I am in something of a quandary, which to be honest I have brought upon myself but is no less of a problem.
Years ago, when I was a young, sexy 20-something, I flat-shared with a Finnish journalist that I knew from college. At the time she was writing for a hip, student-targeted newspaper in Helsinki. One of her columns compiled ‘real-life readers’ sexploits’, which was a lot of fun but she was often short on material. She asked me if I could help her out with a contribution or two. Thus began my career as a soft-porn writer, and I became a regular contributor.
I am now middle-aged, and those heady days of sex on the scaffolding are but a distant memory. However my sordid past is now catching up with me and I could use your advice, June! A few months ago I started dating a lovely man that I met at a European coffee shop near my office. He is a Finnish lawyer with a practice over here, and things have been going well. Of course I told him about my Finnish flatmate, who is now a well-respected editor in Helsinki. I guess I wanted to impress my new man with my fancy connections. Naturally I didn’t tell him about my own foray into Scandinavian journalism.
After my flatmate moved out I didn’t keep up with the student newspaper, and looking back I never really appreciated the extent of its readership, nor that it was available in shops and cafes, train stations etc. I had thought it was just a typical student rag. But when I mentioned to my boyfriend that my flatmate had been on the staff, it became clear that he and his friends had been regular readers for years.
As I said, we’ve been dating for a few months now, so we have become more intimate. As in most relationships, we share private details of past relationships, funny stories, private fantasies etc. However, I believe I have given too much away. My flatmate asked me for contributions to that particular column because she knew I’d have some interesting material, and she was right—but my stories were also distinctive. I have noticed my boyfriend giving me odd looks lately, and now he wants me to put him in touch with my Finnish friend. He keeps saying it would be great to chat with her about Helsinki, but I suspect he has put two and two together.
I feel mortified by the idea that this lovely, gracious, dignified man—whom I really do care for—might have guessed that a) I did that stuff, and b) I wrote about it on a public platform to titillate strangers. I know it’s not quite the same as being outed as a former sex worker, but on principle there’s a fine line. Of course I can’t raise this with him without exposing myself in full—and he may in fact have no idea at all. I want to be honest with him and explain that it was just a bit of fun, but he may not see it that way—especially since he himself was probably one of my readers.
—Unsettled in Seattle
Your letter raises many intriguing tangential questions. What, for example, makes any of Seattle’s two billion coffee shops “European”? What kind of practice would a Finnish attorney maintain in the Pacific Northwest? (Something to do with solar power, sauna manufacturing, or mobile phones? Or maybe fish?) How high was the scaffolding? But let us turn, however reluctantly, to your actual question: whether you should spill some the beans about your past as a self-described soft-porn writer and sexual adventurer.
It sounds as if you are asking for both ethical advice and more practical relationship guidance. Let’s start with the ethical question: do you have a moral duty to tell Mikko, as I will call him, about this aspect of your past? If you and Mikko had never talked about the newspaper, or about those “distinctive” exploits that might make him put two and two together, I would be quite comfortable advising you to keep quiet. You are a different person now. His being your current lover gives him no right to know everything about your past, especially a past that seems to have nothing whatever to do with your present life.
The problem, of course, is that now that you may have told him enough to—just maybe—put two and two together, your failing to come clean is closer to dishonesty. This makes the ethical question a bit murkier. To answer it, you should ask yourself whether what you have told Mikko so far has created a situation where you are now, in effect, denying that you wrote for the magazine: if so, a case can be made for your correcting the misconception, although I am still only about 30% convinced that this is any of Mikko’s business. (As for telling him about your sexual adventures themselves, this may be becoming moot: you have apparently gone into them in some detail already if you have grounds for concern that Mikko is making the leap from your private revelations to those “distinctive” accounts in the student rag. But perhaps you spoke of your sexploits as fantasies only?)
