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,
A few weeks ago, I discovered my wife cheated on me. (I won’t say how I found out, but you’d tell me I shouldn’t have done it. I had a suspicion, and I confirmed it.) The weird thing is, now that I know, I’m not sure how to bring it up, or if I should. I know through the same means I discovered the affair that it’s over, and she feels guilty about it. I noticed an uptick in our sex life around the time I now know her affair ended, and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. I keep waiting to snap and tell her, but even when we got drunk together one night, it just wasn’t front of mind. I told my best friend, and he said he’d have totally lost it, but I’ve “always been weird about this kind of stuff.” I’d honestly rather just forget it, let my wife work through her guilt on her own, and hopefully learn her lesson. Is that possible if I say nothing?
Dear Silent Detective,
I’m stunned by what appears to be your immense amount of maturity. If what you want is remorse and for the behavior to stop, and that’s what you’ve got, I can absolutely understand why you’d prefer to let the affair stay in the past. As the wronged party, you’re completely within your rights to never bring it up.
If you don’t, it is definitely possible that your wife will work through her guilt and never cheat again. It’s also possible that no amount of silence, discussion, or happy medium could prevent her from doing so again in the future. You’re going to have to have hope for the former. Many couples would see this as a moment for therapy or recommitment to help encourage better outcomes in the future, but you know the two of you best. If, for you, this is a lapse that you’re already moving past, then so be it.
As for how to bring it up should you change your mind, you can choose a calm, sober time and come totally clean with “I looked through your email/read your texts/broke into your Instagram and know about the affair,” or just ask, “Have you had an affair?” A tiny part of me does wonder if you’re neatly avoiding any discussion with your wife so you don’t have to discuss how you confirmed this affair, since you seem to be feeling like you’ve also done something wrong. But even then, there’s no need to rock the boat if you don’t feel a desire to do so.
Dear How to Do It,
When I was somewhere around the age of 5 or 6, I was molested by a family friend for a period of time that I can’t remember. I don’t think there was ever any penetration, but I can’t say for sure. I only remember bits and pieces. I don’t know how long this went on for, since we lived just down the street from each other. It stopped when he moved away. I never really thought about it growing up, but about two years ago, my mother mentioned in passing that his sister got married. Just hearing their last name flipped a switch in my brain, and it was suddenly all I could think about. I tried to scrounge up any memories I had. I even looked him up on social media to feel some sort of security. I never told anybody what happened. I don’t think I’ll ever tell my mother, because I know she wouldn’t believe me.
I did, however, tell my boyfriend, “Dave.” By the time that I remembered this, we had been dating for a year. I felt like it was something I should be able to tell him, so I tried to mention it as calmly as possible. Something like “Um, there’s something I wanted to talk to you about, and I don’t want you to make it a big deal. It’s not something I remember very well. When I was really young, a family friend used to touch me. I don’t know how far it went, or for how long. I really don’t have anyone else to talk to about it.” The way he reacted was kind of expected. He said things like “If I ever meet him, I’ll kill him,” etc. I didn’t tell Dave I found him on social media because I was unsure of what he might do. I don’t think Dave would actually confront him in person, but I was afraid of him reaching out. Just the thought of that gave me severe anxiety.
Since this realization, I have slowly distanced myself from sex and intimacy. I am a trans man, so remembering this experience complicates my relationship with my body further, and I want to heal before exploring it again. The way Dave has dealt with the lack of sex only makes it worse. He is very sex-driven but denies this. He will often say he doesn’t feel like I love him, or will continue to ask for things that I’ve already refused. There have been a few instances that profoundly bother me. In one, I gave him consent, but I told him beforehand that I didn’t want to do a specific position because I was sore. In a lull, I felt him trying to change into that position. I immediately stopped him, and he sputtered excuses like “Oh, I was just doing this.” He eventually admitted to it. He tried to do the one thing I told him not to. It’s been nearly three months since we’ve done anything remotely intimate. Sometimes I feel frightened if he just touches me. The ironic thing is that he wasn’t originally the problem, but as he guilt-tripped me about “not loving him,” he made this the reality. I’m going to therapy for a wide variety of issues, but I don’t know how helpful she’s been about my boyfriend. I’ve mostly gotten the same question phrased differently, but no advice: “Why do you think you’re staying with him?” To be honest, I don’t know where else to go. What should I do?
