Dear Prudence

Help! My Boyfriend’s Fetish Is Inspired by Middlemarch.

Read what Prudie had to say in Part 2 of this week’s live chat.

A man wearing a cassock is partially visible.
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Danny is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.

Q. Solemn play: My boyfriend has been reading me the novel Middlemarch out loud, and the character we both find the most compelling is Dr. Casaubon. We’ve had long discussions about his foibles and the pathos of his insecurities. My boyfriend recently brought up the hypothetical idea of “solemn play”—someone who has a fetish for pretending to be like Casaubon toward Dorothea, refusing sex and making her instead do long, pointless tasks for him. In his eyes, this role-playing would be rife with erotic sublimation. At first I thought this was hilarious, but he has brought it up several times and mentioned buying a cassock. What is going on in his mind? Is this a legitimate sexual need? I don’t like the idea of being spoken to coldly and treated as subservient, and role-playing makes me feel foolish.

A: I’m not sure “legitimate sexual need” is a useful criterion here. (Also, I hope you’re enjoying reading Middlemarch together! Aside from the sexual crisis it’s kicked up, it sounds like a delightful shared project.) Let’s say instead what we know to be true: This is something your boyfriend is interested in trying, something he finds hot and compelling and stage-y and imaginative. You find it embarrassing, awkward, and potentially emotionally painful. Legitimacy doesn’t have to enter into the conversation in order for you two to be honest about what you can give each other. Casaubon-specific role-play may not be especially popular, but the specifics of your boyfriend’s desires (delaying or denying sex, setting someone to repetitive tasks, emotional withholding, a dom-sub dynamic) are reasonably common BDSM practices, if it helps you to categorize them. Presumably what’s “going on in his mind” is the idea that this kind of role-play is hot; what’s going on in yours is that it’s uncomfortable and embarrassing. If it doesn’t appeal to you, don’t do it.

To that end, don’t spend any more time worrying about whether it’s “legitimate” for your boyfriend to want this. My worry is that if you do think it’s “legit,” you’ll convince yourself you’re somehow obligated to do it for him; conversely, if you decide you don’t want to, you’ll feel like you have to justify that decision by “delegitimizing” his position. But that’s not at all the case! His desires don’t have to be freaky and wrong in order for you to say, “Sorry, that doesn’t sound hot to me, and I’m not interested.” You can just agree to disagree about whether wearing a cassock and pretending to be a George Eliot character has erotic potential.

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Q. Joining a church? I grew up in a liberal Protestant family, and religion has always been important to me. However, as an adult, I drifted away from organized religion. Two years ago, out of curiosity, I stopped into an Orthodox Christian church service and felt an overwhelming connection. For several months I attended services and eventually took the first step toward becoming Orthodox Christian. At the same time, I was acutely aware of the hard stance that the church has against LGBTQ rights; for example, someone who is in a same-sex marriage isn’t even allowed to have communion! I eventually stopped attending because I so strongly disagree with the church’s teaching on that issue. I’m not gay myself, but I felt a kind of cognitive dissonance in being part of an organization that doesn’t recognize the relationships of everyone. If I had a gay child, I would have a huge problem raising them in such an environment.

But even with all of that said … I miss the services, the prayers, and the communal worship. It feels to me that there is something profoundly important to my spirituality to be able to worship in that Orthodox tradition. (I’m speaking about the religious services, the hymns, the communal prayers, communion, etc.) To be honest, if I could just go to church and skip the coffee hour where I might overhear political and social views that I profoundly disagree with, that would be easy—but church, I know, isn’t just about the service. It’s also about the community. What do I do? How should I figure out whether I should go back?

A: I think you should expand your concerns about how this environment might affect a possible future child of yours: I think even if your child were straight, it would still be a problem to expose them to a religious community that publicly espoused values counter to yours and that opposed the rights of LGBT people. There’s no “dissonance” in declining to formally join an organization that prohibits gay people from membership just because you yourself aren’t gay—it’s an affront to your solidarity and sense of shared humanity with gay people, not a personal injury.

That said, there are a number of deeply religious gay and gay-affirming people in every tradition, and I don’t think you need to shut down your connection to Orthodox traditions out of hand. It might help to seek out gay Orthodox Christians (either in person or through whatever writing they may have published) to get a sense of what options are available to you. You’re not alone in this—good luck finding your people.

