Dear Prudence

Help! My Friend Says Faking Orgasms Is “Basically Abuse.”

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

A woman sitting on a bed, looking at a man who's lying down underneath covers.
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Danny is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.

Q. Do faked orgasms make me a monster? Last week during a Zoom happy hour, one of my friends, “Leonora,” jokingly mentioned that she was tempted to fake an orgasm during lackluster sex. My other friend, “Patty,” was horrified that Leonora would even consider faking an orgasm. She said that faking an orgasm is lying and implied that lying to your partner about sex was “basically abuse.”

Prudence, I fake a lot of orgasms and have done so for years. I can’t orgasm with a new partner until I feel completely comfortable, and because of my trauma history, this can take around a year, sometimes even longer. My strategy has been to fake orgasms with new partners until I feel comfortable, at which point I have orgasms for real. I’ve found this is easier than constantly reassuring new partners that my lack of orgasm doesn’t mean I’m not enjoying the sex (I am), and also puts a stop to people thinking that they are secretly skilled enough to make me orgasm right away. This has worked very well for me in the past. While I realize faking an orgasm is technically a lie, I’ve always thought of it as a harmless lie in a benign gray area. I was shocked to hear Patty put “faking it” in the same category as abuse. Aside from this letter, I’ve never told anyone that I fake it, and I feel confident my partners never know. Have I been deluding myself that this is OK? Do I need to have some sort of sexual reckoning and come clean to future partners?

A: I think your friend Patty would have a very difficult time convincing most reasonable people that faking orgasm is an abusive tactic. It may very well hurt someone to learn that their partner had been faking orgasms; their relationship might suffer or even end as a result, but there are all manner of unpleasant things (distrust, suspicion, insecurity, frustration, resentment, pretending to laugh at someone’s jokes, jealousy, disagreeing about how long to leave leftovers in the fridge, etc.) that may make relationships difficult but do not rise to the level of abuse. That’s not to encourage faking it as a practice—I hope that you can find other ways to ease into trusting your partners without having to either disclose your history of trauma or “constantly” reassure them that you’re having a good time because I think it would make life a lot easier for you—but Patty’s comparison is sloppy at best.

I wonder if you’d find it helpful to see a therapist who specializes in sex and trauma so you can explore alternatives to committing to faking orgasm for the first year of every relationship. It might also help to reframe how you might share this with future partners. I agree that saying “I can’t orgasm with a partner until I’m comfortable” sets a difficult precedent, because your partners might start worrying excessively about why you’re not comfortable yet or trying to bend over backward to “make” you comfortable faster. But I also think it’s possible to have this conversation with prospective dates without expecting they’ll all necessarily respond with “Thanks for telling me—but I’m such a great lover that I’ll get you there in two months” or by refusing to take you at your word when you say, “I’m having a good time, don’t worry about getting me off—it will happen in time, and it makes me feel a lot more relaxed if I know my partner isn’t trying to make something happen.” Rather than thinking about faking it as either “harmless” or “harmful,” I think it’s better to treat it as either useful or counterproductive to your goals. If what you want is for your partner to respect the time it takes you to orgasm, to not interrogate you about your internal state during sex, and to adopt a trauma-informed approach to sex, then speaking frankly with them about your orgasm timeline before you’ve started sleeping together can only help you. You don’t have a moral obligation to do so, and of course if you want to fake orgasms for the first year of every relationship for the rest of your life, no one can stop you (even if some of them might privately suspect but are too afraid to ask). But you do have more, and better, options for getting what you want from your partners in future, and you deserve to ask for it.

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Q. My best friend’s boyfriend is still on the apps: My best friend “Rue” has been dating “Jared” for about a year. There were many things about their relationship that were challenging for me and the rest of our friends—their obsession with each other, the time they spent together to the exclusion of all others in their life, their need to constantly be touching when we were out in public together. However, we’ve all mostly gotten over it and are genuinely happy for them.

But now my other friend just saw Jared on a dating app. This friend is male and the dating app is meant for guys only. I know for a fact that Rue and Jared don’t have an open relationship. In fact, Jared is super religious and has only ever dated women. Rue and Jared are planning to not have sex until marriage.

