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 don’t like to be touched in a sexual way by my husband. I am trying to get to the bottom of this in therapy, but it’s hard to talk about. At least for our first few years together, we were very physically intimate, with lots of sexual and non-sexual touching. But after the first few years—say, in the last year or two—I don’t enjoy the same frequency of intimacy. I’ve gained weight, and it’s impacted my already less-than-stellar body image, and I don’t want him to look at and feel my body with any kind of admiration. Additionally, a close friend of ours sexually assaulted me about six months ago, and I think that has sometimes left me feeling very icky when my husband touches me intimately. Even though I’m devastated to react this way, it’s automatic.
My husband has tried even harder in his attempts to touch me as I keep putting distance between us. I know he just wants me to feel turned on/relaxed/safe when he initiates sexual contact, but I often freeze and shut him down. When I realize I’m doing this, I fight the impulse to shove his hands away, but I still feel no pleasure in being touched. We talk about it and he is very supportive, but it’s hard, especially since physical intimacy is a large part of what makes him feel loved, desired, and secure. In the times where I relax enough and we do have sex—maybe once every one or two months—it’s absolutely amazing. I know that sex drives change and relationships change, but I would give anything to be able to have an uncomplicated, enjoyable sex life with my wonderful, sexy husband. Do you have any suggestions for coping with this?
—To the Touch
Dear To the Touch,
You’re in a tough position, and I want to start by congratulating you on the work you’re already doing. It’s great that you’re in therapy and developing a better awareness of yourself. You need a space to work through difficult emotions and trauma. You may need some time away from sexual touch altogether, and you should not feel guilty for that.
If you are ready to try, those sexual times where you do relax and enjoy yourself may hold the clues to what course of action is best. Recall the lead-up to each instance of successful sex. Ask your husband if he’s willing to talk through those memories together. Make notes, actual notes, about how you were interacting at the times that you were feeling good. The hope is that some patterns will emerge, giving you and your husband better information about what currently works for you, and that you’ll be able to take this data to your therapist when you’re comfortable broaching sexual topics with them.
A couple other suggestions: Have you tried reversing who does the touching? If the physical action is initiated by you, you might feel more control in the situation. Are you comfortable hearing your husband express a desire for physical contact? You could try having him make specific statements of what he wants, like “I want a non-sexual hug,” or “I would like to massage your hand and see what that develops into” with the understanding that asking doesn’t guarantee availability.
You clearly love your husband, and he clearly loves you, and it sounds like you are on the right course to working through this. Good luck.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a queer woman who has wanted to try strap-on sex with a partner for a while. Here’s the main thing holding me back: If my dating and sexual activity patterns of the past several years holds up, I’m likely to have 1–2 monogamous partners a year where we date for a couple of months and things break off afterward. I also am not great with casual sex and need to get to know my partner a fair bit before engaging in something more intimate. I’m pretty fine with that in most aspects, but have never had the confidence to say: “Hey, so-and-so that I’ve had sex with a month, I want to try a strap-on with you and I’ve never done that before. Would you be up for that?” I want to feel empowered to use a strap-on, but I’m stuck on getting the actual experience to help with that empowerment. What do you recommend? Trying one out solo?
Get a strap-on and make friends with it. Wear it, walk in it, watch it bobble up and down. Wrap your hand around it and imagine what it would be like to nudge your new protrusion into another person. Explore your desire. Do you imagine yourself covering your partner, pressing them into the mattress with the weight of your body? Or do you imagine yourself leaning back as they fellate you? Yes to both is absolutely an acceptable answer—as is no to both, but yes to something else entirely. Think about how your strap-on makes you feel. Acknowledge those emotions and allow them to happen on your own.
Knowing what you want out of the experience can enable you to, say, get on a kink- or queer-focused dating site and look for potential partners in a place where people are expecting specific, particular activities to be part of the negotiation process. Make your boundaries clear in your profile—disclose your need to develop extended rapport before getting intimate—and start searching for profiles of people who have similar interests.
