Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up here 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.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. I look forward to your questions.
Q. Brother-in-Law’s Confession Could Destroy Family: My husband’s sister “Beth,” her husband “Eric,” and their 2-year-old daughter recently came into town. Eric and I have never seen eye-to-eye, but we are civil. After hosting a big family party in our sun room, everyone went to bed. Eric offered to help me clean up, which I agreed to. Initially, he complimented my outfit and hair, which I thanked him for. Then, he implied that Beth no longer has sex with him. I wasn’t positive if that was what he meant, so I chose not to say anything further. That was when he mentioned that he had always thought that I was beautiful, then laughed as he mentioned that “no one” would hear us if we had sex together out in the sun room. Thinking that he was drunk, I said, “Well, we’re both married, and your wife is probably waiting for you in the guest room.” He answered, “I’ve already had to have a little fun on the side.” I turned around to leave and found him standing with everything on display. I didn’t say anything, just hurried into the house and went to bed. I avoided them until they left, then asked my husband what he and Eric drank; he told me that Eric was completely sober. I didn’t mention what happened. While I know my husband would side with me if I came forward, I know it could rip him apart from the rest of the family. But I’m also scared that if I keep quiet, Eric might tell the family that I came onto him, which could be even more damaging. What should I do?
A: Eric has an unusual perspective on how to warm up chilly in-law relations. He’s deeply sick, but I don’t understand why you didn’t immediately tell your husband about this. I would hope he would side with you! Your husband’s family must have some strange dynamics if you were more concerned about the news that Eric exposed himself to would ruin their July 4 picnic than the fact that people need to know that Eric is an out-of-control creep. Yes, it would be terrible for your sister-in-law to find out that she has a toddler by a pervert, but Eric’s behavior needs to be exposed. Someone who would do this with his family sleeping a few feet away is someone potentially headed toward needing the services of a criminal defense attorney. Please tell your husband immediately, then you two can figure out how to tell his sister. If this results in you and your husband being ostracized, then that might be a blessing.
Q. Wife and Nephew: My wife and my teenage nephew seem to have gotten quite close. They have given each other back rubs and foot-rubs. My sister is a good, involved, and seemingly affectionate mother, so it’s not as if my wife is filling some void. Am I just being paranoid, or could there be something bad developing? I’m not sure how to broach this with my wife or my sister.
A: This chat is developing into a modern dress version of Game of Thrones. Even if your nephew is interested in becoming a massage therapist, the person he practices on should not be his auntie. It’s hard to imagine a teenage boy not squirming with embarrassment if his aunt picked up his foot and started rubbing it. Sure some families are more touchy (in both senses) than others. In yours it could be perfectly normal for one family member to massage the shoulders of another. And the feet of children can be irresistible for tickling or rubbing. But when the kids get to be teenagers, things get way more hands-off. You are there, you’ve seen how your wife and nephew behave, and it’s freaking you out. So tell your wife about your concerns, ask what’s going on, and keep an eye open at that July 4 family gathering.
Q. Re: Brother-in-law confession addition: I forgot to add: my concern stems from the fact that Eric is a professing Christian and takes every opportunity to bring up his piousness, and my in-laws adore him. Meanwhile, I am the liberal atheist. I get the impression that most of the in-laws tolerate me and are likely not to believe the accusation anyway. Not because they want to protect an obviously troubled person, but because they believe his act. I have decided to tell my husband regardless and hopefully Beth will leave this guy. If not, I’ve washed my hands of the situation. Thanks for your clear-headed advice, Prudie!
A: Maybe the believers in your family lack an interest in the news. Because they might have noted a few examples over the years of pious people who use their religion as the means to gain trust and do horrible things. I’m glad you’re going to tell your husband. Beth also needs to know. Let’s hope your in-laws apply some secular sense to this mess and don’t just conclude you’re Satan.
Q. LGBT Issue: I attended a casual friend’s BBQ over the weekend and struck up a conversation with “Campbell,” a person obviously born female but very butch. During the course if our conversation, I very quickly asked what pronoun Campbell would prefer me to use when referencing her. I thought I was being aware and polite in case she identified as something else, but she got huffy and almost yelled, “Don’t I look like a woman?” She then abruptly ended our convo, and I could tell she was whispering about me for the rest of the night.
A: If you meet someone at a party, when in conversation with this person it just does not come up that you refer to them in the third person singular. Unless the person specifically makes a reference to how he or she identifies on the gender spectrum, you don’t bring it up. When referring later to someone whose gender may be ambiguous, you can ask a mutual friend. Or you can just say, “I met Campbell and had a really interesting talk with her.” Then if you don’t get corrected, you will know which pronoun to use.
Q. Hot for Teacher: I’m an 18-year-old high school senior. I’ve dated around like most kids my age, but I’ve always had a thing for older women. One woman in particular is my calculus teacher. She’s single, 31, personable, and smoking hot. She knows I have a thing for her and has made it obvious that the feeling’s mutual. She’s smart enough not to get involved with a student, but did tell me that if I still feel the same way about her after I graduate, then I should contact her. My friends feel this is crazy and that I should date girls my own age. I don’t see a problem. Even if it just turns out to be a summer fling, I’m comfortable letting it go in whatever direction it takes us. Do you agree with my friends, or do you think there’s no problem in my seeing her after I graduate?