Should I say something to Rue? I know she’d be devastated to hear Jared is on a dating app. At the same time, what if he was just on there as a joke, or what if someone else is impersonating him and he’s not actually looking for male partners? I feel sick with guilt over keeping this secret, as Rue tells me they are quickly moving toward engagement. What should I do?

A: One of my go-to rules in this sort of situation is to assess whether you have direct evidence that you can report to your friend. Since you didn’t see Jared’s account yourself, I think your best move—if any—is to encourage your other friend to speak to Rue. As you say, there’s a slim-but-real chance that it wasn’t Jared (although I’m not really sure what the “joke” would be if it were a joke, beyond the straightforwardly homophobic “Wouldn’t it be funny if I were gay?”), and since you didn’t see his profile yourself or have any sort of dating-app interaction with him, you wouldn’t be able to clarify or answer follow-up questions should Rue have any.

If anything, I think you have grounds to try to talk to her about the fact that you miss spending time one on one, instead of avoiding talking about the things that have bothered you in the past year in favor of “A friend of mine saw Jared on Scruff, so you should probably ask him about it.”

Q. Vintage car responsibility: Ten years ago when I was brand-new in my career, I became friendly with someone much higher up, “Larry.” I also became close with his family. Once during a visit, he shared one of his hobbies: restoring a beautiful vintage automobile as a gift for his wife. I had expressed my interest in doing something like that myself one day. A short time later, Larry sadly lost his wife to cancer. He asked me to take the car, still unfinished, and finish what he started. With much hesitation, I accepted the “gift.” Fast forward 10 years. I am still with the company, in a fairly high position. And I still have that car. I never touched it. It is still languishing three-quarters of the way done in my garage, dry-rotting in place.

I am now a parent and a very busy professional. I know I am not likely to ever finish restoring this car. My husband has gently urged me to give it to a local charity that helps pay medical bills for families whose children are undergoing cancer treatment. While Larry has moved on, we still work with him on the rare occasion. I feel obligated to keep this “gift” and live with the anxiety that I may run into Larry and he may ask about the car. If I donate it, even for a good cause, I worry that I have somehow dishonored his wife’s memory. But, honestly, I have grown to resent the space and obligation it takes up in my garage and my heart. What are my obligations after 10 years, and how do I move forward without tarnishing the memory of Larry’s late wife?

A: One possibility is finding an auto body shop that specializes in treating vintage cars and paying someone else to finish fixing it up. If you’re relatively high up at your company and your budget can absorb the additional expense, you might feel a sense of relief and pride at getting the car finished and then telling Larry you’re planning to donate it, rather than feeling anxious he might ask questions about the car’s condition. But almost any action would be better than another 10 years of continued inaction. You know at this point that you are not going to “suddenly” be seized with inspiration tomorrow and start getting under the hood yourself, so don’t let that faint hope keep you from making a practical decision.

If you don’t have the money (or don’t want to spend your money, even if the circumstances under which you received the car were tragic) and you simply want to send it to that charity, I think it’s fine to do so. In giving you the car, Larry wanted you to take over its disposal—he didn’t ask you to promise you’d drive it every day yourself. If the charity does the final repairs and then puts it to use, that’s still a genuine fulfillment of your obligation, I think. Whatever you choose, you may want to write Larry a brief but compassionate note yourself—rather than feeling uncomfortable whenever you see his name in a work email—letting him know you’ve recently sent the car along to its next owner and that you’re thinking of him and wishing him well.

Since the car has been sitting idle for a decade, it’s entirely possible that neither the charity nor the auto body shop can repair it without investing more money than the car is worth, in which case you might have to consider other options like a junk removal service. (This is all assuming that Larry gave you the title along with the car, of course.) At that point, you might want to let Larry know the car is on its last legs (you don’t have to go into detail about where the car has been for the past 10 years) and ask if he has any interest in fixing it up again now that 10 years have passed or if he’d still rather have you handle things. I think he will appreciate hearing from you—often people who are bereaved feel slightly isolated in the years afterward because so many people let the fear of saying the wrong thing keep them from saying anything—and you can relax a little, knowing that he’s not going to suddenly start grilling you. He hasn’t asked about the car in a decade. While I’m sure he wants it to go to someone who will really appreciate it next, I don’t think it’s weighing heavily on his mind.

