How to Do It

At a Loss

I dropped 140 pounds. Why is my wife still turning me down for sex?

A man in bed with his sleeping wife.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by fizkes/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Send your questions, even “silly” ones, to Stoya and Rich at howtodoit@slate.com. We won’t use names.

Dear How to Do It,

I am a fairly happily married 50-year-old man who’s been with my wife for 23 years. I have been obese for most of my life with the exception of the time I was in college, and I became morbidly obese over time, reaching more than 370 pounds. Sex between my wife and me had gone from two to three times per week early in our marriage, before we had children, to about twice per month. I decided something must be done about my weight. I became an active person who runs races, eats totally differently, etc. I am down to 230 pounds with plans to lose more.

I thought this would change things in the bedroom. It has, in some ways: My stamina has improved dramatically, as has my libido. But I expected this would alter my wife’s perception of me and we would have sex more often—I thought my appearance was the problem. That hasn’t happened. Part of it is kids living with us; when we do have sex, it’s always late at night and when we are both very tired. This, combined with my wife getting older and associated hormonal issues, means that we have about a 10-day window where she has any libido, and even then she insists sex should be spontaneous and romantic. I still find her immensely attractive and sexy, even more so now than when we got married. But my concern here is that the lack of regular sex is causing me to maybe become susceptible to temptation. If an opportunity came up, I’m not sure I would have the strength to say no—in fact, I’m almost sure that I wouldn’t. I have found myself being emotionally available to people I shouldn’t be and sort of hoping that they respond. This makes me feel a mixture of guilt, anger, and shame. I don’t want to blow up my marriage over this, and I’ve suggested that we may need to have some couples therapy or just talk in detail about it, but she has refused. She says it’s not her problem, it’s mine, and she says as a guy I should be able to “take care of it,” meaning masturbation. (I might also mention that if she catches me masturbating, she’s furious about it and compares it to being unfaithful.) I’m not sure what to do here.

—Weighing

Dear Weighing,

It’s incredibly disappointing to read that your wife turned down the prospect of couples therapy because there are a number of things in your letter that indicate she could use some counseling. She is misguided to consider a sexual issue in a partnered, monogamous setting to be only one party’s problem—your problem is her problem, as annoying as that may be. That she equates sex with only release and sees masturbation as a replacement is equally troubling. That she then shames you for it is raising my blood pressure. From what you describe, it sounds like a huge part of the problem is that her relationship with sex is not exactly healthy, and perhaps she could use her own solo therapist.

You have to get through to her, or your most significant sexual relationship will end up being a throuple comprising you, your hand(s), and the ensuing shame that she imposes on you for jerking off. Or even worse: You’ll let yourself cheat and threaten your relationship. Don’t let it get to that point. It sounds like you’ve done everything possible to get through to your wife to no avail, so it’s time to kick things up a notch or 12. I would let her know what you told me. An easy way to impart this information could be to simply send her the very letter that you sent in to the column. It would no doubt stop her in her tracks, and would probably not help with the sex in the short term, but maybe seeing all of these pieces of your frustration in one place will help her really understand. In order to get her to take you seriously, you may need to spell out just how serious the situation is.

In the meantime, stop with the idea that you are powerless but to cheat on your wife. You took control of a lifelong weight problem and already recognize your own instigating emotional behavior; listen to yourself and quit it. To be fair to your wife, insofar as she deserves it, try to listen to what she is already telling you. If you really want to have sex and you can only do so with your wife in a 10-day window per month in which she is requesting spontaneity and romance, do your best to lavish her with as much of both as possible. If you want her to meet you halfway, get there first.

Dear How to Do It,

I’m curious, after reading this and similar columns, whether you really take the advice to talk about sex with new partners before you have it. I find it extremely awkward and almost presumptuous to do that—even if I’m just “coming upstairs for a movie” after a couple of dates, it feels like it’s so weird to say, “Just in case we have sex, here’s what I like and what I don’t like.” I have experienced some sex that was less than ideal as a result of my reluctance, but the alternative of treating it like it’s an explicit pre-negotiation seems worse. To be clear, I consent to this sex, and I’m not talking about someone who is too aggressive and needs to be shut down—I’m talking about what I see as the more common method of fumbling a little bit and discovering each other through trial and error, without extensive discussion. On a scale of “ideal” to “very unideal,” where does this default fall?

