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 hate the sounds my boyfriend makes during sex. Sorry to be blunt, but that really is the problem. (Both in our late 20s/early 30s, been dating for four months or so.) He just kind of whimpers as things start to get hot, particularly if I kiss him on the neck or elsewhere on his body, and he legitimately sounds like a small animal in pain. The strange thing is, he seems to realize these noises are unusual and off-putting—he constantly apologizes for making them, even midsex, but says he can’t help it; that’s just how he sounds when he feels good. I’m really turned on by him otherwise, but I can’t go on forever hearing the cries of injured wildlife when we’re getting it on. Is it possible to manually adjust the sounds one makes during sex? Should I ask him to?
I think it’s possible for him to learn, over time, how to be quieter. You might make a fun edging game out of it—stop whatever stimulation is causing the sounds every time they start. Sure, it might be slightly repressive, but sometimes we do these things out of compromise. Ask anyone with neighbors who share a wall, or who has slept in a hotel.
Speaking of hotels, there may be another, more reliable solution: One time, I was shooting an adult film in a hotel. We got a little carried away. The people next door got fed up and started blasting pop music. Justin Bieber. At top volume. We had to change rooms and be much quieter to avoid a repeat of our rudeness. My point here is that music is a great camouflager of sex sounds. Usually you’re trying to dampen the sounds for other people, but why not yourself? Some people even find certain kinds of music erotic. It might be a fun thing to experiment with. You’ll want to keep it low enough that you can still speak to each other if need be.
Between the two, I think you might be able to find a workable situation, but if drastic measures are called for, earplugs could be worth a try (but again, make sure you can communicate). And—depending on how long you’ve been dating—you might even surprise yourself by adjusting to your partner’s auditory quirk over time. Good luck.
Dear How to Do It,
I have no idea how to initiate intimacy—or if I even want to. I love talking about sex, reading this column, exploring erotic comics (my favorite medium), and masturbating … but when it comes to getting down and dirty with a new partner, I find myself backpedaling as quickly as I can out of intimate moments. I’m definitely not asexual; I loved sex and intimacy in my last few relationships. But I’ve been celibate since breaking up with my last boyfriend three years ago, and I wish I could find joy in hookups and casual sex the way my friends seem to. I’ve flirted with the idea that I need emotional connection for sex, but that doesn’t seem to explain the fear and discomfort I experience when it seems like someone is the least bit sexually interested in me. Does it have to do with my first few sexual experiences being painful and embarrassing? But, like, aren’t everyone’s? If I force myself to get over that first hookup hump, will it be easier from then on out? How do I get into casual dating in the way I’d like to?
Dear Wary Mary,
Some people had lovely first experiences with sex in which nothing hurt for any part of the adventure or was awkward at all. Most of us had some boring experiences, some hilarious, some painful, and some—yes—humiliating. Some of us experience anxiety in interpersonal situations like dating. Probably most of us do, to some degree. What you feel isn’t necessarily abnormal.
I think you’ll do well to confront these feelings slowly. When you try someone new, start with holding hands. Know that it’s just holding hands, and that it doesn’t have to mean anything else will happen. Take deep breaths. Ask the partner you’re holding hands with how they feel. If they want to escalate the intimacy, they might say so. Know that you don’t have to agree. You’re allowed to have boundaries, and your partner should respect them. If it helps, tell your partner that anything more sexual too quickly is past what you’re comfortable with.
Pay attention to your inner world and see if you can notice any specific fears. Take note. They are your clues to what’s going on. Whether you’re doing this on your own or with the help of a therapist, it’s all good data to have. Later, you can sort through what came up and what connections you think there are between your past, your emotions, and the idea of romantic interactions you might have now.
The next time you hold hands with someone, ask yourself, are you more or less afraid? If you’re more afraid, communicate with your partner and withdraw whenever you need to. Hopefully, you were able to glean some more information while that was happening. You might want to see a therapist for a few sessions to work on that specific thing. The Kink Aware Professionals network has some sex-positive recommendations, but I think you’ll be fine seeing anyone you feel a good rapport with.
