How to Do It

My Sister and Her Husband, Both Virgins, Can’t Figure Out Sex

Should I give them tips?

A woman and a man look confused as they embrace in bed. There are neon crosses in the background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Valeriya/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,

In high school, my younger sister “Eva” got very intensely into a conservative church, purity pledges and all. My brother “Josh” and I never did, and both turned out to be pretty nonreligious with unremarkable dating lives. Eva remained very involved in her church, and three months ago, at 22, she married her similarly devout husband.

This past weekend, Josh informed me that our brother-in-law confessed to him (over too much to drink) that he and Eva hadn’t consummated the marriage despite multiple attempts together. He didn’t mention what kind of difficulties they were having, only that it was also his first time and he felt pretty lost. Josh was focused on getting him sober and getting him home, so the conversation didn’t continue.

I feel terrible for them! I’m trying to figure out if I can say something to Eva: Do I give her an adult version of The Talk? Slide a pamphlet in her purse and run away? I’d be happy to give advice, but I have no idea where to start, because I doubt she’d approve of my unmarried sex life. We have a warm but not deeply close sisterly relationship (think: coffee together a few times a month) so I have no idea where to start. Josh said he would be open to talking to our brother-in-law too, if he could figure out what to say.

—Holy Matrimony

Dear Holy Matrimony,

At least between the two of us, you’re the expert here on Eva’s boundaries, and if you think she’d have a negative response to sex advice from your lived experience, you’re probably correct. If you want to avoid potential awkwardness, that’s totally understandable, and you should tread carefully. But I do think you have some options.

I am so happy that Nadia Bolz-Weber exists and that she’s given her book Shameless to the world. It’s a bit bigger than a pamphlet. Bolz-Weber, a former pastor, writes about members of her congregation who—after a lifetime of abstinence-only, celibacy-till-the-wedding-day teachings—didn’t know how to relate to each other sexually once they were married. I think you could give this book to your sister in a private setting, let her know you’re free to talk if she has any questions or needs to vent, and leave it at that.

Alternately or additionally, Josh could encourage your brother-in-law to speak with their pastor about ways to navigate this problem. My thinking for both suggestions is that Eva and her husband might have an easier time “hearing” tips and encouragements about intimacy from Christian sources. That also shifts the burden of education off of you and your brother. It might be enough for them to realize their issue is common in their community and not something they have to deal with on their own.

Dear How to Do It,

My husband and I had been married three months when I learned from a particularly heartbreaking Facebook message that he had slept with someone else two days prior. It was so unbelievable that he could be capable of this that I read the message out loud to him, saying how it was the weirdest spam bot I had ever seen. Instead of laughing with me, he confessed that it was true. He further explained that he had met her on Tinder, that he had been texting her for days, and that it didn’t feel like he had been doing any of these things. He said it felt like something he literally had no control over, like watching someone else do it, all the while somehow knowing it was him. Obviously, this sounded like bullshit. There were no warning signs, and he repeatedly said he was so happy and so in love with me and he couldn’t believe it had happened either.

Then he started to hallucinate. Frequently. Over the next few days, we went to couple’s counseling, where we were told that it didn’t seem that we had a relationship problem. Instead, our therapist believed what I was beginning to suspect: that he wasn’t lying and there was something else going on with his brain. Which brings us to today, one month later. My husband has now been diagnosed with bipolar 1. A frequent symptom of this is hypersexuality, an issue that can arrive when someone with bipolar is in a manic state. It basically means that they lose control of themselves sexually and begin to act out. This can mean a ramped-up interest in sex or a sudden and difficult-to-manage desire for forbidden sex. So now I’m stuck in a position that I do not understand. How can I hold him accountable for this? How do I move on if he isn’t to blame? How do I deal with a sexual indiscretion that seems to have happened as a result of mental illness?

—Diagnostic

Dear Diagnostic,

Big hug. I’m sorry this happened to your husband, to you, and to your marriage. Your question was out of the scope of my expertise, so I asked licensed social worker Deb Yeager for her take on your situation. She noted that focusing on the sexual transgression may be making it more difficult to process. “I like to take the word sex out of the sentence and replace it with another word,” she told me. “Would an irrational manic spending spree cause a trust issue? Doing something physically dangerous?” In other words, if this transgression came from his illness, it may be clarifying to think about how you would feel in similar scenarios that are less emotionally charged.

Yeager added, “I understand that our society defines anything with another person as cheating, but through therapy and discussion, we can break it all down into workable pieces.” She said you can ask yourself, “Can he pick the woman out of a lineup now? Was this an intentional search for a replacement?” It might help to see this as a manic impulse, not acting out against your marriage. As Yeager put it, “It is still painful and a betrayal, but it is not indicative of the end of their relationship.”

I’d like to add that it’s OK for you to feel angry, betrayed, hurt, or even just irritated or annoyed. Sometimes our intellectual understanding of a situation has no bearing on our emotional response, and your feelings are OK no matter what they are. Your husband will now likely need a therapist himself, and it would be a resounding show of good faith if he made this particular facet of his mania a priority and focused on how to prevent a repeat of this in the future. You should also talk with someone as well, or find solace in the stories of other partners of people with bipolar disorder. You’re just beginning to confront what this situation means for you as a couple, and it’s OK that you don’t understand it yet.

Dear How to Do It,

My boyfriend and I have been in a relationship for a bit over a year and are compatible on nearly every level. We’re both in our early 30s, and the sex is amazing. He enjoys being the dominate one in bed, and despite being sexually active since I was 17, he is the first person to ever make me come. But he has requested a specific act in bed that I am hesitant about. He really wants to do ass-to-mouth, but I have some concerns: mainly cleanliness and also my gag reflex. I really like the two separately—blow jobs and anal sex—but thinking about one immediately after the other makes me feel gross. And I have a fairly sensitive gag reflex, which hasn’t been a problem before, but I’m worried it will go into high gear if I were to do this. He is very generous in bed and I try to reciprocate, but this is the first time I’m really hesitating. How unsanitary is ass-to-mouth? Is it actually fine? Any advice if I decide to do it?

