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 mother and father divorced more or less amicably five years ago, when all of us kids (three brothers) were already out of the house. Since then, she’s been living in our childhood home in the same Midwestern suburb where we grew up, working part time, dating, and adjusting to living by herself for the first time in almost 30 years. Over the summer, she stayed with my brother and his wife for a month, sort of to help out with the kids during their summer vacation, but mostly because I think she’s not sure what to do with her time. That arrangement seemed to work. Then, earlier this fall, she suggested staying in my spare bedroom for a month (“or two”!) in the city where I live, which she’s only visited once before, because she wanted to experience “city life.” I didn’t feel like I could say no, since I have the room and it’s not that much of an inconvenience—I work a ton and my girlfriend is happy to have me over at her place. I let my mom stay.
She arrived in mid-October and plans to stay until we all go home for Thanksgiving. It’s been fine. But there is one problem I have no idea at all how to solve. My mother has discovered Tinder. She is in her early 50s and still attractive, and she is apparently happy with my city’s dating pool because she seems to go on dates with men three nights a week. I just joked about this with my brothers at first, but then last week, she brought one of the guys back to my apartment! I wasn’t home when they got there, but I heard him come out of her room and leave early in the morning. I am really at a loss on how to bring this up with her, but I cannot have my mother bringing strange men to my place. What do I say? Should I remind her that she wouldn’t let me have girls in my room when I lived in her house? Kidding. Mostly. But I need help. We have four weeks to go.
Dear Swipe Left,
I think your semi-joke about reminding your mother that she wouldn’t let you have girls in your room isn’t that far off. Your home, your boundaries. It shouldn’t be difficult for most of these men to host at their place, and it’ll spare you the discomfort of having to think too closely about your mother’s sexuality. Tell her you’d appreciate it if she didn’t bring people you don’t know to your apartment while she’s visiting.
Thanksgiving’s almost here.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a lesbian in my mid-20s, and while I don’t consider myself asexual, I’ve never enjoyed sex. I do have a pretty intense libido and I am fine masturbating, but as soon as I add a partner into the mix I lose interest and become anxious, uncomfortable, and irritated. The most frustrating part is that I don’t know where these feelings come from! I can be incredibly turned on and attracted to my partner (emotionally and physically) one second, and the next I want to clamp my legs shut and roll over to the other side of the bed. I think it might be due to an aversion of physical touch, because I get the same way when I’m kissing/holding hands/cuddling for too long, but I don’t have any history of abuse nor any medical diagnoses that could help explain it.
I’ve also tried to work around my self-imposed lesbian bed death by mixing in toys, experimenting with kink, sleeping with casual and committed partners, etc. But nothing works, and it’s gotten to the point where I just avoid sexual situations altogether. I’m frustrated because I’m even starting to question my identity and whether or not my attraction to women has been fabricated all these years, even though the thought of sleeping with a man makes me even more uncomfortable. Is it possible to have a fulfilling sex life without feeling like I’m going to crawl out of my skin?
—Can’t Touch This
Find a sex-positive therapist, make an appointment, and tell them everything you’ve told me. Tell them more, actually. Do you fantasize about other people? Can you fantasize about having sex successfully, or do you get turned off in imaginary encounters, too? Does the anxiety, discomfort, and irritation happen in response to anything particular? What, specifically, do you become anxious about? Does the anxiety come before the touch aversion, or is the touch aversion first?
While you’re waiting for that appointment, if you can find a willing partner, you can do more research. Try different kinds of touch—slow, gentle, firm, fast, for starters—and figure out where the range of what you can tolerate is. The more information you can tell the therapist, the better.
As for your identity woes, I wouldn’t stress yourself out there. Figure one thing out at a time.
You might also want to think about what sex is to you. Solo sex sometimes gets talked about as lesser than, or becomes a joke. I think that’s unfortunate. Pick up Betty Dodson’s Sex for One for some tips on how to self-love successfully.
Dear How to Do It,
I recently read one of your columns about a man who feared a “dead bedroom.” What if the bedroom was pretty much always dead, and now I want to bring it to life? My wife and I have been together for almost 20 years (since early college, married for 15). Our sex life has been mediocre at best, in terms of both frequency and variety, from the start. I feel like I’ve tried to address these issues regarding a lack of intimacy over the years, but I have not seen any change in attempts to increase physical relations on her part. A year ago, and more recently, I have suggested counseling to address the lack of intimacy, and both times she has suggested individual counseling instead of as a couple. Is it too late to change this? And if not, how can I change our sex life when my attempts are meant with swift rejections, and it was never that frequent to begin with? We have sex three to six times a year.
