on Acceptance, and on Sex and Bad Digestion

Roe McDermott

Roe McDermott is a journalist, arts critic, Fulbright awardee and sex columnist from Dublin. She lives in San Francisco, where she's completing an MA in Sexuality Studies.


Dear Roe,

My problem isn’t really about me – it’s about my nephew and his dad. My sister’s son is nine and me and her both think he’s probably gay or going to be when he’s older. That’s totally fine. Me, my sister and our family love my nephew and always will and will have no problem if he comes out as gay.

The problem is – or could be – my sister’s husband. He’s a good guy, and I love him like a brother, but he’s a “man’s man” from a small town, and my sister has mentioned that he’s never been very open to LGBT issues and has started getting really snappy with my nephew when he thinks my nephew is acting feminine or camp.

He’s also started trying to make my nephew take up things he doesn’t enjoy, like doing more sports or watching MMA and fighting. My sister seems annoyed, but thinks her husband will eventually get over it, so she isn’t pushing the issue.

I’m not so sure, and I hate the idea that my nephew could be picking up on signals that he isn’t accepted in his own house. But as a married man myself, I know that it’s difficult to tell someone about their own relationship or parenting. Any advice?

Dear Letter Writer,

Thanks for writing in, and for being a supportive brother and uncle to your family. I think your question is very important, so please don’t be dissuaded when I begin with the necessary disclaimer: your nephew might not be gay.

Now, I say this after you gave me no information as to why you and your sister think he may be. Maybe you have irrefutable evidence, but I suspect it’s more that he’s demonstrating behaviours that you associate with being gay – mainly based on stereotypes regarding gay men and being “camp”, to use your word.

And maybe you’re right. But maybe you’re not. Maybe your nephew just doesn’t adhere to that “man’s man” ideal you recognise in your brother-in-law. Your nephew could be more fully-rounded.

He could be embracing a feminine phase. He could be bisexual. He could be gender-fluid or non-binary. He could be trans. Or he could be a nine-year-old boy who isn’t worried about his identity and is having a few adults projecting some identities and labels onto him very early.

I don’t say this to dissuade you from paying attention to your nephew’s developing identity, nor do I think it’s impossible for a mother and uncle to correctly intuit that their son/nephew could be gay. I say it to highlight that whatever signals you think you’re picking up may be something else – or nothing at all.

The best possible thing you and his mother can do, therefore, is to let him (and any other kids in the household) know that people of all genders and orientations are wonderful and worthy and loved.

Don’t, in your good intentions to show him that you support gay men, forget to show him that you support trans people and non-binary people and bi people and asexual people as well as straight and cis people – both so that your nephew grows up knowing that whatever identity he embraces, he will be respected and loved, and so that he grows up learning how to respect and love others.

These messages are going to be particularly important, as it seems that your brother-in-law is already trying to teach your nephew that “real” men and women behave in very particular, different and limited ways. And while your brother-in-law’s actions may seem relatively tame right now – encouraging sports, etc. – the effects could be huge.

By punishing your son for expressing any sensitivity or typically “feminine” traits while rewarding the most aggressive of stereotypically “masculine” traits like physical competitiveness and violence, your brother-in-law is not only stifling your nephew’s mode of, and desire to, express himself and communicate openly. He’s also teaching your nephew that to one of his parents – and then presumably to the world at large – only parts of him are acceptable and worthy of love and respect.

And your nephew won’t just internalise these ideas about himself, but about others, too. People who internalise hate and intolerance often externalise that intolerance too, because they’ve been taught to, and because people who can’t accept themselves can find it harder to accept others.

Whether or not your nephew is gay, your brother-in-law is teaching him to devalue certain people, and that’s hate. And if your nephew is gay, he’s learning self-hate, too.

I feel it’s worth mentioning here that trying to punish femininity or expressions of homosexuality or gender fluidity etc. doesn’t “work”, even within the twisted logic of the punisher. Inflicting punishment and withholding affection from gay people doesn’t stop them being gay, it just makes them miserable.

Your brother-in-law’s attitude towards the LGBTQ community won’t change your son’s identity or orientation. It will merely inflict pain on his son, possibly damage their relationship, and damage his son’s sense of self, and of safety.

(Given that America’s vice-president-elect, Mike Pence, believes in torturous “gay-conversion” therapy, this point feels particularly pertinent. Sadly, many people believe LGBTQ people can change via emotional and/or physical abuse, and these people need to be told that they and that dangerous fool Pence are very, very wrong, and just cruel.)

So yes, I think you should get involved, even though giving married couples advice can be tricky, and parents even more so. But this is bigger than you and your sister and your brother-in-law; the messages your nephew learns now will affect him, and how he interacts with others.

So chat to your sister. She’s already noticed this dynamic, and may just be waiting for someone else to confirm that something needs to be done.

