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’m a guy in a relationship with another guy. I’m late 20s; he’s pushing 40. It’s been about nine months. We get along well, and our sex life is totally normal from my perspective—maybe not off the charts, but loving and frequent. We’ve shared fantasies and desires, and I thought we were roughly on the same page. The other day, with his permission, I was working on his computer at his apartment while he was at work, and I noticed an image on his desktop that looked like porn (he has a machine where image icons display with previews). I clicked on it. It featured what looked to me like two preteen boys having sex. The lighting looked professional, so I’m wondering if it was a scene designed to simulate underage boys having sex that actually depicted adults, but I have no way to be sure. I’m very disturbed by this. The boys in the image looked very, very young. If he had that on his desktop, I can only imagine what I’d find if I looked further, which I haven’t. Should I ask him about it? If so, what should I look for in his response? I’m worried I discovered something very dark about my partner, and I don’t know how to proceed.
Dear Can’t Unsee,
Should you ask him about this? What are the alternatives? Stress-eating? Wringing your hands alone in your room? Chalking it up to a physical manifestation of a psychic scream and attempting to pray it away? You must confront him about this; I don’t see how you can go on in the relationship otherwise. Of course, the answer you receive may also effectively end the relationship. You’re facing a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t scenario, and the most hopeful thing I can say about it is that at least it showed itself nine months in, a not-insignificant but hardly life-altering amount of time. Imagine how world-upending it would have been had you discovered this after years or, worse, decades. Though it’s important to give your partner the benefit of the doubt, it’s hard for me to do anything but trust your gut. You saw what you saw.
I can’t imagine a response he could provide that would be satisfactory, but belligerence or defensiveness will be huge red flags. Don’t let him deceive you: You’re already second-guessing your own eyes, and it seems you might be open to being proved wrong. While not without its own creepiness, there’s a difference between barely legal porn featuring youthful-but-of-age twinks and child pornography. Still, the difference between a 12-year-old (or younger human!) and an 18-year-old is as obvious as the difference between a Matchbox car and an actual Porsche. Just living in this world as a thinking person, you should by now be inoculated from Insta-itis and not let good lighting fool you. Keep in mind that within every medium, even the most horrific, is the possibility of aesthetic hierarchy. Glossy child porn is still child porn. If you are not convinced this is legal material—as in, he shows you a well-known, legal site where he found it—you can report it to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
It’s strange that he left this on his desktop, as if he wanted to be caught. Perhaps he did so hoping that you share the same interests—there have been plenty of documented couples who have collected, viewed, and made child pornography together, and that conversation has to start somewhere, right? What a gamble to take, though. I suppose I should slap you on the wrist for snooping and breaching his privacy, but it seems that his (potential) indiscretion vastly outweighs yours. He could get mad at you, but he’s never going to have a righteous stance here. Child porn has a way of blocking out the sun.
There’s a chance that his possible interest in underage boys is only to the extent that he wants to view pornography featuring them. A fascinating New Yorker piece from 2013 by Rachel Aviv on child-porn offenders cited a researcher who, via a review of self-reported studies, found that roughly half admitted they had sexually abused at least one person, but those who had not “did not have the antisocial traits, like lack of empathy and impulsiveness, that are common to all types of criminals.” The researcher, Michael Seto, labeled these “fantasy offenders,” explaining, “In this weird, disinhibiting space, which lacks the usual social cues, they may do and say things they would never dare in real life.” It’s a revolutionary concept, and yet it still raises the question: In the best-case scenario (outside of you being utterly wrong about what you saw), do you want to be with a fantasy offender who’s an active participant in the market of something as life-destroying as child pornography? I didn’t think so.
Hear him out, and be prepared to run in the other direction.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m in the early stages of a wonderful relationship with a tetraplegic man. I am an … able-bodied (not sure if that’s the best term, but there it is) woman. He’s paralyzed from about the chest down, but has nearly full function in both arms and hands. We are both having a great deal of fun with the process of figuring out what works for us, but since it’s his first sexual relationship post-injury, and my first such relationship with someone like him, I think we could both use a little help and guidance on finding some strategies that could help us maximize our enjoyment of one another. We are playful, open, and communicative with one another, and very open to trying out whatever seems interesting and/or helpful. Any advice for us, or could you point us in the direction of some resources on the topic? Thanks so much!
Dear Something New,
Congratulations on your new relationship! I come bearing the best possible reward for an open mind: options. These are via Rafe Eric Biggs, a sexual health educator who specializes in working with people with disabilities and chronic illnesses. Biggs runs a website that’s a resource on sex with disability, Sexability, where he offers sex counseling via phone and Skype, and he moderates the Sexuality and Disability Support Group on Facebook. He is paraplegic.* He can move his arms and can bend his hands, though he lacks fine motor dexterity. Fifteen years post-injury, Biggs would seem to be exactly the kind of expert you’re looking for. I spoke with him on the phone, and the theme of the conversation was that sex with disability isn’t a hindrance but an opportunity to get creative.
