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 fairly inexperienced woman in her mid-20s. To keep it short, I have had a few partners, but until recently, the relationships I had weren’t very healthy and sex wasn’t especially pleasing to me. I figured that I might be asexual. Sex wasn’t great, it wasn’t terrible—I was basically just doing it to please my previous partners. I am now dating a person I have grown to really like. They have been wonderful in helping my own sexuality, so much so that I have discovered arousal, attraction, pleasure, and, for the first time, desire. (I now think I’m more demisexual as a result.) But I have now been confronted with some issues. First, how do I manage this whole attraction business? Now I want and think about sex with my partner a lot. I feel like I’m imposing myself on them and belittling them with my desires. Second, how do I find balance between sex and other stuff in our relationship? I’m scared our relationship is becoming mainly sexual. I don’t know how much sex is too much. How do I find out?
Sexual awakening can be intense. Sexual desire can be powerful and momentarily all-consuming. Exhilaration, nervousness, and even fear would be reasonable reactions. What I’m trying to say is: If you’re freaking out, you’re totally normal. Take it easy on categorizing yourself and give your sexuality time to unfold.
Feelings and facts don’t necessarily line up. Communication is an enormous part of healthy sex, and you can practice right now by approaching your partner to find out how they feel about your attraction toward them. Ask if your sexual desire or the ways you currently express it feel diminishing or objectifying. Find out how much sex they’d like to be having, and—even though it can be scary—directly address your concerns about being an imposition.
Keep in mind there is no general answer for how much sex is too much. For some people, once a month is more than what they want. For others, every single day is their preference. The time constraints of your life definitely come into play: Consistently neglecting your work, friends, or emotional bond to bang is a warning sign. Checking in with each other and yourselves as your relationship and sexuality develop is crucial. So pay attention and listen to your gut, and you’ll have a great chance of knowing when you’ve reached your limit.
As for balance, Lutheran minister Nadia Bolz-Weber’s new book, Shameless: A Sexual Reformation, has some useful insight. She writes that she once cited balance as an aspiration in life, and her spiritual director suggested rhythm instead. As in, “Last week we had a lot of erotic pleasure, so maybe this week we want to focus on some important conversations we haven’t had yet.” Vice versa works too.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a lesbian and have been with my wife for almost a decade. We have a fantastic relationship and sex life, but there’s one thing that’s been bugging the both of us: I am insanely ticklish. There are times when we’re engaged in foreplay and my wife starts kissing my ear or grabbing my inner thigh and I can’t help but cringe or shudder. I try to explain that it isn’t that I’m not attracted to her or that it’s her that makes me cringe; it’s that I am so damn ticklish and it just sends a jolt down my spine when she hits those spots. But she gets frustrated with me about it and sometimes acts like she doesn’t believe me. We’ve gotten into arguments about it. Is there a way to either make her realize that she isn’t grossing me out and I’m just really ticklish, or desensitize myself so this doesn’t happen anymore and she can kiss my ears and grab me wherever she wants without some kind of fight?
Dear Tickle Monster,
I’m concerned that your wife of nearly a decade—with whom you say you have a fantastic relationship—acts as if she doesn’t believe you about the sensations you experience. I’m also concerned by her taking your ticklishness personally and by her continuing to tickle you and then getting frustrated when you respond as you’re wired. No matter how she wants a caress to feel to you, that’s not something she (or you) can control.
What she can control is how she touches you and where. Experiment with different kinds of touching. You can present this as a team project, as in, “Let’s figure out what the borders of my tickle zones are.” Ask your wife to use everything from fingernails to palms on your inner thigh, with varying degrees of pressure and movement. Do the same with her mouth and your ears. You might be able to find a threshold, with a goal to stay on the non-tickling side of it. Does your response change if the touch begins in a non-ticklish area? If so, there’s a starting point for desensitization, or a way she can approach those most-sensitive spots without sending you into convulsions (or, to be precise, without sending you into non-erotic convulsions).
How do you feel when your wife tickles you? Is it an annoyance? Does it interrupt your arousal? Is it only problematic because of your wife’s reaction? If you haven’t already tried to communicate this information, do that. If you have, give it another try while being very direct but gentle. Have a calm discussion about why she’s struggling so hard to accept that you do find her attractive and generally do want her to touch you. Is she carrying shame that might be leaking over into your relationship and sexual interactions? I can’t say for sure, but I’d examine her feelings more closely.
