How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Send your questions, even “silly” ones, to Stoya and Rich at firstname.lastname@example.org. We won’t use names.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a woman in my late 20s and I’ve been casually dating for a few years, not really looking for anything serious but open if I find the right person. When I’m alone, I don’t have much of an issue climaxing with my vibrator, but my orgasms have always been a bit underwhelming. However, no matter what I or the guy does, even if I use the vibrator with him there, I can’t seem to get off with someone else around me. Especially when I was a bit younger, this was something that I really struggled with, but I’ve gotten to the point where I just accept that it’s a part of who I am. It doesn’t stop me from really enjoying sex and feeling close with a partner, even if there’s no fireworks conclusion.
My issue is the guys I’m sleeping with. Before we have sex, I let them know that it’s not going to happen for me, so they aren’t expecting me to. The reactions I get vary widely. Some guys seem to think it’s an excuse to not try at all, and others seem to think that theirs is the magical penis that will solve all my problems and get incredibly disappointed when they realize that it won’t. I’ve had a guy burst into tears because he “couldn’t please me” and another who told me that I wasn’t meant to be with anyone because I couldn’t orgasm. Most hurtfully, I had a boyfriend break up with me because “How can I love you if you can’t orgasm?” I don’t know how to make the men in my life just take me at face value when I tell them that I really am enjoying myself and not to worry about it. Should I stop telling them? Fake it? What I’m doing doesn’t seem to be working.
Dear No O,
I’m just … would you like a hug? That’s a lot to be dealing with—especially the guy who thinks love requires experiencing orgasm during partnered sex, which is both bizarre and a very cruel thing to say to someone.
It’s great that you’ve accepted your body’s responses. It’s still possible that you may eventually orgasm at some point with another person in the room, and it’s also totally fine if you never do. Getting heterosexual men to put aside their equation of orgasm-delivering ability and self-worth can be a herculean task. But if a man doesn’t accept your experience of sex and believe you when you say you enjoy it, don’t have sex with him.
You don’t need to start keeping this to yourself, and certainly don’t need to start faking it. Try to spend more time talking up front—screening, basically—than you have been. If you’ve been having these talks before meeting up, wait to have them in person. If you’re having them in person on the second date, have them again on the third. Include some deep discussion about what sex means to each of you, what the importance of your own orgasm is for each of you, and how important his orgasm is. Look for responses that are gentle and caring, and for people who respond with interest in what you do enjoy about sex—especially with an absence of hubris about their ability to change the way your body responds. You might have better luck in the poly scene or with other groups of people who are actively sex-positive.
Dear How to Do It,
I started dating a new person. After four dates, we fell into bed, and something happened that’s never happened to me: I couldn’t get it in. She said she has always been told that she’s tight, but this was weird. I made sure she was wet, but no go. I produced an old tube of lubricant. Nope. No matter how much lube, it would not go in. I can get a finger in just fine. Penis? Nope. Tonight, we had another intimate date, and it produced the same results: no penetration. It’s not like I’m inexperienced. I’ve been sexually active since my teens; I’m over 50 now. She’s had far less experience than me and has never had children. I like her, but I’m not sure what is happening or how to deal with it.
Dear No Entry,
You seem to be taking this new partner’s anatomy personally, and your letter is missing some key information: How did you make sure she was wet? And then you produced an old tube of lubricant? Did you tell her it was old? Did it look so gnarled up that you didn’t even have to tell her?
It sounds to me like she might be nervous. Vaginas are these tubes of muscle, and when a vagina haver is nervous, sometimes the vaginal muscles get tense—or really tight. Sometimes, regardless of whether the vagina haver is nervous or not, they need a lot of foreplay and maybe an orgasm or two before they are open enough to comfortably accommodate a finger, much less a penis. The vibe I’m getting from your message does not lead me to believe you engaged in enough foreplay for this particular partner.
Chill out on the framing of “how to deal with it” if you can. Just as with the axiom that thinking about a missing boner is the best way to keep a boner from appearing, putting pressure on someone with a tense vagina is likely to only increase their tension. Oral sex might be the way to go for a few dates, if that’s something you’re both open to. I strongly suspect she’ll have an easier time if you deprioritize penetration and focus on just exploring each other’s bodies for a bit.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m single and in my mid-20s. I’ve never dated, and I’ve never had sex. For a long time, I thought I was asexual and aromantic, because I was not interested in dating or sex for a very, very long time. However, I began masturbating two or three years ago, and I find myself having the urge to do so pretty frequently. I also really want to start trying to date, but I have some problems: I’m very much a loner and a bit of a hermit. I’m interested in men, but I don’t find myself attracted to men who express interest in me, and in general I don’t find most men attractive enough for me to want to make a move myself. In my mind, I have the image of my ideal man, which is something that I know I can’t rely on.
