How to Do It

My Husband Doesn’t Make Me Orgasm, and Never Has

Is it too late to bring this up after 20 years?

A couple stare into each other's eyes.
Animation by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Paul Simcock/Getty Images.

How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Send your questions for Stoya and Rich to howtodoit@slate.com. Don’t worry, we won’t use names.

Dear How to Do It,

My husband and I have been married for 15 years, together for 20. He’s a wonderful husband and father and a great match for me in many ways. I love him very much. However, our sex has always been a little less than satisfying. It’s lovely and comforting and connecting, and not infrequent, but it doesn’t get me off. In general, it’s too brief and too low-key and basic to get me to come. A lot of the time it’s enough to have so-so sex and get myself off on my own time. There are so many other things about our relationship that mesh I was OK with making great sex less of a priority. But every once in a while it would be nice for the sex to be of the superhot, primal, more intense variety.

It’s not that our sex life started out spectacular and faded; it’s always been this way. I don’t fake orgasms—I don’t know if he thinks I’m having one. It’s not something he would ever, ever talk about. He’s the type of guy who doesn’t talk about sex. Ever. It makes him uncomfortable and squeamish—it’s just his personality, plus how he was raised (and kind of the way I was raised as well). And at this point, it’s been this way so long it seems impossible to bring up. I don’t want to make him feel bad or inadequate, and the idea of bringing up a subject we haven’t talked about for 20 years is deeply uncomfortable. Is this the way things are always going to be? Is there anything I can do? How do you get out of a 20-year rut?

—Not Finished

Dear Not Finished,

Imagine such silence about a regular activity in any other context. Imagine your partner making you a dinner that you both eat but never acknowledge verbally. No “What do you want for dinner?” No “This dinner is great, no really, it’s great.” No “I’m sorry I can’t recite a sonnet to you at the moment, though I am inclined to do so, because my mouth is full of the food you just cooked for us.” Nothing!

This is to say: It’s hard for me to imagine having sex but not talking about having sex. Maybe it’s because I’ve always been the opposite—willing to have probably too many conversations about the hotness of the sex that was just had. Communication is a direct route to pleasure and, inversely, the road to pleasure becomes extremely uneven without it.

That said, I think you’ve already learned this firsthand, and I don’t think your situation is particularly uncommon. I also believe that sex is communication, among the many things that it is. While it’s equally maddening and heartening that you won’t bring this up for fear of making him feel bad or inadequate—at the expense of your own pleasure!—I think one way of handling this particular predicament is to say with your body what you cannot with your words. Make it your business to turn things primal: Bring your own intensity and get him to scratch your itch (by literally placing his hand where you need it, for example). I imagine this will also seem uncomfortable to you at first, but you can go slow and try one little new thing at a time. Your differences could be fundamental and irreconcilable, but you don’t seem to think so, so just change your approach. Before long, you could come before his very eyes. See if that doesn’t give him something to talk about.

Dear How to Do It,

I have been dating a guy for a year now who has also been a good friend for a number of years. We started dating after his divorce. The problem is I have genital herpes. And unlike many people, I do have breakouts regularly, despite daily medication. When I first confessed my diagnosis to him, there were a lot of ups and downs. He took it hard. He’d never had to deal with STDs before. We even had a break for a few months, because he apologized and said he wasn’t ready to put his health at risk.

He did come back once he’d had time to digest it, but our sex life is limited to anything but intercourse, and he’s very meticulous about washing after and avoiding risk as much as possible. It’s OK but not wholly satisfying. Though he is very supportive, I also stay awake at night stressing about giving someone an STD. (He has eczema, and he is at risk of a serious complication from herpes.) I’ve seen a doctor. We’ve seen therapists. But this hangs over our relationship. It also doesn’t help that he honestly believes that if he catches it that it’s like marriage—we’d be in it together for life. It’s hard enough navigating a new relationship, let alone this stress. What should I do?

—Quarantined

Dear Quarantined,

While he’s certainly within his rights to avoid STDs with the zeal of someone who wears a surgical mask to avoid germs on public transit, he’s being neurotic. Washing after sex (as if there’s a soap that can just rinse herpes down the drain), pretending like you’re the only person in the world with herpes (the American Sexual Health Association estimates that 1 in 8 people in the U.S. ages 14 to 49 have it, while 1 in 2 have HSV-1, which causes oral herpes), generally shaming you about having herpes—it’s all too much. Your herpes is barely his problem, and he’s making his baggage entirely your problem. It just isn’t fair.

(Also, eczema herpeticum is rare and treatable, and since he’s on high alert for the most insignificant whisper of a bump, surely he’d get it sorted out immediately were he to contract it. Just saying.)

