Dear Prudence

Help! I Can’t Believe What I Caught My Son Masturbating To.

Read what Prudie had to say in Part 1 of this week’s live chat.

An iPad with a graphic of a bikini on it.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.

Jenée Desmond-Harris: Happy Monday. Hope you enjoyed that extra hour of sleep (kidding, I know nobody actually sleeps an extra hour when we set the clocks back) and afternoon sunset. If you’re in a dark, depressing winter mood, this is the place to talk about it! Let’s get started.

Q. Wish I’d never seen it: I’ve always thought that my 16-year-old son Trevor was a pretty normal kid. Gets along well with his classmates, does alright in school, plays sports, and is generally a good guy. However, something that I witnessed yesterday has shaken my image of him.

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I had just returned from work and needed to use the restroom, so I went to the closest restroom to the front door. This also happens to be the closest restroom to Trevor’s bedroom. The door was slightly ajar, and when I pushed it open, I saw Trevor on the toilet, masturbating with one hand and holding his iPad with the other. Already an awkward situation, but then I saw what was on the screen. It was, unmistakably, a Facebook photo of my wife at the beach in a bikini. I apologized and rushed out, and I’ve been thinking about this incident ever since.

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I know that teens are horny, but it’s hard to look at my son the same way after I saw him jerking off to an image of his own mother. I haven’t spoken much to him since this and haven’t yet brought it up, let alone mentioned it to my wife. I don’t even know if I should, given how uncomfortable it might make both her and Trevor. How do I address this, and is it worth discussing with my wife?

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A: I’m as disturbed as you are, but I think where I come down on this is: Pretend it never happened. However you would have treated Trevor and whatever you would have talked about with your wife before you saw this thing you were never supposed to see, do that. This advice applies unless you start to see actual, real-life, non-private, outside-the-bathroom behaviors that raise concerns about his wellbeing or his interactions with his mom. And I’m hopeful that you never will! Maybe I’m in denial on your behalf, but even though you say you’re sure you saw a photo of your wife, I want to believe there are other possibilities—for example, he was looking at the post above hers and, in his panic in the split second between when he heard you approaching the door and when you opened it, shifted his grip on the iPad and unintentionally scrolled down to your wife.

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But if anything comes up that suggests this was more than an isolated, perplexing incident, tell your wife what you saw and follow her lead when it comes to how to address Trevor. If this is indeed a real problem, it affects her the most.

How to Get Advice From Prudie:

• Send questions for publication here. (Questions may be edited.)

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• Join the live chat Mondays at noon. Submit your questions and comments here before or during the discussion.

Q. Should I try one more time? My boyfriend and I have been dating for three years. He seemed like the perfect guy at first, and I thought I had found my soulmate. But then he cheated on me. We got over it, or I thought we had, but he started hanging out with his friends a lot to distance himself from me. Then he cheated on me with two other women and basically blamed it on me.

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Apparently I stress him out and we argue too much. We argue because he’s emotionally distant, and after being cheated on multiple times, I need a lot of reassurance from him. I don’t know how he expects me to be perfectly okay after cheating on me and making me feel worthless. I mean, I’ve got nothing on these other women. We also can’t talk about anything—I love to converse and debate about things for fun, and I also believe in talking out our feelings and compromising to have a healthy relationship. He believes in being right. He turns everything into an argument and then twists it on me like it’s my fault. Everything always has to be my fault. He even does this in front of his friends. He does things that upset me and when I call him out, he acts like I’m causing a scene and being a “crazy and annoying girlfriend.” He treats me like a child, when I am in fact two years older AND I pay for everything (he makes more money than I do, by the way) and constantly cater to him. He constantly makes me feel lesser than and stupid.

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I don’t even know who I am anymore. I thought I was an adventurous, independent and strong, tomboyish kind of girl. My confidence in myself is completely gone, my anxiety and depression are worse, and my meds don’t even work anymore. And I feel even more conflicted about what to do because his family loves me and I love them, and I love his friends too. I don’t have friends or family; I’ll lose all of that if we break up. And I don’t wanna break his heart either because I do believe he loves me in his own way; he’s not all bad all the time, and can be so sweet and loving at times. It’s just gotten to the point where the bad outweighs the good. No matter how hard I try to tell him how I feel, he never changes. I just feel like I’ve put all I had into this relationship to make it work out and that wasn’t even enough. It makes me feel worse, I feel like a failure. I don’t know what to do.

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A: You are in a bad relationship with a mean, insensitive person and you deserve better—but if you had the self-esteem to know that for sure, you’d already be long gone. I agree that your boyfriend seems to have destroyed your confidence. So if you don’t feel ready, you don’t have to leave at this very moment. But you can start making some small changes that might rebuild your sense of self-worth enough to begin moving in that direction. Here are a few ideas:

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1) Get your anxiety and depression medications adjusted, and give the new dose some time to kick in.

2) If you have access to therapy, start ASAP. If you don’t, ask for the feedback of a few trusted friends, especially on the idea that you are obligated to be with someone who treats you poorly because he says he loves you, and that you are a failure if a relationship doesn’t work out. If they care about you at all, they will disagree.

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3) Make a list of the things you’d like to feel in a relationship and each day, take stock of how many of those things you’re feeling. Just notice the gap between your ideal situation and your reality, without beating yourself up or pressuring yourself to make a decision right away. Then go back to spending a few moments imagining how you’d like to feel, and what that might mean in terms of a partner’s actions.

