Sam Breach

Singular Assault

Prudie advises a letter writer who was once sexually assaulted by their current partner.

Mallory Ortberg, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at prudence@slate.com.)

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Readers! Ask me your questions on the voicemail of the Dear Prudence podcast. Just leave a message at 401-371-DEAR (3327), and you may hear your question answered on a future episode of the show.

Mallory Ortberg: Good morning, everyone! Let’s chat.

Q. Trying to leave it in the past: Two and a half years ago, my partner of seven years sexually assaulted me. We were sharing a room with other people and he wanted to have sex. After I refused and attempted to go back to sleep, he continued to masturbate against me, purposefully where people could see if they were to wake. After this went on for a considerable amount of time, in shame I led him to the bathroom to have sex with him just so he would stop. I felt disgusted, and was deeply troubled for the rest of the trip. We were, however, moving into our first home, and I loved (and still love) him deeply, so I put it down to his mental health and self-esteem issues, which at the time were particularly bad.

In the last six months, this incident has begun to haunt me. I think about it at least once a day, and it’s gotten worse since the current stories of sexual assault began appearing in the news every day. Talking to him isn’t an option—it will destroy us. He isn’t that man anymore, and has never ever done anything like that again. I fear reminding him will make him regress back to the state he was in at the time of the incident. I’m wondering if therapy could help me to resolve my feelings.

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I love my partner, we are truly best friends, and our relationship is fantastic in so many ways. I hope to marry him and know he feels the same way. But I need closure from this historical incident, and to leave it in the past where his behavior stayed.

A: You absolutely deserve the chance to talk about this with someone safely and confidentially. For whatever it’s worth, your boyfriend is “that man” still. Regardless of whether he has assaulted you again since that first incident, regardless of how much he’s changed his day-to-day behavior, he is the same person who repeatedly pressed you for public sex despite your repeated refusals, who wore you down until you gave in. You say that you think about this at least once every day, which says a great deal about how this incident—even while singular—affects your current emotional and mental well-being.

Please do see a therapist, and I hope that at some point in the future you will consider discussing this with your partner. You don’t have to do anything you’re not ready for, of course, but you don’t have to keep silent about this forever. You say you think it would destroy your relationship, but it’s clearly already destroying you. There’s no reason you should have to bear the full weight of this alone.

Q. To go or not to go?: I recently met a really nice guy and he asked me out. He is dying of cancer and has been given a year to live. I want to go out with him, but am I setting myself up for heartbreak?

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A: Heartbreak is always a possibility. In this instance, you have a stronger sense of where and when heartbreak will strike. It’s up to you whether you think you’re prepared to handle it. That’s not to say that you can predict with 100 percent certainty how you’ll react in the moment to his declining health and eventual premature death—after all, you can’t even predict if your first date will go well enough to merit a second. But if you feel reasonably sure that you can’t deal with going out with someone who’s likely to die in the next year, then spare both him and yourself the time and say no now.

Q. Re: Trying to leave it in the past: While my heart goes out to the letter writer and what they are going through, the letter has left me with questions about my own experiences. Not that I condone the boyfriend’s actions in any way, but I did not realize they would be considered sexual assault. I have encountered this type of behavior from a partner many times and recently a close friend told me about a similar experience. While both of us did not think the behavior was acceptable, neither of us considered it assault. Should we?

A: Let’s take a look again at what the letter writer said. They were in a room full of other people when their partner attempted to initiate sex. The letter writer “refused” and tried to go back to sleep, at which point he continued to masturbate against him or her for a “considerable amount of time.” The letter writer very clearly said no, and very clearly refused to engage in sexual behavior. Their partner continued regardless. The fact that the letter writer later redirected their partner so that at least they weren’t having sex in front of people does not retroactively make it OK that their partner continued to molest them after they said No.
That does not necessarily mean that their partner is a monster who should be thrown out of society, or that they cannot meaningfully repair their behavior, but it was a clear violation of consent.

It is of course difficult and painful to think of someone we love and trust committing assault. The mind balks at such a prospect. But that’s what happened. Part of the necessary work in sexual justice is figuring out how to meaningfully address assault and consent violation—it’s not just “monsters” in shadowy corners, but people we love and trust and who otherwise treat us well and with respect. It happens, and it’s wrong, even if it comes from an otherwise “good” person, and it needs to be addressed.

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Q. Snubbed: I was snubbed at a family gathering by the significant other of a family member. There was no mistaking the snub. I don’t know the reason for it, but I have theories. I don’t know this person very well, but there is a class aspect as that branch of the family is wealthier than mine. It may also have been political. Or a million other different reasons. I have no idea why I was snubbed.

Prudie, I’m of the Larry David school of thought on this. We can’t just go around normalizing snubbing if we are to live in a society. What is the best way to handle a snub that calls attention to the snub, but makes the snubber look bad and not the snubee?

A: I cannot think of an appropriately great response after the fact; the moment of the snub has long passed. That said, if calling attention to the snub while making the person who overlooked you “look bad” is your goal, then I’m not sure I can help you. If, however, you’re genuinely interested in figuring out whether this was based on a misunderstanding and seeking to clear things up between you, then I think you should get in touch directly and ask whether there’s anything you have done or said that offended them. If you get an answer and find out there’s something you can do or say to heal the breach, so much the better. If you don’t hear back, or get an answer you consider petty or misguided, then you can steer clear of the snubber in future. But your dream of a run-in at a party where everything suddenly breaks into slow-motion as you say, “Hey, get a load of this jerk who’s trying to pretend I don’t exist when in fact they’re the jerk,” isn’t super likely, I’m afraid.

