Dear Prudence

My Husband Would Like My Permission to See Prostitutes

I think what bothers me the most is how it sounds.

Cutout of knee-high high-heeled boots and a photo of a man holding out money and a condom
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Dear Prudence,

My husband has a history of encounters with sex workers. He disclosed this before we started dating exclusively, and while I can’t say it didn’t bother me at all, I was prepared to look past it, and we’ve been able to comfortably discuss it throughout our relationship. Now we are planning on having an open marriage after the pandemic. This is for several reasons and feels like a very mutual decision. The issue is that he’s been asking if he can see prostitutes again as part of this arrangement. This bothers me, but I am second-guessing my discomfort because it would be safe sex, in an arrangement that guarantees no strings attached, and I think what worries me the most is just how it sounds. Should I try to be more open-minded about this?

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—Am I Being Close-Minded?

It’s possible that you’ve picked up on some of the many social and legal stigmas against sex workers over the course of your life. You may wish to reexamine your general discomfort (Melissa Gira Grant’s work is an excellent place to start), but you should do so in your own time, and not for the purpose of acceding to your husband’s request. The terms, limits, restrictions, and scope of your open marriage should suit both of you, and you shouldn’t try to push yourself into saying yes just because you can acknowledge some of the practicalities and benefits of seeing sex workers. Making sure you don’t rush each other into something you’re not ready for is just as important a component of a healthy open relationship as safer sex practices. You don’t need to be ashamed of discomfort in an open relationship—it’s not an impediment to happiness that you need to rid yourself of, but an indicator of a need waiting to be met. “I’m not prepared for our open relationship to include sessions with sex workers” is a perfectly reasonable limit that does not harm sex workers nor place outrageous restrictions on your husband’s potential dating pool.

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If this new arrangement with your husband is going to work, you should be as honest with him as he is with you. Remind yourself that your goal is not to become maximally open-minded on every subject specifically as it relates to your open marriage. It’s to create sustainable rules and limits wherein you can both pursue new experiences at your own pace, while remaining securely attached to each other.

Dear Prudence,

My girlfriend, “Lara,” is a nurse who regularly works 60-hour weeks in the COVID unit. We moved in together six weeks into shutdown, partly so I could make sure she was resting, eating, and occasionally getting some fresh air. Things got a little better over the summer, but they’ve ramped back up again. The death of a patient she has a particular connection with often hits her especially hard, and on those days she’ll come home, take a shower, eat a little something, then asks me to make love to her and hold her until she falls asleep. This makes me uncomfortable because on those days, she doesn’t seem to participate in sex. She responds to my touch but doesn’t want to kiss, and almost as soon as it’s over, she will dissolve into sobs and I hold her until she falls asleep. Sometimes I will stop because I don’t think she is into it, but she will plead with me to keep making love to her. She always seems fine the next day, and when I check in afterward, she says that she knows it’s “awkward, but it helps” her. She doesn’t know why, but it feels like that’s what she needs. She doesn’t want to talk about her patients or what happened to trigger the emotions.

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She does talk to a therapist once a week and will schedule an emergency session if she is feeling especially drained. At her therapist’s suggestion, she also keeps a notebook where she writes about the patients she has and the ones she has lost to help her process. We go on regular runs and bike rides, enjoy making dinner together, watch TV, and have an otherwise normal sex life. She genuinely seems happy, except for these episodes, which are becoming more frequent. How can I best support my girlfriend? Should I keep doing what she is asking me to do, or should I refuse and try to get her to process her feelings another way? After “making love” to her like this, I often just feel like I am taking advantage of her or just using her body, even though she is asking me to. I don’t see how this is helping her but I don’t want to assume to know better than she does.

