Dear Prudence

What Ceiling?

Prudie advises a woman puzzled by reactions to the fact she hasn’t faced much sexism at work.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is online 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

Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone. I look forward to your questions, and don’t forget Valentine’s Day is on the horizon!

Q. Excessive Feminists: I’m a woman in a very masculine scientific field, and I’ve found that many women involved in feminist circles want to hear about my experience. I absolutely agree that there are biases against women in the workplace and love a good discussion, but I have never really suffered from sexism. First, I’m young enough (27) that I’m not eligible for senior positions anyway, and second, I’ve never been flirted with in an inappropriate manner, or felt I wasn’t listened to. Maybe I’m just awesome at playing the man’s game (or in denial and don’t have an eye for sexism?). More probably, I landed in a great environment that just suffers from a dearth of females because there are too few candidates. But even quite reasonable and pleasant women get aggressive when I don’t have anything to contribute to their list of crimes committed by the patriarchy. I don’t want to lie, but I’m not sure how to handle inquiries when I can’t give them the story they want.

A: How strange that people who say they are fighting for equality are dismayed when they encounter it. How sad that they don’t want to hear the good news that you have been welcomed into this traditionally male field, that your male peers and bosses treat you wonderfully, and that you are thriving. It’s exciting this has been your experience—what a great ambassador you can be for younger women seeking to enter your field. There is an unfortunate strain of obsessive grievance-mongering in feminism today. It’s a kind of sport for these self-proclaimed guardians to venomously attack those they feel don’t precisely toe their line. You’re a scientist who lives in the world of facts. You are finding that ideologues aren’t interested in facts, thus they go after you when your reality trumps their ideology. My general advice is that it’s best not to engage with unpleasant people, especially those who seek to lecture you about your own experiences. Feel free to extract yourself and say, “You’ll have to excuse me, but I’ve got to get back to the lab.” But if you feel like it, you can also counterpunch by saying something like, “It’s funny, but the only people who try to bully me are women who aren’t in my profession.”

Q. Keep My Fantasies a Fantasy?: I’m in my late 20s, and have been with my gentle, sweet, adoring boyfriend for nearly five years. I can see us getting married and having a family. Of course, there’s the but. Our sex life is a little … vanilla. After five years, it just seems like a pleasant, but not overly enthusiastic, 20 minute, once a week bedtime task. In my head I entertain some adventurous fantasies (ménage à trois, swinging, etc.), but my boyfriend isn’t interested in pursuing these, and frankly I don’t know if I’d be brave enough to pursue them in the real world either. Sometimes I berate myself for thinking my loving relationship should be thrown away for the sake of a few extra-special tingles downstairs. But other times I think maybe I’d be better suited for a bolder, brasher guy who shares my fantasies. What do you think?

A: Maybe you would like group sex. Or maybe what you really want is one-on-one sex that is not an unsatisfying dish of soft-serve vanilla. Marriage is supposed to last forever, but being married to this guy will seem like forever if in your 20s you gave up on the idea of a satisfying sex life. You say you have tried to bring more animal passion to your relationship, and it sound like his response has been to roll over and play dead. You are young and have time to find someone more sexually compatible who also shares your desire for marriage and family. I think you need to take the bold, brash step of moving on.

Q. Unromantic: Valentine’s Day is coming up, and I’m dreading it! Ironically, I’m dating a wonderful man who is everything I’ve ever dreamed of. The problem is that he enjoys shopping and gift-giving much more than I do. He significantly outearns me, so he can afford to splurge, though I’m unable to reciprocate. It makes me extremely uncomfortable to receive expensive gifts, and I can’t help feeling like I “owe” him. I’m not a particular sentimental person, and I don’t need grand gestures or expensive trinkets to feel appreciated. Plus, I’m disgusted by the woman-as-object-needing-to-be-won-with-more-objects message that accompanies holiday gift-giving. I brought up these concerns with him after Christmas, when he surprised me with a diamond necklace, but he somewhat shrugged it off: He likes shopping, noticed I could use some nice jewelry, thought it would look good, etc. Prudie, I don’t want to seem ungrateful, but how can I convince this loving, romantic man that a bag of manure for my garden would mean so much more to me than any cut flower arrangement ever could?

A: It’s almost always a good idea to follow the specified gift desires of your beloved. But a bag of manure as a Valentine’s gift, even if requested by you, is simply freighted with too many multiple meanings to be a good idea. You have a boyfriend who loves the extravagant gesture, so stop being churlish about this. There is no need to match his diamond necklace with a pair of gold cuff links. Your gesture can be to make him a delicious, romantic dinner. Or you can find an affordable, but targeted, gift that shows you’ve been paying attention to what he likes. You have to separate out your own baggage from his gift-giving (maybe he’ll get you a matched set of Louis Vuitton!). Is he really trying to treat you as an object by buying you objects? If what’s going on is indeed as you describe—that you’ve found the man of your dreams and his major flaw is that he enjoys picking out lovely gifts for you—then stop complaining. Seriously. It sounds as if your boyfriend will get you something spectacular for Valentine’s Day. Practice looking surprised and delighted.