My other problem is that, well, I’m kind of afraid of men. I don’t know how to read men, and I’m afraid of getting myself tangled up with someone who isn’t right for me, or worse, someone who is dangerous. I’d like to become more comfortable around men because I really do want to see what dating is all about, but that’s a hurdle I struggle with because I’m quite paranoid, to be frank. When I masturbate, I don’t do penetration of any kind, because I don’t know myself down there and I have this idea in my head that penetration is painful or uncomfortable. I’m also uncomfortable with being naked. I think it’s OK if it takes me longer to find someone whom I’d like to date, because I want my first time to be with someone whom I feel comfortable with. But my aversion to the sexuality of my own body is something that I just don’t know how to get over.
—Watch as I Dive In
Dear Watch as I Dive In,
Get right with yourself before you go jumping into partnered sex. Get comfortable with your own body, its responses, the sexual nature it is developing, and yourself as a sexual creature before you bring other people into the mix. Paranoia and hermit behavior might also warrant a visit to a counselor, who could help you through some of the psychological issues keeping you from what you want.
You say you don’t know yourself down there, and you seem to understand that this is a barrier to becoming comfortable with your body. Listen to that. Get to know your parts. Use a mirror to a look at yourself. Trim your fingernails, file them smooth, and slowly (very, incredibly, excruciatingly slowly) press on the opening to whatever orifice you’re working with. Stop as soon as you feel uncomfortable, pull back a little, and then breathe deeply and listen to what your body is telling you. There’s no need to push yourself, no time limit, and you can always go back to it later.
You also don’t ever have to be penetrated. Some sexually active people rarely or never accept penetration. Spend some time thinking about what you want out of sex, how you imagine it happening, and what activities you find appealing. Read some erotica or watch some porn for examples of how sex can happen. (If you’re using video porn, keep in mind that it is not sex ed, but it can still provide varied examples of how people have sex with each other, especially if you use work from feminist or queer studios.)
While you’re doing that, start developing friendships with men. Get to know them outside the context of dating. See them as actual humans. You’ll be better able to evaluate men as dating prospects if you have some baseline of men as humans.
Dear How to Do It,
My partner and I have been together for more than two years. We had a really intense sexual relationship when we first got together, and that has died down to once a week or so. We’re both kinky and practice BDSM. I’ve had prior experience with a few long-term partners at varying levels of integration, but always in the submissive role. He had previously seen a professional dominatrix once or twice but had never previously been in a romantic relationship involving any BDSM aspects. When we got together, without any discussion about it, just following our instincts, we quite naturally and easily just … fell into BDSM play with me in the dominant role and him in the submissive role.
It was great, but in the last year or more, our sex life has really dwindled. One factor is I used to rely on alcohol for liquid courage, but I had to stop drinking for unrelated reasons, so that’s no longer an option. I basically feel like the entire burden of us having good sex is now falling onto my shoulders exclusively. He will initiate vanilla sex sometimes, and I enjoy that and we can both reach orgasm, but there’s no denying it’s less intense. As the partner more experienced in BDSM play and in the dominant role, I’m the one who has to plan the scene, initiate the kinky sex, creatively innovate during the scene, manage the entire episode, and then, of course, provide aftercare. And it just feels burdensome. We’ve discussed switching, and while he’s not opposed to the idea, he just says he “doesn’t know what to do”—which I can’t really fault him for, because I’m kind of feeling that myself. What can I do to fix this situation? How can I stop feeling like it’s such a burden on me to invent kinky scenes for us? What are some strategies I can use for inspiration?
Dear Dwindling Dom,
Normally, “falling” into a BDSM relationship without the necessary discussions and negotiations would be concerning, but here it presents an opportunity. You can role-play being at the beginning again and use tools like yes-no-maybe lists to foster discussion of what makes each of you tick sexually, which I’m hoping will provide inspiration for both of you.
Broach the subject during a calm moment, and do it outside of a scene. Say, “I want to get creative about getting creative, and I think this should be a joint activity.” Go through the list together—you can do a giant one all the way through at once or take it section by section over the course of a few weeks or months. Pay special attention to the maybes and any yeses that either of you didn’t know about.
There are a ton of flavorful ways to handle the second step, but the idea is to get your partner to do some fantasizing himself in a way that is easy for you to pull inspiration or even entire scenes from later—basically, to compile a sex Rolodex to scroll through whenever you feel the well of wanton scenarios running dry. In practice, this can be something he does outside of a scene and writes down or verbally relates to you later. This can be handled as a sex game—anything from assigning homework while in teacher regalia to lashing the fantasy out of him with a single-tail … I don’t know, I’m not privy to the specifics of what works for y’all. Another tactic would be to build a visual mood board of what turns him on.
You can do the same for him. Perhaps something will engage his dominant side and he’ll need a template for things to do to you. Regardless, remember that you love each other. Best of luck to you.