody. That might prove really hard. Again, not to say you shouldn’t be making the choice that you’re making, but I think you will need that support because what you’re doing is hard. It sounds like also rewarding and that you care for your husband in a real and meaningful way, but I do think that you should seek out support.
I think, especially if you’re looking, it’s not like you’re looking to go to a gay bar on the weekends and be like, “This is my husband. Everyone help me manage this.” Support groups are for support and you should hopefully be able to look for one. Sometimes in some towns there are support groups for LGBT people in “heterosexual marriages.” This is not at all something that’s unheard of. This happens a lot. This has happened historically a lot so there may in fact be groups for people in exactly your situation.
West: Yeah. Also, you’re going to die eventually. You get one life and I think it’s important to at least have this conversation with your husband. There are all kinds of families living with alternative family structures that work really well for them. I don’t think the only two options are heterosexual marriage or mixed orientation marriage or divorce.
West: You can raise kids with someone that you’re not intimate with, someone that you’re not married to. There are a lot of options outside of staying in this traditional family structure that doesn’t allow you to, and I don’t know, I’m putting words in her mouth. Maybe she does feel fulfilled in this marriage, I have no idea, but that potentially doesn’t let you fully live a fulfilling life, you know? Live every aspect of who you are.
She doesn’t say anything about her husband being unsupportive or her husband, being afraid to talk to her husband. So talk to your husband, you know?
Ortberg: Yeah. No, I think that’s a good idea. I think she might be at a point where she feels like saying “I was bisexual to my husband was as close as I could get to the truth. If I tell him any more then that’s going to start to spread cracks in the foundation of our marriage.” Again, that’s not to say you need to come home tomorrow and say, “I’m not really attracted to you at all. Surprise.” But if you can find ways to at the very least say, “It would be helpful to me to sometimes go to a support group for queer women,” just something so that it’s not something you have to totally keep from him.
Yes, absolutely, but your question is “Should I go? Will I offend people?” I want to say, “Hopefully not at all,” but it is possible that there will be some people who try to give you a hard time about that. I apologize in advance. I think what you are doing is not taking up space from anybody else. You are not trying to impose your choices on anyone else. You’re not doing anything that’s offensive or wrong. You belong at an LGBT support group because you are a lesbian who needs support.
So, absolutely. I think you can and should find a place with support groups. If you’re anxious about that you can bring that up. You can say, “I think I’m gay and I’m nervous because I believe I want to at least try to continue to stay with my husband for right now. I’m worried that people are going to judge my choice and what I want is support.” But I think that’s worth doing. I think you should do it. I don’t think you’re going to be met with just a wall of horror and offense and “Get out.” I don’t think that that’s going to be the overwhelming response.
West: If you are, maybe you should find a different support group, because that doesn’t sound very supportive.
Ortberg: Yeah, that’s a bad support group, for sure. But good luck.
West: Not that it’s my place to tell queer people how they should feel about who’s in their support group, but you know. I mean it’s a support group.
Ortberg: Right. No, I think you were qualified to speak on the nature of giving somebody support.
West: Yeah, and sorry I said that you’re going to die. I just meant—
Ortberg: It’s true.
West: —eventually we all do. Based on the evidence that we have this might be your only one, you know?
Ortberg: Yeah. I also understand that divorce, especially with little kids, is not something to be undertaken lightly and that for a lot of people they might feel really happy, not necessarily thrilled all the time, but that choice might be worth it and meaningful for them. I don’t think that if you have decided to stay with your husband that it means you are making the wrong choice or denying yourself. Obviously it’s not a choice you might make if you met him right now, but you’re only working with what you’ve got. I think your choice is an understandable one.
I wish you the best. I hope you’re able to find just maximal fulfillment and contentedness and companionship in your marriage and that it proves meaningful to you to go to queer support groups and talk about what you’re going through because it’s important and it matters.
All right, Lindy, we did it.
West: We did it.
Ortberg: We fixed everyone’s problems.
West: This was so fun. Thank you for—
Ortberg: Thank you for helping me to heal the world.
West: —letting me. You’re so good at this.
West: I’m always like, “I don’t know.”
Ortberg: I do have to know. It would be a very short podcast if I did not have a lot of opinions. I do like how, like I always start the podcast really swinging, like “Chop your boyfriend in half with an ax,” and then by the end I’m like, “Life is such a journey and a process and who’s to say what’s right and—”
West: I know.
Ortberg: “—and what’s wrong for you.”
Hopefully everyone got a different cross section of my opinions today.
West: Yeah, for sure.
Ortberg: Well, take care. See you later.
West: Thank you. You, too. Nice to talk to you.
Ortberg: Thanks for listening to Dear Prudence.