Now available in your podcast player: the audiobook edition of Danny M. Lavery’s latest book, Something That May Shock and Discredit YouGet it from Slate.

Q. My cat or my husband: My husband of seven years is threatening to take one of our two cats back to the shelter, to the point that I’m afraid I’ll come back from the grocery store and find her gone. I know he won’t accept mediation; a few years ago I had to go to “couples counseling” by myself for our personal problems. He responds to many of our disagreements by losing his temper, and over the years he has said some very ugly things (no violence, and I’m not afraid for my safety). Frankly, I get along better with the cat and wish I hadn’t married my husband. I don’t have any moral high ground here since I adopted the cat a year ago without telling my husband first. Our situation is complicated by our being elderly and not in good health (he can no longer drive, and I have COPD). Our lives are interdependent emotionally and by shared daily routines and possessions, and we each have a bond with the other’s adult child. On the other hand, we’ve kept our finances apart, and I own the house.

The truth is that I’m a crazy cat lady. I mean this very seriously. Though there are people in my life whom I love, I learned in childhood that the love of cats is more trustworthy than the love of human beings. I have kept a cat when at all possible and through two previous marriages (to men who liked cats) for more than 70 years. I’m wondering if there is some kind of compromise here or if I should just see a lawyer. The latter would be another case of my acting unilaterally as I did with acquiring the cat, and that worries me.

A: You say you wish you hadn’t married your husband, that you prefer the company of cats to the company of people, and that you own your own house. Deciding to leave your husband isn’t something you have to “earn” by maintaining the moral high ground at all times; you haven’t ceded your right to act in your own best interests just because you once adopted a cat without consulting him. Speak to a lawyer and figure out how to initiate a separation as soon as you feel up to it. Your husband regularly loses his temper with you, speaks cruelly to you often, and has refused to go to therapy with you. You share some furniture, you like his kid, and whatever lingering emotional connection you have stems from a shared daily routine—but it doesn’t sound like you two really enjoy each other’s company or that you feel he treats you with compassion and respect. The most positive thing you say about your marriage is that you’re not afraid for your physical safety. The good news is that since you both have your own money (and it sounds like his health is OK), you don’t have to worry about his well-being in the event of a separation or divorce. Don’t let the fear of “acting unilaterally” hold you back from speaking to a lawyer, and don’t convince yourself that you used your one unilateral move in getting a cat and now you have to stick it out with a husband who yells at you constantly for the rest of your life. Enjoy some peace and quiet!

Q. Old flame still burning: I married a man three months after meeting him with a ton of hesitation. I had just ended a relationship one month prior. My husband is an addict who neglected me constantly. He left me two days after our wedding anniversary and the day before my birthday. This was a month ago, and neither of us has spoken or filed for divorce.

The other day, my husband texted and said he wanted to make things work. The problem is, over the past month, my ex (who never even knew I was married) reconnected with me. We’ve been talking every night and we’ve both admitted to never having gotten over each other, and to still loving each other. I told him about the marriage and he took it in stride. He’s everything my husband isn’t: kind, socially engaged, interesting, funny, and intelligent. He makes me feel joy again. The problem is, I’m not divorced and I don’t know if I owe it to my husband to try to make things work because he wants it. Should I let go of my ex and commit to a marriage I was miserable in?

A: I don’t think you know that your current husband wants to make things work—from the sound of your letter, he’s already left you twice, and you haven’t heard from him in a month. I don’t mean to be cold, but it doesn’t sound like he wants you to commit to him at all, so I’m not sure where you get the idea you “owe” him a commitment he’s rejected twice already. You can’t make things work with someone who’s left you by the very fact that they have left you. It might be worth spending some time in therapy reflecting on what led you to get married to this man “with a ton of hesitation” after a mere three months of dating, and how you might make different choices in the future—but that doesn’t mean you have to stop talking to this guy. Rather, I think you should consider your marriage over, regardless of what happens between you and your kinder ex, and move on for your own sake, not just so you can move into another relationship.

