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,
Six years ago, I was sent to a remote foreign placement for work. While there, I met Gwen, who was also sent there temporarily for work. It would be wrong to say Gwen and I dated. More accurately, we slept together like we were trying to repopulate the earth. Whenever we met, we would have long, five-hour sessions where we explored each other’s fantasies and kinks in a way I thought was impossible. At the end of my contract we parted ways, and I doubted we’d ever see each other again. Lo and behold, Gwen seemed to pop up at every conference and industry event I attended in Europe, and we continued to have amazing sex whenever we saw each other. The semiannual meetings turned to constant texts and phone calls and spending our vacations together, and it became obvious that at some point this was more than just sex. She tried to break things off with me about a year ago and confessed that she was in love with me. I had been trying to get up the courage to tell her the same thing, and we got together for real.
She moved in with me nine months ago, and that’s when the problems started. I just don’t want to have sex with her anymore. Actually, I lost the urge around the time we became official, and I have no idea why. In the nine months we’ve lived together, we’ve had sex five times, after she seduced me, and I felt so bad about constantly rejecting her. She is amazing and I love her so much, but I can now only get off thinking about other women if I get horny at all—which is ironic because when we weren’t together, I’d always think about Gwen when I fantasized. When I was gone for a work trip a month ago, I slept with an old flame after feeling horny for the first time in months, which is something Gwen doesn’t know about. This confirmed the equipment is working, just not with Gwen. I can see how much this is hurting her, and how confused she is by how I’ve changed. She dresses up in skimpy lingerie and sends me dirty pics, which is something I always loved but now feel nothing when she does it. We’ve talked about it and I have a million excuses, because how do you explain this to someone? I can hear her vibrator every night when I take a shower, and it breaks my heart that I can’t give her what I used to so easily. I want to have sex with her as a concept, but I just can’t do it for real anymore. I don’t know if it’s a Madonna-whore thing or what, but I’m so mad at myself for how I’m acting.
I love Gwen and I want to spend the rest of my life with her, but I know this isn’t sustainable. What should I do to make myself want to sleep with Gwen again?
Dear Dead Battery,
I was at a bit of a loss reading your letter, because I experience the same issue once things shift to monogamy. I wasn’t sure how to advise you if your lone goal is to want Gwen again. So I reached out to sex therapist and friend of the column Cyndi Darnell for some insight on your situation. She’s the creator of the Desire Series.
“The problem, in part, is that we (all of us) have very limited understandings of desire and attraction—based in many ways on poor sex education but also very limited narratives of how eroticism actually works,” she wrote to me. “While most of us recognize ‘horniness’ as an erotic motivator, it’s only sustainable long-term when the object of our desire is removed from us enough to allow that kind of longing to appear.”
She suspects this is why your previous flings were so charged: “The anticipation and longing was alive during that time, and you had plenty of time to miss each other and look forward to seeing each other. Anticipation and longing are very, very powerful motivators that influence our desire for sex and are usually the first things to die when we couple-up and co-habit. In that way, the Madonna-whore thing you speak of is real, but it’s slightly more complex and it affects all genders—not just straight men. Research shows that women lose their libidos in long-term relationships more quickly than men, which in part explains why so many women report low desire in relationships. However, when men lose libido in relationship[s], it generally takes longer to happen, and like with women, it’s often not because they no longer love their partners, but because the way they want to connect sexually is no longer an option.”
So, according to Cyndi, we’re both normal. So what now? That will come down to communication, and what the two of you are willing to try. I’ll let her take it away:
Once you understand what’s happening within you, it’s easier to make sense of and talk about [it] with her. Simply put, your relationship started with a lot of distance and a lot of passion. It’s highly likely that sex without vulnerability is a huge aphrodisiac for you. Which is perfectly fine—except that you also want emotional connection. Now you have an issue of compromise on your hands. The trick is in learning to replicate the environment you had in your initial relationship in this new context. I am not sure how you will achieve that, but you may be the kind of couple who are better living separately, being in an open relationship, or creating elements of newness (including swinging) that may help kick start your sex brain again, while recognizing that your heart and mind may find this super challenging. It’s a delicate balancing act. To be clear, I am not saying you must or even should open up, but I am saying look to the past to create a brighter future. You were at your best when you were open—and your problems started when you closed. There is wisdom in this information, but taking care of your love and tender hearts is crucial to manage the relationship.
You seem to feel plenty of guilt that you secretly slept with someone else, so I won’t scold you for that. But listen to yourself, your behavior, and to Cyndi, and start a gentle conversation with Gwen about your future.
Dear How to Do It,
I met my now-husband while we were in college, and I hadn’t dated in high school at all. He was the first guy I brought home. I’m pretty open about my personal life with my parents (nothing over the top, but I wanted them to know I was having sex when I started getting birth control through their insurance), and while for the most part they were pretty relaxed about this part of my growing up, my mom did share then—when I was 19—that she wasn’t comfortable with the thought of me having sex in their house. I’m sure she meant no harm by this statement, but it has made me very self-conscious while staying with them along with my husband.
This would maybe never come up if we were only in their home for short visits, but we lived with my parents for about two months right after we got married, and are now living with them for a couple of months again a year later, as transitional periods before and after being abroad. I’m still incredibly hung up on my parents being weird about our sex life. I’ve never talked about it again with my mom, but it’s been six years and my marital status has changed. My husband and I have definitely always had stealthy sex in the house anyway, but it’s not often, and I get anxious about it every time. I don’t feel like I should have to abstain from a sex life with my husband while under my parents’ roof, but at the same time I keep wondering what the consensus is on this situation. I know it’s not uncommon for young married couples to end up living with a set of parents for some amount of time. What are the acceptable rules?
