How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Send your questions for Stoya and Rich to email@example.com.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a single, straight, cisgender man dating in New York in my early 40s. I’m generally looking for a long-term, serious monogamous relationship, perhaps marriage and children. In the meantime, however, I go on many, many dates.
My problem is this: Twice in the last two years, there have been two people who I have gone on several dates with over a period of a few months, who I have really, genuinely liked and wanted to pursue a serious relationship with. But when it came time to be intimate and have sex, I simply could not get and/or maintain an erection. I could try and cite alcohol consumption or other things as factors, but I do not believe those were the issue myself. I was more than happy to do my part in other ways, but actual sexual intercourse was never in the cards. Both of these relationships ended for other reasons, but it certainly didn’t help!
On many other dates I’ve had over the years, where the date ends in sex, I have never had an issue performing (in any circumstance—drunk, sober, tired, didn’t really mesh with the person personality-wise, etc.). It’s almost like mentally knowing a date is a casual encounter, whether a one-night stand or something a little more, alleviates the pressure for some reason. Do you have any thoughts as to why this happens and what I might be able to do next time I meet someone I really want to be with?
Dear Hard Up,
Without a battery of bloodwork results, not to mention a medical degree, it’s generally difficult to diagnose the causes of E.D. over the internet. Fortunately for you, and especially me, you are a one-man study that gives me as much confidence as possible in the face of self-reporting to say this is a matter of performance anxiety. If you have never had a problem in casual encounters, but do in more committed-aspiring settings, your dick isn’t what’s vexing you. It’s mental stuff. It doesn’t have to be as clichéd as a fear of commitment; at the same time, it could very well be that. Or it could be that you’re getting freaked out about being evaluated in a more serious setting but feel little pressure in the casual ones because if she comes away unimpressed, well, it’s not like you were necessarily interested in a repeat performance anyway. This is obvious, but I’m saying it anyway: It’s easier to be selfish when you have sex with someone that you don’t really have feelings for.
In the future, regardless of your feelings, don’t lose sight of your partner’s status as a sexual being—I don’t want to advise you to objectify her, per se, but view her as someone with the kind of carnal desires that your casual flings have and someone who’s going to be essential in achieving your own pleasure. I worry that, for you, pressing the this-could-be-serious button automatically disengages the I-want-to-bone button. Train your brain to understand that committed sex can be just as exciting and fulfilling as that of the casual variety. Are you somehow conditioned to favor no-strings sex over the committed kind? Maybe. Would it be useful to attempt to get to the bottom of it with a therapist? Probably.
In the meantime, it also seems like you are compartmentalizing your partners: Those that you don’t envision a future with you have sex with very early on, whereas you wait for sex with women that you envision a future with. Try to cut down the time with the latter, so that you can get in there while things are still fresh.
I also recommend experimenting with E.D. drugs. You may not technically need them if your boner still pops on the regular, but they can provide the kind of reassurance you need for the situations where your dick is more temperamental. In addition to helping blood flow, these meds can relieve anxiety, funnily enough. They have this way of hitting you in both places where you think.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a 28-year-old woman embarking on her first real adventure into casual dating and casual sex. I broke up with my most recent long-term, long-distance boyfriend and just in the nick of time—summer dating season is here! There were many reasons for the breakup, but one of the most fundamental problems was a serious mismatch of libidos (I was the more “demanding” partner). I’m so excited to get out there, explore different guys, experience different kinds of relationships, and become a more confident and well-rounded version of myself.
With that said, I have a lot of fear going into this. I’m definitely a romantic, and I know that once sex gets thrown into the mix, these relationships that start out light could become very emotionally heavy for me. I also feel so confused about all the “rules” and the “dos and do nots” of casual dating—especially in New York City, which seems to have its own unique dating culture. I’ve read some articles on the subject and get a general idea of how these relationships tend to pan out: naturally fizzle, break up over one-sided feelings, or ending up together. I know that I won’t really know anything until I just go out there and do it, but I don’t want to shoot myself in the foot by not playing the game the right way.
Other than practicing safe sex, is there anything I should keep in mind in Casual Land? What should I do to maximize the diversity of experiences I have while protecting my heart?
Dear Spring Chicken,
You’re so excited! You’re so excited! You’re so … scared? Before you go full Spano, relax. You’re going to be just fine. As for social rules, basically, if you’re assertive enough, you’re the person who gets to set them. Understand that most people have no idea what they’re doing, and a good portion of that population yearns for structure. By setting your boundaries upfront—certainly to yourself, and possibly said out loud to your partners—you’re getting in there early and thus are more likely to shape the situation.