Now let’s move on to more practical issues. First, I am perplexed about Mikko’s wanting to talk to your Finnish “flatmate” from many years ago. If he means that he would like to look her up when he is next in Helsinki, that may make some kind of sense. But if he wants to write or call her, unless he has a business reason of some sort, that is just weird. He should have plenty of other Finnish friends and acquaintances. He is a Finn, after all. It is difficult to come up with a rationale for his wanting to get in touch with your long-ago roomie unless it is to check up on you, which I find repellent. If he has questions, he should ask you.
The big practical questions, to my mind, are whether you think that you and Mikko may be at the start of a long-term committed relationship and whether, as your lives and old friends intersect, he is likely to find everything out anyway. The more you are hoping and planning for a life together, the more it makes sense just to tell him—not because ethics demands it, but because you may not have complete peace of mind, or an easy and comfortable relationship with Mikko, until you do. To say nothing of what might happen if he finds out and believes that he has been deceived.
(I could be wrong here, though: you may want to keep quiet, at least for a while, if you are reasonably sure that the only person who knows your secret is your former roomie; if you can get in touch and make sure she stonewalls it if he ever talks to her; if you think you can divert Mikko from his interest in the issue; and if your main relationship worry is exposure, not dishonesty or secretiveness. By this time next year, you and Mikko may have filled your lives with other happy preoccupations; Mikko may never think about, and scarcely remember, your Finnish roomie and her role at the magazine. Or you and Mikko may have split for some independent reason, and you will be glad not to have told him your secret.)
I can understand why you would be embarrassed by Mikko’s learning everything. I know almost nobody—almost nobody interesting, anyway—who would not cringe at the thought of divulging various details of their past, and I do not mean to be callous here. Even so, I have to ask you: why are you so utterly mortified? Why do you think this will be such a big deal to Mikko? I realize that Finland is a small country, and that your literary alter ego may have been a minor star there once. But back when you were writing those pieces, Mikko and his young Scandinavian pals played their part by reading them “regularly”—in Scandinavia, yet, where we are all told that attitudes about sex are quite liberal. You say that he is now a “lovely, gracious, dignified” man; I am sure that you have become a lovely, gracious woman with her own measure of dignity. If he holds you to a stricter standard than his own, or if he cannot understand that both of you have changed over the passage of many years, he may not be worth keeping.
By the way, I see a clearer line than you between your conduct and being a sex worker. For one thing, it doesn’t sound as if you were paid—probably not for the writing, and certainly not for your sexual activities. You were having fun, writing about it in order to have more fun, and helping a bunch of Finns have some fun in turn. There are worse youthful indiscretions.
Good luck. And remember: there are plenty of fish in those European coffee shops.
I am growing more and more upset at the level of vitriol and vulgarity in political discourse, if you even want to call it discourse, these days. At the same time, I can’t help feeling happy and as if “our side” has scored a point when I read about a really good insult. Daylin Leach made my heart leap the other day when he called Trump a “fascist loofa-faced shit-gibbon. ” Lately I have been sharing and retweeting all sorts of coarse and insulting stuff, even writing a few mean and/or filthy lines myself. Should I stop?
—Foul-Mouthed in Fort Lee
I would probably not stop completely. Scatological times sometimes call for scatological measures—and so do the eschatological times the current administration seems to be doing its best to hasten. But I would follow some rules. Here are a few. Some refer more to obscene insults, some to insults in general.
- Limit your insults to public figures or, even better, to their policies. Public figures know what they are getting into, and debate over public figures and policies is essential to our democracy. One exception to this rule is the case of private citizens who publicly espouse hateful views in dismissive or intimidating ways. In such cases a skillfully-hurled insult may slow their momentum, or at least make you feel better without doing any harm.
- Never insult the powerless, or anyone you have power over. Doing so is truly vulgar.
- If at all possible, be inventive and try not to debase the language. Avoid triteness, pointlessness, or needless obscenity. This is true for all discourse. But not all obscenity is needless, especially lately.