Dear Parent Protocol,
There are no hard rules. I think you should talk about it with your mother. Don’t, like, bring it up at the dinner table, but maybe pull her aside and ask her if she remembers that conversation years ago. Prepare yourself for a range of reactions. She might give you a reiteration of her discomfort. You could also get “Oh, what was I so hung up on?” or “Honey, you’re married now, and that’s not my business.” She might not remember at all, in which case you’ll probably want to ask what her opinion is now.
Sex is a personal thing for a lot of people, and it can really push buttons for some. Having a frank talk with your mother about her buttons will help you avoid pushing them in the future. Worst-case scenario, you might end up renting a hotel room every other week for a night if your mother remains dead set against you having sex in her home. Japan has a culture around sex-and-romance-focused hotels that can be upscale or silly, and many big cities have at least a history of hourly “romance hotels,” grungy as they are. You could find a way to make that a fun angle. If the two of you enjoy role-play, a new environment could provide material. You might be traveling salespeople, or clandestine lovers.
More likely, your status as a married adult confers different parental boundaries. But you won’t know until you talk about it.
Dear How to Do It,
My husband and I are in our early 30s and have been together for about five years. We both identify as bisexual to some degree, although neither of us has had a serious or physical relationship with someone of the same sex. We’ve discussed it openly with each other, and we’re both interested in experimenting with a threesome. We’re comfortable with our own and each other’s boundaries, have committed to staying communicative with one another throughout the process, and generally feel ready to take the plunge.
The trouble is that we’re both wildly introverted and very much entrenched within our own fairly narrow social circle, with few opportunities to meet anyone outside of it. We live in a conservative area, we’re both uncomfortable going to bars and clubs, and my husband in particular has some pretty severe social anxiety that we’re sure would flair up if we went to a party with the purpose of meeting a third. For that matter, I have no idea how we’d begin to broach the subject of inviting someone into a threesome even if we did find the opportunity. We’re both awkward and anti-social enough that we were terrible at the dating scene even as single people, and more so as a couple in a community where admitting to bisexuality or an interest in group sex is likely to get you a flyer for next week’s Bible study. For some reason, our current strategy of sitting around at home and waiting for a proposition to fall into our laps doesn’t seem to be working out, so I was wondering if you had any other suggestions for 1) finding a possible partner to share and 2) inviting them to join us.
Dear One More,
You’re right that it is very unlikely a potential third is going to appear in your living room. Not unless you start throwing some very interesting parties.
If you have Facebook, the app Feeld is worth a shot. It’s specifically for poly folk and couples searching for thirds, and it allows linked partner profiles. You also might look around on OKCupid and FetLife—really anywhere where sexual people living in conservative areas turn to meet under the radar. If you’re concerned about privacy, upload faceless pictures and cover any tattoos or recognizable birthmarks for your profile photos, and use the “about” section to let your personality shine.
Even if you start by browsing the apps and dating sites from the comfort of your couch, you’re eventually going to have to meet people. One doesn’t generally have first dates in one’s apartment (believe me, if I could … ), so those meetings will probably need to be in a public place. Your husband might want to work on his social anxiety in advance of these inevitable first meetings. You might spend manageable but increasing amounts of time in public spaces, at more crowded spaces, and then louder ones, to work up to going to a club. You might fantasize together about how you’ll navigate trying to catch someone’s interest and broaching the subject of a threesome, how you’ll communicate through the sex, and what you each hope will happen—all as a way of thinking through possible scenarios to prepare.
A bit of expectation management before you go: Thirds are almost always in higher demand than couples, so prepare for the search for one who is a good fit to take a while.
Dear How to Do It,
I’ve been with my boyfriend for two years, and he’s a very decent, loyal, and dorky (in the best way) man. The problem is our communication. We have a hard time understanding the other person when trouble arises, and because it has devolved so much into fighting, it now has become a near-instantaneous reaction to otherwise small disputes. It has completely killed our sex life, which has had a roundabout way of making everything worse in a horrid cycle. I want to be with him, and I’ve mentioned podcasts, or couples therapy (too expensive). Our relationship feels completely in tatters at this point and I don’t know what to do anymore. I feel like we fight every day because we have lost sight of how to communicate effectively. We both see scenarios completely differently than each other. Do you have any advice on how to begin communicating in a healthy manner? Or is it all lost?
Dear No Chat,
Do you feel like you fight every day, or do you actually fight every day? Serious question. You need to know actually how bad the situation is. What do you fight about? Is it the same problem coming up over and over again? If so, there are your clues for what to work on. Is it different specifics, but the same malfunction? Again, now you know where to start.
Sex is a communication. If your communication isn’t working well, it makes sense that sex would be affected. And all those nice happy chemicals your brain releases during sex do help people feel connected and intimate, so you might be right about the cycle of distance.
What’s decent about your dude? Make a list. Is that list worth fighting through a total breakdown of communication for? If so, get some books and start listening to those podcasts yourself. Make note of anything you find particularly useful, and send it to him in an easily digestible manner. Then take a look at what happens. Does he meet you halfway? Provide feedback and commentary on what you send him? Is he willing to participate in worksheets and exercises? If not, he may be saying no to therapy for reasons other than cost—and you may have your answer.
More How to Do It
My girlfriend no longer wants to shave her armpits. I admitted this wasn’t my preference, but it’s her choice. We still screw with abandon. However, I also took this as an opportunity to stop trimming myself downstairs. She was fine at first, but now seems reluctant to give blow jobs because of the unintended floss. I want to leave it! Do you think this goes both ways, or is it totally different?