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—Overwhelmed Girlfriend

It sounds like you’re already doing a great deal to support Lara, and I don’t have anything to add to the list of what you’re already doing. When it comes to these periodic requests for mostly checked-out sex, I want you to think of yourself as having a series of equally sound options that you can consider and reconsider during each individual occurrence, rather than a blanket decision. These episodes are fraught and complicated, and one can imagine why she might welcome the particular combination of intensity and disconnection that comes from consensual but disengaged sex. She may feel so exhausted and wrung-out yet desperate for touch, for intimacy, and for release. Since she’s been consistent and clear before, after, and during these encounters that they are what she wants, I think you should take her at her word. This sex may not be grounded in a warm, direct connection, but it seems to make tears, catharsis, and relief more readily accessible for her later on, when she’s feeling safe and cared-for in your arms. (If Lara had told you that she felt like you override her consent, or deliberately avoided seeking it out, or that she had been in a state of mind where only afterward could she recognize that her ability to give consent was impaired, I would have a different answer for you.)

But your feelings and comfort also matter during these sexual encounters, even as you acknowledge that they’re primarily about relieving Lara’s distress. It’s understandable that you’d want to support her in such a fashion, but you may still find this kind of sex challenging and draining or even unwanted, and you have every right to say no. If you want to discuss this with her, choose a time when you’re both relatively relaxed, when you’re not about to have sex, and when she hasn’t just finished a difficult shift, and try to come up with a strategy that seems possible for both of you.

Lara seems like a conscientious, self-aware, compassionate person, and so do you. It’s clear you’re both doing the best you can under incredibly difficult circumstances. Talk about what you can do, what you can’t do, and what you’re not sure about; ask her to do the same to the best of your ability. Follow her therapist’s recommendation together and write down a few shared basic principles—maybe even a shorthand for signaling that you need to pause or stop such sex in the future. Good luck.

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Dear Prudence,

My younger brother “Joe” bought his first home at 24. He works in a pretty horrible industry with negative environmental effects (think oil and gas) and has made a ton of money. He took advantage of a housing program meant to keep low-income families in the city center to buy a new house with no down payment. He will not stop lording it over me: constantly sending me photos of his new decor, his handyman projects, and every new side table. I work for a nonprofit. I find myself feeling resentful every time my brother pats himself on the back for basically kicking poor people out of the neighborhood.

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I’ve tried to be noncommittal about his house texts, even not responding for days, but he’ll continue to send them. It doesn’t help that our only surviving parent is into carpentry and gives Joe a ton of positive attention for his projects around the house. It only fuels the fire. I’m worried I’ll someday snap and go off on Joe for being an awful person. How can I get him to stop lording this over me while still being genuinely happy for his good fortune?

—Lord of the Manor

I also do not want you to snap and “go off” on Joe, especially since it doesn’t seem lie you’ve had even a conversation about your feelings on a number of different subjects. I think he’d feel completely ambushed, and not without reason, either. Saying “Cool” and “Huh” and nothing in response doesn’t communicate a very clear picture, so it’s no wonder that your noncommittal strategy hasn’t worked and your resentment is only increasing. The good news is that you do not need to legislate your many complicated feelings about your brother’s choices in order to ask him to cut down on the home improvement updates. All you have to say is that while it’s great that he’s enjoying the renovation, you don’t want to get regular updates on his carpentry projects and would rather talk about something else.

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You might want to consider having a conversation with your brother about his life choices—but first you should do the internal work necessary to actually ask questions in a mild, respectful fashion. If you were to bring up any of these issues now, I fear you would unleash a torrent of resentments, assumptions, and rebukes that you might later regret. I don’t doubt that his industry is deeply compromised, and I share your opinion of his decision to exploit a home-buying program meant to help poor families, but I don’t think it necessarily follows that everything your brother does is an attempt to make you feel bad. You also do not have to be “genuinely happy for his good fortune.” That’s not an emotional goal you need to set for yourself.  It also might be worth questioning whether your brother is consciously attempting to “lord” this over you—whether everything he does is bad because he’s made some seriously selfish choices—or whether he’s simply sharing something he’s excited about.

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Help! My Girlfriend Doesn’t Respect Our Safe Word During Sex.

