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,
My son is 12½. Like all tweens and teens, he is interested in sex, he has access to the internet, and he has gone looking about. My husband and I have had age-appropriate talks with him the last couple of years about how we want the information he consumes to be nourishing for his brain just like food nourishes his body. We have talked about how keeping secrets keep us from growing and how his body is his own. We have talked about how he can come to us with anything, and so far, it seems like he has. But like any parent, we keep an eye on his internet searches and limit the way he can interact with people online. And this brings us to the issue. This weekend, during a quick check of his computer internet history, we found that he’d been looking at “softvore” imagery—nothing violent or gory, but pictures of sexy women swallowing men, etc.
He’s had an interest in stuff like this since he was around 7 or so, when he saw a scene in a movie where a lingerie-clad alien played by Lara Flynn Boyle swallows a man whole. He said he liked the “snake-lady scene,” and we talked about how images on a screen aren’t real but can inspire real feelings in us, and it’s important to be aware of what’s real and what’s not. We figured it was a passing interest and nothing would necessarily come of it. We decided to take the movie out of rotation and revisit it when he was older.
As it turns out, like many formative, sexually charged situations, it’s never really left his mind. My question or quandary is this: If he were simply looking at run-of-the-mill sexy images, I’d be well set up to deal with it. We’ve laid the groundwork there. But navigating a fairly specific kink is tricky and, honestly, weird for me! I don’t really want to know my preteen son’s porn preferences. How do I talk about responsible consumption of media with this additional twist?
I have a long and varied history with kink myself, so the fact that he is interested in something not quite so mainstream is fine, but there’s not a lot of guidance on how not to kinkshame your kid. Add to that the fact that he’s fairly young, and it is an awkward, complex mess. We’ve limited his internet access for now—he was being secretive about looking stuff up—and had the preliminary “the images we consume for sexual pleasure are indeed private, but you’re still young and the internet is a big scary place. If you are secretive about what you do online, we aren’t, as parents, able to keep you safe” talk. But I am wanting to keep myself armed with talking points if this comes up again … as it inevitably will. I want to raise a sex-positive, respectful man, and honest talks like this are part of that.
—Hard to Swallow
Dear Hard to Swallow,
Once upon a time, all paraphilia was considered deviant and harmful to its host. In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it went from being regarded as a subtype of sociopathic personality disorder in the manual’s original volume (1952) to being no cause for concern unless it causes or threatens harm to the person who has it or others (2013’s DSM-V distinguishes between paraphilias and paraphilic disorder). Still, as recently as a decade ago, it was not uncommon to offer parents tips for ironing out the kinks of their adolescents. This very website did just that in 2010 in the Dear Prudence column.
Times have changed. Such a conversion-promoting response would be viewed as “totally irresponsible today from the vast majority of sexologists and, I hope, clinicians,” said Ritch C. Savin-Williams, a professor emeritus of developmental psychology at Cornell. He has extensively studied and written about adolescent development, including sexuality. He, like every expert I reached out to regarding this question (I did a big sweep on this one, given the lack of information out there on the early development of kink), had praise for how you’ve handled this so far. “What a great parent! Can we duplicate her about a zillion times?” he wrote in email after reading your question. “My immediate response is that she’s done what she needs to do and to let it evolve, being sure to maintain an openness that is sincere, non-shaming, non-judgmental.”
Kate Thomas, one of the directors of clinical services at the Johns Hopkins Sex and Gender Clinic who counts paraphilic behaviors among her areas of expertise, wrote in an email that it’s too early to say whether or not your son has a fetish—she said it’s standard practice among experts to refrain from “diagnosing” anyone with a fetish until they are at least 16. Even so, “ongoing interest in something sexual at an early age may predispose someone to the same interest later in life,” he said. “Perhaps the most important thing to suggest is that even if this is an interest sexually for this young person, it is likely just an interest. This doesn’t necessarily mean he will have any interest in acting upon it.”
