How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Send your questions for Stoya and Rich to firstname.lastname@example.org. Nothing’s too small (or big).
Dear How to Do It,
My husband and I have been together for 12 years, married for approximately the last three. I am a gay Asian male who came out in my late 20s (I just turned 45) who struggles with self-confidence and being comfortable as a loud and proud homosexual. My husband is an alpha gay white male (he’ll be 55 in a few months), very confident (seemingly), vocal, and aggressive. He recently confessed to being unfaithful and also to contracting HSV-2 (genital herpes) from his adulterous encounter(s?). I was completely devastated when I learned the truth, only to be completely disappointed on top of the devastation when he admitted that he was diagnosed with his affliction approximately six months ago. Never meet your heroes. In my case, never marry them, either.
It’s been three weeks since he confessed, and I am still very upset and not at a place that I can speak civilly to him yet. He occupies the bedroom and sequesters himself there, while I sleep on the couch and take over the living room and kitchen. I am seeking counseling—I met with two therapists‚ but I haven’t found the right fit just yet. I am so empty and conflicted about what to do going forward. I got tested for all STDs, and the results have been negative thus far. I just get hung up on the fact that he knowingly put my health at risk by initiating intimacy even after his HSV-2 diagnosis. Any advice on how I can proceed to piece my life and my broken marriage back together again, please? Or should I circle my wagons and try to salvage my dignity by kicking him to the curb and become a sad cliché, gay divorcée?
Dear One-Two Punch,
Your situation comprises two issues that I think people, generally, would be better off if they could understand a little differently. Taken together, however, I see why this is so fraught for you.
The first is infidelity. So many partnerships would stay intact if their constituents allowed each other more compassion and understanding when it comes to desire. People have failed at monogamy in significant numbers for as long as it’s been a social ideal, and yet it persists. Maybe it just needs a reframe, an understanding that ideals are necessarily hard to uphold and should not to be taken as hard rules.
I realize this is not a widely popular view, but it just seems to me that the way things are (many people want to bang outside of their relationships) is conflicting with the way most people outwardly say things should be (never banging outside of relationships), and it’s messing with people’s lives. In my experience, the problem with cheating is often not so much the sex but the lying that facilitates said sex. Humans desire spontaneously, but lies they craft.
The second issue is STIs, specifically herpes, specifically herpes in gay men who are less likely to biologically reproduce than their straight counterparts and don’t have female reproductive systems for which STIs can be a considerable burden. I promise you that in all likelihood, herpes would not actually put your health at risk in any quantifiable way. The majority of people with genital herpes never even realize they have it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. You might break out occasionally and then again, you might not. And then that would be over in a week or two and you’d continue your life, which would perhaps be most altered by the scarlet letter of stigma that exists in your mind.
In this case, the herpes has made the cheating tangible. Betrayal is written on your husband’s body, and yours is at risk for becoming its latest canvas. And regardless of how little impact herpes has on your day-to-day health, you should have as much informed say as possible regarding your potential exposure to it, particularly when it’s coming from a man whose dick you thought you had the exclusive on. This is precisely why discussions about desire for extracurricular sex are much better to have before said sex, not after. He went about things all wrong, and you have no obligation to forgive him.
What this will come down to is trust. I urge you not to hold his desires against him (surely you have yours as well), but really ruminate on whether you can ever trust him again. If you ultimately resolve that you can’t, you must leave. That won’t make you a sad cliché, but an empowered human being who knows he deserves more than what he was served.
Dear How to Do It,
Late 30s woman here, and my boyfriend is in his late 30s as well. We have a great relationship and I love him dearly, but our sex life isn’t as great as it could be, because he can’t last more than a few minutes—often it’s less than a minute of sex before he ejaculates. He pleases me in other ways and we use toys, but I’d really like to have sex with him for a longer duration. He seems pretty healthy and has discussed the issue with his doctor, who gave him some Viagra to try, but it didn’t really do anything. (Getting an erection isn’t the problem anyway.) He isn’t circumcised—could that be a factor? He’s also mentioned some shame he experienced in a past relationship that have affected his attitudes toward sex. We’re considering a delay cream/spray, and I’ve also suggested he masturbate more and delay release, but he hasn’t been actively doing that yet. I love him and see myself spending my life with him, but I don’t think I can be satisfied if things keep going this way. Do you have any advice for us?