If you’re less afraid, go forth, but give yourself permission to take your time. Wait for your desire. Let it come to you. Think of it as a nervous bird that you don’t want to startle away, like Emily Nagoski’s sleepy hedgehog metaphor for emotions. Aren’t animal visualizations adorable? Progress as you’re comfortable and not a minute sooner. It’ll get easier, and probably faster, as you go.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a 23-year-old cis female and I think I’ve orgasmed twice in my whole life. I just got out of a year-and-half-long relationship where I lied about orgasming A LOT (literally every time we had sex), and at the end I felt so trapped in a trap of my own making. I’m just starting to date around and have met a great guy. We’ve had sex twice, and I’m finding it very hard to not fake orgasm! I guess I just got into the habit of faking it; we haven’t talked about it, but I think he might think I came one of the times, even though I did not. Should I tell him this? I love sex, and even though I’d love to orgasm, I still want to have sex and almost always enjoy myself. It becomes less enjoyable and stressful when I’m worrying about all this. I know guys love it when I fake, though—it’s really hot how they react—and I think I’ve conditioned myself to expect that. I have been raped twice and am currently dealing with lots of stuff in therapy. I think it has something to do with that, but I’m more focused on how to talk about it with the guy and how to relax and get out of this bad habit.
Before we dig into your question, I’m sorry you were raped. I’m sorry you were raped again. And I’m glad you’re working with a therapist. Good job getting back out there and taking care of yourself by seeking treatment.
Do you like to fake orgasms, or do you like to be noisy? I think it’s worth being specific here, and I have a hunch you might be conflating the two. Humans aren’t the only species that might make a ruckus during sex, and there’s something fun about it. Moans are a form of communication. If they’re used honestly, they signal pleasure and can be effective encouragement. There’s something fun about hearing positive reinforcement, too.
If you enjoy making noise, you’ll want to communicate that directly to partners for the sake of clarity. You might say “I don’t orgasm easily, but man do I just love being loud about the pleasure I’m feeling.” Or “I want you to know how much fun I’m having even though orgasms are rare for me. Part of what I enjoy about sex is being vocal about it.” If you’re feeling shy, you can start by addressing orgasms in general first, and the noises you make and reactions you enjoy at a later time. It’s OK to ease your way into it.
Be prepared for the possibility of your current partner taking your rare orgasms as a challenge. As long as you two can stay away from expectations and pressure on you to come, this can be a wonderful opportunity to explore your body and try new things. Get a book. Do everything the two of you can think of in a variety of combinations. Look into vibrators. Have fun with it.
If you truly do get off on pretending to have orgasmed, you’ll probably want to dig into that with your therapist.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m just about to turn 37, a white, straight, cis male who grew up in relative isolation miles outside a small town. I’m fairly handsome, kind, intelligent, funny, etc., etc., yet also highly sensitive. In the handful of romantic relationships I’ve had, I’ve either been outright hurt by infidelity or blindsided by a relationship that felt great to me suddenly falling out of favor with my partner. As such, it often takes me a great length of time between relationships to recover, most of which is filled with anguish, pain, self-loathing, and a building “understanding” that I’m just not wanted or valued by people I’m attracted to, who are few and far between. This has actually led to maladaptive coping strategies of strip clubs initially and later sex workers.
Most recently I was married, for the first time, for a whopping two months. The divorce and implosion of my life have wrought havoc emotionally and I feel even more disconnected from my sexuality and my ability to access/understand it than ever. I am highly sensual and caring, but it just doesn’t seem like I understand, recognize, or trust how to get that for myself. I want to feel like I can connect with people. I want to feel sexy, I want to feel desired, and I want to have some semblance of control over my sex life for the first time. How can I?
Something about your letter felt way outside the bounds of sex or what I can offer you here. So I called in Deb Yeager, a social worker and friend of the column. She began, “I don’t even know if this is a sex issue; it sounds like a communication issue.” And shortly after: “Is that lack of communication also in the bedroom?”
When I asked Yeager for directions you can consider, she suggests you evaluate what you want and expect from a relationship and ask yourself whether you know what the other person wants and expects. She circled back to communication. “I think he needs to sit with himself and figure out what his strengths and weaknesses are when it comes to a relationship. It just seemed like everything was happening to him,” she said. “I think he should go to therapy and learn about himself. And learn about his communication strengths and weaknesses.” She added that the problem could indeed be sex, but she’d first try to tackle issues of communication and expectation with you.
Please do consider therapy to move yourself past your current impasse. I can’t tell you how to control others’ interest in you, but I can encourage you to gain better understanding of yourself.
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 sort of 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. We have a pretty conservative background and our relationship is very unconventional in our world, so I’m not really sure of the ground rules. What should I do, in this instance and in potential future ones?