Danny M. Lavery is joined by Annalee Newitz on this week’s episode of the Dear Prudence podcast.

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Dear Prudence,

For five years, I basically raised my boyfriend’s girls, “Kelsey” and “Kendra.” The mother was not in the picture. My relationship with their father grew toxic and abusive. Their father put me in the hospital. I pressed charges, he pleaded out to a year in jail, and his mother took the girls. I was never allowed to say goodbye. They were in elementary school then, and they are grown now.  My heart has been scarred, but I later met a wonderful man and now have three sons of my own.

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Kendra recently reached out to me, and the conversation went south quickly. She accused me of abandoning her and her sister. Her father never got help and ended up in and out of jail. She also accused me of “faking” my assault and other vile things. I was so shaken that I couldn’t pick up the keys to my car. I feel such guilt, even though I know there was nothing I could have done differently. I ended up blocking Kendra on social media after she repeatedly tried to contact my family. Now Kelsey is reaching out. She doesn’t act like her sister, but they are close—she just wants to “understand.” I dearly loved these girls once, but all this has made the memories come back. I am having nightmares. My husband tells me I don’t owe them anything. I don’t know what else I can do here.

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—Didn’t Fake It

What a bewildering, awful reminder of the abuse you suffered at your ex’s hands, and all the more awful for coming from an unexpected quarter. I’m so sorry. Kendra made it very clear she is not interested in having a real conversation or in acknowledging your history of abuse. You did right to block her. I don’t know what your response has been to your husband’s assertion that you don’t “owe” Kendra and Kelsey anything. It may be that, given your history, you feel as if you do. If you don’t find language of obligation or debt useful here, allow me to provide an alternative. You have loved Kendra and Kelsey, and you lost contact with them against your will. Your relationship with these girls was severed as a direct result of your ex-boyfriend’s abuse. You don’t know, and cannot control, what the girls were told about you while they were growing up. It may be that an honest and loving conversation about the past would prove healing and meaningful to all of you, but if that is not possible, as Kendra has shown, then you shouldn’t put yourself in harm’s way.

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If Kelsey is unable or unwilling to denounce her sister’s position, then it would not be possible for the two of you to have a real conversation that might increase her understanding of what happened when she was a child. You may decide that you are not interested in such a conversation even if Kelsey were willing to do so, on the grounds that further contact with her would bring you closer into Kendra’s orbit (and possibly other members of this abusive family) and endanger your hard-fought peace. That would be understandable. Given that Kelsey and Kendra are close, it seems like Kelsey is simply applying different tactics in order to relitigate the same question, and keeping your distance might be the best (even the only!) thing you can do here.

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Dear Prudence Uncensored

“It doesn’t necessarily follow that if he gets excited about revarnishing his floors that it’s the moral equivalent of throwing a kindergartener out the window.”

Danny Lavery and Christian Brown discuss a letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,

I am a 20-year-old woman with a friend named “Samantha.” We’ve known each other for three years. I attempted suicide two years ago, and I’m still working on healing. Samantha also struggles with depression and is currently in therapy. However, she relies on me for most of her emotional counsel. She will vent about her difficulties and hopeless feelings. I have advised her to share this with her therapist or call a hotline, but she refuses. She often forgets to ask if I’m in a stable mental state before she starts to vent. When I try to set a boundary with her, she bottles things up and spirals further. Samantha has told me that I make her life better. She used to have a crush on me (which has passed) and calls me her closest friend, but I don’t reciprocate. I don’t want to abandon her since I’ve been in a similar situation and it is very difficult, but I cannot continue relapsing and being miserable. Can you help me?

