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Danny is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. A lot of pressure: I’m a 28-year old man who’s just met an amazing, smart, kind, funny, and totally beautiful 25-year-old woman. We’ve been seeing each other for a little over a week and things have been moving pretty fast (which I’m totally comfortable with) emotionally and pretty slow (also totally cool) physically. That said, it only just came up in conversation that she had been saving herself for marriage and is a virgin. She says that while she’s very religious (I’m religious too, but not to her degree) her views have changed recently, and that as we date she’d be interested in exploring our relationship sexually. She’s never had a serious boyfriend, and I’ve had several serious and casual relationships.
I’m a little freaked out, not just because I haven’t ever slept with a virgin before, and want it to be a good experience for her, but also because her former religious beliefs about it seem to lend an extra emphasis on how special it would be. Just a lot of pressure (although maybe I’m putting that on myself?)! And what if it doesn’t work out? What if we don’t have physical chemistry, which is important to me? I worry that she’d regret having ever been intimate with me. Maybe I just need to trust she knows what she’s doing and only worry about my role in the whole thing? Am I overanalyzing? I want to talk to her about these concerns but worry that it might add tension in an unhelpful way.
A: If you keep dating and things don’t work out, you’ll break up. If you keep dating, sleep together, and then things don’t work out, you’ll also break up. If you two stop seeing each other tomorrow, after an intensely emotional week, she might still regret being intimate with you, even if that intimacy didn’t include sex. You get where I’m going, I think: By all means take your time before sleeping together, and ask each other questions about your fears, your desires, your goals, your needs. Speaking frankly and non-judgmentally about what it might be like to sleep together for the first time isn’t adding unhelpful tension. Quite the contrary—clarity and detail usually help relieve one’s concerns, whereas avoiding discussion of an issue you’re obviously both thinking about makes things more awkward and fraught.
You can’t guarantee that she might never look back on your relationship, or the decision to sleep together, with regret. Even if you’re generally honest, straightforward, open-minded, a great listener, and totally relaxed about her uncertainty about sex, you can’t act in such a way that precludes the possibility of a partner someday regretting your relationship. It’s not a bad idea to seek to build intimacy and trust slowly over time. But trying to minimize, postpone, or deny already-existing intimacy (emotional, physical, or otherwise) simply out of fear that someday one or both of you might regret that intimacy is the wrong move. The most important thing to pay attention to is what’s changed about her views, and why. What’s made her reconsider? What values does she think are most relevant here, and what would she want from you in order to feel reasonably secure and confident when she makes a decision? And are you as interested in a longer-term relationship if she decides against exploring sex? You can, and should, trust that she knows what she’s doing in the sense that you shouldn’t try to make major decisions for her, but that doesn’t mean you have to avoid this conversation out of deference to her right to make up her own mind.
A last note: Both of you are entitled to think about and refer to “virginity” in whatever terms you think best, but while it’s certainly true that you’ve had sex and romantic relationships before, and she hasn’t, I don’t think what you two are contemplating is best described as “taking” something from her. Yes, having sex for the first time can be a significant event, especially if you’ve previously thought of sex only in the context of marriage, but she’s still an adult with a host of other experiences and relationships to her credit, and she would be an active, self-sufficient party in any sex she may decide to have with you. Good luck; have fun; she sounds lovely!
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Q. #Ownvoices vs. privacy: I’ve wanted to publish a book for a long time, and I’ve recently signed with an agent. I’m queer, and so is the main character in my YA novel. However, as I prepare to go submit to publishers, I’m dreading the inevitable question of whether the character is #ownvoices. I know it’s important that editors make sure they’re publishing writers who are speaking from their own experiences when it comes to marginalized identities, but this isn’t something I especially want to tell them about myself. I’m out to my friends and family but don’t consider it anyone’s business in my professional life. I also don’t want to put queerness at the center of my “brand” as an author; I want my future books to have queer representation, but I want people to read them because the writing is good, not because the writer is queer. That said, I know it’s a privilege to be able to choose whether or not to come out. I also don’t want to hide my identity. I certainly don’t want to lie or push away potential readers—especially young readers—who are actively seeking out queer novels by queer writers. In the near future, I’m expecting to be asked outright about this. I’ve already been asked by an agent, although not the one I signed with; I told the truth but didn’t feel comfortable with the conversation. I know this will become even more of a thing after I’m published (if that happens). How can I balance #ownvoices with privacy?
