How to Do It

My Boyfriend Is Obsessed With Dominating Me and Won’t Let Me Get on Top

I’m getting resentful.

A man on top of a woman, with neon arrows in the back
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by fizkes/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 (to ask).

Every week, the team answers a bonus question in chat form.

Dear How to Do It,

I am a cis woman who has been dating a cis man for several months. He is very sweet and respectful. We love each other and have great communication in general. When we started talking about what we like in bed, he revealed that he enjoys some consensual BDSM activities, like slapping his partner. I told him I don’t enjoy pain sexually. He said he really loves having sex with me without that element and that he doesn’t need it to be sexually fulfilled. So far, that all seems to be true.

He also told me that he prefers to be dominant in bed. It generally works for me that he takes the lead. But I also enjoy having more freedom of movement and choosing sex positions and activities a good amount of the time, rather than always being the more passive, receiving party.

A problem arose when we had sex with me on top, which happened after we talked about it earlier and he gave his consent in the moment. He seemed to enjoy it and he came, but afterward he said that not having control made him deeply uncomfortable. I told him I would of course respect that boundary and that we could explore other positions and revisit trying that one again down the road. (He does not have a sexually traumatic experience that this act is triggering.)

My issue is that I’m feeling a lot of resentment about not being able to engage in that common position, and it’s exacerbated by my knowledge that he enjoys consensual BDSM. I’m bothered that my boyfriend enjoys (consensually!) hurting women in bed but can’t tolerate merely being the more passive partner for a few minutes. It seems like an extension of the social expectation that male pleasure is paramount and female discomfort is matter-of-course, a dynamic I’ve experienced with other men. I know this is a reductive and unhelpful way to think about his sexual preferences and boundaries. Can you help me see this situation more clearly and suggest ways to talk to him about it without shaming him?

—Resentful

Stoya: I’m getting stuck on what our writer says about her partner not having trauma. People don’t need to have been traumatized to not want to do something.

Rich: Yeah, I get the sense that her attitude is something like, “Well, if not doing this isn’t linked to past pain, you should get over it.” Also, she is maybe trying to reaffirm that she didn’t do anything intentionally to hurt him, or anything that could have further traumatized him. Kind of covering her ass so we don’t think less of her?

Stoya: Oooh, now that you mention it, yes. That pops up again when she says, “I know this is a reductive and unhelpful way to think about his sexual preferences and boundaries.”

Rich: Yes, there are a lot of active attempts at managing feelings.

Stoya: So maybe the first thing to do is establish the OK-ness of the situation? Feelings are OK. Resentment is OK. You don’t want to live in resentment forever, but it’s a perfectly reasonable place to walk through on your way to compassion and understanding.

Rich: I also don’t think she’s at all out of bounds by reading societal and cultural implications into sex. Sex is political.

Stoya: Agreed wholeheartedly. Of course, living in a patriarchal system, irritation at said patriarchy may come up during interactions with men. Cis men, trans men, straight men, gay men.

Rich: Yes, and, you know, I don’t want to kink-shame, but when men have a thing for domination, part of me thinks … how is that kink and not just, y’know, the way things are?

Stoya: Oh boy. The short response is: yes. The long response is, sometimes submitting as a woman is a way of processing patriarchy. Looking at the power dynamic up close in a consensual way. So I think BDSM with straight cis male tops can be helpful.

Rich: I get that. Like exaggeration for effect.

Stoya: YES. But when they’re like, “I just get off on making women consensually suffer,” I’m not interested. For me, that shift happened when I was around 30.

Rich: Was that just part of maturing, or what?

Stoya: Maybe maturity, maybe having gotten all my interest in being topped by cis dudes out of my system? I’m wondering if our writer is also in a place of “not particularly into it.” You know, it’s really hard for some people to break up with someone who isn’t bad.

Rich: Yes, I think hoping that a mismatch will work itself out requires a false confidence that we can control our feelings. And this seems like a mismatch to me.

Stoya: Yup. And she seems like she’s doing a lot of looking for a cause or a problem. And sort of fighting herself about that.

Rich: I think it’s particularly hard to deal with a situation of sexual discrepancy when you consider yourself to be versatile, which I get the sense our writer does (even if she doesn’t necessarily self-label). At least I relate to it in that way, because then it’s like: “I’m adaptable! This should work no matter what!”

Stoya: I think you’re right. We don’t use the concept of “versatile” as explicitly in most hetero sex. And I don’t know about you, but I pride myself on my ability to get on the same page with my partners. Sometimes I take it as a personal failure when I don’t manage that.

Rich: I will even make concessions that I am not at all predisposed to for the sake of getting on that page.

Stoya: Some of us will go above and beyond to meet our partners in the middle, and we need to keep an eye on our own comfort level and boundaries. I’m wondering if our writer has a friend she can comfortably vent to.

Rich: Perspective from someone who’s seen their dynamic IRL would be useful.

Stoya: Definitely. An outside opinion on whether the BDSM stuff really does stay in the bedroom.

Rich: Yeah. He could be sweet and respectful but also a control freak in several areas. This relationship is only months old.

Stoya: It might not seem like it from the news at times, but there are really plenty of sweet and respectful men in the world who are attracted to women. If it isn’t a match sexually, you don’t need to hold on with both hands.

Rich: I think I’d too be irritated in this situation, really. But she’s likely not going to change her partner. So it’s time to look at what she can change.

Stoya: Could he feel more comfortable if he’s verbally calling the shots? Would that be acceptable for her?

Rich: It could be. But I think his unwillingness to yield will likely bother her more and more. Just on principle, really. I’d say it’s time for a serious talk about compatibility, which does not necessarily involve shaming. It’s just a matter of their proclivities failing to align. I would ask him if he’s at all willing to work on this, but she shouldn’t be surprised if the answer is no. Look, at least she realized this within months.

Stoya: If he is willing to work on this, what are their options?

Rich: I think understanding his exact relationship to power and control would be useful—why does he have an objectively extreme reaction to ceding even a small bit of it? And then I think they should feel around. Is there anything vaguely submissive that he’s comfortable with? Could she sit on his face?

Stoya: I wonder how he receives blowjobs. Specifically, is he able to comfortably receive one, as opposed to remaining active and doing more of a face-sexing? Is it at all possible for them to have sex together rather than one having to take the lead?

Rich: It’s tough to call things off over sex when love is involved. It can make you feel superficial.

Stoya: Aaaah. Big realization moment happening over here. We expect hookups to be fun and relationships to be committed, and sometimes that becomes a dichotomy. As though our commitment to a relationship should be strong enough to make up for a sexual mismatch. So our writer would do well to investigate her feelings and assumptions around this. Is she trying to make it work out of pride? Is she reluctant to advocate for her own desires because she doesn’t want to feel greedy? Is she getting bogged down in the politics because walking away from a perfectly good man is hard? This one is kind of out of left field: Has she tried actively fantasizing about submission? Can she use her imagination to come up with ways to submit while getting what she needs?

Rich: If I’m her, I’m asking myself why my partner is denying me something I really want. That’s not really the kind of person I’m interested in having sex with repeatedly.

Stoya: I feel similarly. I’m struggling to understand why she’s still in the relationship or hasn’t suggested being friends and moved on to more compatible genital pastures.