How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Send your questions for Stoya and Rich to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a young straight woman looking to get laid. I’m an adult, I have birth control, and, frankly, I’m horny. The thing is, I’m a virgin—I’ve never even been fingered by a partner. I don’t feel like I need to find love before becoming sexually active; attraction and trust are important, but I’m not looking for my soul mate. To that end, I’ve gotten myself some dating apps and I have plenty of potential matches. I’ve messaged a few guys and have gotten fairly steamy over text. I know I want to tell any serious contender that I’m a virgin before we get near having sex, as I can’t picture myself being able to (or wanting to!) fake being more experienced. Of course I will meet a potential partner in public before getting physical and ask about their sexual health, and I will almost certainly want a few non-penetrative encounters to get comfortable with them before moving forward. I also know that anyone who objects to taking it slow—as compared to having sex at first sight, which I know some people do through these apps—isn’t someone I need to see ever again, so I need a way to screen guys and say that although I’m eager, willing, and have a lot of ideas, they shouldn’t expect 1) a sex goddess or 2) an instant hookup. What should I say?
Dear New Girl,
Your story delights me. You’re on the cusp of a whole world of new experiences. You’re poised to dive into sexuality, and you seem ready to go out there and get what you want. That’s beautiful.
Before I dig into your actual question, I want to make sure you have your HPV vaccine. HPV is incredibly common—certain strains cause warts, while others are linked to cancer. The vaccine covers a few strains, so they won’t protect you from ever getting any kind of HPV, but it will prevent some of the most prevalent strains from taking hold in your body and potentially causing problems later.
As for talking to these matches, I agree that upfront honesty is the way to go. Focus on what they should expect—who you are and where you’re at sexually. Tell them you’re inexperienced but excited. Say, “I want to take things slow for the first few dates. Like, fingers and grinding only.” Or whatever the specifics are for you. You might use the word virgin to see how they react—some will be overly eager and others might pass.
Have this conversation before you meet up so you can use it as a screening mechanism. If they seem pushy or argumentative, or just like they don’t understand, they’re probably not the guy you want for your first time. Trust me: There are plenty of sexually interesting men out there who are happy to work within boundaries and are respectful of their dates’ wishes.
Dear How to Do It,
I am a queer woman in my early 30s who is in a relationship with a straight man. We’ve been together for about a year and have a great sexual connection. Part of what makes our sex life so great is that we’re open with one another about our attractions not only to each other, but to other people. In the past, particularly at the beginning of our relationship, I found it thrilling when he described his desire for say, a particularly sexy waitress. This generally turned into something exciting that stimulated our own intimacy. We’ve each also been open with each other about watching porn (and have even watched it together), and I know he particularly likes watching cam shows. For context, this is something we’ve discussed on a nearly daily basis. I felt, and feel, grateful to have found a partner whose sexuality is seemingly so compatible with mine and with whom I can be open about the many manifestations of my desire. But lately I’ve been having trouble enjoying this aspect of our relationship. I just went through a few months of incredible stress at work that left me feeling exhausted and insecure. The past few times he’s mentioned finding someone sexually alluring, it stung in a completely unexpected way. Last night, via phone, he mentioned that he was watching a great cam show at the moment, and I had to choke back tears.
I felt hurt because earlier in our call I’d described feeling lonely. (I am traveling for the next month for work, so we are apart physically.) I wish he’d been able to understand that it wasn’t the right time for that. I tried to express to him that this time, hearing this didn’t feel good for me. He dismissed this by saying, “Oh, come on, you love it.” I left our call feeling insecure and inadequate. At the same time, I understand why this might be hard to spot as a boundary for him, because it’s been so much a part our sexual communication in the past. How do I express my boundaries, without attaching stigma to his (or my) sexuality and without stripping the fun out of our sex life? I don’t want to be a total wet blanket, but I need to set some boundaries so I don’t keep feeling hurt!
Dear Just Us,
I’m sorry you’re having a tough time at work. It’s completely normal for your sexual desires to be affected by other areas of your life. It makes sense that insecurity in one area could cause difficulty relaxing and feeling comfortable in the sexual realm.
I really don’t like that your boyfriend responded to your issue with dismissal. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt, and I think you do as well. A phone call, as you’ve learned, can be a difficult medium to have emotional dissuasions over. Phone is generally still better than text message, but it can be easy to misread a situation without access to that extra layer of information that comes from facial expressions and body language.
So, hoping that he was just swept up in his arousal or otherwise preoccupied, I think you should try talking to him again. Pick a time when neither of you has a pressing appointment and it’s still early enough for both of you to be awake and clearheaded. Think about the space you’ll be talking in—is it a controlled environment and free of distractions? Then, in your own words, say something along the lines of “Hey, this game we play that we both really love and get off on—I’m having a problem at work that is so big that it’s undermining my ability to enjoy our game.” Let him know that you’re having a hard time and that there’s some collateral damage in the sex zone. Tell him that his dismissal of your feelings hurt. You aren’t doing either of you any favors by hiding your emotions.
