Emily Yoffe, 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 email@example.com.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. I look forward to your questions.
Q. Neighbor’s Teenage Daughter Has Boyfriend Over: I live in a condo next door to a widow with a 16-year-old daughter. This family and I have been friends for a long time, and we get along well and have never had any problems. I’ve been home due to recovering from surgery, and one afternoon after school, I saw the daughter and her boyfriend go into the condo when the mother wasn’t there. I also heard what sounded like loud sex going on in the room on the other side of my home office wall. I brought this to the mother’s attention, and she said she knew about it but would tell them to be quiet. When I asked her why she allowed this, she said she’d rather they be in a safe, comfortable place and have protection than to be sneaking around in parked cars and such. I was absolutely appalled by this and wonder if I can still be friends with these people or if I should call the police, since both of these kids are underage (both 16). Should I turn them in or just turn a blind eye to it?
A: Please give me your address, so I can head over to your house to take away your phone. You need to make a quick recovery and stop snooping on this family. What you heard was loud, mutually desired sex. This was confirmed to you by the mother of the girl. Now that you know that you are next door to two horny teenagers, you have to get out of the business of trying to ruin young people’s lives. If you called the police, I would sincerely hope they would back away once they figured out what was going on. But who knows? We do not need more innocent young people put through the criminal justice system and ending up on the sex offender registry. It’s fine if you no longer wish to be friends with this widow and her daughter, but please just decide to mind your own business and not destroy anyone’s life.
Q. Confused About Childhood Sex Games: When I was growing up, I lived in a small cul-de-sac and was really close with some of the other kids. One day, a couple of the boys about two years my senior and I went into a tree house and showed one another our genitals. We were quite curious about one another’s bodies, and this was something that happened several times with these boys, me, my brothers, and some of the girls who were around my age. No one was ever forced to do anything, and it abruptly stopped once we entered our sex education program. Now that there is so much talk about sexual assault, I am starting to feel ashamed. Was I molested? Did I molest other kids? I was once inappropriately touched by an older man, and I am terrified that I have made people feel like I once did.
A: I believe the proper phrase for what happened is not “sexual assault” but “playing doctor.” You kids certainly figured out how to cure your curiosity about what was underneath one another’s underwear. You said everyone voluntarily went to the magic tree house to show off their wares. That means that no one was coerced—it even sounds as if this was both an instructive and rather thrilling experience. Of course, it could not happen today because today the parents would have the tree house wired with hidden video equipment. Given the hypersensitivity of our times, a SWAT team might be called if the undies come off. Please do not recast this childhood adventure into something ugly and depraved. Kids have been looking at one another down there forever. Consider that there would be no curious kids unless our species had an innate desire to check each other out.
Q. Belated Moral Dilemma: Several years ago when I was dating, I met someone and accidentally became pregnant one month after we met. I was on birth control, and we had just stopped using condoms that week. We had already discussed very early on that neither of us wanted kids, so I was sure of his feelings about the matter. That said, I didn’t tell him and terminated the pregnancy. I thought telling him about the pregnancy would freak him out and our relationship would end. Fast-forward four years—we’re married and this man has shown to be the most honest and trustworthy person I have ever met. If the same thing happened now—or even several months into our relationship—he would have been the first person I told. Now I feel guilty and conflicted about having this secret. If he found out, I believe our trust would be shattered and he would inevitably wonder if I didn’t tell him this, what else must I be hiding? The answer is nothing. My question is do I keep this secret to myself forever, or is there any good reason to share this with him? I am confident we are partners for life, and I would never want to do anything to jeopardize our relationship or the trust that we have.
A: You were not officially a couple when this pregnancy happened, and you decided justifiably not to tell about ending it. Let’s say when you were at that beginning point, and before you had declared your mutual desire to be exclusive, you had slept with a couple of people and hadn’t told him. I don’t think you would now need to confess something that was not at the time a violation of any understanding you two had. You don’t need to confess, but you do need to stop torturing yourself about this and release your guilt. If you find out you can’t do that, see a therapist for a few sessions. Sometimes it helps to simply explore an issue in a safe, confidential setting and get a kind of signoff about the choice you are making from a neutral professional.
