How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Send your questions for Stoya and Rich to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear How to Do It,
I have a really thorny ethical question I can’t quite wrap my mind around. I was seeing a guy earlier this year. The relationship was long distance, which is why it took me way longer than it should have to realize I was his dirty little secret: He had a live-in girlfriend, despite pressuring me to commit to monogamy. As soon as I found out, I cut off all contact with him.
Since we broke up, I’ve been dating around, and I recently had a Pap smear that came back abnormal because of HPV. I have follow-up testing due this week and have alerted my current partners about what’s going on, and have spoken with everyone else I’ve slept with in the last couple years—except him.
My concern is that there’s no test for men, and he may not even let his girlfriend know that this is something for her to be aware of. On the one hand, I know HPV is very, very common, and unlikely to cause real problems for her. On the other, it can cause cancer that’s hard to detect until it gets really bad. I worry that if I reach out to her directly, he’ll intercept the message. I don’t really want to contact him, both because of the way he abused my trust and because I don’t know that he’ll take it seriously. What do I do here?
When we talk about STI disclosure, it’s almost always in regard to your immediate partners. I have not heard of anyone credibly invested in public health argue that your responsibility goes beyond informing people that you’ve actually had sex with—not, say, your ex’s girlfriend. And many feel that a person’s status is theirs, and no one else’s, to disclose—when that person is lying about their status, well, that’s another ethical violation, and the call between two evils becomes truly tough. But in this case, you aren’t even sure of your ex’s HPV status, let alone that he’s lying. While you present a compelling case for informing his girlfriend of your own HPV diagnosis, it’s my inclination to tell you not to get involved.
While you have reasonable suspicion that he won’t inform his partner (he deceives!), you have no direct proof of it. You don’t know their relationship (he made sure of that!), and people sometimes are different people depending on whom they’re with. If you were to reach out to her, the best you could do is to inform her that this dude might have HPV. Well, that goes without saying. HPV, as you acknowledge, is prevalent. It is in fact so prevalent that a study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2017 projected its genital strain was present in nearly half of the population. It gets everywhere, like glitter. I hope your ex’s girlfriend is going to the gyno, getting Pap smears, and generally maintaining sexual health upkeep, as you are.
The obligation of HPV disclosure remains debated given, in fact, how common the virus is. I’ve heard of doctors advising their recently diagnosed patients not to disclose; it’s not worth the stigma for something so contagious, goes the reasoning. It seems that you have already figured out your own values in this matter, and I do think that your disclosing is the most ethical way to handle your diagnosis, even if it may not have much practical usefulness. At any rate, it’s a nice reminder for people to get checked. But when it comes to speaking on behalf of someone else who is possibly infected, pump your brakes.
The wildest card here is what your mere presence could possibly do in their relationship. Theirs might be a fortress of shit built on wet sand, but it’s still their property and your interference would amount to trespassing. You acknowledge that HPV is “unlikely to cause real problems for her,” but the same could not be said for your stepping in, which is likely to cause problems for her even if they don’t reside in her cervix. A discussion of HPV would, of course, alert her to the bigger picture of the sexual relationship you had with her boyfriend, if she’s not already aware. Maybe that’s exactly what you want to do—maybe this is less about notifying her of the HPV specifically and more about the relationship in general. I generally advise to avoid drama, especially after having dodged a bullet, but if you feel out of solidarity (and not for the sake of retaliation against an asshole man) that she needs to know about the relationship, I understand why you would contact her. But you’ve already set a precedent in which you disclose to your partners and allow them to do what they will with that information. (Those other partners may, too, be liars and/or fail to notify their previous partners, and then what will you do? Devote your life to creating a telephone tree of disclosure?) Your question touches on many issues—“thorny” is an understatement; this is more like a thicket of rosebushes—but when it comes to the HPV, your responsibility here is to disclose to him, not her.
Dear How to Do It,
Your column has helped me tremendously. My wife and I are both 62 and straight. We have been together for 35 years. I have never had sex with anyone else. When we were 50, my wife went through menopause and lost her sex drive. I spent the last 12 years masturbating every day in secret because she hates porn. A few months ago, I had enough and asked her if we would ever have sex again. Amazingly, she told me she wanted to again.
Awesome, right? Not so much. I have always tried to be a generous lover. I gladly kiss and lick her on every square inch of her body. I will spend two hours making her come if necessary. My wife will let me do basically anything I want to her: She will let me penetrate her anally. Tie her up. The problem is she won’t do anything to me. She never has. She won’t kiss any part of my body other than my lips, much less lick anything. I think she finds me gross. I am well-groomed, thin, athletic, and healthy. I have talked to her many times, and she says she will try, but nothing happens. She just says “do what you want to me” and lays there. I only get to come inside her, which I have always found to be boring without anything else. I always have to do all the sexual work. Do you think I will have to look outside my marriage to find satisfaction? Thank you for any insight.
—Do Unto Me
Dear Do Unto Me,
I do not think you will necessarily have to look outside your marriage for satisfaction, though as in any of these cases, a conversation about your desire to do so could convey the urgency of the situation. Before that, though, I think you should try framing your wants to appeal to her taste. It seems that she’s naturally submissive. Is it possible that she’d be receptive to passively trying the things that you’d like? I’m not suggesting you force anything on her, and I think when you’re in the murky territory of taking such control of a situation with a submissive to be dominant, you should frequently check in verbally to make sure your partner is comfortable. But with all of that in mind, could you present her whatever part you want her to lick while she is lying down? Could that be accepted as doing “what you want” to her?
You just might have to kind of feel around—again, making absolute sure that she consents to everything you do—to get the results that you want. I think you’ll find that she is who she is, but given your description of her approach to sex, it seems like some creativity and a conscious acknowledgment of her sex style could allow you to explore further.
