How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Send your questions for Stoya and Rich to email@example.com. Nothing’s too small (or big).
Dear How to Do It,
I am so lost, and I just don’t know what to do. Some background: I was married and divorced young (he cheated). We had three children, who are now grown with children of their own. Following my divorce, I was in a long-term relationship with someone. It was abusive and ultimately ended with him cheating on me with my best friend.
After that relationship ended, I started dating someone I knew since we were kids. We have always had a close relationship and kept in touch via phone about twice a year to catch up. He became my husband. We dated for five years and have been married for 7½ years (I was 41 when we married; he was 39). About a year and a half after we married, sex just stopped. He was never really the aggressor in the relationship, and I was OK with that. But then it stopped altogether. At first, we talked about it. He went to the doctor, reluctantly. The doctor tested his testosterone and said it was normal. Still nothing. I’ve tried everything you can possibly think of: dates, sexy lingerie, space, time, not pressuring. You name it; I’ve done it. The thing is, there is no intimacy at all in our relationship. We don’t touch, literally. We don’t cuddle. He kisses me once goodbye and once hello when he leaves or comes home. I believe porn was an issue at first; I found some on his phone, and I know he was “taking care” of himself. We instilled a rule of no electronics in the bathroom, but I am sure he is still using his phone in there when I am not home. I’ve pleaded to go to counseling, but he refuses. I went to counseling for about a year by myself, and it did nothing but reaffirm my feelings. I told him I feel like we are roommates; he said that was silly. I told him I was thinking about moving into our spare room, and he asked me not to. He is very prideful and worries a lot about what other people think.
Everything else in our life is wonderful: kids, grandkids, our home, where we live. I love it. But this is something that just has me so torn. Some days I think I can live without it. But most days I am so lost. I feel myself getting worse: getting snappy at everything, my dogs, him, and anyone around us. I go to my daughter’s house occasionally and spend of few days with my grandchildren, and I realize we are in trouble because I don’t miss him. I feel crushed. We are both Christians, and I am very involved in church and church activities. He refuses to become involved with anything. I don’t believe he is having an affair—he is never home late, never goes out when he isn’t working, and isn’t weird with his phone. I cry most days lately because of this situation. I cry because I am so disheartened that another relationship could possibly end, and I don’t want that. I do love my husband. But I wonder if he truly loves me or if he was in love with the idea of me for all these years before we got together, and now I am not living up to his expectations. Please help me—I don’t know what else to do.
You shouldn’t have to live without a satisfying sex life (to say nothing of living with no intimacy, period). You know that. Your despair is palpable, and I feel for you. I agree with you that you and your husband need counseling, but it also seems like he has his own issues to work on. He sounds depressed, and his inability or unwillingness to work on your relationship (or much of anything outside of his job) could very well be a consequence of said depression. If it’s possible to talk to him about this, please do that—see if you can get him to discuss his greater issues that may be affecting the sexual ones.
As for you, there’s action here for the taking. One option is to show him how serious you are by defying him and moving into that spare room. You say that he was never “the aggressor” in the relationship, which implies that you were. But the way you describe your sex life is as though it is a force beyond your control like the weather (“about a year and a half after we married, sex just stopped”). Which is it? Did he start turning down your advances, and you gave up? How would things ever get better in that scenario? I’m not blaming you for your situation, and I can imagine a certain reluctance to initiate sex when faced with generalized apathy, but it seems to me that you set your relationship up to reflect a certain power dynamic and now feel powerless yourself. “We don’t touch, literally. We don’t cuddle,” you wrote. Have you tried touching him lately? Have you tried cuddling?
If you have no inclination to do those things yourself, maybe it is time to face the fact that you have your own reasons not to do so, that this current dynamic isn’t all him. Maybe your fears about his feelings stem from your own feelings. I understand that you want to hold on to this relationship, but principle alone is not matrimonial glue. You’re still here on Earth; you can start over and continue your search for happiness. That would not be a product of failure, but of perseverance, which is a wholly admirable trait.
Dear How to Do It,
My husband of four years and I have an open marriage, which is going well. We have had quite a few threesomes or more-somes together, which have been awesome, but mostly we see other guys separately, usually from hookup apps. We live in a big coastal city, so there are lots of other gay men around online. When I meet up with other guys, it’s usually after a lot of chatting online, establishing trust and generating a rapport. These are just hookups, no date beforehand, and while they’re all friendly, fun hookups, there’s no emotion involved. I’ve met something like 20–30 guys this way.