A: A few thoughts, in no particular order: It may be helpful to relinquish a sense of control over why someone who might read your book one day chooses to do so. Assuming your book is published, people might pick it up for all sorts of reasons (from “liked the cover” to “saw a bad Goodreads review from someone they dislike and grabbed it out of low-grade spite,” and a dozen others), none of which you can possibly know or manage. If you’re able to get your book published, you’ll cede control over why someone reads it, whether they like your writing, how they respond to it, whether they finish it, whether they recommend it to others, and what (if anything) they’ll think about you as the author. Nor does coming out necessarily “center” queerness as part of one’s brand or mean you’re then required to continue to discuss your orientation in the context of your work. That said, you have every right to decline to come out to potential publishers and resist the idea that only (out) queer authors have some exclusive ethical claim on writing queer characters. I don’t think you need to worry over whether coming out is a privilege or not—it can be a number of things, some of them contradictory, at the same time, but this is about what’s best for you, and you’re quite right to say you’re the only person who gets to decide whether your orientation is anyone else’s business.
To that end, I’m glad you didn’t sign with the agent who asked you directly; you two might have ended up at odds trying to work together. Since not coming out publicly is important to you, consider such questions a sign of possible incompatibility before signing with any publishers who might make you such an offer. Make it clear to your current agent that you’re not going to answer questions about your orientation as you try to sell your book. They’ll be able to act as a buffer for you on that front, and you don’t have to come out to your agent in order to deputize them to deflect such questions. Perhaps some readers who are actively seeking publicly out authors won’t pick up your book, but no author gets every member of their target audience, and plenty of readers don’t consider authorial outness a going concern. Your goal of trying to publish a book without coming out publicly is eminently achievable and it’s nothing you need to apologize for. Good luck selling your book!
Q. Haunted by my boyfriend’s sexual history: About four months into my relationship (we’ve now been dating for 19 months) my boyfriend disclosed his entire sexual history to me. He wanted complete transparency, which I understand, but he went into far more detail than I cared for. Since then, I can’t seem to get his past transactions out of my head, mostly because I still have to deal with every single one of these women, including the woman he cheated on his last girlfriend with. We are around them all the time. His friends constantly tell stories involving these people and the events where I know he hooked up with them. I want so desperately to move past this but saying I’m an overthinker is putting it mildly. Some of his past transgressions I can’t even stomach thinking about, yet I feel as though I’m forced to. He wants a future with me and I want a future with him, but we both agreed that if I can’t get past this, it’ll always hang over our happiness. I don’t want to be the person who says “You can’t hang out with this person or that person,” but being around these people makes me uncomfortable. How can I leave his past behind? Do I need to become more sexually progressive in my thinking? Is there a way to become more accepting of these people and not think about them and my boyfriend’s past actions every time I see or even hear about them?
A: It’s not “sexually progressive” to paste on a happy smile when you feel troubled. I’m afraid I can’t counsel you to leave your boyfriend’s past behind without knowing a bit more about what his past entails and what, if anything, has changed in the interim. You say you “can’t stomach” some of his past transgressions but that his friends constantly relive them (apparently out of a sense of fun or celebration) in front of you. If that stomach-churning response has anything to do with repeated infidelity, manipulation, significant boundary violations, or something that strikes you as unethical, then you should stop pushing yourself to simply become “more accepting” because it would make your boyfriend happy.