Dear How to Do It,
My partner and I have been married 15 years, and we’ve often fantasized about visiting sex clubs. We’ve been a couple of times, and both enjoyed it a lot. We have a firm boundary of just playing with each other—but that boundary only exists because we’re both worried about contracting sexually transmitted diseases. We’d love to have a little more hands-on fun, but we don’t know how to stay safe. Obviously, we’d use condoms for penetrative sex, but what about fingers? Mouths? Are there resources that can teach us this?
Dear Safety First,
You’re on time to one party (the sex kind) and late to another (the protecting-yourself kind). You did pick the fun one, I’ll give you that. Anyhoo, yes, it is possible to contract STDs through oral and digital sex. The latter is quite rare, but there have been reported cases of syphilis and HPV residing on fingers. That’s just to name two. Open sores on your fingers would help facilitate the contraction if you’re doing the penetrating. If you want to wear rubber gloves to help prevent even the slight risk of transmission, knock yourself out. I’ve never heard of anyone (who isn’t fisting) doing this in a sex party setting, so the reactions may be interesting. That alone might be worth giving it a go.
You also have the option to use condoms and dental dams during oral sex. Again, have fun with that.
The CDC has several fact sheets on various STDs. Please read them all now. Sex education is dismal in the U.S., and it’s never too late to learn, so read this material and pretend like you never didn’t know it. It’ll be our secret. You will find that when it comes down to it, there will always be some risk when having sex with other people, no matter your method or precautions. You just have to assess how much you’re willing to accept.
Dear How to Do It,
My husband and I have been together for a long time and married for 10 years. We are both in our late 30s. At the beginning of our relationship, our sex life was amazing—exciting and passionate. A few years in, things started to slow down. I would attempt to initiate things, and he would make excuses about why he wasn’t into it. After a few months and some prodding from me, he told me that he had been sexually abused when he was a boy. After this revelation, we continued to have sex, but a lot less often than in the beginning.
I’ve also known since before we were married that he had depression. Treatment helped, but then there was a medical setback that exacerbated it. Doctors told him that his sex drive would come back. (He’s had his testosterone tested and it was fine.) I tried to initiate things on a regular basis once we decided together that he was ready, but I was always turned down. I eventually stopped trying.
A few years ago, we went to counseling to try to work things out. He felt incredibly uncomfortable talking about our issues with our therapist (who basically said, in the most sensitive way possible, that he needed to get over his childhood abuse and move on), and he refused to do any of the homework we were assigned. He also gets incredibly uncomfortable whenever I try to talk about our sex life. I always try to do it when we are in a neutral place (i.e., not in bed), but he gets so upset, telling me he knows he’s a terrible person and that talking about it makes him feel so ashamed. No matter how delicate I try to be, one, or both, of us ends up in tears.
It has been 10 years now. I haven’t had sex once in my 30s. I miss it so much. I miss kissing and touching, none of which happens. I have seen all my friends get married and have children, and I feel like I missed all of that. I don’t know if children were ever in the cards for us, but I feel my lack of sex life has prevented me from really giving it the attention it deserved—it always felt impossible to entertain. I feel disgusting and ugly. I feel like I live with a roommate. I love my husband so much, and I am still so attracted to him. He says he loves me and is attracted to me too, but after all this time that is so difficult to believe. I also have seen my body change very drastically over the past 10 years. I have gained weight, I have a stomach now where I never did before, my boobs are bigger and heavier. I feel like we have both missed out on my most attractive years (though he somehow manages to get better looking every day). I can’t imagine being naked with him now because my confidence is so low. I change my clothes in the bathroom because it feels weird to be naked in front of him, and I don’t want him to see what I look like now—I don’t have a 27-year-old body anymore.
At this point I just don’t know what to do. I want to have sex again—with him. I have no desire to seek anything outside of our marriage. How do I fix this? How do I even bring it up after all this time?
Dear Sexless 30s,
I feel terrible for you, for him, and for the unit that you both constitute. I do not see this situation improving without major work on his part. I think the therapist you saw, regardless of their gentleness, did a disservice by telling him to get over his trauma. That isn’t a thing some people can just poof out of their lives. I would imagine that his issues regarding sex, including discussing it and his perceived sexual shortcomings, are related to his abuse. He needs one-on-one therapy, and I think you could both use another round of couples counseling with a therapist whose methodology goes beyond prescribing a pulling of oneself up by the bootstraps.
I would imagine that a lot of the early work you need to do will involve generating very basic, nonsexual intimacy. Can you get close to him? Can you lie in bed together, looking in each other’s eyes? Can you hold him for any period of time? It may help very much to frame this as nonsexual touching so that he doesn’t feel anxiety or pressure—it’s just a way to reconnect physically on the most basic of levels. You can build from there.
It is not enough to hold out hope here; you have to cultivate it, and you need his participation to do that. While I understand how you’ve arrived at your insecurity given the circumstances, you must be kind to yourself as well. You can be sexy at any age. You’re in your late 30s. It’s unreasonable to expect you to keep a Hollywood figure—at any age, of course, but at this age, certainly. Try to trust him when he says that he finds you attractive; this is may be his way of reaching out and embracing you, not with his body but with his words. In fact, try to detect if he’s offering you any kind of place to meet him halfway, even if it’s a forum that you don’t find particularly stimulating. You may have to look through cracks to find growth, but ultimately, I want you to know that he’s not broken and neither are you.
More How to Do It
I live with my partner of 10 years in a happy, committed relationship. My partner is a fantastic person and very considerate and giving in bed. So what’s the problem? I desperately want to have sex with other people. Every time we have sex or I masturbate, I think only of other people. Everywhere I go I get crushes: subway passengers, my bank teller, co-workers, the gamut.