How to Do It

My Mom Found My BDSM Gear—and Now Insists My Boyfriend Abuses Me

GIF of a woman with bound wrists. Neon whips glow in the background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by ArtHdesign/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Send your questions for Stoya and Rich to howtodoit@slate.comNothing’s too small (or big).

Dear How to Do It,

I’m a woman in my mid-30s, and my boyfriend is in his mid-20s. We first met through friends, then hit it off and began talking more through text and phone calls. (We currently live on opposite sides of the Atlantic.)

Our relationship is not vanilla in the slightest. He’s the only man I’ve ever been with that I’ve had this amazing level of sexual compatibility with. He’s a dom and I’m a sub in bed, by literal definitions. We are very into rope play and kitten play. I have a collar and leash set we use quite frequently when we’re together. He takes care of me in such wonderful ways after our play is over: runs baths, massages, snuggles on the couch with Netflix wrapped together in my favorite blanket. Inside and outside of the bedroom, this man takes care of my every physical and emotional need.

A few weeks ago I was visiting him overseas, and my mother was taking care of my pet rabbit and my plants. My son, who is 10, was with his father. There are no plants in my bedroom, and I keep it locked when I am not home so my son doesn’t wander in and find my toys. I don’t feel having to explain my BDSM activities to my son is appropriate at this point in his life or mine. Before I left for the airport, I double-checked the door lock on my bedroom. It was locked. 

When I got home, my mother came over because she said she had to speak to me about something important. While I was away, she went into my bedroom and “stumbled upon” my toys and was incredibly angry that I let my boyfriend abuse me! She is adamant I need to leave my boyfriend because she doesn’t think it’s good for my son to see the abuse. My son hasn’t seen or heard any of the “abuse”: When my son is around, our sex is vanilla and quiet. We are quite discreet and careful about our activities. I am still angry with my mother, and I feel like she violated my privacy on so many levels it’s disgusting. My mother has since told most of the family that I let my boyfriend abuse me in bed, so now I’m getting “you should leave him now” from all sides. My boyfriend is positively mortified and is now asking that we not spend time with my family over Thanksgiving. I don’t blame him.

How can I kindly tell my family my sex life is none of their business and to drop it? Some have hinted that I’m a terrible mother because I am into BDSM. I have already stopped speaking to my mother, I’d rather not have to cut my entire family off, but I also don’t want to hear it anymore.

—All Tied Up

Dear All Tied Up,

Your story is, in essence, a classic outing. A piece of information about your personal life was stolen from you and distributed with the same concern-trolling intentions as those who want to “save” queer people from hell or AIDS or enjoying themselves too much. And with a save-the-child crusade, to boot! For someone who’s supposedly concerned about you being dominated, your mother sure did elbow her way into a position of power that has altered your waking live in a way that BDSM has not. You are absolutely right: Your mother did violate your privacy on so many levels that it’s disgusting. It’s one thing to have to put up with this at all, it’s another when it’s coming from your mother. It’s so unfair that in order to cope you must cut off connection with someone so close to you, and presumably to your son.

Your family is ignorant. If I were you, I’d remind them that you have not rifled through the underwear drawers of their personal lives. Who knows what you’d find there? There’s a wide range of activities consenting adults have devised (and at times stumbled into) in the name of pleasure. My quick assessment of sex-negative people is that they’re either hypocrites or repressed, and either way difficult to reason with. Given that your family’s response has been to tell you about yourself instead of asking you questions, I don’t think you’ll be presenting a kitten-play workshop for them anytime soon. Educate them to the extent that they are willing or able to be educated, and extract whatever relief you can from knowing they’re on the wrong side of this argument. I know familial estrangement is a lot to deal with, and the situation is already unfair as it is, but skipping Thanksgiving this year might not be the worst idea—if only to send the message that you’re seriously pissed and not going to take this anymore.

Dear How Do It,

I’m a very young baby boomer (50+) with an interest in watching porn on the internet. I understand that’s one of the things the internet is for! How do I do it without being plagued by pop-up ads that appear in your browser? How do I do it while keeping it private from youngsters who may be playing on my computer? I’m quite comfortable with computers, etc., but this bit mystifies me. Could you advise?

—n00b

Dear n00b,

Well, look who finally made it to the party.

I love this letter. I love that 2019 is your year. Your year of yes. A time to take up yoga, brew your own kombucha, learn sidesaddle. A time to finally get around to viewing internet porn. Your questions are quite simple to answer, so much so that I wish you’d asked more—I want to guide you on this journey to finding the images that make your jack flash jump. (I hope you liked my boomer reference.) You’ll find that most porn sites, be they studio-specific, performer-specific (in the case of Only Fans and its ilk), or “tube” sites like Pornhub and Xtube (which feature an array of clips, many of them homemade) don’t really have a lot of pop-ups to worry about. Maybe one or two here and there, but that is quite manageable. However, you can download yourself a pop-up blocker (the Google Chrome browser has a great one built in) for extra security and so you don’t have to take the half-second out of your porn surfing to close an errant window.

