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 am a straight lady in my mid-30s, and over the past year, I’ve gotten close to a 40-ish married man whom I met through a work colleague. We’ve started an online-only sexual relationship, with plans to connect physically in the future.
I’ve tried to cover my own electronic tracks—it would be quite devastating for my work life if my colleague found out that I was sleeping with her neighbor—so I’m not afraid of his wife tracing sexts back to me.
For a variety of other reasons, this sexual relationship appeals to me at the moment. I don’t believe it will be long term, and it’s quite hot. I also know he’s had other relationships outside his marriage. We’ve had conversations about discretion, including from my co-worker, but I’ve never explicitly asked what his wife knows or doesn’t. Should I? I can’t decide if it matters, and I only worry if it would get back to my colleague. Should I have figured this out, or is it his business?
Dear Other Woman,
As a human with one brief life to live, especially in the Western world, you have a lot of freedom at your disposal and the incentive to take advantage of it. You can mix your recyclables, you can fart in every elevator that you enter, you can loosen the tops of salt and pepper shakers on diner tables, you can rip the last page out of every book you encounter, whether in a bookstore, a library, or the bedroom of a friend. If you’re good enough at these things, you won’t get caught and won’t have to pay any additional mind to the lives your mischief has affected.
Buuuut—sing it with me now, I know you know the tune—just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should do it. Yeah, this guy owes way more to his wife than you do, but why even get yourself involved in a situation that could contribute to someone’s grief? Have you imagined his wife as an actual human being who could be devastated by this if she finds out? No plan of deception is so ironclad that it’s impenetrable, so there’s a chance you will be found out. That you’re way more concerned about what your colleague will think of you than the disruption your presence could cause in someone else’s life says everything. You know this could reflect poorly on you because it is messed up, but you’re sitting there worried about your reputation. It’s like burning plastic in your backyard with your sole concern being that people will think you smell bad.
I say this with affection (for Cher, at least): Snap out of it! Find another guy. Another one will like you, I promise. Failing your ability to control yourself there: Yes, absolutely ask this current one what his arrangement is with his wife. If they’re open, go forth and knock your socks off.
Dear How to Do It,
Shortly after becoming married, my spouse became severely injured in an accident and as a consequence of it, he is now completely disabled, depending on a wheelchair and a caregiver for all of his daily living activities. He is an amazing husband, an amazing father, and luckily we have an amazing, though different life, yet I am nothing but exasperated and tired of being his nurse. Having to care for my spouse for all the essential—but gross and, frankly, private—bodily needs has seriously killed any sexual desire I have for my husband, and honestly, I feel that I have sexually checked out of the marriage. Yet we are still young, and the idea of having this be the remainder of my life with a basic and unfulfilling sex life, in which I honestly am no longer attracted to my husband, kills me inside. Unfortunately, we cannot afford for a private caregiver to take care of my husband, and to divorce him would put our family in dire straits. To open our marriage is a no-go for him. What can I do? Do I get a pass on cheating on him? Is my sexual desire enough cause to dynamite a marriage and a family? Is it possible to rekindle our sex life under these circumstances?
Your patience and generosity are apparent, and I feel for you. You’re doing your best with the hand you’ve been dealt, yet you remain unsatisfied, at least sexually. In an attempt to get you the most precise help that an advice column could provide, I reached out to Mitchell Tepper, a certified sex educator and counselor living with a spinal cord injury who counsels individuals and couples on sex with disability.* He told me via email that he had recently worked with a couple in a situation similar to yours that had been together nearly 40 years.
“Full-time caregiving in this situation can certainly burn anyone out and kill desire, even for someone who isn’t grossed out by bowel and bladder care. It’s interesting that most people have no problem cleaning up after every possible bodily excretion for their infant children, but it takes on a whole different dynamic when you are doing it for your partner who is supposed to be strong and independent,” Tepper wrote to me. “These situations are unfortunate because in a system where medical needs resulting from catastrophic injuries, including at-home nursing care, are covered, [you] would have some respite and have the emotional and physical energy to invest in exploring new ways of fulfilling [your] sexual needs with his involvement.”
But there is hope. I’m going to hand it back to Tepper: “I do know of couples where at least one of them relies on full-time care who have incredible sex lives. It takes both partners to be committed to pleasing the other in whatever ways are possible for them, in and out of the bedroom. Some men in this condition can still get an erection and engage in oral sex. Then there are plenty of vibrators that can be remotely controlled by an app that can be made accessible through adaptive technology. There are plenty of other ways to share pleasure if you use creativity, adaptability, and maintain a sense of humor. This is the easier part. Getting a handle on daily life so that you have the desire to move forward is the real challenge here.”
He ultimately suggests exploring options for respite care while consulting with a sexual counselor or therapist. Neither of us is willing to give you a pass on cheating, though—speaking for myself now, cheating never flies with me, for reasons that have nothing to do with sex and only to do with honesty. Human desire is inevitable whether the relationship’s parties want to face it, but trust must be developed and maintained if a relationship is to have any shot at lasting. If all else fails, is this grounds for divorce? It seems that would have devastating consequences, and it also seems horribly sad to have to split with a man that you describe as an amazing husband and father. That said, people have left relationships for less in the pursuit of supreme happiness. Tepper says that issue and the consideration of cheating “are very personal moral questions that [you need] to reflect deeply on based on [your] value system.” I agree.
Dear How to Do It,
About four years ago, I started gaining a lot of weight. I’m now in my early 30s and have had sex once in the last four years. I’ve also not dated. I feel ugly and unwanted. But I’m also lonely and horny. How do I get over my hang-ups and put myself out there? I feel like I’ve forgotten how to have sex. I don’t just want a quick hookup because I rarely cum from a new partner. I had been waiting to “lose the weight,” but at this point, I don’t want to wait anymore.
