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 recently reconnected with a cousin who I hadn’t seen in about 15 years at a family wedding. He’s in his early 20s, I’m in my early 30s. When we were kids he looked up to me, and I would hang out with him often, because he had a hard time at home. We fell out of touch when I went to college, but he’s since extracted himself from his family and made good—he’s in school and makes solid money. When we saw each other, I honestly didn’t recognize him. He’s become quite a good-looking man, and I have to admit I was checking him out before I realized he was my cousin. (I’m also a man. I realized I was gay about a decade ago, and my family, including this cousin, is aware.)
My now-strapping cousin immediately glommed on to me at the wedding and told me how much he appreciated the time we spent together as a kid. It seemed innocent, but as he drank more throughout the night, he got increasingly physical and flirty, to the point where others commented on it. Toward the end of the night, he said he was questioning his sexuality and asked if he could come home with me to “talk about it.” He was very drunk, and I told him to go to bed. The next morning, he started texting me and asking to have a drink and talk more. I want to support him, but if I’m honest I am attracted to him, and I think he is to me, and it feels wrong especially because he’s my cousin and I basically babysat him as a kid. Should I be there for him and set clear boundaries? A part of me worries that if I do meet up with him, the flirtation will take its course, and if that got out, I know my family would freak out (and maybe I should feel guilty for even thinking about it).
Dear Glow Up,
You can be there for him without being in him, which is what I’m recommending. I don’t say that automatically because he’s your cousin. Aversion to amorous relationships among cousins is a fairly recent and location-specific taboo—according to one 2011 study, one-fifth of people globally live in places where consanguineous marriage is common (defined as marriage between two second cousins or closer, but not typically including immediate family members). The taboo, as Americans know it, largely stems from concerns of health complications and congenital conditions that a shallow gene pool can help facilitate—the risk of a congenital abnormality is something like 4 to 7 percent among births from consanguineous couples versus about 2 percent for the population in total. (Still, a recent Popular Science headline read, “Go ahead, marry your cousin.”)
Procreation isn’t on the table for you guys, so that takes care of that slightly elevated risk, but here’s why it’s still a no from me: You’re about 10 years apart, and he looked up to you growing up. You’re something like an authority figure to him. He’s an adult now, but barely. His brain is still developing. Don’t risk making his journey to self-acceptance any more complicated. Guys often get weirded out with themselves after their first same-sex experience, and this would just add another layer to fixate on. If he’s as hot as you portray, he’ll be able to find another guy to break him. It should be as easy as walking down a crowded street in a major metropolitan area and saying, “Yoo-hoo!” And then there’s the threat of disrupting your family.
There’s just too much baggage here for what would be, in the best-case scenario, transient dick, and you gotta pack lightly for that. I’m being extra careful here because I have the ability to assess this situation with the brain in my head, not between my legs (whereas I think you’re using the latter). But there is, of course, a chance you could do it with your hot, questioning cousin, you could both enjoy it, and it would be fine. Why risk disaster, though, for something so frivolous?
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a gay woman who is dating a woman who has never dated or had sex with women before. We’ve been together about nine months, plus a long courtship period—I liked her, and she was trying to figure out how she felt about me for a few months. But during that time we were very good friends, and we have a lot in common. Our connection, sexual or otherwise, has always been easy and obvious and very valuable. Anyway, it’s a bit complicated—she’s from a culture where being gay is shun-able at best and criminal at worst but, knowing the consequences, she’s always enthusiastically chosen me.
One of the first times we had sex she said something like, “Sometimes I’m going to need to have sex with men.” It was a bit bruising, but fair enough, and something I was willing to consider. It started an ongoing and nondefinitive dialogue about open relationships. About four months ago, her “friend” from college was in town. She offered her room. I asked on two separate occasions if this was the moment we talk about open relationships. She said no. I told her that the “it just happened” defense (sex is not a pothole) is a deal-breaker for me. I went out of town for the weekend. And a day or so after I came home, she confessed that they’d slept together.
I love her very much. She is the second person I’ve ever loved—something that you’re not sure is possible after the first. She pleaded for me not to leave her, accepted her failure, started the internal work of whys. All is well enough. But two things: One, sex isn’t the same for me. I can’t shake this idea that, no matter what, I’m just fundamentally unsatisfying for her even if she says otherwise. I don’t have this thing—a dick—in my sexual toolkit. And because she has done little to no inquiry into why she does or likes the things she does or likes sexually, it’s difficult to know what the value of this thing I don’t have, or this kind of interaction between men and women, is to her.