A: If a teacher is coming on to you and offering a sexual relationship once you get a diploma, then the person you should be contacting is the principal. You may have a thing for older women, but this little dance you and the calculus teacher are doing was either initiated or escalated by her. This makes her a sexual predator, and even though you’re 18 and haven’t consummated this flirtation, this pas de deux started while you were still a student of hers. So anything that happens between you two after graduation could be a prosecutable offense. If you get involved and your friends start talking, and it gets back to the school administration, your teacher could be using her math skills to calculate her sentence. Frankly, I hope one of your friends reports this now, because this teacher may be someone who ends up targeting students more vulnerable than you. In the meantime, do your homework, finish the year, and drop the student-teacher conferences.
Q. New Workplace Childish Peer Pressure: I have recently started a new job at the online office of a retailer. This afternoon I got roped into being in some product photos which will be displayed in a shop window. I hate the photos. They’re so embarrassing—I’m not wearing any makeup, it’s hot today and I’m all disheveled at this point in the afternoon. Everyone had laughed at the pictures afterward and now I really don’t want them to be used in the shop windows, and possibly online. I’m new here and don’t want to be seen as “not a team player” but I emailed the graphic artist and said I wasn’t happy about them and was embarrassed and she said she “doesn’t have time for this now.” I didn’t have time to go and waste half an hour being in photos. I am a marketing assistant not a very moody and entitled model and I don’t want them to be used! Should I push it?
A: Marilyn Monroe used to require approval for her photos and famously would go through the contact sheets and put an X over any she didn’t like. But before you were roped into this, you failed to negotiate this clause. I understand your distress, and what’s even sillier is that this company would want someone who looks sweaty, unhappy, and disheveled promoting their product. You tried to get this corrected, and got major push-back. You’re also the new, low person on the totem pole. So let this go. The bosses may have chosen you because even in your less than Vogue-ready state, you were the best-looking amateur model they had. You will not be identified by name and this will just not be a big deal. And if your appearance is as appalling as you say, then your marketing people aren’t very savvy, unless they are selling hang-over remedies.
Q. Re: Wife and nephew: “Teenager” represents a very broad range. Behaviors that may be termed borderline affectionate with a young-looking 13-year-old will be totally inappropriate with an old-looking 19-year-old, no?
A: No. Now that you describe it, it’s more creepy to imagine back rubs between an aunt and her young-looking 13-year-old nephew, and more provocative to envision them between aunt and hunky 19-year-old.
Q. Re: LGBT issue: Does that writer also ask fat women if they’re pregnant? Really, you don’t need to know all information about everyone you meet at a party!
A: Great point!
Q. Dealing With Brother: A few years ago, my stepbrother, who is in his 30s, got the horrible diagnosis of a brain tumor. Luckily, after chemo and radiation, he has gotten a clean bill of health. The problem is, ever since, his personality has become one of a grumpy old man. While he has always been stubborn, now he is utterly unmovable. When we are all together, for example, we have to be on his schedule. He likes to get up around 4 to 5 a.m. (!) and go to bed at 7 p.m. When he is ready to eat, he eats, without consulting anyone else. We only go places where he wants to go, and if he doesn’t like our plans he gets bent out of shape. He mumbles and talks to himself constantly, which is really annoying. My stepfather completely defers to him, and gets upset when the rest of us (my mom, my other stepbrother and I) balk at being forced onto this ridiculous schedule. It is getting to the point that I try to avoid being around my family. I love my stepbrother, but he is really difficult to be around, and I can’t imagine he is enjoying life too much either. What should I do?
A: This sounds sad and awful, but it’s very likely these painful personality changes are a result of your stepbrother’s disease and treatment. I urge your family to see if you can arrange to talk about this with your stepbrother’s doctors. There may be things that can be done to address some of the side effects he’s experiencing. Or you may all have to understand how to deal with these changes in him. Your stepfather is dealing with a lot of fear and grief, so all of you need to be sensitive to that. And once the medical issues are addressed, a social worker could help your family come up with strategies to help your stepbrother better integrate back into your family and for all of you to function better as a unit.
Q. White Lies: A group of my boyfriend’s friends from college are spending a week together on the opposite side of the country from where we live. I really don’t like these people and would prefer not to spend time with them. I have decided not to go—the boyfriend will have more fun without me there and I’d be miserable. My problem is that when they asked him why I wasn’t coming, he told them it was because I don’t like them. I would have preferred he say something like I don’t have enough vacation days, particularly since I will most likely see these people again at some point. He said honesty was most important, while I feel that a harmless, face-saving lie would have been best for everyone. Who’s right?
A: Ah, honesty. I’m assuming your boyfriend would not like you to honestly say that you wish some of his body parts were bigger and some smaller. Or that the joke he told the other night fell horribly flat and he should stop trying to be funny. It’s great when a couple is comfortable enough with each other to let each other go and have a good time at an event that would make one miserable. But you’re absolutely right that your boyfriend turned a coolly distant relationship with his pals into a toxic one. In the name of honesty he’s basically pitted you against them, and as you note, any future encounters are going to be most awkward. People don’t enjoy hearing someone they have to socialize with can’t stand them. I hope your boyfriend can come to see that he’s made an unnecessary and provocative statement that will only redound badly on you. If he can’t, then maybe he has some of the qualities that make you dislike his friends.
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