Q. What to do with a former colleague’s porn-y love notes? Four decades ago, I took over the desk of a colleague who moved to another department. Weeks later, I found an unmarked file in a drawer containing porn-y notes from another colleague, her eventual husband. They’re of the “I want to crawl under your desk and eat you out’’ variety. I didn’t return them at the time because I thought she’d have been mortified that someone had seen them. Remember: This was the ’70s. The folder recently turned up during a garage clean-out. Her husband has died, and they might evoke happier times. Or she might still be mortified that someone had seen them. Do I send anonymously? Acknowledge that I’ve had them all these years? Toss them? I don’t want to distress her.

A: Just ask, “I just came across an old file that I think contains notes between you and your husband—would you like me to send them to you?” That makes it clear you haven’t been poring over these notes on a daily basis for the past 40 years and also leaves the decision of whether she’d enjoy reading them or not up to her. If she tells you to throw them away, you can; if it would be a welcome reminder of their early courtship, she’ll let you know and you can send them along. But don’t send them anonymously! That would just make her bewildered and possibly a little paranoid about how many people have seen the notes.

Q. How to? How do people in the LGBTQ+ community learn to date? I have two children who have come out as LGBTQ+. My eldest daughter is bisexual, but she is 21, and while I am happy to be a sounding board for her problems, I can’t resolve them for her. My youngest son is only 14, so I still have a duty of care with regard to shaping him as a person. We’ve learned he’s interested in boys, and there are plenty of books and versions of “the talk” we can provide him with. But I’m not so sure how to talk to him about dating; as a straight guy I always just went along with received wisdom. I’m not so sure what the rules and expectations are for gay kids. Is it fair to ask our son to follow the same rule that his older siblings do? Our rule has always been “No serious dating until you’re 17.” But the older kids had an easier time going on group dates, since all of their relationships in high school were with the opposite sex. “Joe” isn’t even out yet. And I don’t know how to advise my son on pursuing someone he likes because I don’t know what guys who date guys might like.

I want to tell him to just be kind and open, and I want to ask whom he likes, but I also know there are some people out there who are dangerous and hateful. I know a lot of this is panic and pandemic-related helplessness, but I do want to make sure my kid goes out into the dating world as a confident, socially savvy, and noncreepy member of society. I want him to believe he’s good enough for any guy he has a crush on. Am I overthinking everything? Or, God forbid, underthinking—that there’s stuff I haven’t even thought to worry about yet?

A: This is really sweet, and I think you can give yourself a little more credit. I also think there’s an opportunity here to build trust with your son by admitting when you don’t know something, rather than trying to act like you know it all. Yes, certain rules and standards apply to everyone regardless of orientation, and you can definitely talk to Joe about boundaries, handling rejection politely, how to reject someone politely, and general confidence without fear. But you can also be honest if you’re not sure a move that got you dates with girls in high school would work for Joe now; I think he’s likely to appreciate it, even if having a talk with his father about dating is a little embarrassing. If you have any gay friends who might be willing to answer some of your questions, reach out to them. Ask them if they’re up for such a discussion first—don’t just surprise them with a game of 20 Questions. In particular, ask what they wish they’d known more about dating when they were young.

You and your wife can talk more about what “serious dating” looks like for a not-yet-out 14-year-old. It doesn’t sound like Joe is ready to seriously date yet, so the good news is that you’re all still on the same page. Look for opportunities to encourage and support his development as a gay kid wherever possible, and be prepared to explain and discuss your rules and limits when necessary. And good luck!

Q. Too hot: Because of quarantine, our teenagers have been home alone since May. They do schoolwork, but my wife and I really don’t want them sitting around playing video games for hours, either. Our daughter is tutoring online. Our sons volunteered to mow the front lawns of our neighbors. Everyone has been appreciative until now. But every day the temperature climbs above 100 degrees, which means the boys can only mow after sunset or quite early in the morning. They prefer to mow at night.