If dating sites aren’t your thing, you can still use that self-knowledge you’ve developed to better communicate with your potential partners earlier than in the past. When you do feel ready, consider changing your phrasing to “Hey [person I’ve gotten to know and had a number of dates with], I’d like to try incorporating this strap-on thing that I feel X, Y, and Z about.”
Dear How to Do It,
I am newly married—about six months—and was dating my lovely bride for a couple of years before then. She is very sweet and caring, but the honest truth is that she acts like my mother. Over time, this has made me less and less attracted to her sexually. It doesn’t help that my past few partners were very open to things like role playing, BDSM, ass play, etc. My wife, on the other hand, is not into any of those things. She even scoffs at sexy lingerie. Recently, we have had lots of sex because we’re trying for a kid, but I’d honestly rather relax and watch TV. The other day, she got angry because she says that I don’t want her, and we got in a big fight.
The truth is she’s right. I am just not into her in that way anymore, even though she is beautiful. I like being with her and we are great partners in life, and we would make great parents together, so I don’t want to leave. I want to spice up our sex life, but when I’ve tried, she just isn’t into role play, any form of pain, and is completely turned off by anything that’s not basic intercourse. Do you have any advice on how to improve our sex life? I suggested a sex class, and that upset her.
—How I Met My Mother
Dear How I Met My Mother,
I’m concerned that a compatibility issue this major is happening during a time when you’re actively trying to have a child. If your wife “acting like your mother” desexualizes her in your eyes, I strongly encourage you to think about how actual motherhood is likely to increase your wife’s apparent maternal qualities. You were also together for two years before you got married. Did this problem not arise sooner?
Taking you at your word that you genuinely want to improve your sex life, I’m curious about what was happening when you suggested the sex class. Was there already tension in your relationship over the sex you two are and aren’t having? Is it possible that your wife is feeling pressure from you—and maybe herself—to be something she isn’t? I ask because when you talk about what your wife doesn’t want, the examples you use are fairly kinky. There’s a whole world of massage, tantra, and other activities that might be worth exploring. Take some time to gather your thoughts and do some introspection. Figure out what it is that you need (Generally more variety? Spankings every other month?) and what amount of participation you require from your partner.
Have some conversations together with no end goal other than increasing your understanding. Ask your wife what she enjoys about sex, and how she wants to have it. You could start with “We’ve talked a lot about my needs, and I want to make sure I’m clear on yours.” Listen actively, and be cautious. Pick a time when you have a few hours to work through rough patches as they come up. Be gentle with each other, and try not to get frustrated. You’ll have the opportunity to re-establish caring communication, and you’ll benefit from having more information when you’re trying to come up with acceptable compromises.
Dear How to Do It,
There is a probably sexist stereotype that women can’t be bad in bed as long as they’re present. That’s not true, right? And what is “good,” anyway?
If the stereotype is that men want sex more than women, so any willing woman is good in bed, I can confirm it is both sexist and not true. But what is “good” is trickier.
Perhaps I don’t need to say this, but good and bad are incredibly subjective, especially when we’re talking about sexuality. Even when we’re talking about consent conversations, sometimes one person’s HR meeting is another’s wild turn-on. Thanks to my time on camera as a porn performer, and my generally loud sexuality, I’ve heard quite a bit about people’s sexual tastes over the years. I did not keep detailed notes or do a formal survey—and gosh, how I wish I had—but I do have some opinions based on spottily remembered anecdotes.
Good seems to serve as a common stand-in for “I enjoyed this interaction or video” and bad seems to frequently mean “Something about this didn’t work for me.” It’s unfair to dismiss a person as bad in bed over what is likely a mismatch of desires or a misfire of communication or trust-building. And I see oversimplification at work when we review a person as “good” at sex because we, individually, had a good time with them. Sex can be a positive experience because it’s two (or more) people having a happy, consensual bang-fest full of aggressive orgasms. Sex can be great because it’s two (or more) people deepening their intimacy and connection with each other. Sex can be wonderful because it’s you taking time with your body all alone to reconnect with yourself.
You have to figure out what “good” is for you, and you’ll have an easier time achieving it as you understand what you, specifically, like and need.