How to Do It

My Husband Initiates Sex With an Absurd, Demeaning Act

How do I get him to stop?

Photo illustration of a woman covering her face in front of neon birds.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo seb_ra/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Send your questions for Stoya and Rich to howtodoit@slate.com.

Dear How to Do It,

I am a 35-year-old woman in a hetero marriage and could use some help figuring out how to communicate with my husband about foreplay. Once we get to the sex itself, he’s an attentive lover, happy to go down on me and make sure I come. However, he usually initiates sex by asking if I want to suck his penis, or telling me I want to suck his penis and just taking it out and shaking it at me. He also focuses on my breasts and vagina to the exclusion of the rest of my body. Sometimes I feel like I’m just the sum of my parts! Also, he is my boss, so if he’s gotten mad at me for something work-related, it can feel like my personhood gets shuffled aside. I am attracted to him, but I don’t always want to feel like a bird eager to swallow a fat worm. He has no problem telling me I’ve hurt his feelings if I don’t immediately glom onto his penis. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

—Bird Feeder

Dear Bird Feeder,

Yeesh. When he asks you if you want to suck his penis and you don’t, tell him that. And then tell him why: His approach isn’t turning you on. Quite the contrary, in fact. He’s set this tone of blunt, caveman eroticism, so it seems only fair that you should be able to hit him over the head with his own reality: This isn’t doing it for you.

Some men, even well-intentioned ones, are just thick when it comes to seduction and have to be more or less trained. I know a gay guy who has used “Nice tits” as a pickup line in bars. He’s encountered enough gay men who aren’t so sensitive about these matters to understand that being crude is working for him. Not only is it effective, it’s easy—why would he change? By not speaking up, you’re effectively giving your husband a pass for this behavior.

But I have a feeling that you’re asking what you’re asking because there’s some kind of roadblock that is obstructing your taking of the direct route. You have several options: You can sit him down and tell him all about your feelings; you can nonverbally inform him via passionate kisses or by moving his mouth to where you want it during sex; you can write him a memo on company letterhead. (On that note, the workplace dynamic you describe also sounds no good—you haven’t asked me about that, but I suggest you put up much stronger barriers there.) Eventually, if you want to make any progress, you’re going to have to communicate this in some way, and dishing out what you’ve been taking, I think, is the surest bet that you’re speaking a language that your husband will understand. If he has no problems telling you that you’ve hurt his feelings, why do you have a problem telling him? Your feelings are valid (you don’t need me to tell you that—your body is speaking volumes), and the longer this goes on, the unhappier you will be. Eventually, your feelings will become threatening to the future of your relationship. Don’t let it get to that point … unless, of course, you want to.

Dear How to Do It,

You must get tired of letters from folks who don’t really have a problem, but, well, I need reassurance that I don’t have a problem. I’m a 54-year-old gay man. My husband and I have been together 25 years—19 as committed partners, the last six as legal spouses. Our relationship has had its ups and downs, but we love each other very much and I can’t imagine life without him. Our families, jobs, and communities are very supportive.

We have not had sex since at least 2001. I can keep track of the date because I remember which house we were in, and we’ve moved several times since then. Our story followed the old adage, “Put a penny in the jar every time in the first year, take one out every time after that, and the jar will never go empty.” We slowed way down after the first couple years, then we just stopped. It was a time with a lot going on: health challenges, addiction recovery, career change, relationship challenges. We talked about sex, among other things, with a therapist at the time; he told us that it was not uncommon to stop in times of crisis and transition, that we shouldn’t rush each other, but that we should stay open to sexual intimacy as it redeveloped.

It hasn’t. We are physically intimate, snuggling, kissing, back rubbing, etc., but nothing that could be called sexual. We check in with each other from time to time, and while we both say that we would be open to the idea of sex, neither of us has initiated it. The truth is: I don’t miss it and don’t care if it never happens again. Even when it was more frequent, I could take it or leave it, and I’ve never been very good at it. I masturbate occasionally—as does my husband—but for me that is little more than a personal-care practice like a hot bath. It feels nice and makes me feel better afterward, but it’s not something I think about when I’m not doing it. I visually appreciate beautiful men but don’t fantasize about them. I’ve noticed that even my dreams are very rarely sexual.

I have had my testosterone levels checked and I am in the normal range, just below average. I take antidepressants, which I know can lower libido. I am otherwise healthy. I also learned in the last few years that my parents are sexually incompatible: Their sex life ended shortly after my brother and I were born, but they have stayed married for 50-some years without it. So …  if I’m OK with it, and he (seems to be) OK with it, is there anything wrong with a happy, loving, stable, sexless marriage?

—Problem-Free

Dear Problem-Free,

Please, I love nonproblems. They’re the easiest to solve. In his 1995 memoir Palimpsest, Gore Vidal wrote of his partner Howard Austen: “ ‘How,’ we are often asked, ‘have you stayed together for forty-four years?’ The answer is, ‘No sex.’ That satisfies no one, of course, but there, as Henry James would say, it is.” Vidal and Austen were together until 2003, when Austen died.

So there it is. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a happy, loving, stable, sexless marriage. If you want it, you want it, and neither of you want it. You clearly provide many other things to each other, and no one partner can provide absolutely everything. If neither of you are mad about it, no one else should be. I support you.