Q. Rudeness disguised as helpfulness: Why are my husband and his sister so rude and thoughtless? Whenever we host a gathering or a holiday meal, my husband and I plan the menu together and do the shopping. Inevitably, he will then talk to his sister and ask me something like, “Hey, can Drusilla bring a rotisserie chicken?” This might sound like a great thing, except I’m already cooking a turkey. In the past, she’s asked if they can bring a pie when I’ve already told her that I’m making cupcakes, brought a chicken salad when I’ve already made a green salad, or she simply shows up with a main dish and takes over my meal.

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I’ve repeatedly suggested to my husband that he have his sister bring an appetizer or drinks, or a side dish that we haven’t already planned on making, but he can’t get it through his head that what he and his sister are doing is rude and thoughtless. Even my friends have noticed and commented on it. Believe me when I say that it looks weird to have a large prime rib of beef on the table with a little pot roast sitting next to it. I’ve told her many times to “Just bring yourselves,” to which she replies, “Oh we can’t do that!”

Why are my husband and his sister like this? What, if anything, can I do?

A: Maybe your husband and his sister really hate your cooking, but haven’t been able to steel themselves to tell you so. Maybe they don’t realize how much this bothers you, and think of their efforts as collaborative. Maybe your sister-in-law just really loves miniature pot roasts. There are a number of possibilities! You can certainly ask your husband if there’s something going on that he’s been reluctant to tell you, although I think it’s likelier that he simply doesn’t realize how much this annoys you.

When it comes to how you can respond, I think you have two options. The first is to just roll with it (to be honest, this is the route I’d probably take, in part because I’m all for delegating when it comes to meal preparation, but I realize not everyone feels this way), and to ask your sister-in-law in advance what she plans on bringing and then plan your own menu around it. There are worse things, I think, than a table looking “weird” with two main courses on it. You could also ask her to host meals more often, since she’s so gung-ho about contributing.

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If that route doesn’t interest you, then you can certainly be more direct, especially since you say she has a history of speaking to you about what she plans on bringing. If you say you’re making cupcakes and she “asks” if she can bring pie, be honest: “No, we don’t need two desserts.” “No, we’ve already got prime rib, don’t bring a roast chicken.” If she says “Oh, we can’t show up without bringing anything,” then your response should be, “You definitely can! You’re a guest, and we’re happy and able to host.” Either way, it doesn’t sound like your sister-in-law is trying to make a dig at you.

There’s nothing else in her behavior that suggests she’s trying to be rude or make things difficult for you; it might help if you communicated your (clearly strong) preferences so that she and your husband were both aware of how you’d like to host.

Q. Making a financial plan with and for mom: My mother is a freelancer whose flow of work has dropped precipitously, from steady as recently as five years ago, to practically nil in 2017. She inherited some money and that floated her for a little while, but now she’s putting things on credit cards. Help!

She has already declared bankruptcy twice. She is kind of at the end of her rope, as drained emotionally as she is financially. She lives in an expensive part of the country. I have encouraged her to move to my city, which is considerably less expensive. She is considering it, but reluctant.

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How do we start to make an actual plan? I’m not rich but I’m steadier than she is right now, financially speaking. I don’t want to wait until things get any worse, and she gets into even more debt. Any advice is appreciated!

A: There are certainly ways you can be helpful to your mother, but the responsibility for making “an actual plan” lies with her, not with you. You can’t want financial stability for her more than she does. She’s already declared bankruptcy twice, which is obviously far from ideal, but also suggests that she knows what to do when her financial outlook is especially bleak.

Encourage her to see a financial advisor, to reduce costs wherever possible (including moving to a less expensive city, although not necessarily yours), to seek more stable work, and to look into social services her age may soon qualify her for.

Consider now (rather than when she faces an emergency) how much money, if any, you are willing to give her to help meet her expenses, and whether your own budget will survive if she never pays you back, especially since it seems unlikely that she ever could. Everyone has different values when it comes to giving family members money, so I’m not going to tell you that you absolutely should or shouldn’t. But it’s better to have a plan in mind before things get dire.

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The important thing to remember is that your mother is an adult with resources that extend beyond you. You can love and support her without taking on her problems as your own.

Q. The bully and the burnout: I recently switched teams, within the same company, to get away from a bullying boss. She was rude, controlling, and regularly made nasty, inappropriate “jokes” about things like my makeup or my accent. I’m much happier with my new team, but my previous role is widely considered to be more challenging and prestigious. My decision to leave had nothing to do with the workload or difficulty—I was performing well and enjoyed the role. However, people often assume I “couldn’t handle it,” and I get a lot of well-meaning comments along the lines of, “It must be nice to slow down.”

I don’t want to air my dirty laundry or publicly disparage my ex-manager. I also don’t want to be pitied for “burning out” when this simply wasn’t the case—especially as I might want to go back to my previous role (under different management, of course). Some of my colleagues are aware of my situation, but most aren’t. What is an honest but professional way to explain my move to a different team?

A: “Oh, I’m not looking to slow down, but I am looking forward to learning more about [new team’s process].” I don’t think you should go into any more detail than that if you’re hoping to maintain at least the appearance of friendliness toward your former manager, but a quick correction about your workload, as well as reframing your move as an opportunity to pick up some new skills, will go a long way towards minimizing those condescending comments.

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Q. Update—Snubbed: I am the letter writer and you are correct. I snubbed her back the next time I saw her and I didn’t feel better about it! Two wrongs definitely don’t make a right.

A: Ahh, the cut direct! So satisfying in fiction and in the imagination, so often oddly deflating in action. I’m sorry to hear that it didn’t work out, but at the very least, thanks for the update—I’m always keen to hear more of them.

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