Sometimes I wonder if Emily Yoffe’s Slate advice column (“Dear Prudence”) is like the old Penthouse Forum, where it was clear to any reader who hadn’t purchased the Brooklyn Bridge twice that a team of giggling writers was coming up with the feature’s bizarre letters about orgies with amputees and people having sex in piles of fresh fish. But never mind: her most recent column makes an interesting ethical assertion is response to a woman who is troubled that her transgendered cousin refuses to tell her serious boyfriend about the jockstrap in her past:
“I think you should tell your cousin she’s living in a dream world and that she’s being unfair to John, even if he has a lack of desire for children. Of course, it could be that John flees, or it could be that he says, “She’s more than woman enough for me.” But it’s his right to know the crucial piece of history.”
I agree with Yoffe that the cousin is deluded if she thinks she can keep her past gender hidden forever if the relationship continues, and that the revelation of a secret of such magnitude is bound to be more disruptive the longer it is hidden. But is she correct that he has a right to know about it? Elsewhere Yoffe suggests that not telling him is dishonest. Why?
I understand the theory that couples shouldn’t withhold personal information from one another in the interest of mutual trust. Surely each member of a committed couple has an obligation to reveal any personal information that has the potential to affect the other. Is there an obligation to reveal personal information that one knows a boyfriend or girlfriend will be shocked to learn, or that will tap into visceral fears or biases? Author William Saroyan left his wife on their honeymoon when she revealed to him that she was Jewish, which highlights the irony of the problem: if a woman knows that a secret may cause a lover to reject her, however irrational that reaction would be, then is she ethically obligated to tell him but not obligated if she is sure he wouldn’t care? In other words, is one only ethically obligated to reveal the secrets that will destroy a relationship?
That seems strange.
We all have a right to some secrets, and I reject the contention that spouses and other committed couples have an ethical obligation to reveal every aspect of their personal lives, including those that risk altering, damaging or ending the relationship. A woman who once was a man is not lying by representing herself to a lover as a woman now: she is a woman now. I completely understand why a woman who has been transgendered would not want a boyfriend to know about that fact, because the vast majority of men today would have a difficult time accepting it. Consider these possible secrets a woman might want to keep to herself based on her assessment of her significant other’s attitudes, desires, biases and beliefs:
- She is, in whole or in part, a member of a racial or ethnic group that he has biases against.
- She voted for John McCain.
- She voted for Barack Obama
- She voted for Pat Buchanan.
- She fantasizes that he is Justin Bieber when they have sex.
- She fantasizes that he is Winston Churchill when they have sex.
- She fantasizes that he is Lindsey Lohan when they have sex.
- She fantasizes that he is Eva Peron when they have sex
- She fantasizes that he is Lassie when they have sex
- She hates having sex with him, period.
- She killed someone when she was a teen, and was in prison.
- She killed her mother when she was a teen, and was in prison.
- She killed Osama Bin Laden.
- She was unjustly accused of killing a previous boyfriend, and acquitted.
- She was unjustly accused of killing TWO previous boyfriends.
- She used to be a heroin addict.
- She had a complete nervous breakdown.
- She was kidnapped and forced to be a sex slave when she was 12.
- She was once a call girl.
- She was once a stripper.
- She was once a porn star.
- She was once a Communist.
- She is listed, under another name, as the holder of the all time record for sex partners before the age of 30.
- She is Wonder Woman.
I don’t think that any other human being has a right to know any of these secrets, if a woman doesn’t want to divulge them, as long as maintaining the secret doesn’t require ongoing deception, lies or deceit, or real harm to the uninformed partner. (Admittedly, Wonder Woman has a problem in this regard.) Whether a woman would be wise not to divulge them, or to make a lifetime commitment to a man whom she suspects or knows would reject her if she revealed facts about her past or present is a separate issue that involves his character, not hers.
I admit to having doubts about the ethics of withholding information that shouldn’t matter to a boyfriend when a woman knows that it will matter. Biases and bigotry are real, and in matters of the heart, an individual has a right to be bigoted. Does that mean that a woman has an ethical obligation to help a man be bigoted against her? If we conclude so, then we must also conclude that there are no aspects of our identity, past life, conducts or thoughts that we can regard as ours and ours alone, once we commit to an intimate relationship. I can’t endorse that.
Graphic: 9999 Fashion World
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