Dear How to Do It,

It’s been almost a year since my second ex and I broke up. We dated on and off for two years, and throughout it all, it felt like everything would work out and we’d be together for a long time. I had moved away to college around 1½ years into the relationship, and we both knew it’d be difficult to keep it long distance but wanted to try. When I came back one break, however, we talked, and she explained that the long distance was still difficult and communication was becoming a problem. We parted ways amicably and kept in touch somewhat, but fell off because of school and work. A year later, she’s gotten past the relationship and has found other partners. While I have had my share of partners, I still feel a romantic attachment to my ex (even though we’ve talked and confirmed that long distance just won’t work). I’ve tried forgetting and essentially repressing it, and now that I am trying to confront my feelings and work through them, I feel it more and more likely I will take the step to go to therapy for this. Any recommendations to help come to terms with my own emotions, besides possibly seeking a professional?

—Since U Been Gone

Dear Since U Been Gone,

You seem awfully aware of what’s going on inside, so I don’t think your problem is coming to terms with your emotions—it’s managing them. I’m so sorry that you are heartsick, but it’s still early. You haven’t been broken up for a year. This may be one you just need to ride out. I believe that if love is strong enough, it never really ends. You just absorb other experience and its attendant feelings in the process of living, and eventually, that lost love is diluted enough to be tolerable. Our hearts have infinite space in them—a mother doesn’t stop loving her first child when the second is born. Why should you stop loving your ex just because circumstance has made the relationship untenable?

It’s a lovely thing to be as sensitive as you are. You will love again, and it will make moving on so much easier. It just hasn’t happened yet. Your next one will be different, perhaps in some ways even lacking compared with your beloved ex, but they will be yours, and I know you have it in you to appreciate how special that is.

Go forward secure in the knowledge that there’s nothing wrong, that it is in fact only right to be as emotional as you are. You could probably use some more casual sex to get your mind off things, but only if you think you can handle it. And if you go that route, use the fleeting booty sparingly—it’s a treat, not a crutch. Otherwise, do whatever you can to keep yourself busy. Hang out with your friends, work out, watch movies. Learn a language. Have you read Dune? It’s complex, vast, and so full of unique vocabulary that it’s like learning a language; you basically can’t think about anything besides Dune when you’re reading Dune. So read Dune. I think you’re going to be hurting no matter what, so basically you must devote yourself to pain relief.

And don’t possibly seek a professional; actually do it. You’ll need help as you heal.

Dear How to Do It,

My husband and I have agreed to look for folks to play with together after both having had some outside experiences. We’re having fun fantasizing and planning this out. It’s a good thing.

My problem is this: I went online in the past, when I was 40 and Size 14, and was frequently rejected as too old and too fat. Well, I’m now older and heavier, and I also have a disfigured breast from cancer surgery (looks fine in clothing, obvious when naked). I’m concerned that my husband will be upset by the negativity we’re likely to encounter (it upset me then, but it’s not something I’ve shared with him, only my successes). For myself, I’m nervous that I’ll draw fetishists, BBW lovers, or others who will overemphasize what to me is just part of the body I live in.

So my question is, what should I say to my husband—and at what point should I say it—to guarantee a pleasant and successful experience for both of us?

—What About the Jerks

Dear What About the Jerks,

Sit him down right now and tell him your story. Tell him I told you that online dating sucks sometimes for virtually everyone; I’ve heard hard-bodied 25-year-old gay guys, whose every orifice oozes testosterone, complain about rejection. It’s just part of the game. Online strangers see you as data and regard you like a collector does a baseball card: need it/got it/don’t want it.

It’s very sweet that you care so much about your husband’s feelings when clearly you’ve been affected by shabby online treatment in the past and could very well be again. But look: You’re in this together. The difference this time is you can talk it out with someone who does know how wonderful and beautiful you are, someone who is an authority on your great worth. I urge you to approach this new endeavor with a sense of humor (a witty and well-written profile may go a long way) and without entitlement—you have a loving husband, so anything else that comes along is gravy.

Are you at all interested in swinging or polyamory? It might be more effective and less soul-crushing to attempt coordinating your group sex IRL, via clubs and organizations that could be near you. In general, people are less shitty to someone who is an actual human standing in front of them, and these environments might make for a more pleasant hunting experience. (Of course, many people are just shitty regardless of their chosen medium at any given moment, so negativity is certainly possible to encounter at a swingers’ club or munch too.)

Finally, I understand your nervousness about being fetishized—you have the right to be treated however you prefer, and that will be key to a satisfying sexual encounter. But knowing strangers as intimately as I have over the years, I do think that casual sex often does involve a degree of objectification. You’re not usually touching souls during your first recreational sex encounter with a partner—it’s fueled by superficial attraction (you don’t know each other, so there is very little else that it could be about). I’m not saying you should go flag down fetishists who will process you as merely a pile of parts, but it might be useful to lean into whatcha got to get what you want. You may very well already be adept at owning your stuff, and thus this advice is redundant, but just keep in mind that there can be a fine line between appreciation and objectification, especially when “having a type” is involved, and there’s a lot of dudes out there who are unyielding about their types.

Advice From Dear Prudence

I am a relatively young, male, and not-yet-tenured professor at a university. My department is overwhelmingly older, white, and male. Several of the senior professors in my department, including the chair, have attitudes toward women that are downright sexist. On a number of occasions, I have heard these faculty members make comments about the physical appearance of young women that are inappropriate and creepy. However, recently a female student confessed to me something that truly disturbs me. She said that two of the senior faculty, one of whom is the chair of my department, pays her for sex. She said she does not want to tell anyone else, partly for fear of getting in trouble because prostitution is illegal, but also because the two professors are essentially paying her college tuition in exchange for her services. I feel this is an extreme ethical violation, and judging by the character of the two professors probably only the tip of the iceberg. But I am at a severe power disadvantage in this situation. My boss can easily fire me. If the student refuses to testify, then the perpetrators can simply deny it and no one would believe me. What should I do?