How to Do It

Is My Wife, a Feminist, Testing Me When She Asks to Be Dominated in Bed?

I feel like she is.

A man holds down a woman's wrists in bed with female symbols in the background in neon.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Milkos/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 having a hard time reconciling my wife’s feminism with her desire to be dominated and submissive. My wife is a very attractive woman who doesn’t suffer chauvinism or objectification. Her strength of character, and fearlessness to confront an unequal power structure, is one of the characteristics that I love about her. As she has been able to advance professionally, she has become even more confident, which only increases my desire for her.

I have been finding myself confused, however, because while she will not tolerate being objectified by anyone in public and is very adamant about her agency, in private she wants me to be quite aggressive and seems willing to be very submissive. I find myself acting with great skepticism during sex, as though she’s testing me and that if I actually do become more physical, that I will have failed this test and ruin our relationship, which has lasted for 18 years so far. This results in sex that is fine, but I feel could be so much better for both of us if I’m confident I am giving her the kind of sexual experience she actually wants and not just tolerates.

While I know that submissive desires are normal and common sexual behavior, I am wondering if it is common for such adamant feminism to coincide or run parallel with a clear and strong submissive desire? Is this perhaps a specific category that I need to look into?

—Rough and Tumble

Dear Rough and Tumble,

The job of reconciling your wife’s feminism with her sexual submission belongs to your wife, if she hasn’t done so already or is even interested in doing so at all (she could also be content to be complicated). Your job is to believe her. One of feminism’s defining features is the belief that women have the right to choose what to do with their bodies and lives. Just as she has adopted a certain daytime ethos and its attendant behaviors, she chooses a bedroom one, as well. This is not alarming, for she is a consenting adult. Not only is it common to seek sex that seems to oppose one’s professional life or ostensible values, it’s practically a cliché (see the high-powered businessman who frequents a dominatrix).

Even the worst-faith reading of this situation—her electing to be dominated is a betrayal to womankind—demands an impossible perfection, the very notion of which is absurd on its face. There are vegetarians who wear leather, believers in social justice who listen to misogynistic music, liberals who find Donald Trump amusing in a way that borders on endearment. Almost everyone’s cause goes threadbare at some point, and anyway, desire has a way of transcending politics and making such high-mindedness irrelevant.

In all likelihood, your wife’s sexual interests are about her, not you. I wonder why you think your wife would go out of her way to trick you. Has she hatched schemes to deceive you before? If this suspicion is not based on previous behavior, you’re just kind of being a dick. Just believe her and do what she says she wants! We should all be so lucky as to have a sex partner who informs you exactly how to please them. It makes life so easy and gratifying. Of course, there is also the possibility that you’re not into the play she’s asking for—if you were, you’d probably be asking way fewer questions and just get down to business. Maybe you’re not that dominant (and if so, you should say so). Maybe you don’t like that she’s directing you to dominate her, essentially, from what it sounds like, topping from the bottom. If that is in fact what she is doing—and bottoms are often very skilled at doing so—then there’s no rift in her daytime and bedtime relations to power, after all. Who’s on top and who’s on bottom now?

Dear How to Do It,

I’ve always had a very active imagination, especially when it comes to sex. For the past few months, my sexual fantasies have been almost exclusively focused on being with women. This includes everything from my own imaginings to reading soft-core porn. I’ve always considered myself straight—I’m a cis woman—but these fantasies make me think that I might actually be bisexual. So, I decided to try talking to and going on some dates with women. To my great surprise, I feel almost no sexual or romantic attraction when I go on these IRL dates. Is it that I just haven’t met the right person? Could I be bisexual in my imagination but straight in real life? I find that very hard to believe, but it’s just one of the many explanations that I’ve played around with. I feel like I’m missing something really obvious, and would welcome any insight.

