How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Send your questions for Stoya and Rich to firstname.lastname@example.org. Nothing’s too small (or big).
Dear How to Do It,
I am a 24-year-old woman with a master’s degree who grew up in modest circumstances. In other words, I have a lot of student debt, I’m broke, and I don’t have any family to help me.
I have a job that I do online, but the hours are part-time and I don’t make very much money. To supplement my income, I’ve made forays into various forms of sex work—I briefly served drinks at a strip club, I’ve dirty chatted with people sans photos, I’ve dirty chatted with select people with photos, I’ve had sugar daddies, and more recently, I’ve used a camgirl-type sexting site, though only conversations so far and no photos.
I’m not even a particularly sexual person—in fact, my libido is definitely on the lower end—but I’ve noticed that my sexuality has been my most valuable currency. (I have experience in the field in which I have a master’s, but I haven’t had any success in getting hired yet.)
So here’s my question: When (if ever) I get a job in my field, what is the likelihood of sex work coming back to haunt me? Is there a way I can incorporate it into my personality so that it’s not a secret? What can I do to make sure that these decisions won’t completely ruin me down the line? I try to be relaxed, but it crosses my mind every day.
Dear New Gig,
A few years back, a teacher who had also been a nude model was fired when old photos of her hit the internet associated with her legal name. She’s not the only one. Loss of job is a real risk, especially if you’re teaching children. You mentioned in a private aside to me what your field is, and I don’t think you’ll have nearly as hard a time as that teacher.
I can tell you from personal experience that plenty of people are accepting and/or genuinely curious. I suspect there’s a bias because I live in a major coastal city and mostly hang out with lefty folks, many of whom are in the LGBTQ community as well. So I don’t want to give you the idea that you’ll easily fill your world with sex-positive, warm humans as soon as you start coming out as a sex worker. It takes a while, you have to be in a place where the conditions are possible—like somewhere with a significant kink or LGBT scene, or even a sex-worker community—and you do meet some judgmental people on the way. Remember, we’re still humans, so you’ll encounter difficult personalities anywhere.
You can absolutely incorporate the fact of your sex work into conversations with friends and lovers. I’ve found being upfront filters the people who can’t handle it pretty efficiently. That goes for family, too, though you may want to be more delicate than you would be with a peer. At work, you’ll have to decide whether to keep quiet. There’s a very real risk you might lose the opportunity if you’re upfront. It is entirely your choice, and you should weigh the risks first. If you choose to keep quiet, you’ll want to avoid telling co-workers. And if you continue to avoid still and moving images, you’ll have a much lower risk of people finding out.
As for how to broach the subject, with friends, it can be as simple as “I sexy text with people sometimes to chip away at my student loans.” With an employer, you’ll want to be brief and professional. I do think you have a real chance of being accepted at work, if not valued for this extra experience, in your chosen field.
The only thing you can do to make sure these choices won’t “ruin” your prospects in some way is to stop entirely. You have to make your own choice there.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a 28-year-old soon-to-be-divorced woman, and faced with the prospect of becoming single again, I think I need help. I’ve had sex with exactly one person—my husband—my whole life, but I’ve always been attracted to both women and men. My problem is that regardless of gender, oral sex just seems so gross to me. I feel like it’s an expected part of all sex, and I just can’t deliver. I never enjoyed giving or receiving when I was with my husband. Now that I’m exploring my desires, any attraction I experience grinds to a screeching halt when I think, “My/her/his mouth would have to go WHERE?” I like PIV sex with enough lubrication, and I like using a vibrator and get my orgasms. I also like touching and cuddling and kissing, and I believe I would enjoy these things with a female partner. So how can I get over the ick factor and be a partner that people will enjoy without doing anything that grosses me out and turns me off?
Dear Oral Objector,
Oral isn’t everything. There are other people in the world who find it unenjoyable or off-putting. I’d recommend you be very up front about this in casual sex environments, such as Tinder—you’ll easily sort through those who require oral to consider sex complete. It can be as simple as, “I prefer penetration and don’t like to give or receive oral.”