—2 Fast 2 Furious
Dear 2 Fast 2 Furious,
In cases like these, I usually urge people to train their thinking away from PIV supremacy—that is, the idea that sexual intercourse is the be-all, end-all. Not to be annoying and call you out, buuuuut notice how you refer to intercourse as “sex” but not the “other ways” in which your boyfriend pleases you. I’d argue those other ways are sex, too.
Pedantry aside, you have entertained the PIV alternatives and they in fact have entertained you, but you still want more bang for your … bang. Fair enough. It’s unlikely his foreskin is the cause of his quick shot, but a study in a 2004 issue of the Adult Urology journal did find that circumcision in adult men who began their sexual careers uncut made ejaculating during intercourse take “significantly longer” after they got snipped. Lead researcher Temucin Senkul speculated exactly what you’re suspecting—that the adult circumcision lessened sensitivity and caused the blessed delay. (“We can say with more certainty that adult circumcision does not adversely affect sexual function,” he cautioned at the time, and noted the potential increase in time to ejaculation “can be considered an advantage rather than a complication.”)
But before you start reaching for your pinking shears, there are some techniques and tools that can be used to aid his hang time. At least one of them you’re already aware of, the ol’ pre-date wank, and that he hasn’t tried out any of the proposed suggestions makes me a bit concerned about your communication more than anything. Is he aware of how important this is to you? It’s probably not yet time to scare him into action with an ultimatum, but you should let him know that it’s crunch time. The Mayo Clinic does acknowledge topical anesthetics as treatment for premature ejaculation, with the caveat that they may cause loss of sensitivity and decreased pleasure. That would seem to be exactly the point, but it’s worth noting that receptive partners have also experienced these effects. There are condoms sold with numbing agents to help delay orgasm that are worth checking out, too, if you guys use condoms.
Some other methods include kegels—both regular (which require him to tighten his PC muscle, as if to stop his pee midstream) and reverse (which is a pushing out of the perineum—it’s almost the same feeling as releasing a fart, but aimed between the balls and butthole). These strengthen the pelvic floor, which may be all he needs (though I’ve also seen people suggest online to squeeze the PC muscle during sex to delay the orgasm in real time). A study presented at the European Association of Urology’s annual meeting in 2014 found pelvic-floor strengthening to be effective in subjects with premature ejaculation, though a physical therapist quoted by Reuters in its report on the study said the exercises were slightly more complicated than the kegels used for incontinence and should be guided by a professional. I say try an app like Stamena.
Therapy is another of your several options here. The most important thing is just to get to work. Tell him I said so.
Dear How to Do It,
I have a fantastic sex life overall. That said, I have a problem. Sometimes, when I have an intense orgasm, I have what I can only describe as a brain disconnect after. There have been a couple times when I cannot talk. I will try, but all that comes out is gibberish. I have also had panic attacks. It doesn’t happen every time I have an intense orgasm, but when it does it’s pretty scary. Is this a normal reaction to intense orgasms, or is it something I should be worrying about?
I have a pretty strong aversion to the word “normal,” but in my estimation, what you are experiencing is not common. If it were, it’d have been captured, commodified, and turned into a subgenre of porn already (the closest example to a reference in popular culture that comes to mind is when Missy Elliott said, “Sex me so good I say blah-blah-blah” in “Work It”).
Regarding the “normal” part, Anna Reinert agrees. Reinert is a gynecologist in Los Angeles who I reached out to after reading a paper she co-wrote, “‘Did You Climax or Are You Just Laughing at Me?’ Rare Phenomena Associated With Orgasm,” which ran in the Sexual Medicine Reviews journal in 2017 and documents instances of rare peri-orgasmic phenomena reported in medical literature and via colleagues. (Reinert has also contributed to Slate.)
“Without knowing more about this individual, I can say this: An orgasm involves diverse areas of the brain, and there are a variety of bizarre post-orgasmic phenomenon reported in the medical literature, many of which can be explained by our understanding of bodily representation within the brain, or of the neurochemical changes that occur with orgasm,” Reinert told me via email. “These phenomena are not common, so I wouldn’t describe them as ‘normal,’ but in general they are mostly harmless and just a side effect of how the brain is wired. Sex also raises a person’s heart rate and blood pressure, and can be a trigger for dangerous health events, so it’s important to make sure that weird symptoms are ‘just’ due to orgasm, and are not a sign of a stroke, heart attack, or brain aneurysm, for instance.”