The issue is that the first time I meet up with a guy, sometimes the sex is absolutely amazing. Dizzying. The bed is wrecked, the neighbors scandalized, etc. However, if I meet up with these guys again, the sex is never anywhere near as good the second time. I don’t know if it’s about expectations being too high, or natural variability and reversion to the mean, or what … but it’s really disappointing. The second time is a dud more often than not, and there usually isn’t a third time (and when there is, that’s often less disappointing but still nowhere near as good as the first time). What am I doing wrong here? The sex I’m having with my husband is just as great as it ever was. Am I just addicted to the thrill of a new body? I don’t want to keep seeing these other guys for a sustained relationship outside my marriage, and there are always more guys to meet, but it would be nice to experience more than one decent night from each guy!
—One and Done
Dear One and Done,
You are so lucky that I suspect what you are experiencing is not luck at all but some sort of advanced witchcraft. It sounds like you have managed to avoid two major pitfalls of sex apps. The first is the immediate disappointment of reality versus the fantasies crafted in one’s head during a chat. The story that I’ve heard and experienced much more often goes something like: When I meet up with other guys, it’s usually after a lot of chatting online, establishing trust and generating a rapport … and then we get together and it doesn’t work at all. The second common gripe is the inability to score a second date/hookup after the first one went swimmingly. That I just tend to interpret as relative immaturity and compulsive next-best-thing-ism.
I’ll tell you again, my concupiscent compadre: You are lucky. You’re conjuring and having good sex and then landing follow-up fun. Add to that what sounds like a jealousy-free open relationship with a partner that you’re still having great sex with, and it sounds like you aren’t just having your cake and eating it too but doing it while living in a Hostess factory with the metabolism of a small bird. That the sex is tapering off with these random guys could be a blessing in disguise: If it remained intense, they might want to stick around and ultimately get in the way of your committed-swinging lifestyle.
You should be happy with what you have, because it rarely gets better. Given that you have a sort of scientific control in your consistently good sex with your husband, I’d guess your ostensible problem with underwhelming repeat sex is a psychological issue, not a physiological one—maybe you’re on a first-time-hookup high, then reality sets in and it’s only after a second session that you realize this random guy isn’t all that incredible. (It’s also hard to precisely evaluate this because you aren’t clear on what’s making the sex bad. Are you guys able to maintain erections? Are you coming? Is there just a decreased intensity the second time? Is it possible to put your finger on it at all?) If you really, really want more, and I know it’s human nature to do so, try a slightly slower approach. Get to know the guys a little bit. Meet up and chat before your first or second sex encounter, foster an association that helps you see each other as something more than body parts with which to help each other orgasm. Believe me, I know the fun in living life like a great white shark and needing to take a bite out of every dude to even understand what’s in front of you, but if you’re trying to cultivate buddies, why not try a friendly approach?
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a well-hung 23-year-old guy. Married to my beautiful wife. We love each other. But somehow when it comes to sex, it isn’t working. I have a problem maintaining an erection; I already was on Viagra, but it’s still a problem. And my wife has never been with another guy, so she’s not at all excited when it comes to doing it. It hurts her, and she’s not responding in a way that would make me in the mood. So I guess my question is: How can I make her in the mood? What can I do? And should I try a bigger dose of Viagra in the meantime?
Dear Big Trouble,
Here is your teachable moment: A large penis does not good sex make. Your dick might be big, but it’s not the center of the universe or even your bedroom, necessarily. If it’s hurting your wife, I hope you’re experimenting with lube, plenty of foreplay, and perhaps toys. It may take her a while to get used to you, and she may not at all, which means you’ll have to find other methods of satisfaction with her beyond penis-in-vagina sex. Apathy can ricochet between sex partners, so her response may be affecting yours. You might need a larger dose of Viagra, sure, but why don’t you focus on fostering her functionality before turning back to yours?