The neighbor across the way had a baby about six months ago. The husband is gone. Two weeks ago, she came out and started to yell at the boys for mowing. It was too late, they were too loud, and they woke up her baby. They came and got me. I tried to talk to her, but she didn’t want to have a rational conversation. I apologized for waking up the baby and tried to explain about the heat. She threatened to call the cops and put in a noise complaint. I told her that we would keep it down around her property. I told the boys to go ahead and skip that neighbor from now on. Since then, our neighbor has complained to my wife and others about being “excluded” and pushed this sob story about how hard it is to be a new mom. My wife thinks we should make the boys take up mowing her yard again. I don’t. She hasn’t apologized, and she threatens to call the cops on our sons. I want to teach my children the value of charity and community, not how to be a doormat. For the record, the boys don’t want to mow this lady’s lawn anymore. Can I ask for an outside perspective?

A: I think sending your kids over to mow the lawn of someone who’s actively—or at the very least, recently—threatening to call the cops on them for doing so is a bad idea. I have no doubt that being a single parent is extremely hard, especially now, so I don’t think you have to dismiss your neighbor’s hardships as exaggerated in order to justify your decision. You can concede that she’s got a particularly difficult living situation to deal with and give her a wide berth; it’s not an either/or proposition where your only options are 1) tell your kids to avoid her lawn because she’s lying about being overwhelmed, or 2) acknowledge that being the single parent of an infant during a particularly hot summer in the middle of a pandemic without help is difficult and, therefore, you have to send your kids to mow her lawn and hope they finish before the cops show up.

If you think you and your wife can find some middle ground, start there. Since your wife has apparently spoken to your neighbor more recently than you have, ask her what it was about their last conversation that changed her mind. Can you each make your case to your sons and let them make the final decision? Do you think you can both agree that, at the very least, they shouldn’t mow her lawn unless she’s agreed not to call the police on them? Compromise is possible here—what’s at stake here is a possibly untidy lawn, not your sons’ souls or your neighbor’s baby’s health, so you don’t have to worry overmuch about the outcome.

Q. My girlfriend picks at her feet: My girlfriend of three years has a very strange self-soothing method. Her feet are flaky due to a foot condition, and she will pick at them when anxious, leaving little skin flakes on our furniture. It’s so gross. It’s entirely unconscious (she kind of “zones out” when she’s doing it), and she does attempt to clean up after herself, but short of getting out a vacuum, it’s pretty difficult to clean it up entirely. She’s going through an extremely stressful time at work right now—not to mention the pandemic—so I understand the uptick in this behavior. At the same time, I’m getting frustrated. None of my efforts to get her to stop have worked. Am I possibly overreacting? Should I just ignore it and trust that, someday, when she really wants to stop, she will? I’m curious about the best course of action.

A: If you were yelling at her or mocking her when she did it, I’d call it an overreaction—but you are aware that this habit is often unconscious, have real sympathy for the stress she’s under, and are simply looking for ways to help. I’d encourage you to talk to her about this habit sometime when she’s not doing it (or just finished doing it), at a place in your house that feels relatively neutral, and ask what she thinks are some reasonable goals. That could mean she gets out the vacuum every time she does it; this might be slightly inconvenient, but it’s not cruel or unusual to ask her to pick up after herself.

If she feels like it’s part of an underlying medical or mental health issue, you might encourage her to speak to her doctor or a therapist. She doesn’t have to, of course, and I don’t mean to suggest you need to diagnose her with dermatillomania on the strength of a single mindless habit, but it’s worth asking her how much time and energy this habit takes up and whether she thinks of it as a low-grade, slightly annoying tic or a serious impediment to her internal sense of peace and restfulness. For your part, you can tell her how it feels for you to have to call her attention to this habit every time she does it and encourage her to find ways to restore her own attention so it doesn’t always fall on you. Mindless habits can be difficult to arrest and change, but there are also a ton of resources out there (CBT techniques come immediately to mind) for handling them—what you want (a clean house) is not impossible.

Q. Prudent or picky: I am 29 years old and queer. I’ve dated and slept with plenty of people, but my longest relationship (about two years) was in high school, and the others were in college, which was seven years ago. My friends say it’s a good thing that I leave relationships when they’re not right, but how do I know if I’m being overly selective? How can I tell if I just give up too easily or have overly high expectations? I do want to be in a long-term committed relationship, even married, someday. I left one recent partner because he lied about wanting to move in together (he didn’t want to but said he did to “keep me”), another because he didn’t make me feel safe or happy, and still another because we couldn’t agree on how much time we wanted to spend together. Should I give up my hopes for living with someone and hopefully marrying them in order to be more flexible?