—Not a Lawyer

Dear Not a Lawyer,

I don’t think there’s a wrong way to approach consensual sex—even ass backward works and, in fact, feels great—so if the fumbling you describe mostly works for you, I’m glad you’ve found it, and I wish I could present you in person with a rose to pin on your nose. When I recommend discussions ahead of time, it’s usually because people have special considerations/anxieties that need addressing lest the sex suffer considerably or not happen at all. And it’s not like I’m advocating showing up at a hookup’s spot with a PowerPoint presentation—a few sentences exchanged usually does the trick.

Ideally, the sex would be the communication, and both strangers would just magically know how to do each other efficiently and with maximum pleasure. Sometimes sex feels that way, but often it doesn’t. It sounds like you’re pretty laid back when it comes to sex, so your interests aren’t immediate need-to-know information for your partner. If you weren’t, they might be. It comes down more than anything to sensibility.

The thing is, in the age of apps, a lot of sex is brokered explicitly ahead of time. There are now many forums in which having these conversations isn’t only not awkward; it’s expected. This is especially the case for gay people, since unlike straight people, we can’t take one look at each other and have a good sense of penis-goes-in-the-vagina compatibility. The range of sexual positions among gay men (from total bottoms to total tops and the vast gray area between) makes such conversations a natural part of pre-sex communication—I’ve talked about what I’m into on apps, over dinner, in a club. News flash: I don’t really find talking about sex (especially with prospective partners) awkward. If I did, I wouldn’t have this job.

I do find, though, that discussions in the middle of sex can get way more awkward. Guys tend to be more understanding and less persistent about these matters when their dicks aren’t hard. I don’t feel like listening to some charged-up guy whine about not getting to put his dick exactly where he wants to, for instance, and it’s easier to avoid that with a conversation upfront. So yes, I do practice what I preach, though the reality often deviates from the plan, and spontaneous fumbling is cool.

As far as these conversations taking a presumptuous tone—sure, I guess? But during any date or extended courtship, there comes a point where you just know where things are headed (to the bedroom … naked). I assume you have some sort of safe sex/status discussion at some point, even if it’s hurried and between your tongues shooting into each other’s mouths like fireworks. Whatever other talk is necessary could take place then, even. Only a selfish or impatient lover is going to be put off by the other’s candor, and even then they’d be labeling themselves as someone to avoid, thus doing you a favor.

Dear How to Do It,

I’m not the sort of guy who experiences attraction very strongly. I’ve never had a crush, and I can count the number of times I’ve felt butterflies on one hand. This, plus the usual cultural barriers that encourage people not to be their true selves, kept me from realizing I was gay until I was 21. Six years later, I’ve only had sex twice. The first time was when I first went to a gay bar, a guy started flirting with me, and I convinced myself I was attracted to him because I didn’t want to die a virgin. What ensued lacked any communication, any enthusiasm, any orgasms, or any fun. The other time was when a visiting friend expressed interest, which surprised me, but not in a bad way. When we slept together that night, I had a much better time because he at least cared about my feelings, pleasure, and safety, but it was still difficult to get off, which I attribute to nerves and time pressure since this was the only time in the near future when he’d be in my area. We texted for the next couple of months, after which he ghosted me, but the brief taste of sex and romance I had finally convinced me that I’m not secretly asexual or aromantic.

What both of these instances have in common, besides putting myself under mental pressure to climax and having trouble as a result, was that I had to be approached first before I even began to think of the other person in a sexual way. (These are the only two times in my life that anyone’s ever expressed interest in me, by the way, aside from one poor girl in high school.) I don’t want to keep waiting to be approached, to need someone to be interested in me before I give myself permission to be interested in them. I want to make the first move, but I don’t know whom I’d approach. Guys catch my eye all the time, but the force of attraction is never any stronger than just enough to turn my head. I know I need to put myself out there more; getting out more often and setting up a dating or hookup app profile would both be steps in the right direction. But when I do put myself out there, I want to find people hot like I think a tasteful pinup or a well-written erotic short story is hot. How can I cultivate these feelings?

—On Approach

Dear On Approach,

Have you considered that maybe the primary force of your sexual attraction is beyond the aesthetic and perhaps more situated in the spectrums of demisexuality or sapiosexuality—the former being sexual attraction by way of emotional connection, the latter by way of intelligence? It could account for you having an easier time in bed with a friend than a stranger.