To do that, you need to talk to her. Why are you asking me how to turn on your wife? You should be asking her. Do you give her oral sex? Do you make out with her? Do you play with her breasts? Have you ever talked about how she enjoys to masturbate and attempted to replicate the experience with her? This is not a lick-it-stick-it situation; you have to communicate. You point out her inexperience, but I think you need to up your own game.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m an early 30s cis gay guy. For as long as I’ve been having anal sex, I’ve been solidly vers. Both feel great, and I’m game to do whatever my partner is less inclined toward. But there are some problems.
First, it seems everyone I date seriously is a near-total bottom, and so I end up topping pretty much exclusively when I’m seeing someone. Second, when I’m single and going to Grindr for casual sex, I almost always choose to top. STD-wise, yes, it feels safer—though I always use condoms and am on PrEP. But I mostly choose it from a vulnerability standpoint: It’s scary to cede that control to a stranger, and it doesn’t require any preparation, so having someone drop by to get railed is comfortable and easy. This leads to a big mismatch with my deeper urges. In my masturbation fantasies, I imagine bottoming much more often—like, 80 percent of the time. I like topping a lot, but it’s always a B+ experience. Bottoming has a much higher variance of quality—it can be a solid C with the wrong guy, but it can also be an A+ if things go right. (In my fantasies, it’s always an A+, which might be why it’s a more common go-to fantasy than topping.)
So, I’m kind of stuck. I dream of finding the perfect vers-top boyfriend to satisfy that need while still wanting me to top him frequently. In the meantime, I think I either have to let it go that there’s a mismatch between my sex fantasies and sex reality—or I have to shift up my Grindr habits and mindset to bottom more. I know that all Grindr meetups are risky in their way, and so the block is probably more in my head than a realistic concern. I also know that in my dating life I have to be more comfortable expressing my own preferences and not just being the malleable opposite-puzzle piece for the guys I’m seeing, but one step at a time. Any other ideas or words of wisdom?
Dear Barely Bottoms,
Because I felt like I was reading a transcribed flowchart when reading your letter, I am concluding that you’re well on your way to having this figured out. Your choices are based on reason, and when said reason is a bit irrational, you own up to that. What a man! Take, for example, the idea that bottoming makes one more vulnerable, which you then counter by allowing: “I know that all Grindr meetups are risky in their way.” Exactly! We are essentially putting our lives into strangers’ hands by allowing them into our homes (or going to theirs) and focusing our attention on pleasure instead of survival. That we don’t hear about more instances of violence and tragedy resulting from the vulnerability so many gay men adopt eagerly and often speaks to the overall peaceful nature of our tribe.
The bigger question is: Is a lack of self-acceptance, almost certainly borne of notions of masculinity and the things real men do and don’t do, preventing you from being the bottom that you are? I’m not so sure. You are generally at peace with your enjoyment of getting railed, and you identify as vers. You have discovered firsthand a truism of gay hookups: If you are willing to top, you’ll probably do a lot of topping. Guys want to get banged, plain and simple. I’d also like to caution you from worrying too much about the fantasy-versus-reality disparity of your sex life. Certain fantasies exist because they could never be true, like A+ bottoming experiences 100 percent of the time. You aren’t just pulling ideas about your identity out of thin air; they’re based on your responses to actual experiences. It may not be that you are a power bottom who’s holding yourself back but a guy who enjoys sex a lot and is more or less in tune with himself to know how to maximize the output of whatever given encounter he enters. You sound like a dreamboat to me, and I have little doubt that you’ll make a vers-top very happy one day soon.
Advice From Dear Prudence
My husband and I both had very traditional Christian upbringings, and it’s taken me a long time to affirm my sexuality. Well, after many years of a wonderful (albeit vanilla) sex life, I gathered the courage to ask my husband if he would go to a sex shop with me and if he would feel comfortable using a toy together. He gave (what seemed like) a quick and enthusiastic yes, to my delight. I naturally only wanted to proceed if he was completely on board. It went smoothly and enjoyably for all involved. However, the next night I went to initiate foreplay (without the new toy), and he started full-out sobbing, body shaking. It was so sudden and unexpected that at first I thought he was having a medical event. But he was just bawling at my touch. I stopped right away and helped him calm down. He says he must have just been overwhelmed with stress and denies that it has anything to do with our sex life. But I can’t just get over the timing. It took me a long time to try to be vulnerable and ask for what I want in bed, and I’m just devastated that this is how it turned out. What should I do?