I think if you do take these steps, little by little, you’ll feel less stuck in this situation because it will become less appealing to you. I hope you’ll begin to feel entitled to the peace and happiness that will come with being on your own or with someone better.

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Q. Worried aunt: My brother is divorced, for two years now, they have 50/50 custody. While I am just the aunt, I worry for the children’s wellbeing, as their mother is chronically depressed (treatment with no therapy, for as long as I’ve known, more than 10 years). She doesn’t feed the children—while they aren’t babies anymore, they aren’t teens either. I am frustrated because they constantly text me that they are hungry; I know they are picky, but their mom has a “there’s food right there” attitude. I have spoken to my brother about this, and he says there is nothing he can do. While I disagree—because he can talk to the mother, and offer help—if she isn’t getting the mental health treatment she needs, and needs more time off, then my brother should have full custody. I hate reading how the kids are hungry and ignored, and waiting for the week to finish so they can come back to their father. (I used to live there, so I know the situation.) The oldest and youngest have said multiple times they wished they lived with me, while I try to explain to them that they can’t be too picky about food.

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But when is enough, enough? Should I do something bigger like call child services on the mother? I am lost and all I can think about is the kids’ wellbeing. They are extremely thin; while they eat “well” at my brother’s, that doesn’t help as every other week, they are in extreme calorie deficit. Am I just being dramatic?

A: I’m confused about what the situation is here. Is it that the mother isn’t providing the food the picky kids enjoy, or that she isn’t providing enough food at all? How do you know they’re in an extreme calorie deficit? Are you sure they don’t give in and eat the food that’s “right there” after they call and complain to you?

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But whether they are actually starving or simply disappointed because they aren’t being offered the foods they enjoy, I can understand why you wouldn’t want to see them suffering. Why don’t you get in touch with their mother yourself and see if you can offer some help—like bringing over dinner a couple of times during their weeks with her, or seeing if she’s open to assistance finding better resources to care for her mental health? If she’s not receptive, you can volunteer to make sure the kids have enough money to purchase lunch at school, or send them a care package of protein bars, nuts, and other snacks they can pack when they go to their mom’s to make sure they at least have something they like and ease your mind about their calorie deficit.

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Based on how I understand what you’ve written, I don’t think it sounds like a case for CPS. That said, if the kids are truly not being fed at all for entire weeks, that may have to be your last resort. But there are a lot of ways this kind of intervention can go wrong and have unintended consequences, so you should warn both your brother and his ex that you’re going to take this action and give them a chance to make changes before you make the call.

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Q. Am I overthinking this? I’m wondering what the etiquette is for making sure people I talk to don’t misgender friends I mention in conversation. For example, if I say something about a friend who is non-binary, do I need to say, “Yesterday I had lunch with my friend Chris, who uses they/them pronouns…” in case my other friend assumes Chris to be male and responds “Is he a friend from work?” Or is it better not to say anything and wait for it to come up and correct the person? Of course this only applies to people who are open with their pronouns, as I would never volunteer information like that that isn’t open to the public. It just makes me a little uncomfortable when a friend is misgendered, even in absentia, and I feel I could have prevented it.

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A: Yes, you’re being very thoughtful but you’re also overthinking a little … or a lot. You can say something like, “I had lunch with my friend Chris today and they let me have some of their fries.” Or you can just see what happens and simply say “Oh Chris actually uses they/them, not he/him” if the person you’re talking to uses the incorrect pronouns. Problem solved!

But your feeling of discomfort comes from a good place that has to do with much more than etiquette—it’s about your care for Chris, your concern for what it might be like to have a gender identity that some people don’t respect or understand, and your desire to make life easier for your friend. My suspicion is that being misgendered in conversations they will never hear is the least of their issues. Why don’t you talk to them and see if there are any ways you haven’t thought of that you can be there for them or advocate for them?

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Q. Re: Wish I’d never seen it: You have to tell her. I say this as a mom of a son myself (who is a bit younger than your son, but I digress). She needs to know this information to keep herself safe from her own son. This will kill her emotionally but she needs to know this. I am so sorry. This is life-changing and their relationship will never be the same. She may choose to estrange herself from him entirely. She needs to be able to make an informed choice.

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A: I agree that he should tell his wife if he thinks she’s in danger, but I’d wait for another piece of evidence before assuming this incident (which I still think could be some sort of misunderstanding) is going to lead to violence.

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Q. Re: Should I try one more time? You didn’t fail, you grew! You grew into a person who is aware of her own strength and of the ways in which this relationship is sapping it. It seems like you don’t like the person you’ve become in this relationship, and as much as it’s terrifying to end it, it sounds like that’s where you are. Give yourself room to breathe and see who you become when you’ve got that space. Sending you all the love.

A: Wonderful advice. Letter writer, read this to yourself daily!

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Classic Prudie

Whenever I host large dinner parties, only the women offer to help with dishes. I appreciate this, but when I take them up on their offer, there’s a gender imbalance in the kitchen I’m uncomfortable with. I sometimes end up refusing because I hate the optics of it: The men sit around drinking, while the women wash up. I’d like the men to help more, but I don’t want to ask any friends and guests to clean up if they haven’t offered. I’m hosting a Friendsgiving, and some people will bring their own dishes or booze, so I don’t even know if it’s appropriate to ask for help if they’ve contributed something to dinner. Is there a way around this cleanup issue, or am I forever doomed to do all the dishes by myself the next morning?

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