Keep in mind that having a number of casual encounters—sexual or not—in rapid succession is an intense process for anyone. You’re seeing a lot of people up close, and they you. It’s unlikely that you will be for everybody (unless you’re Beyoncé, in which case: Haaaaay, Bey), and that means you will face casual rejection, perhaps regularly, that you should brace yourself for. I always advise people to display as complete a picture as possible of who you are as early as possible so that you give the other party the opportunity to determine early whether they are feeling it or not and save you both time. Rejection that comes as a result of baring your identity stings hot because it feels so personal—but like most of these things, it isn’t really. It has way more to do with the other person, who likely doesn’t really know what he wants and barely has a grasp on what he doesn’t want.
I think the best thing for you will be to stay on task—don’t look at this as an opportunity to partner shop but as a hobby for fun’s sake. A few years ago, I exited a rather long-term relationship and suited up to slut it up. I knew at the time that this was just a promiscuous phase, and I felt an innate sense of security that I would be able to find another boyfriend eventually, that it would likely be just a matter of time, and that I was not going to put any pressure on myself to do so. I was right. I found a few guys who were able to remove me from the alleys I prowled like a cat in heat, and there was very little emotional collateral before settling down because I was very clear to myself in my intentions. The risk you take living that life is detaching too much emotionally so that you don’t see a good thing when it’s inches away from your face. I did that too. Oh well.
Maybe you will come to a similar conclusion, and maybe not. Take it slow and feel your way through it. No one’s watching from the bushes, calling for your consistency today with yesterday’s resolutions and feelings. You seem conflicted regarding the sex you will encounter, and it could be that you’re just not the type who can bang a different person every day of the week. That’s fine. You may find yourself doing more dating than screwing if that’s your pace. That’s fine, too. Or maybe you’ll meet someone that you fall in love with immediately and end up postponing your loose plan for looseness or cancel it all together. That’s fine, three. Just have fun and do what feels right in each moment, stating your intentions to your partner as clearly as possible to keep things ethical. You’ve reserved this time to not be serious, and it is not that serious … until it is. Stay in touch with yourself, and you’ll know exactly when that is.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a straight girl and a rising senior in college, and I don’t have a lot of sexual or romantic experience, save some hookups from high school. During the time I was sexually active, I looked back and realized that I was developing an unhealthy relationship with sex, my body, and men in general and decided to take a “dick break” and do some soul-searching. I went to therapy and entered college optimistic, with the mindset that I wanted to wait to have sex again until I was with someone who cared about me. But once there, because of unrelated medication, I had no sex drive, so I never pursued anyone.
Now, I feel confident and ready to get back out there. The thing is, after not having any sex life to report for so long, I feel really strange talking to my friends about it. Pursuing or flirting with someone in front of them just feels weird. Sometimes I feel completely desexualized by them. I’ll be having a conversation with a guy, flirtatious or not, and they’ll assume I’m bothered by it. Once, I was looking around for my jacket at a club, and my friend said, “I love how you’re looking to make sure there’s no men circling our group.”
Those types of comments are common. Honestly, even if I had been sleeping around this whole time, it’s not in my nature to share the details with my friends anyway. But I’m tired of feeling like I need to remind people I’m still a sexual person, or embarrassed when answering these types of questions. I’m still a sexual being and want sex and romance to be a part of my life; I just needed a hiatus. Three and a half years is long, for sure, but not unheard of.
There are plenty of people my age who haven’t even had sex! How do I deal with feeling like I’m being desexualized by my friends? I’m happy and excited for this restart chapter in my life, and going at my own pace, I’ve made progress, but in terms of meeting guys through mutual friends or just in their presences, it’s still hard not to feel misunderstood, misjudged, or just uncomfortable with their responses to it. I’m sure a lot of this is more my problem than theirs.
—You Don’t Know My Mind
Your friends are either psychic—in which case you’re sitting on gold mines and need to be pumping them for lottery numbers and weather forecasts—or they’re merely reading the signals you’re giving out. None of you are living in a vacuum, and they’re pretty spot on in their assessment of your wary approach to sex, right? I don’t think it’s fair to penalize anyone for calling a spade a spade, as inelegant as their calls may be, but I do think it’s fair to speak up. You don’t have to pull out a chart mapping the stop-start traffic of your sex life, but you could just say something like, “Look, I’ve had some issues with being sexual in the past that I’m getting over but am not yet fully there yet. I’m getting back out there, and it hurts my feelings when you make those comments.” A real friend will listen and knock it off.
You also have the option of showing instead of telling, if that’s more comfortable. Engage with your friends in a way that bespeaks active libido—talk about guys you think are hot or describe what you find romantic. You don’t have to go deep to let them know you have juices and that they flow from time to time.