- Consider your context. Chanting “Fuck Trump!” at marches and rallies no longer shocks anybody, if it ever did, and simply alienates bystanders and media viewers who either support Trump or do not like to have their president be the object of crude profanity. Indeed, it is probably better, at this point, to forgo all but the cleverest, most pointed protest-rally insults and rely chiefly on positive or at least specific chants (“No hate, no fear/ Immigrants are welcome here!”) and signs (“Don’t take away our health care. ”)
- Indirect insults are often the most effective. “This pussy grabs back!” worked well as a protest-march slogan, at least for a while there, because it implied an insult (“You think it’s okay to grope women because you are powerful”) but focused on a promise to resist. It also included a pun, arguably helped reclaim a word that has been abused in recent years, referred to a well-known incident, and could—depending on accompanying graphics, the shape and color of your hat, etc.—be funny.
- The best political insults usually refer to a specific policy, action, proposal, or at least character trait of the insultee. Perhaps we have had enough of the orange, the comb-over, the tiny hands, even the “bigly” insults—especially as standalones. It is important not to let the fun of, say, debating which female comedian should play which member of the new administration distract us from actions opposing what these people are actually planning to do to our democracy, planet, health care, and just about every subgroup of the nation except very rich white guys. (On the other hand, our president may be a special case where personal insults are concerned, given his thin skin and his apparent tendency to pay more attention to his popularity than his policies. But which way does that cut? Do we want to rile him up?)
- A political insult should energize the insulter and his or her cohort, but not distract them or give them an illusory sense of accomplishment. Do you ever find yourself gleefully reading a whole thread of witty, cutting responses to the latest idiocy, then maybe adding one yourself, getting a great response to it among the people in your social media bell jar, and feeling as if you have just actually done something? That is what happened to me after the Bowling Green Massacre incident. Beware. Don’t make leveling insults, even brilliant, gratuitous-obscenity-free ones, be the only thing you do.
Allow me to illustrate some of these points with your fine example from Pennsylvania state senator Daylin Leach. As you’ll recall, Senator Leach was tweeting in response to a report that the president had threatened to “ruin the career” of a state senator in Texas because of that senator’s opposition to civil forfeiture laws (where property can be seized by law enforcement before its owner has been convicted of any crime). “I oppose civil asset forfeiture too!” Leach tweeted. “Why don’t you try to destroy my career you fascist, loofa-faced, shit-gibbon!”
Leach’s insult is bellicose and mildly obscene, as well as unsound in its use and placement of commas. I’m not sure about that hyphen in “shit-gibbon,” either, or whether we are supposed to be visualizing Loofa dog toys or loofah sponges. But the tweet is nevertheless just about perfect in terms of June’s Offhand Rules for Insults. Its target is the most powerful and public figure in the world. Its aim is to reprimand that person because of his unconscionable and un-presidential bullying, and because of a specific policy—civil forfeiture—that the insulter finds abhorrent. The insult works well in its context, both as to medium (it’s the right sort of insult for a tweet) and situation (Senator Leach’s understandable and informed rage over Trump’s stance). The fact that Leach and the person the president threatened to ruin are both state senators gives Leach a special standing to come to his fellow senator’s defense. And the fact that Leach knows about civil forfeiture gives his words weight and relevance. We can also assume that he is not tweeting his insult as a substitute for action, but as a result and continuation of his political work.
Leach’s insult is also concise: in one tweet, it draws an analogy, opposes a policy, issues a challenge, and hurls some pretty sweet vituperation almost as a form of punctuation. The invective itself is shocking, inventive, and funny, which is why Leach’s tweet became an Internet sensation, leading many citizens to read up on civil forfeiture and raising public awareness of this serious problem. The tweet’s final word also led several news sources to research its etymology—a side issue, perhaps, but a good illustration of how some scatological words enrich rather than cheapen the English language. Well done, Senator!
Be selective in your insults and your riper language, my foul-mouthed friend. But don’t abandon them entirely. Sometimes you just have to call a shit-gibbon a shit-gibbon.
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.
Image credit: Mark Dixon on Wikipedia