I can’t help you categorize these “transgressions” without knowing more about the circumstances, but I’ve noticed a concerning pattern in your letter: “He went into far more detail than I cared for,” “I still have to deal with every single one of these women,” “I feel as though I’m forced to,” “I can’t even stomach thinking about it. … We both agreed if I can’t get past this, it’ll always hang over our happiness.” You haven’t responded to the fact that he had a sex life before you with contempt or puritanism or by attempting to control his social life. But he apparently has a number of friends who make you uncomfortable, and it doesn’t sound like he’s done much to put you at ease, prioritize your comfort, or treat this as anything other than a problem for you to get over, which concerns me. I’m also concerned that at four months he decided you had to hear the details of every sexual encounter he’d ever had, despite your apparent discomfort, and didn’t ask if you wanted to stop or slow down. It’s not your job to leave your boyfriend’s past “behind”—it’s your job to examine your own discomfort, ask whether you have meaningful doubts about his past (and present) conduct, be honest about your fears and desires, and expect that your boyfriend will pay at least as much consideration to your feelings as you have to his.
Q. Co-worker boundaries: In this current work-at-home life my working hours have become increasingly varied and blurred. I know that there are some time issues I need to clarify with my boss, but my co-worker doesn’t get that texting me about work during my days off crosses a line. I explicitly told him not to on my last two vacation days, but he did it anyway in one of those “Sorry to bug ya but just a quick question?” messages (It wasn’t urgent.) I responded with a curt answer and haven’t chatted with him since, because he took a couple of days off. I know I was irrationally angry in the moment and I’m trying to figure out how to address this. It can’t go unspoken because working from home is happening for the foreseeable future. Is it totally out of line to say don’t text me about work, only email me? Work doesn’t pay for our phones and we’re friendly enough, but I need time away from work!
A: Assuming it’s not industry standard to be available by text to your colleagues, but just a habit you’ve accidentally fallen into as you’ve all struggled to adapt to working from home, I think you’re fine telling him to stick to email. If he keeps doing it, you might want to go to your boss for some troubleshooting or backup (and set his texts to Do Not Disturb), but you don’t have to start there. Nor do I think you behaved irrationally just because you felt a flare of irritation: He bugged you about something non-urgent on your day off, and your answer was short and to the point, not unprofessionally angry. Just tell him to stop texting you when you’re on vacation (even if that vacation is just “on a different part of the couch”).
Q. Can I be mad? I’m getting married in six months (hopefully!) and I recently floated the idea that my fiancé should get a vasectomy as a wedding gift to us both. That might sound extreme, but we are both in our 30s and have agreed that we don’t want children. If he does, it will mean we can ditch condoms and I can stop the birth control roulette I’ve been on for the past few years as I look for a method that works for me.
He was hesitant and eventually admitted that if anything happened to me, or we divorced, he’d want to have the option of having children. I have been left flat-footed by this. On the one hand I’m livid that he’s planning a life after me before we even start our life together. Yet at the same time I know that I’m the child-free partner—he just decided he wanted me more than children. I get angry about the whole “if you die” thing, and then I undercut myself by supposing that it is actually fair enough to revisit children if I’m out of the picture. My usual sources of emotional support are a bit unhelpful here, since most of my family members are very religious and still think I’ll change my mind about wanting kids. So … while I’m obviously not going to tell him to get a vasectomy when he isn’t sure, is this a sign? Does it mean my fiancé secretly isn’t OK with the decision to not have children? Or is it just reasonable enough for him to keep his options open there, since children were something he only gave up on for me?
A: I don’t think it’s a secret. Your fiance’s told you, pretty directly, that he doesn’t share your commitment, and you say he only “gave up on” the idea of having children for you. “I’m not prepared to get a vasectomy, and if we ever split up I may want to consider having children with someone else” isn’t on quite the same scale as “I’ve realized I really do want kids now,” so there may very well still be common ground available to you two. But you don’t have to swallow your own emotions simply because you think it’s “fair” that he might want to have children in the event of your untimely death. You’re entitled to talk about how that hurts you and to ask questions about how much thought he gives to a future where you’ve either gotten divorced or been hit by a bus (That’s not to say he’s been busily fantasizing about your death and is therefore planning your wedding with his fingers crossed behind his back so much as he introduced his own ambivalence in a particularly clumsy and insensitive fashion). Does he think about it a lot? Has he started thinking about it more now that you two are planning on getting married? If he pictures a future where you both live to be 90, never split up, and never have children, is his response closer to “I know I’ll grieve some lost possibilities, but I want this life” or to “Well, you don’t want kids, and I love you, so … ”?
