How to Do It

My Mom Made a Shocking Confession Before She Died. I’m Not Sure Whether to Tell My Brother.

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Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by freestocks.org/Unsplash.

How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Have a question? Send it to Stoya and Rich here. It’s anonymous!

Every week, the crew responds to a bonus question in chat form.

Dear How to Do It,

Several years ago, before she died, my mother made a stunning confession. In the course of another conversation, she revealed that my father—who had been happily married for 55+ years—had not had sex in more than 50 years. In his early 20s, after my brother and I were born, my father had a botched surgery that left him completely impotent. It took me several years to process this information. I was depressed at times thinking how devastating this must have been for both of my parents, but at the same time in awe at how they stayed together. Keep in mind that not once in all these years did I ever suspect or imagine anything like this. My parents were never ones to show overt PDA, but they would kiss each other and hold hands and there was OBVIOUS affection. Both of my parents have now sadly passed away. My question is, do I share this information with my brother? When my mother shared this information with me, it was at a time in my life when I was having difficulty in my own marriage. She never said to keep it to myself, but we also never spoke of it again. Part of me feels like I would be gossiping family secrets to my brother if I told him. But I also am in complete awe of my parents—how their true love kept them together for 50 years without having sex—and I think he should maybe know this. I have no idea what to do.

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—Family Secret

Stoya: Our writer seems concerned about what they owe their no-longer-living parents. But I think the more important question is how their sibling might take the news.

Rich: The can’t-unsee factor is crucial.

Stoya: Exactly.

Rich: I think the writer must ask themselves if this is information the brother would want to know on any level. There are plenty of people who would much rather know nothing about their parents’ sex life. I suspect the reason this is a dilemma is because the writer really wants to share the information. And if the brother can be assumed to be neutral on the discovery of such information, I think it’s fine to tell him.

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Stoya: It comes down to whether the brother’s life would be improved, unchanged, or negatively affected. And we don’t know anything about the brother, so I’m at a loss for actionable advice.

Rich: Yeah, this really depends on what our writer already knows about their sibling. I’m not hung up on the morality of “gossiping” in this instance. Gossiping about dead people has far lower stakes; it cannot affect the quality of life of the dead. Gossiping about family is, in many cases, hardly gossip—it’s just living. Family members talk about family members. Also, this information would not be shared maliciously but for the purpose of deepening the brother’s understanding of their parents’ relationship, and so the intentions are good enough to make it morally permissible.

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Stoya: I do wonder if the brother would be nearly as in awe of the parents as our writer is. Sometimes when we’re deeply affected by something—a story, a book—we expect other people to react similarly. And that isn’t always the case.

Rich: Yes, while I think this is an interesting story (what happened in this surgery?), I’m not exactly bowled over by the idea of a sexless marriage enduring (it happens!). Also, if one of my sisters were to uncover something about our parents’ sex life, I would very much rather not know!

Stoya: As an only child, I envy the ability to share familiar burdens with siblings.

Rich: As it goes for many things that you can’t control in life, it’s nice to have someone to complain with, for sure. Trading sex stories about people I’d rather pretend never had sex—even though that would render me never having existed—is another matter all together.

More How to Do It

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