My brother and I are having a physical relationship. Our parents are admirable people who took good care of us, but are distant and aloof, and I think that my brother and I turned to each other for warmth and emotional support. He’s two years older and looked out for me in high school, and I shared with him what girls are like, which made him more confident socially. After he went away to college, I chose a college in the same city as his, so we continued to see a lot of each other. I’m now a senior and he’s a graduate student. About three months ago we were sitting on my couch watching a sad movie and when it was over we turned to each other, exchanged a look, and started kissing. Now we lie on the bed, clothed, and kiss and talk and hold each other. When I’m with him I feel loved and cared for. We have not had sex because there’s a psychological barrier that neither of us wants to cross. I go on dates with other men, but I never feel the emotional connection that I feel with my brother. I needed to talk to someone about this so I went to a counselor at the student health service and in the first session she practically ordered me not to see him for three months. I left in tears and haven’t gone back. We want to lead normal lives and have families. We both know intellectually that we shouldn’t be doing this, but we don’t feel the wrongness of it. Must we stop this immediately, or may we let it continue and hope we grow out of it?
—No Sibling Rivalry
Since you’re both in your 20s, the trend appears to be going the opposite way of outgrowing your closeness. You say you don’t want to cross the ultimate line, but you continue to slow dance to the edge of it. If one day Jack’s resolve breaks, you, Jill, are likely to come tumbling after. You profess you two want normal lives, but if you violate this taboo you may never get there. If you do have an affair, or something pretty close, and you vow to forever keep this secret, you each will spend decades hoping your sibling stays silent. But if one or the other feels this is something a future romantic partner should know, don’t be surprised if upon hearing your confession your new love quickly backs away. I know I more or less gave a pass recently to a pair of middle-aged incestuous gay twins, but they had long ago made a physical and emotional commitment to each other, and were asking me about whether they should let their family know. I think even those two men would advise you two to stop the rubbing and get yourselves disentangled emotionally. Your therapist should have had the training not to be so shocked by your revelation that she ended up barking orders. Go back to the counseling office, say your first therapist was not a good fit, and you’d like to talk to someone else about a pressing emotional issue. A good therapist should be able to hear you out, understand your situation, and help guide you out of it. For a window into how strange things like this can get if they go too far, read Jeffrey Eugenides’ wonderful novel Middlesex.
I don’t know why Prudence has all of this faith that there are all of these amazingly sympathetic therapists out there. You really can’t train someone to be sympathetic and empathetic. They can learn through life and job experience, but just as I’ve known some great therapists, I’ve known some awful ones. (And any therapist can tell you horror stories about their colleagues.) It’s an art, not a science. Someone isn’t suddenly going to becomes understanding and supportive and wise just because they have a degree. Because of the stigma and lack of knowledge about consanguinamory, most therapists will be more alienating than Prudence on this topic. It’s just an unfortunate part of life in the Anglo-Saxon world, one she’s failed to acknowledge more than once.
Prudence herself exemplifies this when even she makes crass jokes to those two brothers seeking her help, and when she uses Middlesex as a serious recommendation for understanding consanguinamory. I really hope it was a joke.Middlesex is imitative of Greek tragedy and symbolism, and includes all the distortion one would expect of that. I mean, it posits that the main character’s intersexuality is the result of inbreeding, which is medically impossible. Not saying it’s a bad book, but it’s not the kind of objective non-fiction (or non-judgmental fiction) one should be suggesting to someone seeking help. Even with all of her sympathy, things like that indicate a lack of empathy for consanguinamory. I know that she would never be consanguinamorous herself, and that’s fine. I also know that she’s the byproduct of our culture. I just wish she was more aware of that – more humble about it. I understand that Prudence wants to give them somewhere to go for further advice, but she needs to realize that the person’s at best going to be no better than she is. (Unless, of course, the therapist turns out to be consanguinamorous themselves, but that’s pretty unlikely.)
All that said, I mostly agree with the intention of her advice. If these two siblings really do want to live “normal”, separate lives, and aren’t willing to confront what it would mean to develop their romantic attraction further, then they need to disentangle themselves. Still, I would have added that while a life as a consanguineous couple will be harder because of society’s behavior, there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. Other people have been in a similar position, made the choice to take the plunge together, and are very happy together. If they want to continue the relationship in full knowledge of what they’re doing, they have my permission. If they want to end the relationship in full knowledge of what they’re doing, they also have my permission. What I wouldn’t want is for them to make a decision based purely on what they think other people expect of them, and not what they themselves want or need.
Life is complicated. People are complicated. The answers are never simple. But sometimes, all people need is permission to be themselves.
Sharing something so important to you, knowing that they may not understand or accept it, can be scary. When I first read “The Ethical Slut” at age twenty, my mind was blown. I was psyched to be made aware of this possibility, that I wasn’t terrible for wanting to date more than one person at a time. I was electric when I called a good friend from high school to tell her about it. Though skeptical, she agreed to give it a read, so I popped it in the mail and anxiously awaited her response.
A few days later, she called and I immediately could tell she was agitated. She’d only gotten a few pages in and refused to continue. The very concept angered and upset her. She took it as an excuse for people to cheat, despite my protestation that it, instead, fosters intense honestly between partners. While she accepted my exploring this path, she wanted nothing to do with it. She asked me never to mention it to her again, and I didn’t. When I told her I was kinky, however, she was thrilled and wanted to hear all about it. Other friends and family were accepting of the poly, but disgusted by the kinky.
Why do our loved ones sometimes take such an issue with our lifestyles? Well, I believe there are two main reasons. First, they are worried about us. They cannot comprehend it, and worry for our safety and health. More partners can mean more heartache and more exposure to STIs, and kinky relationships can sometimes literally involve pain. Their concern is understandable, but it is our job to help them try to discern what it means to us, and the joy it can bring us.
The second, more difficult reason they can have a tough time accepting our alternative lifestyles is that they are offended by the very idea of it. They may see our polyamory as an affront to their monogamy. Perhaps they fear that if their partner knew of this possibility, they would also want to give it a go. They may find kink in general to be abhorrent, and think something is wrong with you if you like to participate in BDSM. They might see this power exchange as genuinely insane behavior, especially if you are a bottom/sub/slave.
So why come out in the first place? Well, you certainly don’t have to, and choosing to keep these things to yourself is absolutely a valid and legitimate choice. […] [However,] Aunt Hilda may think anyone who participates in these lifestyles is totally nuts, until she actually knows someone who does. Once there is a human face on it, it’s not just a wacky concept. They can actually see how it works, and how fulfilled it makes you feel.
When all is said and done, it just feels good to come out, to not have to lie or hide these important aspects of your life. The fear of being rejected for doing so is very real, but the lightness of having done it can be wildly gratifying. My seventeen-year-old sister was the last major player in my life to know that I am poly, but our conversation about it was fantastic. She asked a lot of questions, and ultimately responded the same way she did when I told her, several years earlier, that I dated women, “Well, I don’t think that’s for me, but I’m happy you’re happy.”