How to Do It

Certain Sex Acts Give Me Panic Attacks

I’d rather not talk about why I say no, but guys won’t stop asking me to explain.

A man looks at an exasperated woman, while an X glows in the background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Wavebreakmedia/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Send your questions for Stoya and Rich to howtodoit@slate.com. Nothing’s too small (or big).

Dear How to Do It,

I recently got out of a long-term relationship and am really looking forward to getting back into the just-have-fun casual sex thing for a while. However, I’ve had trouble in the past dealing with boundaries with guys I’m just sleeping with (I’m prone to the repeat-hookup-buddies scenario) and was wondering if you might have some advice.

I’m an incest survivor, and there are a few sex acts—fingering and oral mostly—that occasionally result in me having panic attacks, which is just decidedly not fun for anyone involved. So I tend to keep those things completely off the table unless I’m very, very serious with a guy. I’ve never really had trouble setting those boundaries—I tend to lead in bed anyways—but guys often want to know why, and I’ve never figured out a good way to answer that question. My natural response is: because I said so. But guys seem to be either A) offended by this answer, or B) assume I’ve just had a bad experience and need to be shown the ecstasy of their mind-blowing oral skills, and they get kind of pushy trying to convince me we should try it out. Which should be a good thing—more guys should be motivated to give great oral! But it tends to make me feel anxious, like my boundaries aren’t being respected. At which point I’m hard-core done, and a perfectly good hookup-buddy situation has been ruined.

Out of frustration, I have on occasion just responded: BECAUSE INCEST. But that’s unsurprisingly a pretty awkward conversation, in no small part because I felt like I was being forced to discuss an issue I’m not comfortable discussing with a casual hookup. Also, your average straight cis man is reeaallllyyy not that great at discussing rape or sexual trauma. Is it unreasonable to set boundaries during sex with no explanation? Is there a nice way to express how serious these boundaries are without having to say rape? Am I just lacking in the appropriate level of tact or communication skills?

—I’ve Got My Reasons

Dear I’ve Got My Reasons,

As though having survived incest isn’t bad enough, you also have to navigate a world that sometimes doesn’t understand triggers, mental health, or simple respect for others’ needs. I’m almost certain the communication issue is not on your end.

It is completely reasonable to set boundaries, and you don’t owe anyone an explanation. A person’s boundaries are valid. Full stop. It doesn’t matter why they have the boundaries they have. It doesn’t matter if their boundaries are new or lifelong. It doesn’t matter if the boundary is there to prevent a panic attack or because you’re just not interested in the particular act. Boundaries may change with time or context, and if they do, they are still valid.

However, this is the real world, and you are right that the straight cis dudes you’re into generally don’t have the best track record with navigating the effects of trauma. That’s OK—your boundaries can be a great red flag lens. I promise you that there are straight cis dudes out there who will hear “boundary” and go, “Noted, and I’m here if you do want to talk about it, but there’s no pressure to divulge.” It does seem to take longer to find them, though, so you’ll want to brace yourself for the search.

Another red flag filter at your disposal is how they react to a statement like “Some sexual acts sometimes cause me to have a panic attack.” If they ask what’s the best thing to do for you in the event that you start to panic, that’s a nice bright green flag. If they demand to know why, you’re looking at orange to fire engine. Don’t have sex with the fire engines.

Dear How to Do It,

I’m the woman who wrote to you a few weeks ago after my ex-boyfriend reached out to tell me he’d been having sex with anonymous men while he was dating me. I wasn’t sure how to respond to him. By the time I read your advice, I had basically already taken it and wrote him back. I more or less followed your script: I reached out and said I was here if he needs to talk, and he said he’d let me know. I didn’t hear from him again, so I figured he got what he needed off his chest, and I was honestly ready to forget about it. I meant to write back to tell you nothing came out of it, then this week, I ran into my ex in public. He commented that he’d seen a comic I had been illustrated in nude (I wrote it with a friend) and said that I looked better in the illustration than in person. I said he’d look like shit either way, and we haven’t talked since. Your readers seemed to think it was a terrible idea to respond to him, but this guy has no power over me, and this whole episode has made that clearer than ever. I’m ready to never think about him again.