And what if he does want to act on it when he becomes sexually active? James M. Cantor, founder and director of the Toronto Sexuality Centre, co-authored a 2014 article on the particular paraphilia described in your letter, vorarephilia. “Vorarephilia is often paired with masochism,” Cantor wrote to me in an email. But he discouraged you from focusing too much on this potential kink itself: “Although the exploration he does will be unique to him, whatever basic ground rules one would use with ‘vanilla’ kids would still apply.” He added:
My hunch is that the parenting challenge here is not actually about the content of his porn use: It will be for preparing him for the realization that he is different. His sexuality will (by definition) feel perfectly natural to him, but it will be the realization that others don’t share it that will require support. Potential fears are that he will be alone, will never find a relationship, that he did something wrong to develop this interest, and so on. His sexual interest pattern will be as powerful to him as a sexual orientation, but he will not have a peer youth support group.
Barring his attempting to access sexual materials that are illegal, I doubt the parents would need to follow his porn preferences. But the “What does this say about me?” and “Am I a freak?” will be where he will need them most.
Cantor also shared this nugget with me, lest the parents among our readers start hiding their sons from Lara Flynn Boyle: While it’s unclear what causes atypical sexual interest patterns, the best evidence out there suggests that they are inborn. You read that right. “That is, people don’t seem to find an image and get fixated on it,” he said. “Rather, it’s when we happen to run into an image that matches (or closely matches) whatever internal template we already have that we experience something profound.”
I asked one more expert about your other concern: the potential effects of your son’s softcore porn consumption. J. Dennis Fortenberry, a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University, said in an email that “most research suggests that exposure to generic erotic media has few long-term effects on young men, despite the many adverse effects attributed to such exposures. When the content of the erotic media is evaluated, graphic violence—rather than graphic sex—seems most influential on attitudes about sexuality and towards potential partners. Although there is quite a lot of variation in the visual and written content of softvore sites, emphasis seems largely on emotions and responses other than violence.”
So all of that is to say, no need to worry. Keep doing what you’re doing with a particular sensitivity to your son’s potential feelings of otherness. If only every parent were as supportive and aware as you, this would all be so much easier to navigate and less taboo. Savin-Williams wrote to me, “I’ll just bet that if we were to know the ‘true’ rate of kink, it would shock the hell out of us. Such an (unnecessary) stigma that denies millions of youths such harmless pleasure.” Thanks for inspiring me to tap a well of knowledge about a subject that I probably never would have thought to think about on my own.
Dear How to Do It,
My ex-boyfriend and I dated for three months, which isn’t long, but the way he ended it is messing with me. He texted me out of the blue, right before we were supposed to go on a date, that he felt we “shouldn’t have sex anymore.” I was confused and went over, and he explained that while he enjoyed my friendship, the sex hadn’t been working for him for a while, and I was a nice person but “bad in bed.” I soon found out he cheated on me with someone 10 years younger. They are still dating. How do I move on from this? It’s been six months, and my desire to have sex with anyone is gone. I recently made out with someone, and when he tried to take things further, I quite literally ran away from his apartment.
A major design flaw of the vessel that is the human body is its possession of a single point of view. The resulting selfishness (egocentrism, if we’re being generous) makes sharing the planet really hard. It’s part of why we may be doomed as a species. It allows bigotry to flourish, capitalism to function as a cancer on our environment, and a person to think it’s appropriate to tell another person that they are “bad in bed.” Very rarely is that an objective assessment—generally when someone says it, he means bad for him. He’s indelicately and rudely conveying a benign consequence of two people attempting to bond: a lack of chemistry.
You dodged a bullet here: This guy initiated your breakup by text, he criticized your technique, and he cheated on you. Take solace in what you swerved instead of letting the specter of that bullet hang over you. I understand that this was traumatic for you, so it may require more than a snap of your fingers to reframe the scenario in your head. In that case, you should probably talk to a therapist. It’s OK to be sensitive, but three months of asshole should not leave a permanent funk, no matter how bad it stunk. If you have any reason to believe that he’s right about you lacking in skill, read some books about sex for tips. (I don’t know what you’re into so I can’t offer anything specific.) Let’s say for the sake of argument that you could step up your game in bed. You’re only going to stay that way if you don’t get out there and practice. I bet you that it’s just going to take one person telling you that you’re good in bed to wash the taste of your ex out of your mouth.
Dear How to Do It,
I’d been with my partner for about three years when we broke up, mostly because we couldn’t successfully navigate opening up our relationship when neither of us had any experience with it. We spent about eight months on our own, dating other people. I met some nice guys, a few that wanted a relationship, but mostly just two- or three-time hookups. My partner dated around as well. We reunited about six months ago because we realized we love each other deeply and are committed to each other, while still being open to new people and experiences. Things are going really amazingly for us, and the eight months made our bond to each other stronger.