If you’re looking for more significant arrangements, you might want to wait a few dates to have sex, and might want to see how the two of you match up in other areas before broaching sexual specifics. I would mention it before the point where people’s clothes start coming off.
What exactly are you going to mention? You’ve got two options.
Option 1: That you’re working through an aversion to oral sex, and that you’ll need their help to do the practical work. Make it clear that you aren’t sure what will happen, but that you want to see if you can change your boundaries around it. Be prepared—not everyone is going to leap at the chance, but I’m certain you’ll find at least a couple of willing partners who you’re enough of a match with otherwise. Ask them to show up recently showered to help you ease into this. Then, well, ease your way into it. Start with close facial to genital proximity. Expose yourself to their taste and your own taste. Slowly, slowly lick your partner’s genitals. Allow them to lick yours. Feel around for exactly when the discomfort happens, and ask yourself if there’s shame there.
Option 2: That you, as a grown woman, have no interest in oral sex and find it to be a turn-off. You’d love to be penetrated by them, to kiss them, cuddle them, and touch them, but you don’t want to go down on them or have them go down on you. Some might argue. This, again, is a great filter.
Dear How to Do It,
I’ve been with my partner for nearly four years. We’re a hetero couple in our mid-30s. When we got together, we’d both somewhat recently left long-term, comfortable relationships. The sex was incredible, frequent, exciting—all those things that happen in a new relationship. We went out quite a bit, and that was exciting too. For the first six months, it continued this way. Then he got a promotion at work, and all of a sudden he was stressed and exhausted. My own workdays are quite long and stressful, and I don’t sleep much, but I’m used to it. He was waking up early, working long hours, coming home, gratefully eating the dinner I’d put together, and passing out. He was never snappy, miserable, and was always appreciative of food I’d made or what I’d done around the house. But the sex reduced to maybe once every two weeks, then once a month. We started going out less at night, but continued to do nice things during weekend days. Art galleries, etc.
So basically, I was in the perfect relationship I always thought I’d be in … in my 50s or 60s.
We talked about it, and he confessed he was just too tired to even think about sex. I tried a few things to see if I could help, and nothing seemed to—I could just tell when his heart wasn’t in it, and I could tell he felt bad about that, which just made me feel guilty, and it was easier to just not bring it up. I thought, well, things at work will settle down for him and it’ll be OK again. After about a year of this, he opened up to me about feeling depressed. My family has a history of discussing mental health openly, and his doesn’t, so it was a big step for him. He went to the doctor, was prescribed anti-depressants, and I was hugely proud of him for doing so.
But you can see where this is going: His sex drive dropped to absolutely nil. It clearly frustrated him a lot, I said it wasn’t as important as his mental health, and we stopped discussing it. To skip ahead to now, he’s come off anti-depressants and is feeling much better, has work stress under control, all great, but absolutely. No. Sex. Drive. Complete sexual anhedonia: No desire for sex, no desire to masturbate. He says touching his penis basically gives no pleasurable sensation. He has no desire to orgasm. Just, nothing. He apologizes about it constantly, he’s spoken to his doctor and had plenty of tests, but there’s no physical issue, and obviously I worry about giving him more of a complex about it by bringing it up. I’ve told him that I miss it a lot, but I understand this isn’t something he’s doing on purpose, and I’ll be as patient as I need to be. But nothing seems to change.
I feel like I’m at my wit’s end. No solution seems to help. I have brought it up with our (conventional couples) therapist, but this of course isn’t her specific field. But I have no idea what to do in a perfectly lovely, wonderful relationship with no sex. I don’t want to open up the relationship, I don’t for a second want to cheat, I just want him. I just want to know if I’m looking at the next few decades of no sex. This can’t be as uncommon as it seems, but I’m not exactly finding support groups for young, healthy people in sexless relationships.
Dear Not Finished,
You’ve addressed this problem in many of the ways I would have advised, so I reached out to Cyndi Darnell, a sex therapist and friend of the column, who just released an entire online course about desire. Here’s her response, lightly edited and condensed for clarity:
Desire is a state of mind and a strategy as much as it is a feeling. While this couple has a few issues working against them with mental health, those problems alone are not solely where their problem lies.
