A Little Help, Please?: Back to School Edition

The Undomestic Goddess called my attention to this Jezebel post, which criticizes advice columnist Elisabeth Rosen, “the everyday ethicist,” of the Cornell Daily Sun for her advice to a sorority sister struggling with her sexuality.

First of all–before we even get to the advice–I can’t help but think Elisabeth Rosen must be rather startled to have what is probably her first column of the year suddenly panned in front of a global audience.  Even when your work is out there, freely available on the web, you write for a certain audience (and a certain deadline), and may not expect more exposure than that.  When that assumption gets flipped on its head, it can be exhilarating, sure, but also very unsettling.

I’m not trying to pull for or against her advice here–we’ll get to that shortly.  I’m just imagining, for a minute, how I’d feel if a media clearinghouse like Jezebel suddenly called me out on one of the many late-night columns I tapped out for my college newspaper.  Shudder.  I can’t help but feel a little pang of sympathy for Elisabeth Rosen, “junior in the College of Arts and Sciences.”  On the other hand–this is the beauty and the power of the Internet, right?  The dream?  Anyone’s cat or advice column can have its 15 minutes. We all just have to hope that it doesn’t turn out to be 15 minutes of shame.

Writing everything with the idea that it might be read and shared by anyone in the world at any moment is a lot of pressure for a budding journalist….but I guess that’s the boat anyone who publishes online is in!

So, to the column itself:

Dear Everyday Ethicist,

I have recently been struggling with my sexuality. I think I’m a lesbian, but I’m not ready to come out. However, I live in a sorority house where a lot of the girls walk around in skimpy clothes, bathing suits, etc. Is it ethical for me to pretend to be straight? I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable, but I feel bad living a lie, especially because if the other girls knew, their opinions of me would undoubtedly change.

— Nervous Katy Perry Fan

Dear Nervous,

Everyone has secrets. Your roommate might not know how to put in a tampon, or the skinniest girl on campus might have secret Twinkie binges every night. But these secrets don’t affect anyone else, while yours does. Some girls might have chosen to live in the sorority house because they don’t want to live with guys who could be checking them out, and even if you don’t have a crush on any specific girl, you’re right that your sexual orientation would make them uncomfortable. It would be just as unethical for you to “pretend to be straight” to avoid discomfort as it would be for a guy to get breast implants in order to land a sweet single in Balch. No matter what the motivation, placing your roommates in a situation that could potentially make them very uncomfortable if they knew the truth is just not ethical.

It’s not fair to you, either. You’re wasting time worrying about what they might think of you, when for all you know they might not care at all about your sexuality. Telling the truth might seem stressful now, but it’ll save you a lot of hardship later. The other girls might not mind a gay roommate; a dishonest gay roommate, on the other hand, would be harder to stomach.

Jezebel blogger Anna North takes her to task, so I’ll try not to cover the same ground again. In short, it’s not right that a person sorting out her identity should be expected to turn that process–her questions and struggles–into some kind of public service announcement. And Rosen’s implication that NKPF has somehow deceived or tricked her sisters to land herself in a “sweet” situation is beyond screwed up.

Coming out to the house at large, right now and all at once, when she’s not at all ready to, is clearly not the right answer. But does this mean that her only option is “pretending to be straight”? (question: is there is a practical difference between “not coming out” and “pretending to be straight”? Or, effectively, are they the same thing?)

Does every woman in the house need an alert that you’re attracted to women?  Absolutely not.

If it comes to pass that you develop a specific romantic interest in someone with whom you share a bedroom, do they (and you, frankly–unrequited crushes can be nearly unlivable) deserve to have enough information to change the rooming situation?  Hmmm, yes, maybe.

I think there are more options–and obligations–on her spectrum of choices than “tell everyone, now,” or “tell no one, ever.”

It seems that the Everyday Ethicist is off to a very publicly rocky start this fall–at least the Cornell Daily Sun should have plenty of letters to the editor!

**Edit: one such letter has already been published!**

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