Here’s the issue. I’ve been scanning the dating apps and starting conversations with people, and just when we start making plans to meet up, they turn the conversation to sex, usually kinky sex, and will stubbornly not be steered back to getting-to-know-you topics. Listen: I’m very, very far from vanilla and have some specific kinks of my own. This isn’t about me clutching my pearls at the topic. But I don’t know these people, I don’t know if I’ll like them, and I don’t want to share my kinks with strangers. Ultimately these interactions end with them getting a little spank-bank material and no meetup. It’s gotten to the point where I’m just bored with the topic in general. Why do we need to get so far ahead of ourselves? I’ve started just ending the conversation when asked things like “Do you like facials?” five minutes after moving off the apps to text. Any advice on how to get horny singles to pump the brakes?
Dear Adult Conversation,
You can’t control other people—you can barely control yourself (if you’re lucky)—so train your eyes elsewhere. Just as you wouldn’t go to a flower shop and complain the fragrance, you can’t really traipse through a digital cruising ground and justifiably complain about the seediness. What you’re observing is the designated function of a forum you chose. You can mitigate your exposure to dirty talk by gravitating to apps that have less of a cruisy reputation, like maybe Hinge or Bumble, but obviously these conversations can happen in any forum. Note in your profile that you’re on there to meet IRL and not really looking for a sexting session. Block those who ignore this. If you let people filter themselves out, you’re letting them do the work for you. It’s one of the only scenarios in which it is morally sound to take advantage of free labor.
Also, try meeting people in person. It’s great.
Dear How to Do It,
I recently turned 22, and my husband is 21, nearly 22. He’s a sergeant in the military. We got married this past March. We started out having sex frequently, but of course with him working a lot and not getting enough sleep, he’s going to be too tired sometimes, and I completely understand that. Now we’re trying to have a baby. He says he wants one too, but I don’t see the effort when he’s off for four days in a row. Again, I know he’s tired and he does need his rest. But he is watching porn one to four times a day and instead of having sex, he just wants me to please him. I’ve tried initiating it first, but I always get turned down. I feel bad if I don’t have sex with him when he’s in the mood, but when I am, it’s just a no-go. I don’t know what to do or if I’m just overthinking, but it honestly feels like he’s not even attracted to me anymore. When we do have sex, it’s with my shirt on, and it’s just a hit-it-and-quit kind of thing every time. No spark. Nothing. What do I do?
You can start by handing in your resignation as his sex toy. Why give him what he wants if he’s not giving you what you want? Because you’re desperate for something, anything? Please. You’re both way too young to be in a situation that’s so depressing. This is it! This is your time to come like five times a day (or have fun trying). It won’t last forever. Do not squander it.
I sense that you are not quite comfortable talking about this with him, which is a shame because you will not make progress here if you don’t communicate. I want you to pull back from sex temporarily—override your guilt for the good of your relationship. When he notices that something is up, use that as an entry point for conversation. You aren’t overthinking. Your concerns are completely valid, and your desires should be met. Letting him control your sex life in a way that isn’t satisfying you is a recipe for misery and a terrible precedent to set. You have to be proactive now for the sake of your future. He may be wired to crave variety (it seems most people are), in which case he’ll probably always be a porn consumer, but a healthy sexual relationship needs more of a balance than what you’ve got going on. Establish your needs with clarity, and try to get him to open up about his interests in a loving and patient way—maybe he’s into some kind of lingerie or gear, maybe he’ll want to do it outside. Take his hand and offer to go exploring.
More Advice From Slate
My wife of five years and I have a wonderful marriage, and I am madly in love with her. The one problem is that I have a particular fetish that she is not aware of and I can’t indulge with her: I like to masturbate with other men. No touching, no kissing, just masturbating together either in person or via webcam. This is completely independent from our sex life, which is satisfactory, if vanilla. I don’t do it often, and when I do, I don’t give any identifying information or invite anyone to our home. I internally justify it by telling myself that it’s not something I can do with her anyway, and masturbating by myself isn’t cheating, so why does it matter if someone else is there? This is crazy, isn’t it? I either need to tell her and hope for her unlikely blessing or knock it out and keep it as a fantasy like any other person in a committed, monogamous relationship, right?