She is right to acknowledge talking to a therapist unskilled in sex is a bad idea. The truth is most therapists and doctors get little or no training on sex in their studies, and even fewer learn about pleasure, let alone desire and libido. Too many clinicians position themselves as experts on sex with no training or insight. So making sure you talk to someone with skill and expertise in sex and pleasure is essential.
While we used to believe that desire was determined by hormones and aging, we now know that is only the beginning, so when she mentions she feels like a couple in their 50s, she should know this is a situation that can strike couples in all contexts at any age because it is essentially a sex education issue more than anything medical. When we recognize that desire is something we build together rather than a feeling of horniness that descends upon us, we learn to develop a relationship with desire that is sustainable, rather than the adolescent notion of horniness as the sole motivator for erotic connection.
Most people in long-term relationships lose their desire for one another at least temporarily. This is normal. But that doesn’t mean they lose love and connection. And it doesn’t mean the sex is over. It means they have entered a new phase in the relationship. The pathway through this is in recognizing sex, pleasure, and desire is a team project and not the sole responsibility of just one person. When we start to leave the emotional/erotic labor to only one person in a partnership, resentment can start to creep in, and that is a bigger problem than just a desire discrepancy alone. We then have a power and labor issue, which is potentially a stickier problem than just sex.
The truth is, in a consensual sexual relationship, the lower libido partner controls when sex happens. It’s great she’s speaking up. Is he listening? Describe what’s going on for you, really listen to each other, and do not be afraid to seek out the services of a sex therapist or coach beyond a column. The reason you’re struggling with this is because you haven’t yet developed the skills to manage it.
Darnell added that anti-depressants could still be affecting things now. I’ll add that the lack of pleasure your partner reports is worth taking up with a specialist like a urologist who does have deeper training in sex and sexuality. You and your partner have some work to do now, and I wish you luck.
Dear How to Do It,
Sorry, this question gets gross. I’m a 25-year-old woman and I’ve never orgasmed. I recently took a day off work because I was feeling nauseous and had a bit of diarrhea. Later that day, I was no longer nauseous and decided to masturbate. Normally, it’s pretty casual and it’s nice, but that’s it. This time, however, I got the wettest I’ve ever got and was having a great time. Mortifyingly, though, at some point during my thrusting, I apparently started to have diarrhea without noticing. I noticed when I looked at my sheets and saw the giant mess. Personally, I am very much not into that and was very grossed out.
Why did this happen? I can’t get it out of my mind. Other than the … end, it was the best masturbation session I’ve ever had. But I can’t think about masturbating without remembering this aftermath. How do I enjoy masturbating again without being supremely put off?
I can’t tell you why this happened, aside from the universe can sometimes be cruel and embarrassing things happen to everyone—even during sex—so it was bound to be your turn eventually.
Presuming your stomach and intestines are back to normal, your best move is to confront your worry about a repeat and your disgust about what happened head-on. Throw an old towel down if you need to assuage concern for your linens, and get right back to masturbating. Prove to yourself that it isn’t necessarily going to happen again. If your thoughts stray to poop, tell yourself that isn’t happening right now, and bring your attention back into your body.
However, you might want to avoid sex during periods of extreme bowel duress. That includes masturbation.
More How to Do It
I’m a 27-year-old straight woman. I recently dated a man for several months who was odd about sex—he frequently mentioned that he had a small penis (which he did) and that oral sex was what made him a good lover. I don’t particularly care for oral sex, but I cared for him very much. There were a lot of problems in the relationship outside of sex—he had a bit of a cruel streak, and then there would be an apology spiral—and we eventually broke up. I have moved on and am dating a lovely man, but yesterday my ex sent me an email saying that he was bottoming for men he met online the whole time we were dating. He said he’s straight but curious, and he felt he needed me to know, and wanted me to accept him. I’m sort of floored: I’m not sure why he told me, and what this means about our months together. What do I say? (Also: what happened next.)