Q. Re: Fantasies: I wonder how much she has really tried getting her boyfriend to try new things between the two of them. She only actually mentions rather extreme suggestions (ménage à trois, swinging), which a lot of people might be uncomfortable with. If she tried something more reasonable, like buying a book with interesting positions or something, he might be willing to try something new.

A: Good point, and if she hasn’t explicitly tried spicing things up between the two of them, she must. But a man in his 20s who has a willing and exciting partner and wants only to do the same precise thing once a week does not sound promising.

Q. Re: Excessive Feminists: Is the letter writer actually experiencing excessive feminists or expecting them? Because my experience with feminism has had most of the negative reactions listed by both the letter writer and you come not from the actual feminists but rather people thinking that is what a feminist is and projecting it.

A: So you’re suggesting that the letter writer is having a delusional break with reality. That would definitely be more concerning than being attacked by feminists!

Q. Ex-Husband Remarrying: My ex-husband is planning to get remarried later this year. I just found out that they are having engagement photos taken and that they plan to include my children in the photos. I am uncomfortable with this and do not feel that it is entirely appropriate. Perhaps I feel that this makes it appear in the photos that she is their mother instead of his fiancé. Am I wrong in my opinion on this? Is it appropriate to include children from a previous marriage in your engagement photos to your new fiancé?

A: Be grateful that your children’s new stepmother wants them in the picture. A big problem with blended families is when the new spouse wants to eradicate all evidence of the past—especially those pesky kids. Anyone who knows your family and who sees these photos (and how many people are going to see the engagement photos for a second marriage?) will know those are your kids posing with their father and their stepmother. Dress your children up in their finest and tell them to smile when the photographer says, “Cheese.”

Q. Dating Etiquette: I am newly single after many years, and casually dating several people. If one of them asks what my plans are for a particular night, and I have a date with someone else that night, what do I say? Should I be honest and say that I have a date, or is it more polite to say that I’m spending time with a friend?

A: All you have to say is, “I’m sorry, I already have plans.” You are in casual mode, so you don’t need to make any excuses. If you start to get more seriously interested in one contender, you will in the natural course of events want to spend less time with the others. For now, neither you nor your dates has an obligation to give an accounting of your social life.

Q. Re: Excessive Feminists: I am also a young woman in a male dominated STEM field, and while it is great that the LW has had nothing but positive experiences, it is important not to downplay how rare that is and the huge problem of the dearth of women, which is why it’s important to continue supporting programs designed to help women consider STEM degrees. It might seem like unjustified complaining, but that’s like saying anyone who feels discriminated against based on race is just playing the race card because you’ve never experienced it yourself. Sexism in male dominated fields exists and should be given attention to, whether you have been unfortunate enough to deal with it or not.

A: No one is saying sexism doesn’t exist, and the letter writer is not saying others may have had experiences different from hers. The letter writer is describing her own positive experiences, and the responses I’m getting are universally discounting this. How focused should she be on negative experiences she hasn’t had? If she’s going to encourage younger women to follow her, why not tell them she has been welcomed and supported?

Q. Re: Excessive Feminists: I’m the original writer of this question (thanks for publishing!). I know a lot of very reasonable feminists who advocate true equal rights. But what I was stunned by in the last two years or so were women (we’re talking a dozen or so, who know each other usually), often quite active on Tumblr or blogs, who seem to seek sensationalism rather than a more nuanced debate (the latter is evidently more complex, and maybe less satisfying). I don’t want to cast a bad light on feminism, far from it. Thinking on it further, I wonder about how to deal with the people with loud skewed views, and if there’s a chance for me to convince these women to use their passion (and Internet visibility) in a more useful way.

A: They are using their visibility in the way they see as most useful. What is to you sensational, skewed views, is to them the truth. So a handful of women you know write things you disagree with and when you try to talk to them about it, they are very disagreeable. You’ve got a thriving career in a demanding field. Enjoy that and don’t be bothered by the fact that some women not in your field can’t accept this.

Q. Inviting His Affair Partner to Lunch?: My long-term, live-in boyfriend’s parents have been “broken up” for several years but are not divorced. My boyfriend claims this is due to financial reasons and both his parents date other people and live apart from one another. His parents’ marriage began as an affair, which resulted in his father’s leaving his former wife and children, so clearly neither of them has any respect for marriage vows. My boyfriend’s father is an abrasive man and when we recently invited him for lunch in our new home he gave a list of foods he and his girlfriend (who was not mentioned in the invite) would find acceptable. The thought of having this woman having a relationship with a married man in my home makes me uncomfortable. Am I obligated to invite the girlfriend even if it makes me uncomfortable? Am I being a prude, or is this just an awkward situation? 

A: Anyone would be uncomfortable if a couple invited to their home for lunch started having relations. And your boyfriend’s father’s dictating the foods you can serve is rude. But equally rude is inviting your boyfriend’s father to your home while excluding his established girlfriend. His marital history is none of your business, and your objection to his having a girlfriend is ridiculous. You may proclaim your fealty to the institution of matrimony, but you are exercising your own right not to participate in it. I assume you would find it offensive if someone refused to partake of your hospitality because you are “living in sin.” Your pseudo-father-in-law sounds like a difficult person. So get the food he and his girlfriend would enjoy, and make the best of the midday meal.

Click here to read Part 2 of this week’s chat.

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