How to Do It

Is It Bad That I Constantly Think of My Ex When I Need to “Get There”?

I’m 100 percent over him.

A woman pictures her ex while enjoying herself.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by miya227/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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

Dear How to Do It,

I am a woman who didn’t lose my virginity until I was 30, to my first boyfriend whom I ended up living with for almost five years. We broke up last fall, and I haven’t even considered sleeping with someone else because I don’t feel physically or emotionally ready to start a relationship, which is the only way I would be interested. But I do miss the regular sex and have been masturbating much more regularly, which was something I had never done before I met my ex. My problem is the only way for me to really enjoy it is to imagine that I’m with him. Even when I watch porn, I tend to go for videos where the man resembles my ex: tall, dark hair, dark eyes. I find myself muttering his name just the way I used to when I was with him.

I am 100 percent over the loss of our relationship, which was great at times but a bad fit in a lot of different ways. I think my issue is that I don’t have much of an imagination, and on top of that I am incredibly shy, so the thought of intimacy with someone other than him is more a source of terror than pleasure. I know that eventually I will feel comfortable enough to start seeing new people and find someone with whom I can build that same level of trust, but for now I just feel like a loser who fantasizes about the guy who dumped her. Is it common to fantasize about an ex instead of the much hotter guy in the porn? It’s not like he was some dynamo in bed, but sex with him was comfortable and pleasurable and the only thing I have to compare to. I’ve had brushes of intimacy with other men and I’ve tried to focus on those memories instead, but in the end, it’s always my ex’s name that I’m calling. Any advice on how to learn to enjoy myself without fantasizing about him? Or is this not as pathetic as I’ve made it in my head?

—X-Files

Dear X-Files,

You ended a five-year relationship a few months ago. It is utterly normal to need some time, more than a handful of months, to readjust to being single. What’s not normal is how hard of a time you’re giving yourself—referring to yourself as a loser who got dumped because you still think about him. If the relationship actually was great at times but a bad fit, why are you describing your ex as the guy who dumped you in a way that seems pretty self-derisive? Reconcile that before you go back into the dating circuit.

I do think it’s healthy to start phasing your ex out of your masturbation. Start by watching different porn. Watch porn that doesn’t have any men with dark hair, or even porn that doesn’t have any men at all. Try animation. Go on a porn-surveying spree and explore stuff you didn’t even know existed. Give yourself a chance to be aroused or enticed by specifics that don’t mirror what you’ve already experienced.

Learn how to masturbate. American queen of self-love Betty Dodson has a number of books and workshops that you may find useful, but you can learn how your body works entirely on your own without actually needing instruction or props. Take some deep breaths, and feel yourself in your body. Draw your awareness to your erogenous zones (your ears, the back of your neck, your inner thighs, the inside of your arms—and if you aren’t sure what your erogenous zones are, it’s worth trying every patch of skin on your body) and try touching them in various ways (gentle stroking, tickling, firm touch). Pay attention to what turns you on and what feels good. Stay present in the current moment, and draw your awareness back to your body every time it strays—to your ex, yes, but also to dinner plans or mail that needs to be sorted or whatever else pops into your brain. Incorporate your vulva, and keep bringing your focus back to your physical parts when your ex’s face pops into your head. The key here is to accept that memories of him are going to surface and to calmly return to the masturbation at hand. Eventually you’ll be able to orgasm without thinking of him, and you’ll have a varsity- level knowledge of how you like to be touched.

Dear How to Do It,

I haven’t had a relationship (or sex) in eight years. I’ve recently met someone amazing, and this may be really good—like serious-relationship good. Here’s the problem: My eight-years-ago partner gave me genital warts. I ended up with five or six little warts that my doctor zapped off. When I talked with my then-partner about it, he said he’d had them once years before and hadn’t realized it was still a problem. My doctor advised that the warts were caused by HPV (not the kind linked to a risk of cancer).

Any advice on what I should do if this new guy and I are likely to sleep together? I like him so much and absolutely cringe at the idea of having to tell him about this, but I know I must. I haven’t had any since, but as my ex found out, there can be no sign of these for a long time, and then they may show up. Could I bend the truth and tell him that HPV was picked up during a routine smear, be reassuring that it’s something a lot of people have and is harmless, and say I’ve been advised that it’s the type that may cause tiny warts? Even that would be incredibly embarrassing, but better than saying, “Hey, I’ve had genital warts.” I know that’s not honest and you’ll probably tell me to be truthful, but any kind of script would be helpful. Even writing this email I feel close to tears.

—Little Secret

Dear Little Secret,

The site for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention literally says, “HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women get the virus at some point in their lives.” And yet, HPV can still bring us to tears of shame.

Yes, I do think you have to be honest about this. Start alone. In the dark is fine at first if that helps. Say, “I carry at least one strain of human papillomavirus, known as HPV, which is the most common sexually transmittable infection in the U.S.: 42.5 percent of adults in the U.S., like me, have HPV. I know I have it because I’ve had an outbreak of lesions, frequently referred to as genital warts. Even though the warts have been burned off, I may still be able to infect other people and will need to disclose this to potential sexual partners for the rest of my sexually active life.” Say it out loud. Cry if you have to.