To start, Biggs suggests body-mapping (or as he calls it, “pleasure-mapping”), which will help determine where your partner’s sensations begin and end, as well as which of them feel particularly good. Start with your hand (or hands or, hell, feet) on his head and move your way down. Experiment with pressure. Have him tell you what he likes. To use Biggs as an example, he has sensation from the nipples up and reports that “normally those sensations feel really good, especially if it’s in an erotic context.” Your partner can also do this to you to determine your erogenous zones, and perhaps to unlock more of his. Biggs said that soon after injury, he discovered that penetrating his girlfriend with his thumb felt really good not just for her, but also for him.
Biggs also is able to feel sensation in his penis, though not all paralyzed people can. This is a relatively new development for him, discovered in the past three or four years. Even before that, in the absence of internal pleasure, he still had fun via intercourse and the manipulation of his penis (he achieves and maintains erections with erectile dysfunction drugs). “With a partner, there’s always the visual excitement and the confidence that comes with knowing that you can get an erection,” he said of the days before he had sensation in his penis.
That said, sex need not be about penile sensation to be worthwhile, and it doesn’t have to be legitimized by ejaculation, either. This is a point Stoya and I both hammer home regularly in this column when responding to the questions about people without disabilities, and it’s true for everyone. “As far as I know, I haven’t ejaculated [post-injury], and I’ve had lots of pleasurable sex,” Biggs said. He uses cannabis, both CBD and THC, which he says gives him even more sensation in his penis. As with E.D. drugs, though, a potential toker should consult with their doctor about possible interactions and side effects before taking up a new substance.
Biggs also recommended Barbara Carrellas’ book Urban Tantra for unlocking the secrets of breath and energy orgasms. “Breath, imagination, and sound—work with those, and that can really increase the level of satisfaction when it comes to sex,” he said.
Biggs compared the sexual response cycle of someone with a spinal injury to that of someone who isn’t disabled: Both can experience a build to arousal, a climax, and then the comedown/afterglow. “A lot of quadriplegics can stay in that high pleasurable zone for a long period of time,” he said, which sounds like a net positive. I know you guys can and will have a great time, and I hope Biggs’ guidance helps you get there more easily and with even more sensation. No one, especially you, should ever forget that oral and manual sex are both good options that yield a lot of pleasure. So get to it.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a mid-40s woman who’s been married (to a man) for 15 years. We have kids. Our sex life has been lousy since the beginning. I was much more experienced than my husband and had always gotten good response to my sexual openness, but my husband was discomfited by it and had a lot of sexual boundaries. He also wasn’t good at reading my arousal signals. For a while, every time we had sex, I ended up crying. The narrative became that I was broken. I participated in that story partly because it was hurtful, and it also seemed fruitless to say, “You suck in bed.” This went on for years.
Finally, I got sick of taking all the blame and let loose: I don’t enjoy sex with him because of his behavior, not mine. I also stopped pretending to be aroused since my cues don’t seem to have any effect anyway, and I find sex more bearable when I’m kind of “out of body” because it’s easier to detach from the uncomfortable ways he touches me (he’s not hurtful or abusive, he just doesn’t have good motor skills). We haven’t had sex in a long time, and I know my husband would like to change this. He’s watched some porn, and I think he realizes now that he messed up a good thing in the beginning. He told me that he thinks he broke our sex life.
I know I’m supposed to want to have sex with my husband, but I don’t because:
1) I don’t think he can change how he touches me. I really think it’s beyond his control.
He has terrible handwriting and stuff like that, too.
2) I don’t think he can learn how to read me even when I’m talking during sex. He’s a very slow processor, and I think he has special difficulty focusing over his own arousal. I get very negative about this because it triggers how I don’t feel listened to in other ways.
3) I have a huge mental block about any kind of adventurous sex with him. It all seems yucky now.
4) I don’t want to “share” what’s left of my libido or fantasy life with him; I don’t feel like he deserves access to my sexuality for his pleasure.
5) He’s not fun in bed—it’s like he never developed past that teenage lust phase to flirtation or humor.
He’s a good husband and a good father. I don’t want to get divorced, and he isn’t interested in finding another partner. I know I seem like a fatalistic asshole, and I haven’t even really asked for advice. But do you have any for me?
Dear Not Broken,
I don’t think that you seem like a fatalistic asshole, but I appreciate your humility. While I trust that you have pinpointed the root of the dysfunction in your partnership—your husband’s ham hands and lack of consideration—it’s important to keep in mind that you both watered this gnarled, diseased tree. I’m glad that you’ve liberated yourself from what sounds like a hellish cycle of unsatisfying sex and guilt over being unsatisfied, but I’m even happier that you’re owning your participation in it. While it does sound like your husband took a remedial approach to sex, what you have here is a fundamental sexual mismatch. Another less adventurous partner may have bought your husband’s arrested teenage lust wholesale and had no issues, and who knows what kind of escapades you’d have enjoyed had you settled down with someone more in line with your sex style.
I’d implore you to keep owning your role here. If your husband has come around, and you’re no longer interested in helping him learn, it’s your volition, not his issues, that’s doing the driving here (even if that volition is in response to those issues). Your mental block and your unwillingness to share are the current primary factors driving your lack of marital sex. You have every right to feel the way you do, I just want you to have eagle-eyed perspective and not default to another fictional narrative when one of those is what made your sex life so unpleasant.