Dear How to Do It,
Before we got married, my husband led quite a sexually adventurous life. He’s bisexual and he frequented fetish clubs and sex parties. He’s very much a sexual positivist who was willing to try just about anything once. I, on the other hand, am about as vanilla as they come. I can count my previous partners on one hand and have never tried anything more taboo than my college boyfriend’s obsession with nipple clamps. I’m totally fine with my husband’s sexual past, but I find myself feeling guilty for my lack of creativity and adventurousness in the bedroom. I tend to be a bit reserved and, at times, squeamish, so while I’d never judge someone else’s turn-ons, they just don’t appeal to me. Our marriage is wonderful, but he’s hinted at times that he would like me to try some more daring sexual activities. Any tips on overcoming my reservations and being more open to explore? I hate feeling like I’m stifling him just because I’m satisfied with not-so-exciting sex.
Dear Breyers Original,
Talk to your husband. Hints are one thing—an easily misinterpreted thing—but direct communication is what you want here. Have some deep, detailed conversations about what he’s into now. Focus on what he finds erotic about the specific things he’d currently like to do. It’s possible that your love and sexual attraction toward him will let you sexualize activities and props that wouldn’t get you off on their own. It’s also possible that what you interpreted as a hint was something else entirely—he might not even want a return to his adventurous days. You won’t know until you talk about it together.
You don’t say what your reservations are, so I’m kind of feeling around in the dark here. Your wording suggests you might be putting pressure on yourself to be something you’re not. Anxiety—performance or otherwise—can undermine arousal. Remember that it’s OK to have dislikes, and that there’s nothing wrong with being vanilla or not particularly experimental in bed.
That said, porn and erotic literature could be a useful place to explore, if you’re so inclined. My colleague Shine Louise Houston makes modern porn with plot and developed characters. Bellesa features videos and stories in the same place, and there are tons of self-published erotic story collections available. Explore and see if anything strikes your fancy. Consider practices like tantra as well—it’s like varsity-level vanilla, and may provide a common ground.
The option you don’t mention is opening up your relationship. Is it possible for you to be comfortable with your husband expressing his more complex sexual desires outside the marriage? This seems worth thinking about and discussing, because it might make space for him to get his needs met without you doing things that make you uncomfortable.
Dear How to Do It,
My fiancée and I (both early 30s) are in a happy, monogamous relationship. The onset of our relationship was intense, as it is with most relationships, and the sex was amazing. She would often orgasm multiple times and told me that I was able to “hit spots” that she’d never experienced before. As time moves on, the intensity and frequency of sex tends to drop off, which I understand. But over the past few months, she has been very distant during sex. Now, the only time she’s aroused enough to orgasm is when she has been drinking. It’s a struggle for me to have sex now when I know she is doing it just for me. I want to give her pleasure just as much (if not more) than I want to receive it, but I also don’t want to place undue pressure on her to reach orgasm. We have talked extensively about what is going on and it’s messy.
I’ve known for a while that she has a significant history of trauma stemming from a sexual assault she suffered in her early 20s. When we discuss the issue we are currently facing, she says this is how it’s always been for her, and she just doesn’t see it changing. She says she doesn’t see how a doctor or therapist can change how she views sex. I’ve asked her if it is an attraction issue, or if we need to change things up to satisfy a kink, but she shuts this down and assures me that she is happy. I truly believe this is rooted in anxiety and trauma. I love this woman so much, and this is the most satisfying and fulfilling relationship I’ve ever been in. I just want to help her through this, but I don’t know how to do it without being pushy while at the same time making my needs known.
Dear Off Track,
The stakes are high here for a couple of reasons. You have to be cautious with trauma—digging around without a qualified professional can be dangerous. You two are also headed toward marriage, a huge commitment with a lot of associated paperwork. In light of this, I think it’s reasonable to ask her to meet with a few therapists and choose one to see for a few months.
Tell your fiancée what you’ve told me: that this is the most satisfying relationship you’ve been in, that you love and care for her, and that you prioritize her pleasure and happiness. Explain that you see a potential problem in your future together and want to be proactive about it. I’m hoping she’ll be open to seeing a professional when you frame the situation as protecting the future, but I want to stress that she might not be, and might never be. You can’t force someone into therapy. And if she does go, neither you nor the therapist can force her to confront her trauma before she’s ready.
So you probably want to do some introspection as well. Can you walk through life with a partner who struggles to orgasm when sober? If that’s a deal-breaker, it’s kinder to be clear now than after you’ve gone through with the wedding. Can you tolerate your yearning to help in the face of knowing you have little control over the situation? It’s human to want to fix our loved ones’ problems, but that isn’t always possible. Make sure you’re committed for the long haul before you take the big matrimonial step.
In the meantime—especially if she declines to seek therapy again—you can continue to provide a respectful and safe environment for her. This partly means listening when she says she’s happy having sex sans orgasm. Orgasms are great, but sometimes we have sex for bonding, to feel close to each other, or to otherwise foster intimacy. Those goals are just as important as the physical response.