Sex ed or abuse?

The woman I love wants me to show my penis to her 11-year-old daughter.

By Cary Tennis
Published April 23, 2002 7:01PM (EDT)

Dear readers,

On a purely practical note: While letters asking for advice remain anonymous and may be signed with any pseudonym, letters commenting on the column, that is, letters to the editor, must be accompanied by a full name and contact information if they are to be published. That is Salon's standard policy on letters to the editor and we in the advice department aim to follow it. Your cooperation will be most appreciated.

Dear Cary,

I am 21 years old, female, currently in a study abroad program in Dublin, Ireland, for my last semester of college. Right after Sept. 11, I broke up with a boy I'd been enmeshed with ("dating" isn't quite the right word, we were more like sort of pre-engaged) for over four years because I finally got proof that he simply wasn't ever going to be nice to me when I was vulnerable. Now I find myself being much more truthful about what it is I really want. And what I want is a brilliant, brilliant Irish boy. I've known him since last summer when we did an arts program together. We were friends then, and big fans of each other's work.

The most intense encounter happened two weeks ago, where we basically threw all our cards on the table and spent the whole afternoon with our faces two inches from each other talking about how much we want each other but can't do anything about it. Why? He's got a girlfriend of three years. I have not met this lucky girl at any of his social functions yet (which is probably not a coincidence), though several of my cohorts in my program have, and the general consensus is that I'm smarter, more attractive, more interesting and have far more chemistry with the boy.

My reason for not already having tied him to my bed is an extreme reluctance to be That Girl. You know what I mean: the temptress, the homewrecker ... that girl. (I've seen the damage Those Girls can do.) It's a combination of karmic protectiveness and morality: I wouldn't want someone doing this to me someday. My friends' reactions run the gamut: They say he's already cheated, or at least he's already cheating in his mind; that he needs to break up with his girlfriend; that "if you can wreck it, it's not a home" (my personal favorite); or simply that I need to not encourage him to act this way. But I am way fucking sick of taking care of other people's behavior and I'd like to trust that if I pursue something that honestly makes me happy, I'm doing the right thing for the world.

This is where I get into tricky territory -- I'm convinced that this means so much because I've invested a deeply creative/spiritual interest in this boy. After years of emerging from a Catholic upbringing, I finally see my sexuality as a creative force, not gross, uncivilized lust or a series of biological impulses. Something brand new and glorious pulses in me, and for now I pour it into the new play we're working on, writing songs (which I've never done before), journaling, photography, decorating my room, opening myself up to new friendships, learning the cello for my role in the play. I don't necessarily see a distinction between these forces -- sexual and creative -- anymore. Not with him, at least, because he's an amazing actor who is absolutely riveting. And his brilliance binds me to him with the potential of creative possibility, and I know he understands the difference between just getting off, and actual communion. He's opened up my whole being, and he has no idea how much he's affected me.

So. What do I do? We're totally straight with each other all the time, so sitting him down and examining his relationship is not that far-fetched. But is it out of line? He's indicated that he certainly doesn't plan on marrying his girlfriend, and he speaks freely of all kinds of desires and then backtracks with, "But what I have with my girlfriend is great." At this point I think they may be a bit stale. (I was incredibly stale for two years of my relationship; I can see it a mile away.) Or I'm projecting. And I'm not looking for the next great love of my life, just someone who wants me in a completely different way than I've ever known. I think I should at least let him know how much he's flooded me with electricity and passion and thank him, but I wonder if it'll just complicate matters if reveal this and then still can't act on it.

I Don't Want Him to be the Best Sex I Never Had

Dear Mother Theresa in Ireland,

It's admirable that you've spent so much thought on this question, but the solution lies in action. Jump on him before it's too late. It's his decision what he does about his girlfriend, not yours. If he wants to cheat on her, he's going to cheat on her.

Stop trying to be such a good person. If you try so hard to do the right thing that you do nothing, you'll miss your chances to learn the truly important things in the only way they can really be learned. Let experience teach you. It's not your job to do the right thing for the world. Such concern may seem righteous to you, but it also contains an element of youthful grandiosity. The world can take care of itself. You will only complicate the situation by trying to make all parties happy -- him, his girlfriend, the world population. It sounds like you're still doing what you said you want to stop doing: "taking care of other people's behavior."

You're going to break a few hearts along the way. As long as you're not breaking kneecaps, you're morally and ethically in the ballpark. So I would try to get a little more down to earth in your thinking, trust your heart, and go for it.

Dear Cary,

I am 49 years old. I have a 15-year-old daughter. I've raised her myself. We started out on welfare, but I now have two degrees and am an administrator and occasionally an instructor at a major university (well, Big Ten). Father is not available for weekends, summers or much of anything and never has been. Believe me, I have implored him. You can just imagine how his negligence affects my daughter's self-esteem and how frustrated I am in many ways.

I have not had one significant romantic relationship in the past 15 years. When lust gets the better of me, I have a short fling or a one-night stand, but truthfully, I've never known how to introduce someone to the sensitive dyad of single mother and only child. Moreover, call me a snob, but I have never gotten weak in the knees over the men around here. Like a relocated Chekhov sister, I ache daily for the New York City of my 20s and its noir delights.

