Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Lost all of my friends: About 10 years ago I was drugged and raped by someone who I considered a close friend. When he found out that I was trying to press charges, he fled to another state. The police were completely unhelpful. I never told anyone but a few family members. He came back three years ago and started showing up in pictures on my other friends’ social media pages. I’ve stopped going to places where he might be—since we have the same group of friends, that means almost everywhere except for small gatherings at my house. Last month I missed the funeral of a dear friend because I knew that he would be there. I think most of my friends assume that I’m mourning because I lost a sibling recently.
I live in a state where there is no statute of limitations on some kinds of rape, but I don’t want to ruin my life taking a 10-year-old rape to a trial. Is there any way I can have my friends back? I need their support. Should I just forge a new group of friends that doesn’t include my rapist?
A: I’m so sorry you’re dealing with this man’s return into your social circles. I know you’ve already decided that for you it’s not worth the attempt to try to reopen your case right now, especially after the police were so unhelpful the first time, but that doesn’t mean your only other option is to find a new social circle entirely. Since you’ve already told your family about your rape, I hope you can lean on them, even in the midst of mourning your sibling, and ask for support.
I’m sure you’ve given a lot of thought to this already, but it might be worth sharing what this man did to you, and why you don’t ever want to see him or be at the same events, with a friend you trust, and asking for their help in making sure you never have to. That doesn’t mean you have to share this traumatic event with all of your friends if you don’t feel ready, but you do have every right to ask this of them.
Q. Trans timeline: My stepkid (she’s been my stepkid since she was 1, and her bio dad isn’t around much) just told us that she is a trans girl. We’re doing our best to be good parents. The thing is, as she moves forward and talks to doctors about being a girl at school and with her friends, I just want to put the brakes on. It’s not the medical stuff so much, but the social side of things. She’s brave enough to do it, but I’m scared to death. She’s a kid, people are horrible, and schools don’t always deal with bullying in a good way. I just feel trapped because I don’t know what I should do? I go from “in the end it’s her decision” to “she’s 10, there’s a reason we have to oversee her decisions!” My wife thinks we can deal with whatever comes, but she was popular and well-liked. I was put in bins and beaten up. So we have different expectations for how bad it could get.
I just want us to make the best decision for my stepdaughter, but I don’t know where the reasonable line between whole-hearted support and ruled by fear lives. Any ideas?
A: I think a helpful thing to ask yourself while parenting is, “Am I responding to my child’s childhood in this moment, or to mine?” I’m so sorry you were beaten up regularly as a child. That stays with you in a very real and painful way, and it’s understandable that you want to do anything you can to spare your daughter from the kind of bullying you experienced. The answer to that, I think, is to spend a lot of time working closely with your daughter’s medical team, teachers, and school administrators developing a safety plan designed to support her—and to spend a lot of time talking to her, asking what she’s worried about, what she’s excited for, what she thinks she’ll need. She goes to that school every day, and likely has a pretty sophisticated understanding of what kids get bullied, and what for, and she’s decided that it’s worth the risk.
You’re absolutely right that as her parent you’re there to guide her decisions, but it’s also true that she is the ultimate expert in her gender. What she needs from you is love and support. You may feel like it would protect her to say, “Why don’t we revisit this in a few years,” but that’s not taking into account the pain it causes a trans person to go back into the closet. Not transitioning at school is as big a decision as transitioning at school, and it may very well be more painful than getting bullied (which, by the way, may not end up being as big a problem as you fear! Times have changed since you were a child.)
The more you work as a team, I think, the less panicked you’ll feel about her safety. I hope you have a therapist or a close friend you can occasionally share your fears and feelings with, because it can be a difficult road to navigate. I wish you all the best.
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Q. Figuring out my sexual orientation: I am a 26-year-old woman who has only ever dated men. I’ve always identified as straight, but for a few years, I’ve been wondering if I might be bisexual. I find other women beautiful and could see myself having a same-sex experience. However, I’ve never had a romantic or sexual experience with a woman (except for kissing a couple women at parties). I would like to start dating women to figure out my sexual orientation a bit better.
My concern is that I don’t want any women I date to feel like they have to hold my hand through this process or help me figure out my sexual orientation. I also am sure plenty of women aren’t particularly interested in dating someone who’s never dated a woman before. Also, since I’m not sure if I even am attracted to women romantically or sexually, I don’t want to string anyone along only to find out I was straight after all. How do I navigate all of this? When I start talking to women on dating apps, etc., should I make it clear up front that I’ve never dated a woman before and am not even sure if I’m bi?