As for keeping it private, you could also use what’s known as an incognito window that won’t retain your history. Here’s how to use Chrome’s. You could also download a new web browser that you’ll use only for porn. If you use Chrome now, consider installing Firefox for your sexy-time viewing. Keep it out of your computer’s toolbar, off your desktop and in your Applications folder, and remember to clear your browsing history when you’re finished browsing. (The good thing about having your own clandestine browser devoted only to porn is if you forget to clear your browsing history, you have another layer of protection by virtue of the browser being kept out of sight.)

Good luck in this endeavor that you’ve somehow managed to put off until right now. I should also remind you not to go overboard, which is very easy to do given the nonstop flurry of body parts jutting into other body parts that comprise much of the internet. There’s a legion of (mostly) young people who report feeling so inundated with porn that it’s altered their sexuality and physiology. There’s not a lot of scientific evidence supporting that yet, but a lot of those people would probably to envy your ability to stay porn-free for most of your life so far. Think of them as you embark on your journey.

Dear How to Do It,

I’m a transgender lesbian woman in my mid-30s, about two years into my transition and six months fully out of the closet. As I’ve begun to move forward post-divorce, I’ve been trying to date for about three months. While I’ve made some very good friends, nothing has gotten intimate yet. I know that’s partly my fault. So far, I’ve been very upfront that I want to develop a lot of trust before I try anything sexy. When I was hiding in the guise of a straight man, sex (even masturbation) was quite traumatic for me because of dysphoria. Intercourse took at least a week of mental preparation, and I’d usually be totally disassociated during the act. Because of this, my experience is limited to the most vanilla intimacy imaginable.

While I’m pretty comfortable with my body now, I am pre-op, and since I’m only dating women (and nonbinary femme folk) who are into women, I have a lot of anxiety about my residual bits becoming a deal-breaker. Waiting until surgery would avoid this problem, but I don’t want to delay another six months to two years before getting close to someone. Also, a recent change to my hormone regimen has sent my libido through the roof.

I have no experience with hookups or short relationships (I mean, like, less than five years). I’ve been in extended, committed relationships for 90 percent of my adult life. I feel like I need to loosen up about sex to find out what I like before I get into something serious again. At the same time, I know I’m too needy and anxious to handle being an exotic fling or a thing on the side. I’m just getting super frustrated that I haven’t been touched with affection for almost two years. Can I strike a balance between stepping out of my comfort zone and managing my anxiety about intimacy?

—Starting Again

Dear Starting Again,

This is a tough one. Your desire to experiment casually while holding onto emotional security is tantamount to wanting to plunge into a pool from a high platform without getting your hair wet. Your best bet would be to have a buddy or two who you could fool around with, secure in the knowledge that you enjoy each other’s company and free of the pressures of a relationship. Given your situation, you might want to seek out women/nonbinary femmes who have experience with pre-op trans women. With the knowledge they’ve accrued, they could perhaps even help you on your way to pleasure. Unless your note was deliberately unspecific, it seems to me that you know what you need, but not necessarily what you want. This Autostraddle piece by Mey Valdivia Rude, “How to Have Lesbian Sex With a Trans Woman,” features a wealth of tips not just for partners but trans women themselves, including techniques for managing dysphoria. It could help you frame your thinking about sex and what you’d like to try.

I also reached out to Rude, currently a contributor at Out, for a little more background. She said your feelings and desires are common among trans people. “Remember that your body is a woman’s body,” she wrote in an email. “You have these residual parts, but if you treat them like the women’s body parts they are, instead of doing the same moves and techniques you’d use on a cis man, you might like that a lot better. I’ve found that treating my genitals more like a vulva than a penis and testicles/perineum both makes sex better for me and for my lesbian and wlw partners.”

The best advice I can offer you in terms of securing partners is to work out what you’re really looking to try out and be upfront with people—be they on apps or IRL—about your wants and needs. For further insight, I reached out to Sessi Kuwabara Blanchard, who writes thoughtfully, positively, and entertainingly about sex and intimacy and her experiences as a trans woman in the Vice column MTF & DTF. She emphasized the importance of a mutual state of vulnerability that results from both partners articulating their needs.

“It’s hard to trust someone, much less be intimate with them, if you are on unequal footing,” she said in an email. “I’ve equalized the encounter with many cis straight guys who’d never been with a trans woman. I encouraged them to share their anxieties. One guy told me he didn’t know exactly how he’d feel interacting with a girl’s dick. I told him that’s valid; I also told him I’d feel sad, but not begrudgingly so, if he shut things down when my pants came off. Both of our vulnerabilities were present. The intimacy was thick. Mutually sharing vulnerabilities is the first way people can build trust, and intimacy.”