Just recently I met someone here who does make me weak in the knees. He is 29, but I don't think that's the issue since in the past 15 years I have never dated anyone close to my age. (Men my age never ask me out.) Besides, I like who he is. But, alas, as our rowdy evening together wore on and I with drunken perspicacity asked him if he had a girlfriend, I learned that, yes, he does, and he lives with her. The situation he described was quite familiar. She won't sleep with him. And he wants to be with me because he just loves everything about me, especially (maybe ending with) the way I look. I'm just a goddamned goddess in his eyes. And he can't leave her because she's extremely depressed; in fact, he recently had to escort her to a psych unit.

I was too drunk to dis him then, didn't want to, and he did drive me home and come inside and look at the feral kitties I'm tending in my bathroom and he likes the posters and the artwork in my room (where we made out but didn't have sex). He asked me to meet him a few days later.

But I just e-mailed him and said, upon sober reflection, I didn't want to date an unavailable guy. (I also begged off because our date happens to fall on my daughter's birthday -- a fact I couldn't wrap my mind around in my inebriation.) Did I mention too that at one time my daughter had a crush on this guy? I guess it all sounds very sleazy.

Nobody ever seems to have ideas about how one is honorable when one goes so long without. What does a 49-year-old babe do when all relationships pan out in such humiliating ways?

On the Verge

Dear On the Verge,

Well, it's tough having a romance as a mother of a 15-year-old, but if you'd apply the same diligence it took to acquire two degrees, get off welfare and raise a daughter on your own, you can do it. It would make sense, though, to try to forge a stable relationship with a guy closer to your own age and temperament. Picking up younger guys in bars is probably not the best way to go about finding love.

If I were you, I'd try to get ahead of the curve; change this habit of waiting until you're very horny and lonely and then pouncing. Instead, try to forge a routine, like getting groceries, based on the knowledge that you need love just like you need food. If you're utterly surprised every time you get hungry, and have to rush out and buy food and eat it and then assume you're not going to get hungry again, until the next time, when you dash out again, you're kidding yourself and setting yourself up for these mad panicked dashes to the A&P. Rather, accept the fact that eating is a part of your life and try to work it into your otherwise hectic schedule: shopping, cooking, eating on a regular basis.

Apply that logic to your need for love, thrills and companionship. Consciously seek out someone. If it feels frightening, that's probably why you haven't done it yet. It will probably feel strange at first, but keep at it. You have to work at it. And if somewhere deep down you feel like you're not entitled to have love because your husband left you and your daughter needs you, well, that's not true. You are entitled to have love.

You just have to do the footwork.

Dear Cary,

I have a bad temper. I come from a family of women with bad tempers. We call names, we shout, we throw things, and at our worst, we hit people. We often say things that can't be easily taken back. We have trouble leaving people alone when their capacity is overflowing.

In the past few years, I've done a lot of work on myself. I no longer call names or throw things or hit people, though I have a way to go. And about a year ago, I began dating somebody I'm crazy about but who is equally willful. I thought -- and still hope -- this relationship had a definite future. But while I pursue during an argument, he runs.

Though his childhood is riddled with conflict and even violence, he has no experience talking matters through to resolution. If there is no immediate answer and emotions become highly intense, he deems the relationship "unhealthy" and wants out. This happened once before, and now it's happened again. Last time, he contacted me within a few weeks, we worked it out and eventually we got back together.

A bit of background: Soon after getting back together, I got pregnant. We were in agreement over terminating the pregnancy, but because I was still angry over him leaving before, and because I felt somehow entitled since I was pregnant, I instigated fights. I yelled and I accused and I said things that couldn't easily be taken back, and often he returned the venom. Two weeks after the abortion, we got into another spat in which I suggested we were spending too much time together. He thought I wanted to break up (I didn't) and said he agreed but refused to discuss it. I called him at work repeatedly, sent him numerous e-mails and left messages on his voice mail, all of which enraged him. I even tried to force him to talk by refusing to leave his apartment (he was out of town, and I'd been staying there). In short, I behaved like an ass. Predictably, he broke it off -- by e-mail -- saying we weren't good for each other and couldn't ever be happy together.

I left his apartment before he returned home, and I have since left him alone, other than to apologize by e-mail, but he won't talk. What to do? Right now I want more than anything to patch things up but I wonder if it's wise -- or if it's even an option.

The Chaser

Dear Chaser,

It sounds like you're personally on the right track but this wasn't the right combination. I'd suggest you write down what you learned this time and try again with somebody else. And when you start to have trouble the next time, look at your notes and see if you're repeating your past mistakes. If you are, try to come up with new behaviors. As you continue to get better at controlling your anger, and you learn to pick better people, you'll eventually find the right match.

It might be that while you're making admirable progress yourself, you're still picking men who exhibit the kind of characteristics you yourself are trying to overcome. When we're enmeshed in inner struggle, sometimes people who aren't struggling with the same thing can seem oddly hollow or insubstantial, and we're only attracted to people who have our same problem. But that makes for volatile pairs.