I say sit Dave down and explain that you need to take sex—in a very broad definition—off the list of things you do for a while. Like, six months. Let him know that you also don’t want to be asked for sex, discuss sex that could happen in the future, or be pressured sexually in any way.
Make it clear that this is about trust, that trust is crucial to a healthy relationship, and that yours toward him is currently in jeopardy. Be willing to answer questions about what this means and why you’re asking for it. Give him the chance to be understanding and attentive. Give him the chance to respect your boundaries and be gentle with you.
The hope here is that you’ll be able to comfortably receive intimate romantic touch if you know sex isn’t going to follow, and Dave might be able to get some of his needs met through nonsexual physical intimacy.
If Dave doesn’t handle this well—argues, gets extremely defensive, or minimizes your needs—I suggest you walk away. It doesn’t matter how great he might be, how smart or funny, you don’t need a sexual partner who can’t keep track of your stated boundaries right now. I’m not sure any of us ever need that, but this isn’t the time to be dating someone who makes a lot of mistakes with sexuality and consent.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a pretty sheltered but knowledgeable young woman who is growing into being open with people and accepting myself in all areas of life. I have anxiety and depression issues and have a lot of old self-hatred, especially around everything sexual. I have tried to force myself to be normal, because the self-hatred was driving me off the edge. I have gotten better, but I worry I’m a bad person, and more specifically I fear my mom (an important person in my life who has always been a main source of love and support) would reject me if she knew what a slut I was. There’s no trauma or religious guilt to explain this. Moreover, my interests keep getting worse, with the exact same pattern: I went from thinking I was asexual, to sort of liking guys, to also liking girls, to only being interested in certain circumstances. I went from barely thinking about sex to all the freaky stuff showing up and not going away. (I basically have to have a dom-sub element, with me as the sub.) I’m learning I want my relationships to go down this same path thanks to my long-distance boyfriend, who has lovingly helped me explore this. But honestly, I still feel like I should be sexless. I’m half out of all the closets. I don’t know how to accept myself and feel OK fully, without the fear of being rejected or unethical.
You have an opportunity to do a lot of personal work. Rejection is out there. Ethics are personal and varied. There will always be someone whose own “ethical code” you’re violating. You need to prioritize your own standards. You’re on the right track with accepting yourself and feeling OK about what you want.
Your language, however—describing your interests as “getting worse”—is judgmental. Get specific with that. List out your judgments. For instance, “submissive women are gender traitors.” Now take them apart: Submissive people are taking part in a consensual exchange of power, usually ritualized or separate from daily life in some way, and are no less equal than those who are dominant or non-kinky. Go to a munch or workshop, where you’re more likely to meet people who are not currently practicing their sexual role than in a nightclub or dedicated play space. See for yourself what confident submissive women are like. Maybe even make friends with a couple.
Now let’s deal with that self-judgment you made. I disagree with the idea that your interests were getting worse. I think your sexuality was developing as you explored. Some people have very broad sexualities; they’re into just about everything given the right connection. Others are very specific and have to try a lot of things that aren’t spectacular for them until they find something they wholeheartedly want to say yes to. Exploration helps us discover ourselves.
In case it helps to hear it from someone else, you’re OK exactly as you are. You’re OK confused and semi-closeted. You’re OK working out who you are and how you feel about yourself. You’re OK as a submissive, you’re OK as a woman who has sex with other women, and you’re OK as a person who fears judgment from and rejection by others.