And I guess this part relates to the second part. I don’t feel jealousy—it’s more like disgust. Honestly, I think I could deal with an open relationship if everyone understood their needs and how to communicate them. But for whatever reason, her interactions with men make me feel disgusted. This is not a feeling I have generally about men and women having sex. It’s something about her attitude toward it—her utter thoughtlessness. This is not unique to this cheating event, but in this case, I can’t understand how someone could make all the choices that go into cheating—taking off shirt, taking off pants, getting condoms, etc.—so thoughtlessly. That’s not how sex happens for me, and we’d explicitly talked about consequences. What made it so important? I really don’t get it. I want to be over it. I wish I had a can’t-live-without-it dick.
This is the annoying part of being cheated on, yeah? That the cheater can move on and the cheated has to deal with it. I just can’t stop the loop: You made the choice to go to a bedroom, made the choice to blah blah blah … and I can’t understand or stop this feeling of disgust. Where is this coming from? Will I ever move on from the perennial state of penis envy?
Dear Playing D,
You were betrayed, and what’s galling is you attempted to foster an arrangement that would have prevented it. “No need to put your seat belt on, I’m a very safe driver,” your girlfriend told you—a few minutes before driving headfirst into a wall. It sucks that this happened to you, and reading it made me sad. You have been an incredibly understanding and generous partner, and you were treated like dirt in return. My general feeling is that a lot of relationships would be saved if people were a little bit more understanding of their partners’ desires. I never think cheating is OK, but I also don’t think it always has to be a fire-able offense, either. In general, our culture could use a little more compassion for people’s widespread inability to adhere to dogmatic monogamy. In this case, though, you did have understanding, you weren’t dogmatic, and you still got screwed by her screwing. I hate it. I hate it! This is an example of indiscretion that warrants a breakup. She doesn’t deserve you.
I think the deception is where all of this is coming from. You already showed a capacity for agnosticism regarding her dick craving—you didn’t get it, but you were somewhat at peace with its existence and its potential not to disrupt your relationship. Whether she does any inquiry as to what it all means, I think, is immaterial to the fundamentals here—she could take a global journal, a real eat (dick), pray (for dick), love (dick) kind of odyssey, and come back with little sense as to why. Taste is taste. Some people like dick, some don’t. What seems very clear to me is that different kinds of sex represent different kinds of flavors, and it doesn’t necessarily follow that an abundance of chocolate makes you stop wanting vanilla. You could be an excellent lover in every way, and it doesn’t signal failure that you biologically do not possess something else she enjoys. One doesn’t supplant the other: Palates can be vast, and nonhierarchical at that.
You’ve surely considered using a strap-on? I completely understand if it’s not your thing—sex need not be phallocentric. But that could do the trick if you want to keep at this thing, which I don’t think you should be doing, but which I would hardly fault you for because that’s the way love goes.
Dear How to Do It,
When I was a freshman in high school, I met and became casual friends with a guy who was funny, charming, smart, handsome, and down to earth. Because of a medical disability, I had to stop going to school at the beginning of junior year—before I had the chance to tell “Nick” how I felt about him. Fast forward 16 years, and I still carried a torch for Nick. Every time one of my relationships failed, all I could think was that it was because I was meant to have been with Nick. Well, out of the blue, Nick contacted me on Facebook, and we started sending messages back and forth. Then we started texting, and within two weeks, we were talking on the phone for hours at a time almost every day, even declaring our love for one another. I’m ecstatic! This is literally my dream come true! He lives in the Pacific Northwest, and I’m still in our hometown halfway across the country, but he’s coming to visit me for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I can’t wait to be with him and take our relationship to the next level.
But there’s a major hiccup that I haven’t told him about yet: The first few times I’m intimate with someone new, I have an incredibly difficult time allowing men to touch me and trusting men not to physically harm me, because an ex-boyfriend raped me when I was in my early 20s. It was a long time ago, and I’m totally fine once I’m “comfortable” with a man, but at first I have to take it really slow and build that trust. The last time I told a new love interest about the rape and my intimacy issues, I was dumped on the spot for being too damaged.
I’m terrified of messing things up with Nick because I feel like he and I were brought together by kismet, destiny, fate, and/or by the grace of God himself. This really feels like something special after I pined for him for 16 years. Should I tell him about being raped before he comes here? Should I just keep it to myself, and explain my difficulties being intimate as just nerves, until we’ve been together longer? More than anything, I don’t want to lose him, but I also don’t want to start our relationship out with a lie.