You are the expert on your relationship, so I believe you when you say he’s a good husband, but sex issues tend to permeate the bedroom’s walls. They often manifest or are symptoms of greater issues. Or both. Case in point is his failure to read your arousal, triggering your feelings of not being heard in other ways. Is it really just that, or does your lack of sexual communication reify other connection blocks? If you do find yourself wanting to work on your no-sex checklist or any other issues, a couples therapist seems like it will be an essential place to start.
Aside from a reference to letting loose, which seems to only refer to your emancipation from the façade of your brokenness, you haven’t given me any indication of what you’re doing for sexual satisfaction in the meantime. Are you the same girl that you were when you got married? Where’s that energy going? Have you even approached this issue, or have you gotten so used to centering your husband in all sexual matters that your entire sexuality is now defined by the lack of it, due to a pretty basic case of incompatibility? That you don’t seem much concerned with this matter is the most disturbing part of your letter because it suggests possible irreparable damage. I’m hoping that you didn’t mention it because you’ve got it taken care of (and if it’s not solo, I’d encourage you to keep things honest and officially open up your relationship with your husband). However, if you aren’t, it seems to me that the most outstanding question pertaining to your situation isn’t what to do about your husband but why you aren’t pursuing your own pleasure and how to go about doing so. Hit me back if you want some guidance.
Dear How to Do It,
My husband and I (happily married for one year, together for five, both trans) have always had an open relationship where we hook up with other men, together and separately. In the past month or so, our time spent with the super sexy, awesome guy we see together the most has taken something of an emotional and romantic turn. We both really, really like him, and he really, really likes us, and as far as I can tell, there seems to be equal feelings going around from all parties. Things are going great, and everything feels very easy and natural right now.
I don’t want to ruin the fun, but now is a good time for the three of us to have a conversation, right? I feel compelled to acknowledge what’s happening in a “formal” way, I guess, and talking about this feels like the responsible thing to do. But I’m not even really sure what my actual goals here are, and I feel like I should probably know that before diving in. This is probably “Polyamory 101,” but what conversations should the triad be having at this point? Do we need to, like, lay down rules or boundaries? Am I risking ruining a nice thing by overthinking this?
Dear Holy Trinity,
Pump your brakes, Dad. The current lack of bounds is likely part of what’s keeping this budding relationship easy and natural. You have time and you have a primary partner for whatever stability/security you need, so why not run formless for a while and see what shape the relationship takes? The best outcome of such a talk so early is that things continue exactly how they are, perhaps with slight reassurance that your new guy isn’t going anywhere; the worst is that he feels smothered by obligation and inhibited by limitations that make him want to wriggle out. No one’s checking in, clipboard in hand, to make sure you’re doing the “responsible thing” with your deliciously non-heteronormative arrangement, and if they were, their definition of “the responsible thing” would be just as subjective as yours. There’s no rulebook.
Were you firmer on what you want from this, I’d be more convinced that it’s time to have the talk, or at least a talk. But at this point, that would be like steering a ship with your captain’s hat on backward, covering your eyes. (No offense, but I’m imagining you as Cap’n Crunch in this scenario.) You’ll have that talk at some point for sure, but in the meantime, why not focus on formulating and then verbalizing what this is and means to you? You can help guide your three-man vessel by expressing your appreciatio, and explicating exactly how meaningful to you this time spent together is. Perhaps the new guy will follow suit, and instead of some kind of sitdown that looks more like an intervention than an expression of love and commitment, the conversation will occur spontaneously. (I’m assuming you’ve already discussed all this with your husband and are on the same page.)
Think of a triad like you would any relationship: There are some that find you referring to each other as boyfriends immediately; there are others where six months in, the labels and sentences and paragraphs to describe the union are still elusive. You should absolutely go after and get what you want, but it seems like you already have it. Relax so that you can enjoy it. I’m prescribing a moratorium on any kind of serious “what this is” talk for another two months. It’s an arbitrary number (but then aren’t they all?), I just think it’s more socially acceptable and less potentially intimidating to have these conversations a few months in as opposed to one month in. Enjoy.
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Eight years ago, when we were both in high school, I discovered my sister was sleeping with her English teacher. I told my parents, but our English teacher was 22, and she convinced them it was true love. My parents declined to press charges as long as the relationship went on hold until my sister turned 18. I didn’t agree and told my principal and the cops; the teacher went to jail. My sister’s now married to him and has never forgiven me for turning her husband in, especially since he’s now a registered sex offender. They have a daughter, and if it weren’t for their relationship’s origins, I would say he’s a great husband and father. I miss my sister so much. I’m not welcome in my niece’s life. My parents are tired of the rift between us. Did I make a mistake? How can I repair our bond?
Correction, Aug. 12, 2019: This post originally said tetraplegia and paraplegia are interchangeable terms. Paraplegics have use of their arms and hands; tetraplegics have at least some paralysis in all four limbs.