Then tell him what you do need. Something like “I need us to focus on each other for a while—probably until I recover from this work thing, and I’m not sure when it’ll be resolved, much less when I’ll be feeling back to normal. No matter how much I want to be fully open right now, I’m just not there at the moment.” Be as clear as possible. Boundaries have to be defended sometimes, so you might need to revisit this subject a couple of times. If he seems like he just isn’t listening after two or three serious conversations, you might be looking at a red flag.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m 25 years old, and I’m in menopause. I had some medical conditions that ended in me needing an oophorectomy last year. Honestly, I’ve never felt happier and healthier. My problem is my doctors: I’ve never reacted well to estrogen; it’s one of the main factors that contributed to my sickness. Even though my doctors have admitted that if I go on HRT, I’ll probably see my disease come back as bad as it ever was, they still want me on it for other reasons (like making sure I don’t get osteoporosis). But I’m inclined to not take them up on it.
The problem is, one of the things they told me is that after a few years, I won’t be able to have sex anymore because my vagina will shrink to prepubescent sizes because menopause is like reverse puberty. They said that even oral will become repulsive to me as my nerve endings down there regress and become painful over time. I think that this may just be another form of pressure to try to get me on HRT, but honestly, I don’t know. I don’t have any menopausal friends to ask, and I can’t find any information about it online. I have found a lot of information on people in retirement homes getting STDs, which implies something is happening there. Maybe they just went into menopause much later than me and haven’t hit the reverse puberty stage yet? Even if my doctors are right, and soon I won’t be able to have penetrative or oral sex because I’m in menopause, I still wouldn’t consider HRT. I’m not asexual. Are there any other ways to enjoy sex, if my doctors are right? And are they right? I just wish I could find a single other resource telling me the same thing.
Dear Not Finished,
It seems like you’re describing GSM, or genitourinary syndrome of menopause. That’s the phrase doctor Jen Gunter uses instead of a term like “vaginal atrophy” in her upcoming book The Vagina Bible. According to Gunter, vaginal atrophy is a misnomer because affected tissues include far more than the vaginal canal. (Her book comes out in September.)
Topical estrogen might be worth discussing with your care team. It also might not be an option, given the issue you describe, but it feels like it’s worth at least considering. Fortunately, there are some other things you can do to help protect your delicate bits. Gunter recommends trimmers over shaving for pubic hair removal, cleansers instead of potentially drying soaps for labial tissue, and a vulvar moisturizer. She says coconut oil, olive oil, and petroleum jelly are acceptable natural alternatives. I’ll add that natural doesn’t always mean better, and that petroleum jelly can interfere with condoms.
All this lubrication and extra-special care is because the vaginal and vulvar tissues do become more fragile during menopause, so you want to be even more cautious with those tissues than you’ve been pre-menopause.
Aside from that, I strongly encourage you to get a second opinion from a doctor who specializes in internal genitalia and is not part of the practice you’re currently with. You might also ask that provider, or your current team, about the possibility of a support group where you might meet women who, while they might be older than you, are navigating the same biological process. Many women newly face these questions every year, and I’m confident you can find a path forward for your sexuality that balances your health and your needs.
Dear How to Do It,
I have been with my boyfriend for about a year and a half. Things are going well—except for the fact that he won’t go down on me. He ate me out once earlier in the relationship, but now he says he can’t do it without getting buzzed first, to get “comfortable with himself.” He got buzzed the first time he went down on me, which makes sense considering we didn’t know each other as well as we do now, but I think we’ve been together long enough for this not to be an issue. From my experience, he’s not bad at it. For a while, I would go down on him, but I’ve stopped since he doesn’t want to do the same. Am I not being understanding enough? How should I talk to him about this?
Dear Not Hungry,
You are exercising plenty of understanding. Have another conversation where you ask what he’s uncomfortable about when he’s sober. It could be so very many things, and we don’t want to go making any unfair assumptions here.
If his issue is “eww, vulva on my face,” please let me know. I’ll judge up a storm. But it could be performance anxiety. I’ve known plenty of men who felt like they didn’t know what they were doing and needed guidance. If that’s the case, I have some suggestions. The “what does this feel like” game is great. Have him touch and lick you in various ways, encourage him to get silly with it, and provide gentle feedback so he can get an idea of what does feel good for you. Be as specific as you can. Like “what you’re doing right now tickles” and “now it’s arousing,” or whatever is going on for you. Even though he’s not bad at it when buzzed, more information might help build his confidence.
If that feels too overwhelming for your boyfriend at this stage, you could get him a book. Cleis Press does a good one on oral sex called The Ultimate Guide to Cunnilingus. A friend of mine put out Learn 2 Lick a couple of years ago. There are options. You’ll know what’s going to feel most approachable for him.
It’s also possible that his discomfort is physical. If that’s the case, get creative with pillows or changing up positions. You’re not going to know until you talk with him further. So pick a good time, sit him down, and start asking open-ended questions. Feel free to come back for a second round of advice when you have more detail.
More Advice From How to Do It
My husband and I have an active and hot sex life. It’s definitely not “quiet.” We moan, the bed shakes, etc. The problem? My mother is moving in, for at least a few months, so we can care for her as she recovers from a health issue. We’re putting her in the bedroom farthest from ours, but it’s a small house and she’ll be just down the hall. Do you have any suggestions for how I can make it less likely that she’ll be aware of our activities?