I can’t take credit for that one—Rich Juzwiak, my co-columnist and man about town, fielded the question. But I can answer yours. It’s never too late to change, though I can’t promise what direction that change will take.
Your wife gave you an opening, which is individual counseling. I’m unclear on whether she meant for you, for her, or for both of you, and the reaction does kind of depend on what she meant. If she meant you should get individual counseling, that might have been an unfair deflection. If she meant that she wants individual counseling, I urge you to support her in that. If she meant that the two of you should get individual counseling simultaneously, that can sometimes be part of treatment for a couple—it may be called conjoint couple therapy. It’s also possible that she meant she’d like to meet the therapist alone first before agreeing to see them together.
Get clear on what your wife is willing to do, and start looking for therapists who are a good match. I want to manage your expectations here, though. She may be perfectly happy with quarterly sexual interactions. The two of you may have a libido mismatch and need to figure out a solution together where both of your boundaries are being respected.
Dear How to Do It,
I’ve started to see someone recently. He’s a sweet, communicative, and gentle guy. However, I don’t know how to broach a particular issue I know is going to come up as our relationship evolves. Specifically: I haven’t had penetrative sex since I was raped six years ago, although I’ve casually dated men and women since then and had a slew of fantastic non-PIV sexual experiences. I have no issues talking about the other impacts of that trauma. But that part specifically is just so personal that I almost feel ashamed to bring it up, in part because I worry the avoidance will make me come across as “damaged”—even though I desperately want to have that type of sex with this guy now and talk about those boundaries! How do I approach this discussion? Where? A complication is that the missionary position (although one of my favorites in theory) is probably the only trauma-related trigger I have sexually at this point. Any ideas for other positions that maximize hand/mouth/chest contact without being situated totally under my male partner?
Dear The Conversation,
Avoidance is a term you could definitely use here. So are self-care and caution. You’re reluctant to bring up a very personal ordeal with someone you’ve only started seeing recently. You’re reluctant to put yourself in the very vulnerable position of receptive partner during penetration, which can make anyone nervous regardless of trauma. Take your time. Be gentle with yourself. There’s no need to rush.
It can be really easy to end up feeling like a ball of damage. I urge you to focus on your resilience. You say missionary is probably the only trauma-related trigger you have sexually now, which implies that there used to be others. What happened to them? I’m almost certain that what happened involved some hard work and a lot of fortitude on your part.
When you do broach the subject, remember that you have the right to be as vague as you want to be. You don’t have to go into every detail, or answer a whole bunch of questions. Choose a time when you have nowhere to be, and don’t plan to have sex. You can ask to move to a different topic at any point.
As for other positions, you can get into cowgirl—facing him, on top—and lean forward for the chest contact and mouth proximity. You’ll be able to rest your weight and have at least one hand free. You can also do the reverse—face away from him and lean back with your spine on his chest—and have plenty of mouth contact if you each turn your heads to the appropriate side.
You may be able to pull off a side position where you’re facing each other. It isn’t the most visually attractive, so you don’t see it much in porn, but … lay facing each other on your sides. Pull your top knee up to allow for insertion of his penis. Press your chests together, kiss to your heart’s content, and run your not-being-laid-on hand up and down your partner’s body.
There’s also a variation on missionary that you might be able to work up to. On your back, curl into a ball with your knees on your chest. Flex your feet. Rest them on his chest. You’re in contact with his chest, you each have your arms free, and if you need to (like if you’re unable to speak in the moment), you can use your super awesome leg muscles to push him away quickly.
You’ve got this.
More How to Do It
I’m a mother of two lovely and happy kids, both in their early 20s. My daughter is beautiful but very shy, and I essentially knew she was a virgin through college. She’s now living in a big city after graduation and is “blooming.” I am happy for her, but the problem is that she won’t shut up to me about it. She tells me fairly graphic details, and I’m now worried that when she finally brings a man home, I’m going to know about his endowment before I even meet him.