A: The point of going on a date with someone is (usually) to figure out whether you like one another. You’re not asking any women to hold your hand through your journey of self-discovery, you’re contemplating going on a few dates and seeing if there’s chemistry. That’s a perfectly legitimate reason to date someone! You already know that you’re attracted to men as a group, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to be attracted to every man you go out with—you wouldn’t blame yourself for “leading a man on” if you went on a first date and then decided you weren’t interested. Every woman who’s dated women had to, at one point, go out with a woman for the first time, so it’s not like you’re doing something wholly unprecedented. You’re not doing anyone a disservice by not leading with “By the way, I’ve never dated women before” (although of course you’re free to mention it if you want to talk about it). If you find other women beautiful and can see yourself having a “romantic or sexual experience” with one, then you have sufficient grounds to try dating women without needing to explain or justify yourself. Good luck and have fun!
Q. The ties that bind: I’m very close to my family. I tell my parents and siblings about nearly everything and receive their support. My fiancée is not and does not. We have, for the most part, reached a compromise where we each control the flow of information to our respective families. The problem is this: We both like her sibling-in-law, and while I understand the hostility she feels toward her sibling based on their past, what I have seen is her sibling trying to rectify that past. Her parents are a separate issue, and I agree with her handling of them, but I don’t know what to do when I can’t see the malintent she attributes to her sibling’s actions.
A: If you’re hoping you can repair your fiancée’s relationship with her sibling in order to spend more time with your pleasant in-law, I think that’s a dream you should let die on the vine. I don’t know how much input your fiancée wants from you when it comes to interpreting her relative’s actions; you can certainly ask questions along the lines of, “Can you tell me more about this? From what I saw, it seemed fairly innocuous. Does your sibling have a history of ____? Is there something else that I’m missing?” and “What kind of relationship do you think is possible with your sibling? Does it feel like her attempts to make up for the past are genuine and make a real difference, or do you think there’s a limit to how much she can repair?”
Questions you shouldn’t ask include, “Why are you so upset about this? It seemed fine to me,” and “Why can’t you just let this go? The past is the past!” Ultimately, even if you don’t understand or share your partner’s reaction to her sibling, it’s not your relationship to manage, and you should restrict yourself to a support, rather than a directing, role.
Q. How should I ask my mom for a thong?: I’m 16 and I wear a lot of leggings. My mom, who wears a lot of dresses and “granny panties,” seems to dislike them. I’m not saying that she would be totally opposed to the idea of me wearing one, but I want to ask her for one in a way that minimizes awkwardness and increases the chance of her saying “yes.” Another option is for me to go out shopping with one of my friends and text her to ask. (She does all the laundry so she’d definitely see it.) I’m sure this doesn’t sound like a big deal, but I can’t go around school with my panty lines on display. And commando is uncomfortable.
A: My guess is that if you wait to text your mother until you’re already out shopping and on the verge of buying one, she’s likelier to see it as an act of rebellion than if you simply told her what you told me—that you don’t want to deal with VPL when you wear leggings and you’d like to buy underwear that’s suitable for the outfits you wear. (Confidential to my readers: I have no interest in fostering another round of the “Are leggings pants?” debate. The leggings are already being worn as pants; better to deal with reality than to try to convince someone to change their entire wardrobe.)
Also, consider taking some of the laundry workload away from your mother by washing your own clothes! You’re only two years away from turning 18 and (likely) moving out of the family home, so it’s a good idea to start doing your own laundry now.
Q. Re: Lost all of my friends: I don’t think the letter writer should tell friends unless they are able to go to the police. This puts the friends in a terrible position of choosing policing and shunning and perhaps having to explain. The fact is this man is now back in your life, and he has taken enough away already. You have every right not to go back to the police—but I think it might empower you to take back your life.
At any rate, please do rely on your family. I am so very sorry you are going through this.
A: I don’t agree that the letter writer can only talk to her friends about her rape if she also tries to file charges again. She is not putting her friends in a terrible position by talking about her rape—her rapist is putting her in a terrible position because he raped her, left the state, then returned 10 years later to infiltrate her social circle. I don’t think it’s right to frame a complicated decision like trying to file charges with an often-hostile, often-indifferent police force as the sole “empowering” choice, in part because it implicitly positions her as currently powerless. Having been raped is not the same thing as being powerless, and there are worse things than having to explain that you don’t want to associate with a man who raped your friend. Of course, that doesn’t mean that she has to tell her friends either, if she doesn’t feel confident that she’ll be met with support (although I hope she would be), but she shouldn’t have to wait to ask for emotional assistance from the people who care about her.
Q. Cry bae: I have been with my partner for 5½ years. We’ve been living together for two and are getting serious about our future. We have normal disagreements and always try to talk through our feelings. He has depression and is on medication; he used to see a therapist regularly but stopped maybe a year ago. The thing is, whenever we get into a discussion about something that has come up, usually when I am upset with him, he cries. I feel like a jerk trying to get my point across when he is obviously upset, and I can’t help but wonder how much he is really hearing me if he is this emotional.