A: I might have encouraged you to be “less selective” if you’d described breaking up with someone for inconsequential reasons. But then again, I might not have—I’m inclined to think that someone who breaks up with someone for “inconsequential reasons” often does so because they don’t know how to name an internal feeling of dissatisfaction or resistance. I’d always advise singledom (even occasionally lonely, difficult, painful singledom) over staying in an otherwise unsatisfying relationship just so you can say, “I moved in with someone once.”

The key here, I think, is that you haven’t described any of these previous relationships with much regret. I understand that you want a partner you can commit to—but do you wish you’d committed to the man who lied to you about wanting to live together? Do you wish you’d committed to the man who made you unhappy and unsafe, or to the man who (it sounds like) didn’t want to commit to you in return? It doesn’t sound like you wish you were living with any of them today, and since you can’t move in with the idea of a romantic partner, only whatever romantic partner you actually have at the time, I don’t see much room for regret here. Living with someone who doesn’t want to live with you is a pretty painful situation. So is living with someone unsafe, or clingy, or avoidant. I hope you do find a romantic partner you can live with eventually. But it should be with someone who wants to live with you too, and who treats you with basic respect; being “flexible” on those points is not worth it.

Q. Be me or cover up: I’m a 46-year-old woman who looks a lot younger than my age. I am often mistaken for my 25-year-old son’s sister. I take this as a compliment. I like to dress in clothes that are sometimes form-fitting and revealing. When I was in my 20s and married to an abusive man, I couldn’t dress as I liked, but after I left and started to regain my self-confidence, I started doing things that made me happy: going to the beach, hiking a lot, and taking daily walks. I often used to take these walks with a friend of mine; lately she’s started declining all my invitations. I finally asked her why and she said: “You dress in a way that makes me uncomfortable. I don’t like competing for the attention and stares you’re getting from guys.”

The funny thing is I usually pay these men no mind and keep it moving. If a guy only wants to get to know me because of my appearance, I think it’s shallow. So what do I do? Do I cover up and sweat while out with my friend or just be me and comfortable?

A: I’m not so sure that “covering up” on walks with your friend would actually address her problem, which has more to do with an internal sense of insecurity and competition than your appearance or behavior. What if you dressed totally differently on your next walk and men still looked at you? Would your friend continue to blame you for how that made her feel? Why does she want to hold you responsible for her sense that she has to compete with you for romantic attention?

If this woman’s a really close friend and you want to try to preserve things between the two of you, you might ask her to talk about this again and see if she can’t find a way to stop displacing her insecurities onto you. But you’re not hurting her by wearing, say, short shorts; you’re not taking anything away from her or making her life more difficult. You’re just wearing short shorts. I hope she can come to her senses and apologize for trying to guilt you into dressing to please her instead of yourself.

Q. Re: Too hot: This is an excellent teaching moment for how to deal with certain kinds of people in adulthood. Lay the decision before the teens. Tell them about people like this new mother. Tell them the social consequences of one decision versus another. Then let your boys decide.

A: I think that’s right; this is exactly the sort of low-stakes problem (one that still exemplifies a lot of common problems) that kids this age should be figuring out how to deal with on their own. You can argue your own perspective, let your wife make her case, lay down basic ground rules that have to do with safety, and give your kids a chance to decide for themselves.

Danny M. Lavery: Thanks so much, everyone—see you next week.

If you missed Part 1 of this week’s chat, click here to read it.

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From Care and Feeding

Q. Cheerleading is ruining my marriage: My husband and I each brought a teenage daughter into our marriage. I think we blended together very well, and for the most part everyone gets along. The girls think of each other as sisters, and I am Mom to both of them. (My stepdaughter’s bio mother is not in the picture at all.) My stepdaughter is now a high school junior, and for the past three years, she has been involved in cheerleading. The first year, she was on the JV team, and it was annoying but doable. But the past two years, she has been on the varsity team, and I HATE it. It’s so sexist (they make the girls bake cookies for the football players!), incredibly expensive, and, most of all, super annoying. Read more and see what Michelle Herman had to say.

Danny M. Lavery’s new book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You, is out now.