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—Conflicted

I’m so sorry; this sounds like a terribly painful situation. It’s clear that you want to do right by Samantha without sacrificing your own well-being, and I do believe that’s possible. Let’s start with your use of the word abandon here. Telling someone repeatedly, as you have, that you are not available to discuss serious emotional crises or bouts of hopelessness on demand due to your own history with suicidal ideation is a reasonable and caring thing to do. If that someone ignores that boundary not once but many times, and as a result you scale back on your friendship, that is not abandonment. That is sanity! That’s the best way for you to be as kind toward yourself as you have been toward Samantha, and it’s the best way to honor your ideals about what friendship ought to be. As you yourself have tried to point out, she has a therapist of her own and other possible sources of support; she’s also known for quite some time that the nature of your relationship is difficult and painful for you. This is not new, shocking information. When you’ve tried to set this boundary in the past, you say that Samantha “bottles things up and spirals further.” The silver lining there is that it does not sound like Samantha calls you repeatedly or tries to argue you out of your position, which is a hopeful sign for her future progress.

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The key to making these boundaries stick in the present is to consider what kind of support you might need to keep yourself from rushing in to fix things the next time she bottles up. Telling her you can no longer have these one-sided conversations does not necessarily mean she is going to start having them with her therapist right away. She may very well continue to struggle before she tries another solution. Who can you turn to for support in such an instance? How can you remind yourself that you are not the only form of help that Samantha has available to her? Developing a plan of your own, even if it’s just a list of people you can call for reassurance, will help you prioritize your own well-being in a moment when all of your habits and instincts are telling you, “Drop everything and call her! You have to do it, or else you’re abandoning someone to suffer in the very way you suffered three years ago.” Those voices may be powerful, but they are very much mistaken. Loving with limits is a good thing, not abandonment. Any voice that tells you otherwise, whether it comes from a friend or inside your own head, is very much in the wrong.

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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

Dear Prudence,

I’m a college senior, and I’m supposed to graduate in May, and I’m terrified. There are no jobs in my field in my area, so I know I’m going to have to move. I lived on my own for about three months, and it was a categorical disaster. I’ve lived at home for the rest of the time I’ve been in college. I plan on moving to an area where a lot of my family lives (and where jobs are aplenty), but I still feel stuck. I don’t even know where to begin. My parents aren’t much help, and I can’t break the news to them until right before it happens. The whole process seems so overwhelming that I often push it to the back of my mind, but D-Day is looming closer. Do you have any advice?

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—Deer in the Headlights

You don’t have to turn to your parents for help, but if you don’t know where to begin, I’d start by sharing your concerns with someone in your college’s career development office, if you have one. The alumni association, your academic adviser, and campus counseling services are all good options too. No one of them will be able to address every element of your conundrum, but taking it apart piece by piece and tackling one issue at a time will go a long way toward making graduation feel less like the event horizon of a black hole. It may also help to get a second opinion on some of the conclusions you’ve drawn while you’ve been panicking in silence! That’s not to say you have to mistrust your every instinct, but you should certainly be running decisive statements like “There are no jobs in my field in my area, so I know I’m going to have to move” past a few other people to see if they can catch anything you may have missed. One of the few upsides to the pandemic has been the increased availability of remote work. Maybe someone in the career development office can help you look for relevant entry-level jobs that would enable you to stay in your current city for the time being. You may very well be right, but even if all you get from others is confirmation, you’ll still have more support and counsel as you try to tackle your problems.

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Classic Prudie

Before he met me, my husband was engaged to another woman who passed away only weeks before their wedding. Her mother contacted my husband with an upsetting story of her daughter appearing in her dreams repeatedly. The mother believes the spirit of her daughter is tormented and unable to “pass over” because she has unfulfilled business, namely the wedding which never occurred. The mother has asked my husband to take part in some creepy spiritual wedding ceremony so that her daughter can find peace and enter the afterworld. After he said no in the nicest possible way, she has continued to pester and plead with him. Now he thinks he should just do it for the sake of putting an elderly grieving woman at peace. While I don’t believe in such superstition I find it weird and plain wrong for my husband to “marry” another woman, even if she has been dead for years. We have been fighting over this insane issue. Am I being stubborn or am I right in thinking this is twisted and inappropriate?

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