How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Send your questions for Stoya and Rich to firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t worry, we won’t use names.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a single man in my early 30s in an industry that’s received strong scrutiny from the #MeToo movement. I avoid dating anyone whom I may have potential influence over professionally in the near future, but recently, I started seeing a woman who works in roughly the same field but with whom I’d never cross paths directly. She’s very vocal about how our industry fails women, especially at work. As we’ve become intimate, she’s surprised me by asking me to be rough and degrade her in bed. I won’t get specific, but she likes some intense things. I figured this was just a fetish, but we talked about it, and she told me the bedroom is one place where she can totally abandon the hard lines she has to make at work and not worry about “gender dynamics.” I’m not sure what to think about this. Isn’t it strange to imply #MeToo is forcing women to stifle their desires? Is this a healthy way to look at sex? I feel uneasy, and I’m unsure how to talk this through with her further.
Dear Roughing It,
I’m way more comfortable with your first question, so let’s start there. I’m curious why you think this scenario implies “#MeToo is forcing women to stifle their desires.” I suspect it’s part of a long history of concern about what BDSM “means,” here mixed with what you see as a contradiction between your partner’s beliefs and her desires. Questioning whether we’re doing social harm, or specifically being anti-feminist, by having sexualities that relate to BDSM is a common enough experience that it showed up in multiple first-person essays throughout the late 2000s and early 2010s, as public awareness began to rise. And it goes back much further than that. It’s very common.
That means some women, and at least a few men, have considered stifling—or actually stifled—their own desires out of social or political concern for a lot longer than #MeToo has been around. In other words, your first question is a delicious red herring, thank you. But I’m still afraid the second one is going to stick in my throat. Because it is incredibly sticky: What is a healthy way to look at sex?
I think a lot of us are trying to answer that question in a zoomed-out way right now, and I’ve wondered if it’s even possible to arrive at a single answer that works for everyone. I’m pretty sure of one thing: You have to discover what’s healthy for you sexually just like you have to discover what’s healthy for you in other areas of your life. You’re probably going to make mistakes. You might have experiences you regret, but you also might learn something from them. You’ll almost certainly feel like you have no real guidebook at some point, because—although they are filling in quickly—there are major gaps in our cultural sex-ed department, even for adults, and plenty of subjects around sexuality that we’re still striving to understand.
To make it simpler in this case: She’s consenting. Your consent is important, too. If you’re feeling uncomfortable, it’s absolutely OK to slow things down or decline certain activities. You aren’t obligated to do anything you don’t want to or even just feel a little weird about. Keep that in mind while you’re figuring out what the boundaries of healthy-for-you sex are—and trust your partner to do the same.
Dear How to Do It,
Every time things start escalating toward sex, my boyfriend wordlessly leaps up from the bed or the couch or wherever we are and turns out the light. At first, I barely even noticed this. But then it became such an undeniable pattern, disrupting the spontaneity of our foreplay, that I started to wonder: Why is he so obsessed with lights-out sex? Whether we’re in the bedroom, or the kitchen, or the living room, there’s inevitably a beat where he stops, strolls over to the light switch, casts us into darkness, and then returns to me. He has a totally normal-looking body, and so do I! Better than normal on both counts, I might even say! So what’s going on here? Is there anything I can do about it? It’s making me feel weirdly insecure that he only wants to have sex in the dark.
Dear Can’t See,
In almost every case of a partner’s weird sex thing, it’s not you, it’s them. You think your man has a normal body, but what’s key here is what he thinks about it. It sounds to me like he’s embarrassed about something, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be its shape. The human body, as I’m sure you know, is nature’s canvas for all manner of organic doodads, colorings, and textures.
I mention this because I don’t have much of a sense of how much of his body you have seen, and whether his plunging you into darkness is a recent development or if it’s always been part of your sex life. I suspect it’s the latter, but if you’re secure in your knowledge of your boyfriend’s physical better-than-normalcy, keep in mind that your normal isn’t necessarily his—various hang-ups and experiences can distort how we see ourselves to the point of full-on dysmorphia. It could also be that he’s a change-under-the-towel type, and he’s embarrassed by the exposure itself.
A little story that will provide no solution to your problem but will at least, hopefully, illustrate that you are not alone: I enjoy an array of body types, and once I hooked up with a guy who was heavy enough to stretch the very definition of “thick,” as if it were a waistband. We coordinated via the rather superficial medium of the hook-up app, which is to say the driving reason we even agreed to meet was simple physical attraction. As strangers, we were essentially piles of parts to each other. I thought that implied acceptance of said parts, but after we made out for a few minutes, I was totally naked and the guy had only stripped his bottoms off—his shirt was still on. After a few minutes, I asked him to take it off, and he demurred. A few minutes later, I told him that I really liked his body and would love to see him fully naked. As much as I wanted to tell him, “No, really, I like thick guys—it’s part of why you’re here,” I held back, because this was clearly an area of sensitivity to him.