Q. Re: Playing Doctor: I would add this word of caution. Today these sorts of things are taken EXTREMELY seriously. Last year my family went through hell when my daughter mentioned playing doctor with her older brother to a friend. My children would have been approximately ages 6 and 4 (we never were able to determine this exactly; they may have been slightly older or younger) when it happened—there was some showing of parts to each other. This friend, appropriately so I guess, told her mother. The mother then mentioned it to the school principal, a mandated reporter. The department of child and family services was called. An investigation ensued that involved two home visits and interviews with my children. In addition my daughter had to undergo a forensic interview with a child psychologist; my son had to give an audio recorded statement to the police. After the investigation, the entire case was dropped, but the entire process was one of the most stressful experiences of my entire life, made more so by that fact that you cannot talk to anyone about it. So I would caution parents who speak to children, as they should, about abuse that they mention that there are some developmentally normal situations during that these things can occur. I had been speaking to my daughter frequently about sexual assault when she mentioned the incident with her brother to her friend, because a friend’s daughter had been raped by a coach. The impression I got from many people I dealt with in this process was that to many of these professionals there is no such thing as acceptable or normal “playing doctor,” except the counselor whom my daughter ended up seeing and who helped our family move through all of this.
A: What a chilling and cautionary tale. Something has gone fundamentally wrong in our society when the powers that be jump to criminalize every innocent expression of sexuality. How have we gotten to the point where highly trained professionals don’t understand little kids have been showing one another their privates since time immemorial? My younger brother and I used to be put in the tub together when we were very young, and we definitely took a gander at what was below the water level when the bubbles cleared. Oops, I hear the sirens now—I guess I’ll have to finish this chat from jail. Of course there is sexual abuse, and we do not want to go back to a world in which it was ignored and covered up. But the project to turn normalcy into a violation has to stop.
Q. Re: Teen Sex: The Victorian era called, and it wants its neighbor back.
A: Perhaps we malign the Victorians to assume they would be this nuts!
Q. Ugly Truth to Birth Son?: I’m a very successful businesswoman but came from a truly “hard knocks” background, which I usually don’t try to hide. The exception being that last spring I was contacted by the son, “Rob,” I gave up for adoption nearly 20 years ago. I never expected this to happen, and I’m glad it has, but developing a relationship with him feels like navigating a minefield. He is a wonderful young man, and I’m overjoyed to know that his life has turned out well. However, there are details he’s been asking about, and I’m wondering how much of the ugly truth I should really give him. For instance, I told him his birth father died in a car accident before Rob was born but haven’t divulged that he was very drunk at the time. Or that the main reason I never had any more children is that his birth was extremely difficult and basically left me barren. Or that my dad abandoned me and my mom (who died when I was 8 months old) before I was born, and the one and only time I met him, ugh, let’s just say I almost ended up pressing criminal charges against him. I don’t want my relationship with Rob to be based on lies, but I don’t know what to say when he asks about these things. I’ve been fobbing him off with vagaries—for example I did tell him that alcohol addiction is part of his genetic makeup, but of course that led to more questions. My fiancé says I owe Rob the whole truth, but I just don’t know. Advice?
A: You are just getting to know Rob. Yes, what you tell him should be truthful, but that doesn’t mean you must tell him things you consider private or think of the truth only as an ugly thing. You two should be working on getting to know each other. Let’s hope that he finds your phoenix-like ability to overcome life’s difficulties to be inspiring. For now, you can tell him that you understand his feeling an urgent need to fill in the details of his biological forebears. But then ask for his forbearance. Explain that you have had to deal with many difficulties in your life and with troubled family members. Say that you hope you two will be in each other’s lives from now on and that over time you’ll be more comfortable talking about things that are still painful to you now. Explain to him that nothing is taboo, but you want to focus on today. So give him the outlines—for example, your mother died when you were an infant, and your father was not in your life. Maybe you can even encourage Rob to do more research on the mother you never knew to satisfy his own curiosity, and yours.
Q. Re: Neighbor’s Teenage Daughter Having Sex : So the letter writer never had sex when she was young? Does she forget how it felt to be young and in love? She told the mom, mom’s OK with it, now let it go. You are very correct: We do not need more innocent people (like this) on the sex offender list, to be followed for the rest of their lives!
A: When I write on this subject, it is very clear that people get it. That is, they think there is madness afoot in our teen sexting laws, etc. But unfortunately, there are very, very few in the political class willing to say we’ve gone too far. So they keep ratcheting up the criminalization and punishments.