Q. Dad’s affair: My father had a long-term affair with one of my mother’s closest friends. My parents were married for 30 years. It destroyed my mother—she had to be hospitalized twice. He married this woman two months after the divorce. My younger three sisters are still furious at him and I think the youngest might make a scene if she is in the same room as the new wife. (She caught them in the act.)

I am getting married and want my father to be at the wedding. I talked to my family about inviting him and not his wife. They agreed, but my father balked at leaving his new wife behind. He told me I couldn’t test his love and treat his wife as a pariah. He told me once I made the vow to put my husband above all others I would understand. We are going ahead with the wedding without him, but I am so depressed. It feels like a funeral some days because my father is out of my life permanently. I was always closer to him than I was with my mom, but his mistress has always ranked first, and I have been fooling myself about his affections. How do I get over this?

A: You don’t have to get over this, at least not right now. I understand that you want to find ways to enjoy your wedding and not let your grief and anger toward your father dominate the day, which I think is possible, but that doesn’t mean you have to feel totally neutral or peaceful about your father’s new marriage, either.

What are you doing to treat your depression right now? Treat that depression as real, meaningful, and worthy of attention, not just an accidental side effect of your parents’ divorce that’s bound to fade away. Have you spoken to your doctor, or sought counseling, or looked into support groups for adult children of divorced parents or for people grieving family estrangement? This is a huge rift, and it’s only to be expected that you’d be upset, especially since you and your father used to be particularly close.

Q. Re: My best friend’s boyfriend is still on the apps: I really think Prudie’s answer missed the mark here. It sounds to me as if the other friend who saw Jared on the app isn’t a close friend of Rue’s, and while the letter writer can certainly ask him to share with Rue what he saw, there’s no way to make him do so. And if I found out my best friend knew, even secondhand, that my partner was cheating on me and she didn’t tell me, that would be a friendship ender.

I think it’s appropriate to encourage the friend to tell Rue, but if they aren’t close and he is uncomfortable doing so, the letter writer should go to Rue and say: “I recently heard something secondhand about Jared that I believe you may want to know. To be clear, I cannot corroborate it, but I trust the source [and say who it was if your friend is comfortable].” The alternative is five years from now Rue finds out Jared has been chronically unfaithful for years and that at least two of her friends knew and said nothing.

A: I agree the letter writer can’t make her friend say anything to Rue. All she can do is ask, and if he decides he doesn’t know Rue well enough to initiate such a potentially embarrassing conversation, then I hope it leads him to reconsider why he decided to share that information with a third party in the first place. And while a number of things trouble me about the relationship as it’s been described here, I don’t think “my friend says he saw your boyfriend on a gay hookup app” is even third on the list. The letter writer hasn’t found a way to speak to her friend about pretty serious concerns like what appears to be a sudden adoption of extremely religious rules like “no sex until marriage,” despite not sharing Jared’s religious commitments herself. My hope is that the letter writer finds ways to bring some of this up (as gently and nonaccusatory as possible), because I think Rue’s initial reaction is going to be defensive. That doesn’t mean it would be wrong of the letter writer to mention the apps, but I think it’s less important than some of the other issues they haven’t yet discussed, and since she hasn’t seen it for herself, she can’t speak to how he may or may not have used his account. It’s not that I think it’s not worth discussing, but it’s far from the strongest card in her hand. Mostly, I think it’s really difficult to ask a friend to reconsider a romantic relationship they’re clearly very protective of, as in this case, and I want to set the letter writer up with the best possible chance of success. I think the odds are high that no matter how diplomatically the letter writer plays this, Rue is going to be defensive—which is maybe in its own way an argument for bringing up the dating profile after all.