Regarding your panic attacks, which Reinert’s aforementioned paper documents, she said: “Among individuals with a history of panic disorder, it has been reported that many experience panic attacks after orgasm; as with this individual, they do not typically occur with every orgasm, only a small percentage of them. If symptoms are sufficiently bothersome, an affected individual could talk with their doctor about medication to decrease the frequency of panic attacks (but medication side effects might cause more trouble for one’s sex life than did the panic attacks).”
The speech symptoms are more concerning. “They sound like what is called Broca’s aphasia, which can be a sign of a stroke in the part the brain responsible for production of language,” Reinert wrote. “Since this individual’s symptoms occur only immediately after orgasm and then spontaneously resolve, it’s not likely a stroke, but could be due to a seizure or transient ischemic attack in this brain area. It has been reported that some people experience seizures precipitated by orgasm. I would recommend that this person discuss these symptoms with their doctor and maybe a neurologist, in order to rule out a potentially dangerous underlying medical condition.”
No need to panic, but you heard the doctor: Go see a doctor.
Dear How to Do It,
I can’t decide if I’m asexual or not. I’m in my early 30s and I’ve never been sexually active. I’ve always been anxious about being intimate with people. I was a nervous wreck the last time I was on a date, and I didn’t enjoy it. I’ve never enjoyed being set up with anyone. I do sometimes masturbate, but not every day. I think I sometimes go weeks without touching myself (I don’t keep very good track). I sometimes think I find someone attractive—like, I understand Chris Evans is hot—but I rarely find myself attracted to someone I meet in my everyday life.
I currently take medication for depression and anxiety. So I ask myself if I’m really asexual or if it’s just my mental illness and/or if my medication is affecting me in some way. Sometimes I embrace the label of asexual because it makes me feel a little better about being a 30-year-old virgin, but I wonder if I’m just lying to myself, because I’m not sure I fit the asexual criteria since I occasionally experience attraction. I’m curious to hear what you think.
It seems possible you are a gray-sexual or Gray-A, which means you’re somewhere on the continuum between asexuality and sexuality. I say this based on the sexual evidence you’ve given me without weighing for variables like your meds; I’m not sure how I’d account for them with precision from over here. To put a finer point on things, perhaps in service of locating where you are on that continuum, I’d pay attention to exactly what’s going on in the rare event that you get that feeling and want sexual healing. Are you, for example, fantasizing about other people when you masturbate, and are your orgasms strong? Many asexual people do masturbate, but report no fantasies and weak orgasms. Do you merely understand that Chris Evans is hot because as a celebrity, he has effectively been elected by the people to be hot because he’s hot, or do you feel his hotness? Like, in your loins? (Not to confuse things, but I don’t, and I’m not asexual either.) There are no wrong answers, just means to get closer to putting your finger on what you are. You have plenty of time to explore and discover, and no obligation to do so, either. It seems like life is fairly rough for you right now, so if the “asexual” label helps you cope, great. In the end, only you can determine whether or not you’re lying to yourself.
Don’t beat yourself up about being a 30-year-old virgin. It’s OK, and from what I can tell, largely a result of active decisions you have made. After all, you could technically go out on and find someone to have sex with you, but you have reasons for not doing that. We get a lot of letters about people who want to want, people who are dissatisfied with their desires and who wish for others. Accept what you have. From what I can tell, a want to want generally signifies a conflicting desire. I want to want to go out and cultivate my nightlife, as I think oodles of superficial contacts would boost my ego and perhaps career. But I obviously don’t actually want that because I’ve resolved that I’d rather finish the assignments that I have and be able to wake up and go to the gym at 9 a.m. on weekends. When you really want to lose your virginity, you’ll know, and you’ll make it happen. And if it never comes, whatever. You’re fine the way you are.
Advice From Dear Prudence
Dear Prudie: I got out of a long-term relationship a few months ago, and am starting to get back on the dating scene. Not looking for anything serious at this point, just casually dating. My problem is that my ex, during an intimate moment and in a fit of frustration, once told me that I was only “OK, not great” in bed. Obviously, this was hurtful, and it made me feel very unattractive. I nearly broke up with him over it, but we talked it through, chose to stay together, and continued having regular sex. I didn’t think about it much for the remainder of our relationship. Now that I am dating again, I can’t stop thinking about it. Am I bad in bed? Am I enthusiastic enough? Too enthusiastic? I know my ex was a jerk for not finding a more tactful way to communicate his needs, but this is seriously messing with my confidence. How can I feel like I’m a good lover? How do I get my ex’s voice out of my head?