You say your family’s mostly out of the picture on this subject, so I can’t help but wonder whether you have friends whose judgment you trust. Do you have anyone in your life who’s not just supportive but affirming and excited about your child-free commitment? If not, now might be the time to start looking for that kind of support (looking for like-minded people to befriend, support groups, therapists, etc.). I imagine your partner will have plenty of people in his life who are willing and able to affirm his (possible) interest in having kids, and I want that for you too. A couples counselor couldn’t hurt, either. “Keeping your options open” is not usually the predominating theme of a happy wedding day. If it’s just a question of finding better ways to process various forms of loss and ambiguity, that’s fine. But if your fiancé’s response to varying levels of interest in having children is “Let’s just get married, and if it really bothers me, we’ll just break up, or you’ll die, and then I’ll have a baby with someone else,” I think you’re right to take this as a pretty big sign that you should, at the very least, postpone the ceremony until you can find a better solution.
Q. Accidentally offensive? I am a bisexual woman married to a straight man. We have a pair of friends (a straight, married couple) who have been close with my husband for at least a decade, maybe more. They claim to be progressives, but the wife will from time to time say things that give me pause. Once when discussing a nonbinary friend’s pronouns she said: “Well, I think that this ‘no gender’ thing might be where I stop progressing. Everyone has a point where change passes them, right?” And yesterday, over for a few beers somehow, the subject of bisexuality came up. I told them for the first time I was bi. Shortly after she said something about how “bisexual men like David Bowie and [another musician] are humanoid—only they could love each other.” I was shocked. I had just told her I was bisexual and she calls bi men humanoid? I left our apartment and went to sit outside alone only to have the whole group follow me out because they thought I was looking for a change of scenery. My husband didn’t hear the comment because he was in another room. He was disgusted when I told him what she said after they left. He thinks I should just tell her how offended I was because maybe she didn’t realize how awful she sounded. I don’t think it should be my responsibility to tell her she’s at the very least slightly bigoted and at the worst a raging homophobe. I’m also shocked her husband didn’t say anything since he claims to be a supporter of the LGBTQ community. I don’t know what to do. If you think I should confront her, could you give me a script?
A: I’m afraid the “humanoid” remark has sailed right over my head; I just don’t know what to make of it. (Any readers with suggestions, please chime in.) But I don’t think you need much of a script beyond what you’ve written here. You don’t appreciate the cracks about bisexuality and other people’s pronouns, and you want her to knock it off. You don’t have to speculate about what she did or didn’t realize or investigate the “true” meaning in her heart. Just stick to the facts of what she said. If you want to talk to her husband too, either separately or along with her, and tell him you’re angry he didn’t say anything, go for it. You may not have known them as long as your husband has, but now they’re your friends too, or have been.
I don’t think it’s your “responsibility” to tell your friend she’s hurt and offended you, both as an individual and on behalf of other LGBTQ people, but I also don’t have a better strategy for someone whose friends have hurt and upset them. Usually the best, and often only, possible response is to say something. I suppose the real question here is whether you’re interested in trying to mend the friendship should they both apologize or, rather, you’d simply keep your distance. You’re certainly not required to do anything if you’ve decided you don’t want an apology, just new friends. But if you do want an apology, and for your friend to reconsider how she talks about queer people, you should talk to her about it.
Q. Re: #Ownvoices vs. privacy: I am an author with an upcoming juvenile book who recently (last weekl) filled out my publisher’s “author questionnaire.” This is a form they use to gather info from authors to use for marketing. The section addressing #ownvoices was not only labeled as optional but took into consideration the types of concerns you expressed. I found it sensitive. This was from a big publisher, so I would just hope it represents basic industry standards in its approach and tone. Good luck with your book!!