As you understand more about yourself, connect to community, and feel more comfortable about who you are, you’ll have a sturdier foundation to handle rejection and judgment, whether from yourself or the people around you.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a woman who’s been dating a great guy for about eight or nine months. Two months ago, he moved away to a new city, and we’ve been doing long-distance. We get along great, share the same values, and he treats me unbelievably well. The problem is we’ve never had sex. He’s never done it, period (we’re both in our mid- to late 20s). I have, and before I met him, I was having lots of casual sex. The last boyfriend I had sexually assaulted me, so I was wary about having sex when we first started dating. Now, I feel so comfortable with him that I really want to, and he’s also said he wants to have sex with me. We tried for a while, but the attempts ended up with fights or hurt feelings as one of us was always not in the mood (usually me at the beginning). Then we stopped trying, and he moved away. We went away for a weekend and we talked about doing it then, but we didn’t. I felt really frustrated on the trip and suggested we go on a break, but we decided not to.
So now I’m back, without any chance of having sex for another month. We do other things (oral sex), but that’s been dwindling too. We always have a great time when we go out and do activities, but we never prioritize sex. He gets anxiety around sex, and I have lingering issues from my sexual assault. He worries that putting time aside for sex would put too much pressure on him, and he wouldn’t be able to perform. I always feel awkward bringing it up, and every time we talk it never leads to anything. My body is itching for sex, and I’m so frustrated and sad that I’m not getting it, but I also don’t want to make him uncomfortable. I’m really afraid this was all my fault because I wasn’t in the mood at the beginning, and I’m putting too much pressure on him now. I don’t want to make him do something he doesn’t want to do, but he tells me he wants sex. I know he wants to try, but nothing is working. He’s tried counseling, and I can tell he’s making an effort, so I don’t want to be too hard on him. He says he’s happy in our relationship without sex, but I’m not. I really, really want to sleep with this guy. Now that we’re long-distance, we have even less time together and opportunities to try. I go out with friends, and I’m so tempted to sleep with the first guy that hits on me, but obviously I wouldn’t cheat. I’ve told him this, but nothing changes. What should I do? I’ve thought about breaking up over this, but I’m not sure.
—Just Want to Do It
Dear Just Want to Do It,
So there’s coercion, and then there’s helping the partner who isn’t in the mood but wants to be get into it for the sake of having a mutually desired sexual interaction. The second one is great. Stop talking about when you’re going to do it, and start laying the groundwork for being into doing it.
Let me be specific: Make a list of what makes your partner comfortable and what turns him on (or ask him to do it). Do the same for yourself. First, focus on the areas where your lists and his overlap. Do you both prefer medium light in rooms? Get a dimmer switch. What temperature is optimal for both of you? Set the thermostat accordingly. Do you both get aroused by kissing? Do a lot of kissing.
Pay attention to the things that don’t necessarily get you going but work for your partner, too. And vice versa. (He might need some help figuring his out.) Whatever they are, they’re your tools for arriving at a place of sexual interest when you desire it, and helping your partner to do the same.
Use the oral sex you do have as an opportunity to tease, in the hopes that enough boiling erotic tension can help your partner get over his anxiety and be in the moment. Be prepared to cancel plans if sexual feelings are showing up—you’ll have to prioritize, of course, and you’ll want to avoid expecting a certain outcome. Once you get past the anxiety spiral, the situation should improve.
More How to Do It
Recently, I was visiting my brother and sister in our home state, and we were joking about taboos. That led to talk of incest, and I said I thought it was sort of an overstated taboo—that most people seem to declare their disgust at it in a way that seems over the top. I could tell they were both a little uncomfortable. My problem: Since it was on my mind and I was a little buzzed, I decided to please myself to a little faux-incest porn in the guest room later that night. I am not interested in having sex with my brother and sister—I barely even watch that kind of porn—but my mind was where it was. Well, my brother used my laptop the next day and I had only minimized the window from my adventure the previous evening, not closed it. You can guess what happened. I watched in slow motion as he inadvertently opened the window, looked at it in shock for a moment, and then quickly closed it. I think he told my sister about it, because the rest of the weekend was awkward. I am afraid they think I have a real incest fetish. Should I raise this? If so, what do I say?