—Not Sure About the Ladies

Dear Not Sure About the Ladies,

The first two guys I fooled around with, when I was in college, left me so cold that I, too, thought I might not be gay after all. This was years into me knowing and pretending (to myself even) not to know—a huge scheme of self-imposed repression and denial that made the ultimate emancipation from it feel like a letdown. It only could have been more anticlimactic if no actual climaxes were involved. It had me thinking that maybe I got it right the first time. Fortunately, I really had the hots for the third guy I banged and realized, “Oh yeah, I’m sooooo gay.” I had been so eager to jump into things that I wasn’t nearly selective enough early on and had to sort of cultivate my taste later. (I still make unwise decisions that I immediately regret, though—I’m gay, but I’m not perfect.)

So yes, I think that this probably comes down to you not having met the right woman. Take your time, let her fall into your lap (even better if it’s facedown). That you’re open to this means it can manifest organically, and that will probably result in something especially meaningful. And it’s absolutely possible that you enjoy the fantasy of bisexuality way more than the reality. That’s not uncommon when it comes to fantasies. Here, I think you just need to give yourself some time. It’s a perk, not a liability, that your body and constitution are effectively forcing you to be selective. That’ll put the pieces in place for a better experience when it finally happens.

Dear How to Do It,

My wife and I have been in the swinging lifestyle for about 18 months. There were ups and downs at first, but overall, it’s been a really fun experience; we’ve met some really great people along the way, and she and I are closer than ever. 

Here’s the rub. The only real boundary left is we don’t play separately, but while neither of us has any problem finding willing partners, it is extremely difficult to find couples we’re both attracted to. So we each end up “taking one for the team,” which is … fine, except she carries most of that burden for, well, technical reasons—it’s easier for her to just get through it than me; most of the time I just can’t perform all the way if I’m not into it, and even with foreplay and other activities, some women take it personally and have their feelings hurt, which, well, sucks for everyone involved. 

She did have one-on-one encounters a couple times with other guys where I was nearby but didn’t have to interact with their partner, and she had fun. I told her I didn’t mind if she plays separately sometimes—it’s important to me that she has fun—but she’s not comfortable at all with me doing the same and doesn’t want to start a trend of inequality in our relationship. In the end, our conversations end up with her telling me “I’m fine, don’t worry about it.” But I hate the idea that she’s just going through the motions, and when I mention just stopping the whole thing, she doesn’t like that idea either. I think she likes the flirtation, the looks, the open-mindedness, but not the actual sex that much. We do have great sex together afterward—every time.

So. Should I just accept it and drop the issue? Or push a bit and tell her I’m OK with different rules for each partner, like her having one-on-ones with men she likes while I only play when she’s involved? I love her like crazy, trust her, and managed to leave any feeling of jealousy behind. She’s not there, which I understand. So I’m actually OK with her doing things I don’t do. But is that a slippery slope?

—Playtime

Dear Playtime,

A slippery slope to where? Unless you have ulterior motives here, it seems that your offering is guided by generosity. Maybe not 100 percent pure generosity, as you would seem to benefit from a lopsided arrangement (via compersion, or the satisfaction you receive from her satisfaction, if nothing else), but it’s just about as close to that as it gets. This would be a different question if she were doing the asking, or if you were trying to coordinate a double standard in which you got to play alone and separately, but since it’s not, I say go for it. Explain this all to her, assure her that this isn’t some scheme to trick her, and see what she says. It seems that you both take care of each other very well, are willing to concede things for the sake of the other’s pleasure, and if you are as capable of selflessness as you seem, I don’t see this as especially unequal anyway. You’re thinking beyond “me” and “her,” and about the relationship as its own distinct entity, which is, in my book, the right way to do it.

But if your wife doesn’t agree and continues to worry about maintaining a different set of rules for each of you, definitely drop it. You’re basically living the dream—you get the excitement of new partners along with the stability of a life partner and you’re still having great sex with her alone as a result of your swinging—so don’t squander it. Listen to her when she tells you you’re pushing up against her boundaries, even if you’ve convinced yourself that you’re doing it for her sake and it seems like she should be OK with it. If she’s not, she’s not. Respect that. This stuff is tricky to navigate and requires rather precise open communication, as I’m sure you’re aware. It’s best to take her at her word regarding her comfort level.