Just a theory to consider. If you suspect, though, that physical attraction is your mode, as relatively subtle as it may be for you, start by cultivating a type. It’s possible that you haven’t even allowed yourself a language of desire, so you have no idea how to put into words what it is you’re looking for. Frankly, I’m a little confused. If there’s such a thing as a tasteful gay pinup, I’ve never seen one (would it be like … Ricky Martin in an issue of Tiger Beat in the ’90s?). You want a guy who’s hot like an erotic short story is hot, but … what does that even mean until you actually enter an erotic situation with him (which would require, ya know, physical attraction)? It just seems like you’re more into ideas than actual humans at this point, which is not the best way to connect with those humans.

Start with the basics. A guy I was seeing a very long time ago—before I really knew what I was doing as a gay, but I was absolutely certain I wanted to do it and a lot—was really into asses. He’d comment all the time on the bubbles among us, and, you know, it kind of wore off. I knew butts were highly functional when it came to gay sex, but I never had really adjusted my eyes to enjoy the physical form of a big, round, male ass. He unlocked that for me, and now that I think of it, I should be more grateful about his impact on my life than I’m inclined to be. So for you, I think you just have to train your eyes. So much of what’s attractive to us comes in highly subjective ways—through early experience, in dreams, and, yes, in the pages of Tiger Beat. This is your life, so decide what you’re actually looking for. It could just come down to you being more selective than most. Maybe that seems prohibitive now, but once you get enough practice and see all the available sex out there for the taking, you’ll realize that being selective can be, in fact, a virtue. Hold onto it.

Dear How to Do It,

I’m a mid-30s woman, married six years with twin toddlers. My husband and I dated long-distance for about 10 years before marrying, which involved me emigrating. I love my husband so much. He is an incredible dad, a loving friend, and a capable partner. He is also, as I have come to recently realize, asexual. I’m not sure how he would define himself, or even if he would—sexuality is so outside his frame of focus that I doubt it ever occurred to him to label himself sexually. He is (obviously) able to have sex and not sex-averse, but he is not interested in it for its own sake, has no sex drive, and doesn’t understand the concept of sex for bonding. Trying to explain my perspective on it is like trying to explain deep-sea diving to a Bedouin.

Before I came to put a name to it, our sex life was very infrequent, stilted, and cursory, and entirely predicated on my initiating. Now that I believe I know sort of what’s going on here, and that my husband is fundamentally incapable of desiring sex and desiring me, I feel completely out at sea. I don’t want to continue to force myself on a partner who neither wants to have sex nor finds me sexy. It feels demoralizing to be in love with someone (and sexually desire them feverishly) who will never, ever see me or want me in that way. I have never been svelte or conventionally attractive, I am even less so after having twins, and I’m fully out of the dating pool in every sense, so fooling around isn’t an option either. Besides, I love my husband, and I love our marriage. I just don’t know how to mourn a sex life that never really existed, and I don’t know how to be at peace with respecting my husband’s space in a loving way and putting my own sexuality to bed indefinitely. How do I navigate this?

—Adrift

Dear Adrift,

How will you mourn your sex life? Extensively and often, I suspect. Repression tends to wreak utter havoc on our well-being before it fails us, making us feel even worse. Be prepared for distinct, multiple waves of torture.

Your letter is a top-to-bottom bummer. You’re so chronically unsatisfied that you can’t even extract the comfort of closure from your belief that your man is asexual. I imagine having such an epiphany with absolutely no reward is like having a sneeze that won’t come out. Except your sneeze is trapped for life. This is no way to live, and all of the excuses in the world won’t convince me that a sexless life with a great guy is your ultimate fate. (The most glaring excuse is your reasons for being “fully out of the dating pool”—more often than not, with sex, where there’s a will there’s a way.)

At the risk of sounding predictable, I advise you to discuss this with your husband in detail. Even if he doesn’t understand it intimately, surely he is aware that the world is full of people whose bodies need sex like food, and he happens to be married to one of them. If your assumptions about his sexuality turn out to be right, you have two choices here: Pursue other options as ethically as possible, or never have sex again. But since you are going to end up having sex again—I guarantee it—you may as well start figuring out how you’re going to make that work with your relationship as opposed to against it.

—Rich