—Some (More) Personal News

Dear Some (More) Personal News,

It is so nice to find out what happened with a column question! Thank you for circling back and letting me know. I’m sorry this ex squandered your generous effort to respond and insulted your appearance. He sounds pretty awful. I think you’re making the right move—having given him a second chance—by severing contact after that last comment. Here’s to leaving space in our lives for people who are great.

Dear How to Do It,

I am a single 40-year-old woman. I have a friend whom I dated for five years in my early 20s. We broke up amicably and remained good friends; we were just too young to get married. I later married someone else but have been divorced for three years. He never married. I feel the romantic spark between us reigniting. It is mutual for sure. The issue: Although I’m wildly attracted to this man in many ways, I can’t conjure up any sexual attraction or desire for him. I remember that our sex life in the past was very satisfying and adventurous; he was great in bed. Yet I still don’t find him sexually desirable. I want to because he is the perfect man for me. Do you think it’s possible to develop sexual attraction for someone over time? If yes, do you have any suggestions on how to do this? Sex is very important to both of us, so being in a sexless relationship isn’t an option. I haven’t told him any of this.

—Just Not Feeling It

Dear Just Not Feeling It,

If you can’t talk about this problem with your friend, I’m not so sure he really is the perfect man for you. It seems possible that this secret you’re keeping could be contributing to the desire deficiency you’re describing. If you’re holding something like this back from a partner, you aren’t really in the moment with them, and it can be difficult to connect in a deep way.

I’m also curious about your sexual attraction to others. It’s possible that you’ve become less sexually motivated than you were in your early 20s, and the lack of lust may have nothing to do with this particular potential partner. I suggest you do some research—sit in a park and see if anyone stirs your libido, or go somewhere you don’t usually hang out at and flirt with some strangers.

It’s also possible that your sexual response is weighted toward novelty. You might reframe this as getting to know your friend’s sexuality all over again. It’s probably changed somewhat in the past two decades, and likely for the better.

And lastly, you might just not be attracted to this person anymore. That happens. There are loads of fantastic, stand-up people in the world who won’t rev your engine, and that’s simply a part of life. If a sexless relationship is indeed out of the question for you both, it’s probably best to remain friends.

Dear How to Do It,

How often is too often for a married couple to have sex? Can it get to the point of being an addiction? My wife and I have known each other for five years and have been married for two. During our entire five years we’ve had sex at least once a day, sometimes multiple times a day. Sex, as I see it, includes all types of “sex”—not just penile-vaginal penetration. I worry this is too much, especially this long into our relationship.

—At It Like Rabbits

Dear At It Like Rabbits,

Is anyone experiencing chafing? Are duties and responsibilities going unfulfilled?

I don’t believe in sex addiction. I believe certain conditions may drive people to a sex compulsion, but I do not believe sex addiction is a real thing any more than food addiction. Sex and food are important parts of life for most humans—and mammals for that matter—and it’s up to us to partake in them responsibly.

So back to that pair of opening sentences: Is something alarming causing you to ask this question? If so, see a counselor or therapist and get to the bottom of what’s happening. If not, you’re probably fine.

I suspect your broad definition of sex is making it seem like you have way more sex than couples with a narrower, genitals-in-genitals definition. I have a fairly broad definition of sex myself, which includes any touching with intent to arouse or satiate. So many fun ways of interacting with each other involve absolutely zero penetration.

Your worry is about a situation that plenty of people would love to be in. As long as everything else is functioning fine, try to relax and enjoy your robust, beautiful sex life.

—Stoya

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I am a 68-year-old man who has been married to a woman for 45 years, with three grown kids. Over the course of our marriage, we have been very active sexually, but for various reasons over the past five or six years, our sexual activity has declined dramatically. At the same time, over the past few years, I have become fascinated with same-sex encounters. Is this unusual, especially this late in life? How should approach this with my wife?