Q. Brother’s domestic abuse and future partner(s): My adult younger brother received a mental health diagnosis as a child but has never received formal treatment or support. My dad was always working and my overwhelmed mother did not know how to talk about why we were treated differently. This bred resentment that I’ve only been able to work through as an adult. My brother also resented me, and as a teenager repeatedly hit and beat my mother and me. He even choked my dad once, who ordered me to not call 911.

Fifteen years later, I’m back home because of the pandemic and preparing for a move abroad (my visa should be coming in any day now), and I’ve had to call the police once on him because he was about to punch me. My mother blamed me for embarrassing us in front of the neighbors. Both his and my mother’s most recent meltdown at me was regarding whether I had ever told his now ex-girlfriend five years ago about how he had hit and beat us. For what it’s worth, it sounds like something I would have done out of concern for her safety, but I honestly can’t remember. And five years later, that exact question is moot. However, this made me start thinking—what are my ethical obligations to his future partners on how to inform them of his violent past? I’m tired and just very over it. What is my obligation to this woman?

A: I think right now your most pressing obligation is to find another place to stay until your visa arrives, if that’s financially feasible and if it’s possible to do so without putting yourself at greater exposure to COVID. Staying in this house means that you are in active danger, both from your brother’s violence and from your parents’ complacency and tendency to blame you when your brother explodes. Your real-life safety is much more important and pressing than the hypothetical safety of a future, as-yet-nonexistent girlfriend. Focus on your upcoming move and establishing a safe distance between yourself and your family; if someday in the future you are in a position to warn your brother’s prospective partner about his history of violence, only disclose if you have ensured your own safety first.

Q. Re: Vintage car responsibility: I know some vintage car restoration lovers. They can work wonders with rust buckets. The letter writer might consider letting one take the vehicle for free, bring it to mint condition, and take a photo of the letter writer and the restorer in front of it. Larry didn’t ask the letter writer to keep it but to finish what he started: restore a car as an act of love. Mission accomplished.

A: If your city has any vintage car restoration groups (I imagine they’ll have some sort of social media presence that’s not too hard to find), you may very well find someone who’s interested in offering more specific advice or suggestions! I don’t want the letter writer to count on finding someone who wants to restore this car and only expect a photograph as payment, but it might still be helpful.

Q. Re: Do faked orgasms make me a monster? I wrote a very similar letter to Prudence a couple years ago. My situation was comparable—due to a history of sexual trauma, I never orgasmed with a partner and always faked it. I think Patty is completely wrong here, but also she was responding to a situation that involved boring sex, not trauma, so (even though I think she is wrong in both cases) I think you can write it off as not applicable to you. Treat yourself with the compassion Patty isn’t extending to you.

Also, I don’t know if this will be the right approach for you, but I thought I’d share how things have been going for me since my letter: I’ve found a lot of success with a combination of therapy and antidepressants. Also, with my most recent partner, I decided to disclose my difficulty reaching orgasm (without going into all of the details) before we had sex the first time. I emphasized that I would feel more relaxed if he took me at my word when things felt good, and I would enjoy myself a lot more if I didn’t have to stress about trying to have “goal-oriented” sex. He responded with a lot of compassion and kindness. We eventually experimented with me bringing myself to orgasm as part of foreplay or after sex. This has hugely helped me feel comfortable enough to orgasm with him, and I now regularly have orgasmic sex with him.

A: Thanks so much for sharing this. I’m so glad your partner responded so well, that you were able to direct what happened next, and that you’re more relaxed and comfortable now.

Danny M. Lavery: Thanks, everyone! See you next week. If you’re an amateur vintage car mechanic with a lot of time on your hands, please write in 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. My stepson is wonderful, but I just don’t love him: I have a 14-year-old stepson whom I first met when he was a toddler. He spent weekends with his father and me until he was 7, when he moved in with us because his mom moved out of state and we were awarded physical custody. When we got married several years ago, I asked him what he wanted to call me, and he said “Mom.” He is smart, bright, funny, and generous, and he has a heart of gold. He deserves to have present, loving parents as much as every single kid out there does. And yet, I do not love him. Read what Nicole Cliffe had to say.