That said, if you still want to take it upon yourself to course correct, forgo hookups that you know she won’t be into, even if you are. That way, you can establish the sort of conscience-preserving inequality you envision as being useful without rearranging things so much that it disturbs her sense of your shared rules. Don’t just take one for the team, take several … by leaving them on the table.

Dear How to Do It,

I’ve been with my husband for three years, married for almost one. Prior to our relationship, I had a very varied sex life with a lot of casual partners and variety. He had a small number of partners and stayed strictly vanilla. He’s never had a problem with my history, but he was a bit insecure about his abilities in the beginning. While I do enjoy kink, I’ve always enjoyed our vanilla sex life, and I’ve made it clear that I don’t find it lacking.

He’s gotten more confident with time, and lately, he’s been showing some experimental initiative, namely spanking. I’m definitely up for helping him find his kinky side, and I’m obviously not going to turn down something I enjoy! But he’s quite shy and nervous about it, and I’m struggling with how to respond to him. Outside of sex, I can talk frankly about it, and our communication on nonsexual things is great too. But in bed, I find his hesitation makes me feel awkward and takes me out of the moment. In the past, partners who’ve spanked me have been confident in asserting themselves, and obviously, the natural domination has been part of the thrill. My husband is, by his own admission, not necessarily a dom or a sub by nature and struggles with the idea of hurting me. He’s not sure if he’s actually getting off on spanking me or just doing it because he knows I enjoy it. I want him to feel comfortable exploring this, but I’m sure my reaction to his hesitancy isn’t helping him find his confidence. Any suggestions on how we can both get over our respective hurdles here?

—Love Tap

Dear Love Tap,

You say he’s taken the initiative, which means you’re not forcing his hand, right? Do the next best thing and reinforce it when he gets a-spankin’. Tell him you like it, tell him what feels good, make requests about force and tempo. Encourage him though you may be feeling frustrated or awkward. Even though he’s ostensibly in the dominant position there, I think you’re going to have to actually be in charge to get what you want at first.

The thing is, excepting some sort of miracle epiphany that allows his inner dom to unleash, Mr. Hyde–style, you’re just going to have to settle for what he has to offer in this particular arena—an open mind and gameness. I understand why this might be disappointing. The thing about wanting to be dominated is that you want it to come via a partner’s drive—you want the assertion to be organic, for if it is not, can it actually qualify as assertion? Well, if he were a natural dom, it would have presented itself way earlier. You have a guy that doesn’t identify particularly strongly with this form of play—it’s a gift that he’s willing to go there with you at all. This is just going to require patience and understanding on your part. The good news is that if you’re being truthful about enjoying your vanilla sex life with him—you can hang onto that and see whatever else comes as extra. You, in fact, might have to see it that way to keep from being disappointed.

There is another way of looking at this, which is that functionally speaking, there isn’t a huge difference between getting off on something and doing it because your partner enjoys it. In an ideal scenario of sexual generosity, they are one and the same. Try letting him fake it ’til he makes you come.

Advice From Dear Prudence

My wife has imposed a “bedtime” on me with the strangest possible punishment. Last month, she decided I was spending too much time on the computer and not enough time with her. So she declared that if I am not in bed before midnight, then we don’t get to have sex. The kicker? She starts without me—and if I’m even a minute late then I’m not “allowed” to touch her as she masturbates. Her exact words were “I’m having an orgasm with or without you, so if you want to join in you need to show up on time.” On the one hand, I feel like this is sexual blackmail and want to refuse her on principle. On the other, I recognize I have been ignoring her in favor of addictive computer games and I wasn’t responsive to her previous “non-blackmail” requests to join her before 2 or 3 a.m. To bed or not to bed? That is the question!