What is worse: When a guy you haven’t been seeing that long lets one rip in the car, windows-up, or when someone tells you that, because of this egregious emission, you’re supposed to conclude that he really likes you? This is the dilemma of a possibly real person seeking Internet advice, and she needs our help.

Writing to Dear Prudence, a woman asks:

Q. Too Soon for Farts?: I’ve only been seeing this guy casually for about a month, and on our date last night he let one rip and it stunk up the whole car. He apologized, etc., and I know he is lactose-intolerant, but does this mean he doesn’t like me? His farting in front of me is very disrespectful, and if you really cared to impress a girl, you wouldn’t do this? Thoughts?

Can it ever be too soon for something as natural and organic as a fart, mankind’s spring breeze? The answer is obviously, yes, though that answer is a heavily asterisked one. When to fart and for whom to fart is a complex, thorny question that no one person can answer for anyone but himself or herself. It’s a finely honed art based on an elaborate system of fart mores that are highly subjective. Farts that would be welcomed open-nosed in one community may very well be grounds for turned-up noses in another. These are non-negotiable truths, also. I don’t make the rules. I just fart by them.

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Each of us is the product of a highly whimsical lifetime of fart-training shaped by those around us, for better or for worse. Often, fart rules are entirely imparted nonverbally—through vibes, and also the farts of others. Fart rules are made not in isolation but in the context of relationships. (Who holds a fart back for themselves? Not I.) You might have a personal history of farts that is totally unlike that of the person you pair off with, and, while fart compatibility is never mentioned as a key to a successful relationship, I think it ought to be—because any relationship that withstands the test of time will no doubt withstand a lifetime of farts.

Too Soon for Fart’s question makes it increasingly clear that part of deepening intimacy is learning what farts mean when they come up in your relationship. Often they signal a comfort level that means you can relax—quite literally, in terms of your sphincter, but also in terms of your self-serious pretense that you don’t need to fart or whatever. It’s an absurd thing, holding farts in, and yet we all do it. I’ve heard of people leaving their dates propelled by their own farts all the way to their car. That’s no way to live!

And yet, dates should be “nice.” That includes how they “smell.” I get it.

So how to balance the fact that farts should be both controlled and celebrated? Because the willingness to fart is the willingness to be more real. And that’s good, mostly—if not done all at once and too grossly.

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That said, men get the better end of the fart stick. The advice-seeker wasn’t ready to fart yet precisely because she is a woman. There’s a good chance she will never be ready to fart, and that her best farts will always go unheard by other humans. Her casual dating partner was totally ready for Fartsville, population all of us, precisely because he is a man. (I’m just guessing, but I am also 100 percent sure I’m correct.) And now they face a kind of gray zone of competing, incompatible fart-readiness that makes for serious early courtship conflict.

Prudie is, as expected, a fart apologist:

A: You have so come to the wrong place for endorsement of your philosophy. I am of the school that he was showing you he was comfortable enough with you to let one rip. Sure you were trapped, but a moving vehicle with the windows down offers the greatest chance for sulfur dissipation. It’s good he apologized, but it’s too bad you didn’t laugh hysterically and say, “Nice one!” If you care to continue to see this guy, maybe on your next date you should give him a beautifully wrapped package of pills for lactose intolerance, with a note that says, “This made me think of you.”

In other words, he farts because he likes you.

While this answer is sensible as hell in traditional Prudie style, I’m not entirely sure that gratitude on part of the fart-ee is the right answer. Hey, I guess if you like each other so much, you could spend your next date communicating entirely by fart.

Let’s return again to the obligation of mutuality. Comfort levels and the farts that accompany them are a conversation, not a monologue. And I’m not sure we should always welcome farts, particularly from men. There is a long tradition of “grossness inequality” that extends to farting. Generally speaking, women experience much more pressure to minimize all bodily functions and smooth out all signs of too humanness, whether it’s makeup, body hair, periods, or yes, farts. It’s a rare woman who has dodged the cultural narrative that she can’t show any signs of having bowels. And so, women are secret farters to a pathological degree. (And yes, I know civilized men are not farting it up either—and thanks, civilized men—but I know that there is often a less internalized degree of shame about the whole enterprise.)

We have pondered before the timeline for the various levels of intimacy you can reach with your partner—a friend told me then she would rather vomit blood than fart in front of someone. We concluded that if bodily functions are on a DEFCON level, then level 3 is willingness to fart in front of your significant other. If the average woman waits FOUR WEEKS to let her boyfriend see her without makeup, it’s safe to say farts are way the eff down the line.

Viewed in this light, it’s easy to see why this lady advice-seeker would be perplexed by the one-month fart, something virtually unheard of to women, who, if they farted in front of a love interest after a month, would likely find it mortifying. Women know that if they farted nonchalantly around another person, it would mean they truly do not give a fuck. This woman assumed the same had to be true of any prematurely farting man. That perhaps, it was a signal. “It’s not you, it’s the fact that I don’t value you, and am going to signify so by fart.”

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Just to test the letter writer’s theory, I polled some randoms on Facebook just to see if they would ever fart around someone to signal romantic disinterest. One woman replied that she’d never done it, but admitted she’d thought about it. “It has the potential to kill someone else’s mood OR backfire in a big way and make that person think you are just really comfortable around them,” she explained.

Another woman (a fart unicorn) said her farts signal comfort and harmony. “If I fart around you, it means I love you,” she wrote. “I assume the same about other people. Not just romantic love, friend love, too.”

One dude said he would never. “Well, no, because it’s rude. But personally, I also have this (unhealthy) compulsion to try my best to remain as attractive as possible to someone, even if I’m not (or at least no longer) interested in her. So no intentional/voluntary farts under any circumstances, basically.”

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Yet, one dude had totally used farts to signify a lack of interest. “One night stand wouldn’t leave, I let em fly, she left, never called me back,” he wrote. “It all worked out for the best.”

I can say with confidence that guy is probably an outlier. I also think it’s safe to conclude that Prudie is right—insomuch as that dude either couldn’t help that fart and/or totally digs her enough to fart on her, which is sadly a very real thing. But that doesn’t mean she has to like it, unless it goes both ways.

In the grand theory of farts and offense, we cannot neglect the fact that men have always been free to fart more freely than women. Thus, on some level, any time a man farts in front of a woman, he is reminding that woman inadvertently of the greater freedom men have experienced since the dawn of time. And that can make you pretty resentful. You think I’m kidding? I couldn’t be more serious. Lady farts are the great equalizers. Penis envy? Try fart envy, not-having-to-ever-shower envy, comfortable-shoes envy, and on and on and on.

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The answer is, advice-seeker, you are more than good enough for this guy; he probably likes you just fine. Maybe even a lot. Perhaps the real question is whether you can live with his farts, because it’s almost certain he’ll strike again. But if you like this guy, and if you really need a way to show him, you should probably just speak to him in a language he can actually understand—farts. His reaction, not yours, is the real litmus test.

Illustration by Tara Jacoby