When you feel ready, start using a mirror. Look yourself in the eye. Say, “I have HPV. I know I have HPV because I’ve had lesions and had them removed. The right thing to do is to disclose this to potential sexual partners before we have any kind of genital contact.” Maintain eye contact with yourself. Say it out loud, until you can get through the whole thing without tearing up.

If you’re still feeling nervous, bring in a picture of this guy. Practice again: “I have HPV. I’ve had lesions removed, but I may still be contagious. I know I have a strain that causes genital warts, and as far as I know that’s the only strain I carry. HPV is a common virus among sexually active adults, but I still need to tell you and give you time to consider the risks you’re taking if we engage in sexual activity where our genitals touch.”

And then, you know, tell this guy what’s up. You can do it. If you can’t look someone in the eye and tell them the truth about your sexual health, how are you going to have open and intimate sex with them?

Dear How to Do It,

After leaving a relationship of four years and having maybe a dozen orgasms—total—during that time, I have dated and gone through a lot of self-discovery. I thought I was just a person who couldn’t really orgasm, but then I dated a guy who made me orgasm multiple times a day. It was great! He and I were not compatible in any other way, unfortunately, so now I am trying to find someone else.

I’ve been dating a new guy for a few months and I’ve had an orgasm a couple of times, but nothing like the other guy. I really enjoy spending time with him but don’t want to sign up for more years of unfulfilling sex. I think if he were just more vocal and clear about his enjoyment, then that would solve things; the other guy was so enthusiastic and made very clear how hot he thought I was, and how much he was enjoying sex, that I didn’t have to think about it and could instead focus on if I was enjoying the sex too. But I feel so petty and shallow that I need to be told I’m pretty to enjoy sex! Is there another way?

—More Please

Dear More Please,

It seems like you’re putting the responsibility for your pleasure and orgasms in the lap of basically anyone who isn’t you. It’s possible that the type of physical stimulation you’re receiving is secondary to being told you’re pretty, but my instincts are telling me to be skeptical. Serious question: Do you tell yourself you’re pretty when you masturbate?

Do some real self-exploration and figure out how to give yourself great orgasms. Learn how to make yourself come multiple times in a masturbation session. Get a solid understanding of how your body works and what it responds to, and communicate that to your partner.

If the positive verbal reinforcement turns out to be a kink, communicate that to your partner too. Say, “I like to converse during sex about how hot it is,” or “I need you to talk to me about how much you’re enjoying what’s going on,” or whatever it specifically is that works for you. Be clear, and understand that not everyone is going to feel comfortable narrating their sexual experiences, especially at first. When you’re encouraging people to talk during sex, prepare for the fact that they might say things you don’t find particularly arousing, or they may have requests of their own. At the end of the day, your orgasms—and helping your partner get you there—are your responsibility, and you’ll have a better time with sex if you understand your sexual response and take ownership of your own pleasure.

Dear How to Do It,

My husband and I met through our mutual interest in BDSM. Although he was more interested in giving the S (in this case, sadism) and I was more interested in receiving D, we made the relationship work and had a very satisfying sex life and a wonderful marriage. About 10 years into our relationship, I began to have health problems. First one surgery, then another; now I’m staring down the barrel of a third. I also suffer from severe migraines. I am almost always in pain. All of this is to say that my sex drive has pretty much disappeared, as has any interest or ability to enjoy the S or the D.

Throughout all of this, my husband has been a superhero. Lesser men would have left years ago. He cares for me when I’m ill—seriously ill—and has supported me when I can’t work, and he’s loved me through all of it. I know he is sexually unsatisfied and has told me that he worries about hurting me, so he tries not to think about sex. We have vanilla sex every couple of months, and he has tried to introduce other forms of nonphysical S, but honestly I’m just putting up with it for his sake until it’s over. Is this just our life now? I don’t think opening the marriage is an option; he is shy and basically can’t have sex unless he cares about the person. He is my best friend and soul mate, and I would do anything for him. Should I just convince him I can tolerate the S, even though I don’t want to?

—So Long to the S

Dear So Long to the S,

Thank you for sharing the heartwarming aspect of your story, and I am so sorry you’re having extended health issues. It is truly beautiful that you still want to be there for your partner’s sexual needs. It sounds like he’s respectful of you, your physical well-being, and your boundaries. That’s beautiful too. Don’t let fear (or even your love) lead you to “convince” him he should do things that you don’t want done to you right now. Remain honest and open with him.

You say you don’t “think” opening up the marriage is on the table, which leads me to wonder if you’ve discussed it with him. Sit down and think about what you’d be comfortable with—a mostly physical secondary relationship? Would dates be acceptable to you? Would a professional submissive be a possible outlet for your husband’s sadism, with your knowledge and blessing, followed by vanilla sex with you? Is vanilla sex a thing you want right now? This is just a starting point. Ask yourself all the questions. Then sit down with your husband and find out what he is and isn’t comfortable exploring. Talk as peers and be frank with each other. Start there. You are in a tough spot, but open communication over time might reveal a solution that’s satisfying to both of you.

Another immediate option that might work is fantasizing out loud together—it would be different than actually playing out a scene. You might find it just as tedious as the nonphysical sadism right now, but it could be worth a shot.

—Stoya