Anyway, I thought I played it well, but the shirt never budged. His personal issue trumped the desire of a stranger he’d never get to know, go figure. I suspect your boyfriend’s personal issue is bigger than yours, too. The only way you’re going to have a shot at resolving it (which I hope you do, because I think lights-off sex sucks too) is by escalating it and discussing it frankly. If not, you may forever be in the dark.
You could also, of course, do your own wordless leaping to the light switch after his. See what happens if you simply turn it back on?
Dear How to Do It,
My spouse of many years and I have a fun, loving, and reasonably active sex life. We’re both creatures of habit, and our sex is pretty routine—that is, things usually proceed in a pretty similar way each time, and we don’t mess around with a lot of positions. We both get off most times, and it seems clear to me that sex remains an important and great part of our relationship, even as we’ve gotten older.
So what’s the problem? We each have admitted to worrying that the other isn’t satisfied, in part because the entire sexual-industrial complex (including sex columnists!) seems bent on poking fun at our specific kind of vanilla straight-person sex, and often portrays a sexual relationship like ours as a boring rut in which both partners are hopelessly stuck. We also see other couples our age being driven apart, sometimes because one or the other heads off in search of younger, hotter targets. So even though we both are happy and satisfied, we still get neurotic sometimes that the other one isn’t happy and satisfied: whether our ever-flabbier bodies are not turn-ons, whether we should be more adventurous, whether we should be ashamed of our routine. What do you say? Should squares like us be spicing things up in some way? What’s the best way for us to reassure each other of something that we both know in our hearts but we still worry about?
—The Default Flavor
Dear the Default Flavor,
Vanilla is delicious. The original subcategory of Breyers alone has four different flavors: natural, French, extra creamy, and homemade. Vanilla is also carried next to cinnamon and cardamom by retailers. It may be a sex-column cliché, but I’d like to remind you that vanilla is very much still a spice.
One of our capitalist culture’s loudest refrains boils down to “buy this good or service, have a better life,” which, applied to sex, can imply that there’s something wrong when sex doesn’t require training, props, or technology. And increased openness about kink, polyamory, or even just sex positivity can sometimes tip into criticism of what is perceived as “unenlightened,” boring sex. The messages you’re referring to are real, and they aren’t going away. But you can continue to be aware of them and remind yourself they’re often either marketing or unfortunate generalizations made by people with sexual appetites that are simply different than yours.
I’m not sure you need me to say this, but I’m going to anyway: a fun, loving, and mutually satisfying sexual relationship is wonderful, whether it involves two people or 12, $200 electrical stimulation toys or the missionary position with maybe a little cowgirl. As for routine, even activities like swinging and intricate rope bondage can begin to feel repetitive sometimes. But there can also be immense beauty in repetition: Familiarity is what allows you to know every inch of your partner’s body, exactly where to touch and when. Tell each other what you enjoy about your sex life, regularly. Compliment your partner’s body, and believe compliments when you receive them. Remember that you two are the experts in what makes you happiest.
Dear How to Do It,
My boyfriend bites. During sex, specifically. They are of the “love bite” variety, not hard but enough to dig his teeth in a little. I have told him I don’t like this, and sometimes he refrains, but I think it is more a tic in the way he has sex: It’s sort of an oral fixation–type thing he’s always done, and he’s almost 30. I find it unpleasant, but it clearly takes him out of it when I remind him I don’t like it, and he is not hurting me—it’s more annoying. Is this the kind of habit it makes sense to indulge, if it seems unlikely to change?
I’m sorry to admit that I relate to this, and on the other side. I’m a biter too. At any given moment during a conversation with my boyfriend, I’d probably rather be sinking my teeth into his bicep than talking. I think I’m a little bit more of a conscious, less tic-based biter than your boyfriend is, though I do enjoy it during sex as well, and yes, it is an oral fixation thing.
That said, I don’t get to bite nearly as much as I’d like to because my current boyfriend (as well as every other boyfriend I’ve had) has told me, “Ouch, knock it off, that’s really annoying!” And if I try it again, they tell me again and again and again until I stop.
A lifetime of lovers can’t be wrong. I do not think you have to indulge this behavior. I do think that you have to be firm here. It’s lovely that you’re compassionate enough to care that reminding him of this takes him out of the moment, but I think he needs to be taken out of moments repeatedly until he learns. It’s about conditioning. He’s acting like a dog; train him. Keep rolled up newspaper by your bed. Point in his face and tell him, “No!” Make him sleep on the floor. Or maybe just keep telling him. I don’t think your desire to not want to be bitten is unreasonable.