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).
Every Thursday night, the team responds to a bonus question in chat form.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a hetero woman married to a hetero dude, both in our 30s. I’ve been with my husband for a decade. He’s a wonderful husband and father to our two very young children. Last year, I fell hard for a dear, dear friend (also a hetero dude). After clearing it with my husband—we had always discussed being open to non-monogamy—I pursued him, and to my delight, he was interested. So I’ve had a husband and a boyfriend for about a year. I’m the pivot in our vee (which is to say, my guys don’t have other partners; they’re 100 percent free to, but they’ve both demurred).
I love them both and feel so blessed to have them both as my partners. My trouble is eroticism—specifically that my erotic brain is totally focused on my boyfriend now. The same touch from them gets interpreted differently by my brain: From my boyfriend it’s erotic; from my husband, it’s a nonerotic tickle. Kissing my boyfriend is like lightning; kissing my husband is like an LED lightbulb (no heat!). I’m not sure what to do about this. My husband and I have resorted to scheduling weekly sex (a good idea anyway when kids are in the mix), and I participate, but it just feels like a nice thing I do for him, not something that turns me on. (I want to be clear he is never coercive, and it’s not that I actively don’t want sex, I just don’t actively want it, either.)
My poor husband can sense my tepidity. I’ve been struggling to think how I could turn the erotic part of my brain on for my husband. If I masturbated to fantasies of real people, I’d try that, but I’ve never come that way in all my decades of solo sex. I’m a fairly vanilla person, polyamory aside, so it’s hard to imagine resorting to outré sex toys. What haven’t I thought of?
Stoya: As soon as I read this letter, Mickey Avalon’s “My Dick” popped into my head and has been with me in the background ever since. It’s a song of comparison. Of dicks. I think it’s a send-up of toxic masculinity, but it comes to bear here because of the comparing. Someone is always going to come out lacking when you’re comparing partners.
Rich: It’s very true. And in terms of this particular situation, it seems pretty clear to me that our letter writer is most likely excited by the boyfriend because their union is relatively new. She’s been with her husband for 10 years. Polyamory or no, many people have a hard time getting excited for sex a decade in. Could really be that simple.
Stoya: New Relationship Energy?
Rich: One hundred percent.
Stoya: Agreed. She’s comparing apples to oranges. It might help to focus on thinking of these relationships as separate. (Which they are.)
Rich: I haven’t heard of a case like this anecdotally, but I’m sure it’s come up. Is it possible to be broadly polyamorous but in terms of just sex, monogamous? That is, you are open to multiple romantic partners but gravitate toward one sexually? It must be, right?
Stoya: Oh, interesting. What you’re saying passes the sniff test.
Rich: If that’s what’s actually going on, then acceptance is in order. She’s using multiple men to cover her bases of needs. Industrious and efficient. The trouble comes in when she unintentionally boxes her husband out sexually, which is probably outside the spirit of their agreement. I do wonder what their sexual relationship was like prior to the new boyfriend—if in fact, the nine years were weighing on them or if her desire for her husband just evaporated with the arrival of the new guy.
Stoya: This feels like a good time to talk about the various reasons we have sex. We absolutely have sex for fireworks, but we also do it to be close and intimate with each other. Sex changes over the course of a relationship, and fireworks are more of a peak than the norm. Some people never even get fireworks with any partner.
Rich: There are some partners I’ve had with whom the best part of sex was the afterglow. Not in a “I’m glad it’s over kind of way,” but in a “I really like lying with you and holding you and sharing this peace.”
Stoya: YES. That kind of closeness is better than most orgasms for me. It’s systemic relaxation instead of the genitally localized version. (I think the orgasms pave the way, though.)
Rich: If this is a matter of the sort of natural progression of sexual tapering off that so many long-term relationships experience, there are things the writer can do for sure. Even though it’s focused on monogamy, there are tips in Esther Perel’s Mating in Captivity that she can try.
Stoya: I have to read that book someday. You reference a lot of great-sounding stuff from it.
Rich: I have found it pretty useful for understanding sex with a long-term partner. She surveys people much like our writer, who are in loving relationships and want to want to have sex with their long-term partners but just … don’t. The general operating concept is you have to facilitate the sense of mystery and otherness with your partner that was a natural consequence of not knowing them very well at the start of the relationship.
Stoya: Does Perel cover the stop-having-sex tactic?
Rich: Well, it’s mostly focused on what happens when the sex has already stopped. It’s about the active process of re-creating a sense of exciting difference with your partner. See, I think a lot of people hit this wall with their partner and think, “Well, wanting to have sex with them came naturally before and it doesn’t anymore. Why can’t I just will this to happen?” You can only coast for so long. After a while, you may have to do active work. “Eroticism resides in the ambiguous space between anxiety and fascination,” she writes.
She gives examples of getting into public sex or setting up hotel dates or creating new email accounts for erotic correspondence.
Stoya: So could actually having a sexual relationship outside the marriage help in the long run, if it shocks their routine?
Rich: The idea of a new partner creating that distance is interesting. I guess one hazard is creating too much distance, and then getting lost. That could be happening here.
Stoya: For sure. I’m wondering if the letter writer and her husband have points of connection that aren’t sexual and could use some nurturing. Like, is there something they used to do together when they were dating, before the kids, that might provide a nostalgia spark?
Rich: Yeah, I think in general she should examine what she found erotic about him in the first place. It might not do the same thing for her that it once did, but this isn’t as hopeless of a situation as some think it is. It just requires a really active approach to care and correction. To help that along, she should discuss this with her husband, carefully acknowledge what they both know is going on, and see how they can work on this as partners.
Stoya: As I alluded to before, it might also help to stop having sex altogether for a couple of weeks. Sexual frustration might be just the thing to kick her into desire for her husband.
Rich: Yes, that’s a great idea.
Stoya: She’ll want to discuss this all with her boyfriend so he knows what’s going on. If it were me, I’d be completely forthright, but it’s probably OK to approach this delicately.
Rich: The writer and her husband’s arrangement does seem ideal in the event of the worst-case scenario, which is that they never get the spark back. In that case, they have the option to seek sexual satisfaction elsewhere and need not sacrifice the relationship based merely on the dried-up sexual aspect of it.
More How to Do It
I was a virgin until age 23. At age 23 I had sex with the person who became my girlfriend … then my wife … and now we have a toddler. We have a decent relationship and a sex life that is mostly vanilla with some sparks of domination/submission on both sides, a little bit of butt play, trips to the sex-toy shop, etc. Although our sex life these days is severely constrained by stress and busyness, we have a method for both of us getting off before the toddler wakes up. But as with a lot of people in my position, I feel like I missed out on some sexual exploration since I’ve only had one sexual partner. I’m curious about what sex with other people is like. I don’t want another romantic relationship, but my wife would definitely not be open to the possibility of me exploring NSA sex with sex workers or acquaintances. I’m willing to be monogamous for her, but it does lead to a certain level of frustration/regret. So, what am I missing out on? What am I not missing out on? I’d like to hear from the perspective of people who have had a variety of sexual partners/experiences.