How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t worry, we won’t use names.
Every Friday, Stoya and Rich will answer one bonus question in chat form. This week, an unequal opening.
Dear How to Do It,
My girlfriend of nine years and I are opening our relationship, slowly and with plenty of communication. From this communication I’ve learned she wants to see both men and women, and I’m happy for her to do that. When I mentioned that I wanted to do the same—that is, try things out with guys for the first time, as well as with women—she seemed taken aback and finally admitted that the idea of me with guys made her uncomfortable. She acknowledged the double standard but said the thought of me with a man really bothers her. She pointed out that I already knew about her interest in women but I had never mentioned any interest in guys, which is true. (I doubt I’m more than bi-curious, but this seemed like a good time to find out!) We both know there are a lot of retrograde ideas at work in her reaction, and she wants to get past it. Do you have any advice for helping her get over it?
Stoya: As usual, I want more information.
Stoya: This time, I’m curious which specific “retrograde ideas” they’re both aware of.
Rich: Yes indeed. That’s crucial to figuring out just what her issue is, which is presented vaguely: “the idea of me with guys made her uncomfortable.”
Stoya: If she’s uncomfortable about safety, this is a great time to talk about PrEP (and other prevention methods like dental dams, for use with all those vagina-having people both of them might hook up with).
Rich: Yeah, I wondered if her foremost concern was HIV or something. And whether she was thinking about it from an ’80s sort of mindset. A lot of people do still! A lot of laws do! A lot of people’s understanding of the disease hasn’t caught up to the advances in medicine that have been made over the years.
Stoya: I’m remembering the hysteria of the ’90s and early 2000s—like, “ask yourself is this person worth dying for”–style sex ed. (Timelessly memorialized in Mean Girls.)
Rich: Amazing and harrowing. There is something about sex that really makes people lose their heads. There are fewer and fewer excuses for not being up to date on this stuff. At a certain point, when you have enough privilege to have access to a computer and the literacy to use it, ignorance starts looking willful.
Stoya: I’m imagining what phrases an average person might search online if they were concerned about HIV, and the front page of results isn’t reassuring. If I directly search for PrEP, I get the reassuring information. But if I use, say, HIV+gay, it’s just alarming prevalence statistics. And a dating site. On Bing, the front page for HIV+bi includes the headline “HIV’s Bisexual Bridge to Women” from 2004. Ugh.
Rich: Wow. Real sort of “down low” discourse. What strikes me is how HIV remains a boogeyman that people don’t bother to understand. With proper PrEP and condom use, the risk of contracting HIV becomes very low. Not to mention that, with proper access to treatment, HIV is now a manageable disease. Doesn’t it occur to people that there’s been a shift?
Stoya: To women who have been in a hetero relationship for nine years that is slowly beginning to open up? Unless they have someone who is on PrEP or living with HIV and out about it in their life, probably not.
Rich: I guess so often we only see where our eyes are pointed.
Stoya: That’s why we call them blind spots. As for other sexually transmitted diseases, they’re both taking a risk by opening up to multiple partners, and that’s even with careful safe sex practices and regular testing. So that should very much be part of their conversation. (See the last question here.)
Rich: In a way, I hope her problem is with disease? The misinformation behind her fears is a lot easier to disprove. What I fear is that it’s less tangible than just “I’m afraid you’ll give me AIDS.” I’m afraid it’s something like … her thinking he’s less of a man for liking guys? Or subscribing to the bi-erasing belief that if a guy likes one guy, he must only like guys.
Stoya: That last one drives me up a wall.
Rich: Did you ever believe it? Did bisexual guys ever give you pause?
Stoya: When I was still in my teens, I worried butt play opened up a whole world I couldn’t compete with.
Rich: Ah, like insecurity?
Stoya: Yep, totally insecurity. And that definitely came with a (toxic, warped, intertwined with religion and shame) worry that I’d turn someone gay and lose him. Like, “How could I ever work a prostate like someone who actually has a prostate can?”
Rich: That is almost certainly the most open-minded, sex-positive way to manifest these feelings. How did you get over thinking like that?
Stoya: I became a sex symbol? Which does not scale at all.
Rich: Haha, right. But I do think that it does hit near an important principle, which is the amount of confidence it takes to be in an open arrangement. You have to jump into the void assuming that your partner isn’t going to let go of the rope, and that when they jump, they’re going to climb back willingly. Insecurity is going to lead to jealousy, which will lead to fighting, which will make this leisure sex a lot less leisurely in the long run.
Stoya: So maybe the male bisexuality discomfort is a red herring?
Rich: I mean, it’s possible. If the root of the problem is some kind of insecurity on her part, I think that’ll be a problem regardless of gender, and they should reconsider how ready they are to take this leap.
Stoya: I agree.
Rich: I was in an open relationship in which my boyfriend was very disturbed by me bottoming, and in general by me wanting to have sex with other guys. He was completely at peace with his own desire to both generally hook up with other guys and specifically bottom for them, but not cool with me doing it.
Stoya: Was he disturbed by you bottoming to him? Or did he never top?
Rich: I mean, out of the hundreds of times we had sex, he topped me maybe two or three. So I was guided by pragmatism to this open arrangement—I want to bottom sometimes; I can’t with you; I’ll find people I can with. It seemed logical to me, but logic and emotion make furious bedfellows. I wasn’t willing to concede and put myself in an arrangement that was blatantly lopsided, ultimately. We broke up eventually.
Stoya: That seems instructive here! Gosh, I hope these two can manage to work it out.
Rich: Yeah, the scenario described in this question worries me. It feels virtually irreconcilable if based on irrational ideas that they can identify as such but still can’t get past. And I think they’re going to have to get past it for the open arrangement to actually work. People make concessions in relationships all the time, but it seems to me that attempting equality is necessary. It’s the cornerstone of harmony.
Stoya: I think they should check their STI prevention knowledge and make sure that’s up to date—remember, there are plenty of other risks like hepatitis and gonorrhea when it comes to sex—and do some major introspection about how confident they actually are in their relationship with each other before they open it up. Or open it further. If it’s the “seeing someone as a lesser man” thing, interrogate where that idea comes from and why you put stock in it. Interrogate that brutally.