How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Send your questions for Stoya and Rich to firstname.lastname@example.org. Nothing’s too small (or big).
Every week, the crew responds to a bonus question in chat form.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a gay man in his 20s who comes from a big family in Texas with two brothers and three sisters. We are scattered around the country, and we rarely see each other as a group except every Thanksgiving and Christmas, when we return to our rural hometown. These meetings tend to get raucous and involve alcohol. The conversations also can get very personal. My brothers and my sisters tend to talk about their dating and sex lives, and we usually don’t spare a lot of detail. For example, we call one of my brothers Giant Joe because, well. This has occasionally taken partners (and in the case of two of my siblings, spouses) aback when they first visit. This year, for the first time, I will bring home a guy, “Jack,” for Thanksgiving. My family has known I am gay for a long time, and though my parents are religious, it was mostly a blip in our big crazy family. But I am also the only gay one, and in the past, there have been a lot of “questions” about how that works in the bedroom (“Are you pitcher or catcher,” etc.). I know that sounds bad, but it makes me feel included, and I find it funny. “Jack,” however, is incredibly shy. I have told him my siblings tend to stay up late after dinner and will probably get more personal than he’s used to—he’s from a conservative family—and he shrugged it off. But I don’t think he really knows what he’s in for. Should I tell my family to put a lid on it this year, which might single out Jack and I even more? Should I just let Jack experience my family, crude jokes and questions included? I’m not sure how to navigate this, and I’m getting nervous.
Rich: What do you think about this? Is family suppressible?
Stoya: I’m not sure family ought to be suppressed.
Rich: It could be futile even to try. He says asking them to put a lid on it might single him and Jack out more, which I assume is based on some kind of experience. So unless there is evidence to the contrary as well—an instance in which they exhibited the ability to handle a newbie with care—I’d tread lightly there for fear of waking the bear that is made up of our writer’s family, collectively, like Voltron.
Stoya: Or he’d feel weirder being the exception.
Rich: Right. I’ve been in situations where for whatever reason, I’ve felt more reserved. Not in a family scenario, per se, but, say, in a group that’s mostly made up of a boyfriend’s friends, where talk can be explicit and for whatever reason I clam up. I’ve survived.
Stoya: I think our writer can ask his family to take it easy on the boyfriend without setting him up to get teased harder.
Rich: Is it just a matter of “tone it down” versus “put a lid on it”? Allowing the family to still be them, just a little mindful of the squarish guy?
Stoya: I think so, yes.
Rich: I will say that when I’ve been asked to tone things down for the sake of family, I do it begrudgingly. I don’t love that level of policing but I get it.
Stoya: Most families don’t have this frank of a discussion about sex going on regularly, but it’s completely normal to be nervous about taking a partner home. I think there’s a middle to be struck, between keeping a lid on it and turning it down a notch. Fortunately, our writer is in the best possible position to evaluate whether his family is, in fact, a bag of dicks who will pile on at the faintest sign of discomfort.
Rich: You’d also hope that they wouldn’t be so hellbent on piling on that they wouldn’t be able to take it upon themselves to tone it down when faced with a guest’s discomfort. I wonder if this says anything about the writer’s relationship with Jack—whether, in fact, coming from this family and at least rolling with its punches, if he is repressing himself for his incredibly shy boyfriend. Is this, then, a projection of some sort? A way of working out issues between them by projecting them onto his family?
Stoya: Or whether he’s using the boyfriend’s shyness as an excuse to vent some less-than-enthused feelings about his family’s intensity.
Rich: Yes indeed. Another option. You can sort of absorb the outsider’s (potential) lens when introducing a stranger to your family, where everything suddenly becomes totally embarrassing (talk about teenager essence!), but you’re right—this could be a sign of bigger issues at home. Evidence pointing to this possibility is that he casts himself as the passive recipient of their good-natured ribbing in; He doesn’t own up participating in it himself. I also think he could approach Jack again. The warning seems to have left him unfazed, which could mean Jack’s easygoing or that, as the writer suspects, he just didn’t internalize the sneak preview he was offered.
Stoya: At the end of the day, everyone involved is a grown adult who can remove themselves from any situation they find uncomfortable. Jack should be shown to whatever room he’s staying in and given permission to retreat there if things get overwhelming for him.
Rich: Yes. You want these introductions to go well, but if that comes with the cost of obscuring actual personalities and predilections, well, people can only hold those things in for so long. They’ll slip out eventually. And then Jack will be faced with the reality at a later date. I tend to believe that everyone should show who they are as early as possible to give people A fair warning upfront.
Stoya: I think our writer is a little ashamed of how unwoke his family can be. (“Are you pitcher or catcher?”) But really, in the grand scheme of social justice, giving our loved ones the chance to ask all the stupid, offensive questions is part of the normalization process.
Rich: I don’t have a brother. I’m trying to decide how I would feel if I did and was made aware that he was hung. I guess I’d be OK with it. I guess it would be nice to know just how much brother you have.
Stoya: I have no actual siblings, but I do remember all the idiotic questions my family had to get out of their system with regard to my porn career.
Rich: How bad was it on a scale of excruciating to mildly annoying?
Stoya: Ooohboy. There’s a scale from Dad checking my sobriety at the time of my decision on through to Incredibly Awkward Aunt expressing misguided sympathy for what she imagines porn fans to be like.
Stoya: (SPOILER: They’re way less annoying than she is.)
Rich: Last Thanksgiving, my mother told a story about being at this restaurant and grill with her female friend and someone either mistaking them as lesbians or joking that they were (it wasn’t a great story—I don’t remember it vividly) and then her question was “Well, am I the man or the woman?” And then as I was saying, “That’s not how it works!” my father said basically the same thing at the same time.
Stoya: Good on your dad.
Rich: It somehow annoyed me even more. “Stop acting woke!!! You only know that because of me!!! Copycat!” But yes, I know you’re right, good on him. I was impressed while not holding it against my mother at all. She’s my mother—I don’t expect her to, like, read queer theory or even know what that means.
Stoya: The thing about family, chosen or biological, is that social norms tend to go beautifully out the window.
More How to Do It
Recently, I was visiting my brother and sister in our home state, and we were joking about sex. That led to talk of incest, and I said I thought people took it too seriously. People marry their cousins in most of the world! It was a devil’s advocate kind of debate, but I could tell they were a little uncomfortable. This brings us to my problem. Since it was on my mind and I was a little buzzed, I decided to please myself to a little faux-incest porn in the guest room that night. Well, my brother used my laptop the next day, and I had only minimized the window. I watched in slow motion as he inadvertently opened it, looked at it in shock for a moment, and then closed it. I can’t be sure, but I think he told my sister, because the rest of the weekend was awkward. Should I raise this with my brother and explain? If so, what do I say?