Thing is: Herpes is always a risk when you have sex. If he’s been sexually active, it’s pure simple luck that has blessed him with never having to deal with STDs before. And now he does! It’s part of growing up. I’m not sure what the mental calculus is that led to your sex life being limited to anything but intercourse, but herpes can be spread via oral sex. Perhaps you or his ex-wife or whomever he’s had sex with in the past is one of the 165 million or so people in the U.S. with HSV-1. I highly doubt that every time he’s ever gotten head, he put a condom on first. So he took a risk there. Just like he did when he crossed the street earlier today.

I know that no one wants an STD, but surely stigma makes them far harder to deal with. In fact, the stigma can burn worse than any symptoms. I think you should swallow your shame and tell him how all of this makes you feel, and make sure he’s informed. Your herpes has been, in the scheme of your life, even with regular outbreaks, not really a big deal, yes? Not until someone makes it one, right? That means that this is his issue, and it’s a bummer to read that it’s affected you to the degree it has. The way he reacts to your herpes is a much more decisive mark against him than your herpes is against you. You can’t help it; he can. See if you can get him on board with the reality, and if you can’t, consider jumping ship. Plenty of guys out there aren’t nearly so squeamish about sporadic bumps.

Dear How to Do It,

Recently, on a hookup app, I was chatting with a handsome guy, and it was proceeding as usual. He seemed more like a “dating” than “right now” type—the conversation was very PG—so I kept it casual and responded on and off through the day. I was at work, so I didn’t look closely at his profile. He finally asked if I wanted to take it offline with a beer, and I agreed. We’re going to meet up soon, but when I did look more closely at his profile, I realized he is trans. This is not really an issue for me, or at least I don’t want it to be, but I’ve never dated a trans guy and I’m worried my inexperience may make things awkward or uncomfortable for him. (I also have zero idea how the physical part would go, but that’s probably getting ahead of myself.) Should I mention my inexperience to him before we meet? Is there a general best approach here?

—Fine Print

Dear Fine Print,

I think showing up for the date without a disclaimer is the most respectful route here. Approach this dude as you would any dude. I’m assuming that you realized that he is trans because his profile indicated it, and so if he’s out, you can expect he has some comfort discussing his gender identity, but to what degree is unclear (especially since he didn’t bring it up in your app chat). Such identity matters can seem rather fraught in the disembodied world of online interaction, where tone is often inscrutable and where it’s easy to dismiss people who are too ignorant or malignant-seeming to share your worldview. If you talk about your inexperience over a beer, he’ll see the person behind it and be able to evaluate your sincerity far more effectively.

But don’t take my word for it—I asked my friend Riley MacLeod, who’s trans and gay and also an editor at the gaming site Kotaku, what he would advise here. Here is what he said:

I think you should just go and meet up, and if it comes up in person you should … tell the truth! That you’ve never dated a trans guy but that you wouldn’t discount it, and if things get to the physical stage the guy might need to be patient with you. In my experience, I’m always OK with dudes not knowing what to do, and less OK with them being grossed out or asking a bunch of invasive questions. In other words, if it would feel awkward to ask a cis dude about his dick on this date, you probably shouldn’t ask a trans guy about it. (And please don’t say “I never would have guessed”—that’s the worst.)

It could also help to remember that this is much scarier for a trans guy than a cis guy. So much can go wrong here, so you should just try to, like, be cool.

Dear How to Do It,

My husband and I have an active and hot sex life. It’s definitely not “quiet.” We moan, the bed shakes, etc. The problem? My mother is moving in, for at least a few months, so we can care for her as she recovers from a health issue. We’re putting her in the bedroom farthest from ours, but it’s a small house and she’ll be just down the hall. Do you have any suggestions for how I can make it less likely that she’ll be aware of our activities? Or for me to get over worrying about what she’s thinking when she does inevitability figure out what’s going on?

—Loud and Proud

Dear Loud and Proud,

See this more as an opportunity than a problem. Surely, you are capable of having quiet sex, so give it a whirl. Sometimes self-imposed restraint can make things more exciting—a lot of people get off on the need to be discreet for fear of getting caught. Have you ever experimented with gags? Now’s your chance! Have a casual-sex roleplay scenario in mind? Rent a hotel room and go wild.

Or don’t do any off this and continue swinging from the chandelier as you have been. Your mother is aware that people bone, by simple virtue of the fact that she is your mother. Yes, it’s considerate to mitigate the noise, and will save you from awkward glances or, even worse, conversations about sex with a parent, but it’s not like she’s going to view you differently should she be given firsthand evidence that you are—gasp—someone who has sex with their husband. It’s not like she can throw you out. It’s your house!