—High School Sweetheart
Dear High School Sweetheart,
Congratulations on getting to a place where, through your process, you can enjoy sex comfortably. That’s not a sign of damage, but repair. You’ve overcome trauma. The guy who dumped you was an asshole, and while he did you a favor in the long run (imagine pursuing a relationship with someone so small-minded and lacking in compassion), I understand that his reaction was somewhat traumatic and imposed yet another unwarranted layer of shame on you. Your wariness is perfectly sensible, but I think that you have to tell “Nick” about your specific situation and needs here. If this is love, as you both have declared, he needs this information to understand you and to facilitate a proper bond. While opening-night jitters are common for plenty of people who don’t have past trauma, it seems like your specific reaction might be hard to play off as such. Unless he fully grasps the situation, he could misinterpret any palpable anxiety and apprehension for sex—fragile male egos often take such things personally. It’s scary, but revealing your history will be a true test of whether he deserves you: If he’s everything you think he is, he will pass. I’m rooting for him, but mostly, for you.
Dear How to Do It,
My wife and I have been married for 22 years. She’s 56, and I’m 49. For the first 20 years, we had a decent if somewhat ordinary sex life. Then, abruptly and without a word, my wife started refusing sex. At first, I assumed it was just a normal dip in desire—nothing that some flowers, a few dinners out, and maybe a little wine couldn’t fix. It didn’t work. I dropped hints, tried humor, but she continued to clam up. She has a super-stressful job and lots of family commitments that subject her to quite a bit of strain. I try to help her cope with those things as best I can.
After a year, I finally confronted her as gently as I could, and she tearfully told me that she no longer wants sex, and I should leave her and find another woman who could love me properly. I was gobsmacked and utterly horrified. “Honey,” I told her, “I’m not going anywhere. Whatever the problem is we can work it out. You are more important to me than sex. I love you.”
Nothing changed. In dribs and drabs, I gradually learned that she’s been harboring ambivalence about the relationship, but she won’t really talk to me in detail about her feelings or our marriage. Later, on our anniversary, she grew angry when I showed disappointment that we still were not having sex in any form. And when I asked if I could do something for her, she said she wanted time alone before going to sleep so we would have to go to bed at different times. I don’t fault my wife for a drop in libido that she cannot control, but I can’t stand her response to it.
The lack of physical and emotional intimacy is devastating for me. She says she loves me, and I love her too, but her treatment of me is abominable, and frankly I have little choice but to contemplate leaving the master bedroom and maybe even consulting a divorce attorney. All of that said, I don’t really want us to split up (among other reasons, we have a 12-year-old at home). Is there even a marriage here to save? If there is, is it worth saving? Life is too short to put up with her stonewalling, lack of sharing, and seeming indifference to my needs (and her own).
Dear Fed Up,
I generally agree with you regarding communication, but based on what you’ve written to me, I wonder how good a communicator you have been. It seems highly likely that your wife’s drop in libido is related to menopause. Have you informed yourself on that? Have you come to the conversation equipped with knowledge of what she may be going through? Have you showed compassion that isn’t merely transactional? That could be more useful than dinner, wine, and flowers. It seems quite possible that if her interest in sex has dried up through no fault of her own, so has her interest in talking about it. She could feel really bad and ashamed and if the conversation is centering your needs as opposed to her state of being, it could be overwhelming her. Plus, after menopause, many women report a revived sex drive. This may be worth riding out.
What I do find legitimately concerning is her unwillingness to talk about her ambivalence regarding your union, which you seem intent on preserving regardless of the sex. Here it does seem like she is failing you, and that these issues beyond sex need to be addressed and worked out. If I were you, I’d turn my focus from sex to the broader communication issues, again as delicately and compassionately as possible.
Is there even a marriage here to save? I don’t know without hearing from her (and even then, I’m not a therapist, and even then it wouldn’t be my job, per se), but I do know that you’re asking a stranger this question after summarizing a 22-year relationship into some 400 words. Not the best of signs, but it does seem that there’s more work to be done. Speaking of therapists, find one and go together.
More How to Do It
I’m a woman in my mid-30s, and over the past year, I’ve gotten close to a 40-ish married man whom I met through a work colleague. We’ve started an online-only sexual relationship, with plans to connect physically in the future. I’ve tried to cover my own electronic tracks—it would be quite devastating for my work life if my colleague found out that I was sleeping with her neighbor—so I’m not afraid of his wife tracing sexts back to me. For a variety of reasons, this sexual relationship appeals to me at the moment. I don’t believe it will be long-term, and it’s quite hot. I also know he’s had other relationships outside his marriage. We’ve had conversations about discretion, including from my co-worker, but I’ve never explicitly asked what his wife knows or doesn’t. Should I? I can’t decide if it matters, and I only worry if it would get back to my colleague.