She may also appreciate having some back-up when raising the issue to her husband. (Just to be on the safe side, I’d check how she’s doing too – I will always worry for the wives of men who enforce traditional gender roles and heteronormativity, especially when the wives have to take a stand against them.)

I think it’s also vitally important that your nephew has somewhere safe and supportive to go – both generally, and also in case his father’s actions ever become physically dangerous, emotionally unbearable or both. If at all possible, babysit your nephew as much as possible.

Make sure he knows he’s welcome in your home, and can express himself openly there, in terms of talking about himself and his family, and also in terms of being able to do all the things he loves that his father may be stopping him from doing. Make sure he can access media and educational materials that celebrate everyone, so that he feels represented and absorbs the idea that everyone deserves respect, love and safety.

If you have a large family beyond you and your sister, get them involved too.

This isn’t just so your nephew has lots of safe places to go and supportive people to talk to. It’s because your brother-in-law’s family may support his anti-LGBTQ, traditionally gendered views, and so your nephew may be experiencing magnified and multiplied versions of his father’s messages in ways you can’t control. But you can help provide an alternate view, and have strength in numbers.

Once the issue has been broached with your brother-in-law, your approach to him will depend on his attitude. You can offer books and online resources on LGBTQ issues, or he may respond better to absorbing a lot of pop culture representations of LGBTQ people, so that he stops seeing homosexuality (for example) as an abstract concept, and begins to understand it as merely one facet of a person’s identity.

Remember that until your nephew identifies his own sexuality and/or gender identity, that’s not a specific issue that needs to be addressed. Right now, all you’re doing is pushing for your nephew’s household to be filled with empathy and tolerance, and encouraging an openness to learning about and respecting other people.

It’s pretty hard to argue with that – but it can take longer to learn and act upon than is ideal. During that time, offer up your presence and home as a place of empathy, respect, and unconditional love.

You’re a great uncle. That kid is lucky to have you. Love him ferociously, and good luck.

***

Dear Roe,

Sorry this question is gross, but my boyfriend has a pretty big penis and after we have sex I have major stomach problems. I get constipated with really bad cramps and then get diarrhoea. I think it might be worse when we do doggy, but I’m not sure. Why does this happen and can I do anything to stop it? Thanks.

Dear Letter Writer,

For all the Americans reading: Happy Thanksgiving! During this week of food, wine and time with loved ones, I do hope that this question has ignited the fire in your loins with its intrinsic sexiness.

I kid.

Yes, sex can sometimes cause digestive discomfort. But look, so do many things, and we talk about them. Jamie Lee Curtis does ads for anti-constipation yoghurts (that have not been proven to work). It’s all okay!

Basically, post-coital constipation can be caused by two basic physical occurrences. One is simple anatomical geography, and the other is to do with how your sympathetic nervous system responds to sex.

The first issue is essentially that the vagina is very close up the large intestine, rectum, and anus. During penile-vaginal penetration, pressure can be put on one or all three of these (especially if you’re switching up positions a lot, or if the positions you’re rocking make this pressure easier to inflict, such as doggy).

This can cause your bowel to become temporarily compacted, causing constipation. Or sometimes if sex is particularly vigorous, the contact with the vagina wall can lead to a “reactive ileus”, where the enteric nervous system causes the bowel wall to stop contracting briefly, which leads to constipation.

Both of these only have temporary effects, which is why you’re experiencing a cycle of having cramps, constipation and diarrhoea.

The other reason you could be experiencing digestive discomfort after sex is that during sex, our sympathetic nervous system is activated. This is also the system that controls our physical responses to emergencies, our “fight-or-flight” response. It’s often activated during exercise – such as vigorous sex.

The sympathetic nervous system can also inhibit bowel contraction and can cause temporary constipation. However, when you rest, after the exercise, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, which aids digestion. The rapid transition from sex to after-sex rest can cause diarrhoea.

These physical reactions aren’t dangerous, but they are obviously uncomfortable. Play with positions, avoiding any that seem to provoke discomfort.

Even introducing cushions under you/your partner’s ass or knees during intercourse could change the angle of entry and alleviate the symptoms. Getting on top could help you control how deep your partner goes, which could help if he’s big. Tell your partner to go slower and be gentler when necessary.

Exercising earlier in the day and then resting before sex could get your bowels moving and emptied before sex, which could help greatly. It has the added bonus of improving your stamina, so you can screw with digestive confidence for even longer – win-win!

If it persists, gets painful, or continues to worry you, chat to your doctor or gynaecologist.


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Author:

Roe McDermott: Roe McDermott is a journalist, arts critic, Fulbright awardee and sex columnist from Dublin. She lives in San Francisco, where she's completing an MA in Sexuality Studies.

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