—ATM

Dear ATM,

A cursory kiss on the pucker is one thing, but eating ass—really eating ass, getting your tongue in there, digging deep—is roughly as unsanitary as sucking a dick that’s just come out of your ass (as your boyfriend would like you to do). So, if you’ve let your boyfriend eat your ass and then kiss you on the mouth, you’ve already handled something at least half as squick-y. Maybe even three-quarters. Does that help?

Your butthole’s main purpose involves poop, and it is inadvisable to use strong cleaners on your insides. This adds up to a low sanitation score. You can rinse out with room temperature filtered water, but you do need to reconcile the risk of rectal ramifications before you go boning around in there. There’s no way to guarantee absolutely fecal-free fornication if you’re entering an anus.

Is your boyfriend going to be turned off forever if you accidentally vomit? I suspect not—although I doubt he will surprise you with an emetophilic streak either. So it might not be the sexiest experience, but it probably won’t destroy the relationship or his attraction toward you, especially if you communicate your worries upfront.

Clearly, I’m pretty relaxed about these things. You have to listen to yourself and decide what you’re comfortable experimenting with and what ick risks you’re willing to take. If you do decide to suck your boyfriend’s dick immediately after it comes out of your ass—which, you know, isn’t clean but hasn’t killed me—remember that you can stop at any time, too. The fact that you started doesn’t mean you have to finish.

Dear How to Do It,

My spouse (fem-leaning gender fluid, he/him) came out to me (a straight, cis woman) about two years ago. We are in our 50s and have been together 15 years. It has been a tough two years as we have worked through all the implications of his coming out, but we are doing better now and are committed to staying together. Where we need some help is with our sex life. Before he came out, we had a very dull sex life that frankly was not great for me. He was very orgasm-oriented, always putting me first, but due, I think, to inexperience, he was just not interested in trying anything besides about three positions. He didn’t seem to get that sex could also be about having fun and being silly and lots of other things. Probably a lot of this has to do with his suppressing his gender identity for so long. He has many other redeeming qualities, so none of the sex issues were a deal-breaker for me.

We both would like to take this opportunity, as his body is changing from HRT and I’m getting used to his new breasts, to make our sex life way, way better than before. We are working on communicating our needs and desires better. But I think neither of us really knows what we desire, and we both feel embarrassed talking about it. Obviously, we both need to loosen up a lot. His penis is not working like it used to since starting HRT about six months ago, but he doesn’t have dysphoria around his genitals. Where do we even start figuring out how to do better? Neither of us has any idea. Are there good books, porn, workbooks, or websites that are not too outré for boring old people like us? He thinks male bodies are gross, but I don’t. Neither of us likes fake-looking bodies, and I won’t watch or read misogynist or racist porn. Can you help? Trying to change things up is really difficult at midlife after 50 years of doing things in a certain way, even when that way wasn’t great. I want the next 40 to 50 years of our sex life to be awesome.

—New Leaf

Dear New Leaf,

Silly sex is, in my opinion, the greatest sex. The holy grail of hanky-panky. Use the changes taking place in your partner’s body as an excuse to start over. Bring all the joy, excitement, and curiosity you can muster and see what happens. Revel in the revisiting that giddy, tentative feeling of new relationships. Have fun with each other. Try dumb stuff. Actively seek to make your partner crack up in giggles.

You might find that the areas behind and beside your partner’s balls provide a different sort of stimulation than a few months ago. You might revel in the new—as ContraPoints’s Natalie Wynn has called it—“mouthfeel” his penis now possesses. Y’all will need to get in there and sort the specifics out yourselves, but try to talk openly and leave the embarrassment behind.
Now’s your chance.

I do have some porn recommendations for you. Shine Louise Houston’s Pink & White production company does a great series called CrashPad that features bodies of all types, people of all orientations, presentations, and melanin saturations. Erika Lust prefers a natural aesthetic, caters largely to the female gaze, and I’d be incredibly surprised to see the faintest whiff of misogyny or racism in her work. She does, however, tend to show more heterotypical sex. Houston and Lust both maintain Netflix-ish libraries of works from other like-minded pornographers and erotic-film creators in addition to the work they produce themselves. Tobi Hill-Meyer’s Handbasket Productions shows human connection between partners with a beautiful and poignant touch. That should get you off to a good start.

Books are cool, too. Cleis Press maintains a library of educational texts to help people explore whatever facet of sexuality strikes their fancy. If you’re lucky enough to have one of those nice newfangled progressive sex toy stores nearby, they might have a reasonably sized how-to and erotic literature section worth checking out in person.

I think you two have some fantastic, sexy romps together ahead of you. Get in there and get experimental.

—Stoya

More How to Do It

My wife is bisexual, and I’ve always been cool with her playing with other women, and sometimes other guys—we have plenty of sex, so I know it’s not about me. I’m usually a one-woman kind of guy myself, but recently we had a couple over socially and things got a little heated. My wife and the woman had fooled around before, but never with her boyfriend. I figured we’d just watch, but then the guy put his hand on my thigh. I wasn’t really sure how to respond—I’ve never been with a guy and don’t think I’m interested—so I just left the room. My wife was a little upset; she felt I was too closed off to experimentation. But shouldn’t this kind of thing happen with lots of communication? I sort of suspect she and the other couple intended things to go in this direction, and I’m the only one who didn’t know. What should I do, in this instance and in potential future ones?