—A Little Extra
Dear A Little Extra,
You have to build up your self-worth because it sounds like you don’t have very much of it. And, not to cramp RuPaul’s style, but if you can’t see your worth, how in the hell will anybody else? I recommend you get methodical with this. Take an inventory on your objective goodness and the things you like about yourself. The former category could include stuff like kindness, helpfulness, and intelligence; the latter is maybe your laugh or eyes. Write those things down and read that list to yourself frequently.
You should also envision a clearer goal in your head. You are horny but not necessarily looking for quick sex, which sounds like you’re looking for a regular sex partner but perhaps not a partner-partner. That’s something you can request but not necessarily count on going into a situation—chemistry will dictate whether you both want repeat performances. On your quest, you may find that there are people who are interested in you because of your size—how you handle that is up to you. Most casual sex involves a degree of objectification, but there are plenty of people who can’t tolerate even the suggestion that they may be attracting mates because of features secondary to their personhood, to say nothing of features they don’t like.
I’m also going to suggest that you start exercising while taking the plunge into dating. I recommend doing so not for aesthetic reasons, but because in the brief sketch of yourself that you sent in, I detect an overall pattern of negligence. You’ve been dragging your feet when it comes to fitness as well as dating. You don’t have to choose one; do them both at the same time. I cannot predict what exercise will do for your waist line, but I know that it will almost certainly make you feel better, both in general and about yourself.
Dear How to Do It,
My husband and I have been married for 11 years. We’ve never been sexually compatible, mostly because his severe anxiety makes him unable to take a lot of chances or step outside his comfort zone. (He is in therapy and on medication.) His anxiety is such that he really only feels comfortable enough to follow a specific routine during sex that I’ve never been aroused by. I’m tired of this routine. I’ve talked to him about some of the things (very vanilla, very boring things by most standards) that I’d like to do, but even talking about it in a calm manner outside of the bedroom triggers his anxiety. Even if he says he’s open to trying something new, he’ll be nervous and I have to talk him through all the reasons it would be OK for us to do this thing, a three-week process that turns me off. (Lest you think I’m asking for crazy kink or whatever, we went through this when I suggested having sex in the morning instead of at night on a weekend.) Even worse is that most of the time, he never reciprocates. So if we’ve agreed to send spicy text messages to each other during the day to build anticipation for sex later that night, I’ll send a message or two and he won’t respond. When I ask why, he’ll say he didn’t know what to say.
Lately, I’m so tired of the boring routine and knowing that suggesting a change to that routine is going to take me weeks of work for no reward that I can’t muster up any interest in our sex life at all. Even when I’m horny, I’ll make the choice to masturbate instead of initiate sex with him because it’s easier. I understand that my husband is dealing with severe anxiety and that he will never be free of it. But it’s really damaging our sex life. What can I do to deal with this? (I know I can’t suggest trying new things or opening the relationship because those are triggers for him, plus he’s so vanilla that an open relationship is as likely as going to Mars.) How do I make myself get interested in our routine? I know we’re never going to have great sex, but there must be something I can do to get myself to a place where I don’t pick masturbating over intimacy. Is there a way I can reframe all this so I’m not resenting him all the time for something he has no control over?
—Sexual Affective Disorder
I’m not going to make any calls regarding sanity, but doing the same thing and expecting different results is simply futile. You want things to change, yet they cannot change for fear of knocking over your husband’s emotional house of cards. You may as well be attempting to will good weather outside from under your covers.
If the sex you’re having isn’t enjoyable, and it by necessity will continue being that very sex, you will continue to not enjoy it. You could attempt to help yourself out a bit by dissociating and fantasizing, but then you might as well be masturbating. Speaking of masturbating: At least you have that. It sounds like therapy is doing nothing to mitigate your husband’s anxiety in the bedroom, so I’d recommend stepping it up and going to couple’s counseling or a sex therapist who can specifically advise you on this issue.
I wonder how much of the basics you have covered, though. Are you intimate with your husband beyond sex? Do you cuddle? Do you hold each other? If he’s not getting a foundational kind of affection, it could make sex feel enormous and scary. It could be that you’re pushing too far and too hard, when what he needs is some basic and patient loving. You’re not going to change the weather, but you could at least kick the temperature in your bedroom up a degree or two with the right amount of care and consideration.
Advice From Dear Prudence
I recently started dating a new girl. I’d known her and secretly loved her for years and our friendship has blossomed into an amazing relationship. It’s still young, but seems to be getting serious fairly quickly. I love everything about her and we get along unbelievably well. My only problem is, I’m a little kinky and I have this “fetish,” you could call it. It is very common as far as fetishes go—the most common, I’ve read, and it’s perfectly harmless in my opinion. It’s something I would enjoy in addition to our already healthy and amazing sex life. I have not yet had a chance to tell her about this kink of mine, although I thought I’d dropped some hints. The problem is, in a group discussion about “adult themes” she expressed total disgust with people who were into this particular fetish. I didn’t bring it up, someone else did. I’m a little lost with how to proceed. It’s certainly not a deal-breaker and I could just try and ignore or suppress it, but I fear, down the road I might seek out other avenues to fulfill that desire (not with another person, via pornography) and I don’t want to run that risk. I’m typically pretty open about these things but her comments have me apprehensive about how I can go about letting her know this about me without grossing her out or scaring her off. What should I do?
Correction, July 8, 2019: This article originally misidentified Mitchell Tepper as a sex therapist. He’s a certified sex educator and counselor.