This vulnerability can be dangerous, Blanchard conceded, as in the case of trans women (often those of color) who are harmed or killed when their partner panics, “unsettled by the attraction to a woman defying the normative expectation of a female body.” Vulnerability can also be uncomfortable. “You may be able to find comfort in ‘stepping out of your comfort zone’ by reframing the situation: As vulnerable as trans women are in our intimate pursuits, our partners are also placed in vulnerable positions,” she wrote. “We are not alone in this.” I agree—the emotional navigation is just as crucial as, if not more so than, the mechanics of partnership as well as sex.

Dear How to Do It, 

I’m a gay guy who just discovered (or admitted to myself) that I am really attracted to big guys.
I am 5’8”, 130 pounds, and have always been considered small. When I first came out, I didn’t quite know what my tastes were, but I never would have thought that I’d be into sucking off a guy who’s nearly three times my weight until I hooked up with a guy who’s 5’10” and 350 pounds last year. Well, I am into it. A lot. But because I am also a racial minority (keeping this deliberately as vague as possible) who’s been on the receiving end of creepy fetishists, I don’t want to perpetuate that kind of thing. So I have done and continue to do the work of examining why I am particularly attracted to chubby men, and what this will mean in how I conduct my sexual life. I know what I like and dislike when it comes to hooking up with men who are into men of my ethnicity, but I’ve never been on this side of the fetishization equation.

Any tips on ethically hooking up when you have an attraction to a particular body type or feature would be greatly appreciated. To be a little more specific, in my normal life, when people make cringy, sexist/racist/classist remarks (both in passing and as “jokes” toward me) just to be “funny,” I would not voluntarily choose to be around them. But when it comes to getting that nut … if the guy has a bigger body type, I’m much more willing to compromise on that because as far as I’m concerned, they’re the means to an end (which is getting that nut).

Does that make me the person I’m trying not to be? In those instances, I know that the only reason I’m anywhere near them is because they happen to have a certain body type that I find physically attractive. If not, I would’ve found a reason to leave as soon as the first racist “joke” left their lips. Thankfully, this is not a frequent occurrence, but it’s happened enough that I want a reality check on whether I’m handling this ethically. In practice, I hook up with guys of all body types. But I enjoy the encounters with big guys most of all, and 90 percent of the porn I watch is chub/chaser.

—Concerned Chaser

Dear Concerned Chaser,

I understand your ethical concern. At a minimum, shutting these guys down would make things better for the next guy they pursue, who might be less likely to receive their epithets and hurtful “jokes.” I do not want to advise you to withstand racism, but if you feel like letting some ignorant jokes slide is a fair trade for good dick, you have the calculus already worked out. App-brokered casual sex, after all, is usually transactional in nature. Participating in these scenarios instead of shutting them down immediately doesn’t mean you’re the person you’re not trying to be; it means that life is complicated, and it regularly tries you with bullshit. Asking you to be in soldier mode 24/7, confronting racism head-on at every turn is to place another burden on top of the already considerable burden of racism itself. I don’t think that’s fair. It’s your right to choose your battles, and doing so is a way to stay safe and sane in a world of danger and insanity.

There’s probably a prosocial happy medium to at least strive for. Something along the lines of calling out bigotry where you see it, but not necessarily giving this kind of “humor” deal-breaker status. I’d be a little more concerned if this were a frequent occurrence, but it does seem like you’re managing it. Could you do better? Sure. We all could.

As far as your predilection for big guys goes, it seems immaterial to the ethical question here unless you’re making jokes about their size. I’m not aware of any studies linking BMI to racist humor. Regardless, I don’t think there is anything wrong with your taste. You like what you like, and you state that you have a range of types regardless. Just make sure you’re treating them as you’d like to be treated—you know, ethically.

—Rich

More How to Do It

I’m a woman in a heterosexual, monogamous marriage. I love my husband, but throughout our five-year relationship, our sex life has had its ups and downs. It has mostly involved what I thought was my husband’s fairly continuous masturbation while he is at home and I am at work (we work different schedules), which he says leaves him undesiring of sex with me when I get home. He’s also lied many times about the amount of time he spends masturbating (and watching porn), and I’ve felt like he’s constantly hiding something from me. Well, a few days ago, I caught him in another lie, and I told him we were either going to see a marriage counselor or I was leaving. He agreed to counseling. Later that night, however, he decided to tell me that he has a compulsion to wear women’s underwear, and it excites him sexually more than anything. I’m all for exploring a kink, but I also feel like this is a desire I should have been told about since the start of our relationship. I don’t want him hiding things from me again, but I also don’t enjoy the idea of having sex while he’s wearing women’s lingerie. Is there any way to get through this?