So let him go, and concentrate on finding a man who knows how to fight but isn't out of control. If you are truly a fighter, letting him go may feel like letting him win, so you may find yourself reluctant. You might want to keep at him until you win. But that's not right. He's trying to get away, and you have to let him escape. Your pursuit is not healthy, and it's not ethical. He has the right to end it, and you have to respect that.

Dear Cary,

Simple modern etiquette question: Is it acceptable to ask for a date by e-mail?

Just Wondering

Dear Just Wondering,

I use e-mail a great deal to arrange to meet with people I already know, and I would assume that people use it frequently to arrange dates, but my sense of it would be that only if you already know someone face to face would you use it to ask for a date. And probably not a first date. If you're trying to make a date with someone for the first time, I would suggest you use e-mail to ask for her phone number, and then call her. Then, after you're better acquainted, I would think e-mail would be a convenient and useful tool for arranging further assignations.

That's not to say it can't be done; but people who ask etiquette questions are usually alert to nuances, and I think the nuances of first dates tend to favor traditional methods, and they favor a certain demonstration of effort. Everyone is nervous, and she's going to have to form a narrative for her friends, and her friends might consider using e-mail to ask for a date just a tad tacky. Not horrible, but not gallant and suave either. Just a little lazy, a little careless. If you really want to shine, take the extra step. Go to some trouble. It shows you mean it.

Dear Cary,

I am 36, recently divorced (nine years together, four of them married), and two months ago my short but very passionate relationship with a man ended after he dumped me for getting "too serious."

I have been set up on a blind date. There will be two other couples there, we're going bowling, and it's as casual and low-key as you can imagine. So why am I sweating? Because I haven't been on a date in 10 years (never dated the guy who dumped me, just jumped in with both feet). I have not a clue as to how to behave. I like the idea of casually hanging out with someone, but beyond that it gets murky. What's the etiquette? Are there any basic rules? Give me the man's perspective, please.

Using the Hand Dryer on My Face

Dear Sweating,

Blind dates are so fraught with interpersonal awkwardness that you need a game plan and you need to manage your expectations. One way is just to stick to the bowling. Be cheerful, pleasant, interesting and kind. And then just bowl. And here's an idea: Unless you really, really don't like the guy, at some point before the evening is over, acknowledge to the guy that you and he both know that you're on a blind date and it's the world's most exquisite form of social torture and allow that things might be a little awkward, and arrange for a second date -- something casual, get together for coffee, something like that. That will give you an opportunity for a postmortem regardless of how things work out, so 1) if you both don't hit it off you can sort of mutually acknowledge that, and 2) if one of you is attracted and the other isn't, the one who is attracted can at least have a second shot at being charming. It's a corrective to the inevitable distortion caused by the experimental setting.

Dear Cary,

I've finally met the woman for me and we are getting married this summer. At the ripe old age of 40 I have finally met the woman that makes me believe in love, romance and fate, all ideas that seemed more and more unrealistic as I grew older.

Now the woman of my dreams is showing me all the wonderful things I forgot to dream about. She even brings a child to our relationship. I adore this girl and treat her as my daughter. She calls me Daddy and I melt. When I'm with her I am so proud to be her father, I feel like telling the world!

At 11 years old and entering adolescence (a tricky time for all of us), she has grown curious about certain parts of the male anatomy. She often asks questions about my equipment that catch me off guard. I try to be reasonable and answer her questions like any good father would, but I can't help but feel uncomfortable. Her mother only encourages these curiosities and has been asking me to show my member to her daughter. I've told my lovely wife-to-be how uncomfortable I am with this idea and she still insists I show our daughter my piece.

About a month ago, after much nagging, I agreed. While discussing the logistics of the viewing, wife-to-be said quite nonchalantly, "You can just take it out and let her play around with it." At which point I retracted my earlier conceit to expose. Since then, wife-to-be has become a first-class guilt-trip travel agent.

This argument is one of the only arguments we have and by far the most frequently occurring one. Wife-to-be even uses it against me in our sex life, saying, "If you won't show it to her, I don't want to have anything to do with it."

Her argument is that teens these days are experimenting with sex far too early, and that she thinks we should do anything possible to give her a proper sexual education and make her aware of all aspects of sex and sexuality. I have assured wife-to-be I feel the same way, but I just don't feel comfortable with it being my penis that she sees. WTB counters that with, I want her to see one in real life, and I want it to be somebody that she loves and trusts, not some horny pubescent middle-school boy, who will probably end up putting it in her. What do I do?

Shy-Proud Papa

Dear Shy-Proud,

What you are being asked to participate in sounds very much like incest and child sexual abuse. If you adore this 11-year-old girl, if you would readily carry her out of a burning building or push her out of the path of a speeding car, then you must also find the courage to save her from this trauma. You must leave the relationship, postpone the wedding and contact a professional -- a marriage and family counselor, a psychiatrist or licensed clinical psychologist. If you are already living together, move to a hotel or go stay with friends. Do not delay; do not equivocate. Get out of there. Run.

Cary Tennis

MORE FROM Cary TennisFOLLOW @carytennisLIKE Cary Tennis

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Love And Sex Sex Since You Asked