A: Congratulations on your upcoming book launch! I’m glad to hear that your publisher has found ways to support authors who want to come out (or are already out and want to incorporate that into their book promotion) without pushing. I think that’s a solid approach.
Q. Re: #Ownvoices vs. privacy: As someone who has worked in publishing for decades, I’d just like to make a few comments on this. Of course the letter writer has a right to keep their life private; no one should be forced to reveal more than they want. However, in staying private, there is also a loss: the inability to use #ownvoices to sell the book, which is is a powerful marketing tool. It is so hard to get any first novel published, and there certainly is the possibility that publishers won’t want to risk buying this if the author refuses to come out. There is also the possibility, as has happened so very often recently, that someone will take umbrage to a plot point or a character and attack; books recently have been canceled and the online wars about representation are fierce. If this happens and the letter writer remains quiet, they risk having the book canceled. This is not about what I think is right or wrong—it is about what I have witnessed. It’s just food for thought.
A: It may very well be that this hashtag is a useful marketing tool, but it’s also not the only marketing tool available. If a publisher won’t “risk” publishing the letter writer’s book because they “refuse” to come out, they are not the right publisher for the letter writer, and I hope the editorial team would seriously reconsider such a commitment. That’s not at all to say there isn’t value in writing from one’s own identity or that authorial experience can’t lend complexity, richness, and meaning to a text. It’s also true that readers are free to take umbrage to anything they see fit and seeking to read and support out authors can be a great thing. But I don’t think framing outness as some sort of requirement for seeking to publish a work of fiction, for any audience, does much to foster a welcoming environment for coming out.
If the publisher wants to sign more out queer authors, a better method would be to pursue projects with writers who are already out publicly as well as clarify how they’d support and promote their authors who may decide to come out in the future, rather than saying, “We’d like to publish your book, but we really want you to come out first.”
Q. Re: Co-worker boundaries: Just stop answering work texts on your days off. Your co-worker will eventually stop texting if he doesn’t get a reply. If he asks about it when you’re back at work, say, cheerfully: “Oh, I was off yesterday. What do you need?”
A: Definitely an option, and certainly something you can pair with a direct request to knock it off—more both/and than either/or.
Q. Re: Accidentally offensive? Humanoid means resembling a human but not quite human. So I think she was saying David Bowie and other bisexuals belong together? Could be wrong, though.
A: Yes, it’s not the most elegantly put dismissal. I get that humanoid was some sort of shorthand for “not like most people,” but it was so oddly formulated (and certainly not a “gotcha” on David Bowie, who cultivated his various personas fairly intentionally and wasn’t merely trying and failing to come off as “just a regular bloke”). At any rate, the letter writer has every right to be irritated and hurt, especially if the tone communicated disgust or contempt.
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks for the help, everyone! Remember, if you just really like the look of makeup every once in a while, and your partner doesn’t, you can always wear some yourself.
From How to Do It
Q. I just ended a secret affair: I’ve been married for about 10 years. About a year ago, I had a brief affair. We realized it was a mistake and ended the relationship. He lives far away, so I haven’t seen him since. Neither of us told our spouses about it, and we have no intention to. I’ve never done anything like that before, and I won’t ever again. I feel bad about it and wish it hadn’t happened, except in one respect: The sex I had with this man was off-the-charts amazing. Like, I didn’t realize that sex could be like that. Sex with my husband is fine—but I feel like I’ve been watching a black-and-white TV my whole life and I suddenly discovered Technicolor exists. I don’t want to go back to this ex, but I can’t stop thinking about the sex. I realized that I get very turned on by things that are out of my husband’s comfort zone. I can’t talk to my husband about it—telling him about the affair would only hurt him, and when this kind of topic has come up in the past, he has been very clear that if anything ever happened, he wouldn’t want to know. How can I get over this? Read what Stoya had to say.
Danny M. Lavery’s new book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You, is out now.