Is it normal to have these feelings so close to the surface all the time? Any tips on better communication if he genuinely cannot help his reaction to fights? I’ve been suggesting he go back to his therapist for a month now, but he just rolls his eyes and says, “I know.”
A: It’s very normal to cry a lot, and it’s very normal to cry rarely! It sounds like your partner is an easy crier, which doesn’t necessarily mean he’s always significantly more upset than you are when you two argue. It just means that he cries more easily. A person can be perfectly capable of both crying and listening, and it’s not a sign that he’s too distressed to communicate, especially since it sounds like he’s still perfectly able to carry on a conversation, listen to you, and articulate his position.
I think the best thing for you to do in those moments is to remind yourself, “I may not normally cry until things get really intense—say, an 8 or a 9 on a 1–10 scale of distress—but he cries more easily, maybe at a 3 or a 4. It’s not a sign that he’s at an 8 or a 9, so I don’t need to treat this as a problem to be fixed. He’s just crying, and that’s fine.”
Q. Ghost on a friend? Or be honest?: Before I started graduate school, I was close friends with “Astrid,” a woman that lived in the same neighborhood as I did. We had a weekly standing dinner date for a couple years, and she and I supported each other through some big moments of growth. At the time she seemed like one of the few supportive, consistent voices I had in my life. Then I moved across my relatively large city for graduate school, and Astrid’s career took off in a big way, and aside from exchanging texts now and then, we both lost touch.
A few weeks ago, I reached out to tell her that I missed her and had a lot of free time over the summer if she was ever able to meet up. And we did! But—surprise, surprise—she was a terrible bully the whole time! She criticized me for a whole bevy of things, like continuing to find time for triathlons while in graduate school, for my career goals, for not drinking enough wine at dinner, etc. I can’t believe the depths to which she went to make me feel lesser over that meal. I don’t need that type of energy in my life; I am definitely not hanging out with that person again!
Should I tell her why I never want to talk to her again? Or do I owe her any type of explanation or second chance?
A: You don’t owe her an explanation, but if the friendship has been otherwise valuable to you and you think there’s a chance she might offer you an apology or change her behavior, you certainly have a right to tell her how her behavior at dinner made you feel. If you don’t want to go into details or get drawn into an argument, you can keep it relatively brief: “I was surprised and hurt by how you treated me the last time we got together—criticizing my hobbies, career goals, and the fact that I didn’t drink as much alcohol as you apparently wanted me to at dinner. You’ve always been supportive and kind, and this seemed really out of character for you. I hope you don’t treat other people in your life that way, and I don’t want to be treated like that by anyone.” Since you’ve already decided you don’t want to see her again, you don’t have much to lose in being honest.
Q. Want an open marriage for my husband: Due to depression and the miserable state my life is in, I’ve completely lost all sexual desire. This has been going on for over a year. My husband is clearly suffering. I’ve told him that he can sleep with whoever he wants, that we can have an open marriage, that we can get divorced, etc. He refuses and says he loves me and will wait. I know he thinks he is being patient and kind, but it just makes me feel worse for not having sexual feelings. Whenever I bring up the idea of an open marriage, he thinks it’s a trap, like I am going to use it as an excuse to leave him. Counseling didn’t work. He really doesn’t deserve to live like a monk because I am broken. How can I get it across that I’m trying to help him out?
A: I don’t think the most pressing issue in your marriage right now is that your husband isn’t having sex even though he would like to—although it does, of course, matter. I think the most pressing issue in your marriage is that you need more medical and therapeutic support for your severe depression and feelings of worthlessness. Calling yourself “broken” and thinking your husband deserves better than you because you’re suffering isn’t the voice of truth. That’s the voice of depression telling you that he’s good and you’re bad and the best thing for him is to draw back from intimacy with you. I don’t know what kind of counselor you two saw together, but if the focus of those counseling sessions was your sex life and not your untreated depression, then I don’t think it could possibly have helped you. You deserve treatment and help, not in the interest of immediately restoring your sexual desire, but because you are a person worthy of support and shouldn’t have to deal with these feelings of worthlessness by yourself.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone. See you next week!
Vintage Dear Prudence
“I will be getting married next year to the most wonderful man in the world. We share similar goals in life. One of those goals is that neither of us wants children. We are both in our 30s and don’t want to be raising children into our late 50s. Our friends, family, and even acquaintances constantly ask us when we’re going to start a family. When I respond that we don’t want children, I get a lecture about how wonderful children are and how much I am missing. We both love children. We have plenty of nieces and nephews with whom we enjoy spending time. How do we head off those people who feel it is important to question our choices? One neighbor of mine suggested lying and telling them we are unable to have children (which will embarrass the asking party), but I am not one who can lie very well.”
And find even more letters in the Dear Prudie archive.
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