Part of the issue here is that you’re surrounded by college students, people whose brains are still developing and are almost certainly novices in virtually every possible facet of life. I do not say that to denigrate the youth of you and your friends (I envy it) but to point out that they are probably not the best sources for information about your behavior. It strikes me that life may be teaching you a lesson that you’re not yet aware of about placing less investment in the opinions of your friends, who don’t quite understand your specific situation and might not even have the capacity to process it in a mature and supportive way. We’re all out here on our own, kiddo. If your friends continue to make you feel bad even when given explicit instructions on how not to do so, it’s time to find new friends. You have so much life left in which to do that.
So I’d say either clarify your situation or give up on the idea of depending on them to meet guys; find other avenues away from them (apps are a thing!). Find environments that help you build on your current influx of confidence. You need friends, but you need you more.
Dear How to Do It,
I’ve never been a very sexual person. It’s probably relevant to mention that I was sexually abused, at a very young age, and again in adolescence. Most of it I can’t remember, but I remember enough that I tense up whenever anyone touches me.
I’m working through this in therapy, and trying to look online for resources for assault survivors. There are articles about how to regain your sex drive after a sexual assault, but what if your assault happened before you developed a sex drive in the first place? I’m with a very kind, loving man who has said he’s cool to go at my pace, but I don’t know what my pace is. I don’t even know where to start. Do you have any tips for someone trying to learn to have, and enjoy, safe consensual sex?
Dear Soft Touch,
I’m very sorry to read about what happened to you as a child and adolescent. That you are an abuse survivor is not merely probably relevant, as I suspect you know—in fact, withdrawing from and/or avoiding sex are very common reactions to abuse, according to Wendy Maltz, a now-retired sex therapist and author of a number of books, including The Sexual Healing Journey: A Guide for Survivors of Sexual Abuse. I’m glad you are working through this in therapy and hope you continue, but I reached out to Maltz for help with a blueprint you can use, as most of the clinical work, research, and writing she has done in her career has focused on survivors of child sexual abuse.
Maltz told me via phone that relearning what sex can mean is an important early step in this realm of healing. “You have to kind of recondition and discover sexuality in steps on your own that you didn’t get to experience because of what happened and the way you needed to take care of yourself,” she said. She compared the process to closing the old file that was informed by abuse, and opening a new one for new information about what it means to be a sexual person.
The process here is extensive. According to Maltz, it involves: learning about the various ways abuse can impact sexuality, deciding to reclaim one’s sexuality, creating a new meaning for sex, and finding a real sexual self. She recommends reading about sex to help overcome the messages of shame or of sex as dirty that may have been received through the abuse. She said it’s also important to “increase opportunities for opening to sensual growth, awareness, and enjoyment,” by which she means opening yourself to pleasurable feelings in general—the feeling of sand between your toes on a beach, or perhaps massage, for example. “You really zoom in on yourself as the sensual person you are,” she said. “Give yourself permission to feel pleasure through your body and to express [yourself] through touching your partner’s body. Maltz said that this should be done at your pace, in ways that feel safe.
Getting to a place where partner touch is pleasurable and affirming may be a process in itself. Maltz emphasized the importance addressing automatic reactions to touch with a multistep approach: being able to stop, becoming aware that you’re having a reaction, calming yourself (that can be through breathing or putting your hand on your heart), and affirming your current reality. For the last step, she gave the example of a survivor she knows who stuck a Post-It to her headboard with the current year written on it to remind herself that this is the present, not the past when the abuse took place.
The ultimate goal is to foster a new response to touch, she said. “If a partner putting her or his hand on a survivor’s cheek was very triggering, it might be, ‘OK, let’s either not do that at all and move onto something that does feel comfortable,’ or ‘Let’s try that again,’ with more relaxation and breathing or the survivor putting his or her hand over the partner’s hand and directing the touch. You do something where you’re empowering yourself.” For tips, Maltz recommended a video called Relearning Touch that’s embedded on her website, but she underlined the importance of creativity. “You don’t have to do my relearning touch exercises; make your own up,” she said. “The people who are able to come up with inventive ways to address these reactions, they move forward.” Keep in mind that this is one therapist’s methodology, and if, for whatever reason, these things don’t seem feasible to try or don’t end up working for you, there’s still hope via other methods. I hope this is a good start, and best of luck to you and your kind, loving man.
Advice From Dear Prudence
Years ago, my wife and I purchased a top-of-the-line vibrator. We used it a few times and were just beginning to really integrate it into our sex lives when my wife died suddenly of a heart attack. (The vibrator had nothing to do with that.) Now, more than a year later, I’ve begun to date again. I’ve met a woman with an open mind, and I’m thinking she might be interested in using the vibrator. But I’m not sure how, or whether, to suggest it. Is it creepy to offer a dead woman’s vibrator to someone else? And if so what else can I do with it? Sell it on Craigslist? It’s an expensive piece of equipment, barely used, and it should be employed (and loved) once again. All of my wife’s other major possessions found wonderful new homes with dear friends of hers. But then again, a vibrator’s got a different—well, vibe about it. Sell it, toss it, or share it?