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,
How common is amazing, long-lasting chemistry? I mean the kind where you smell his T-shirt and lose your mind. I know the standard answer is that it’s infatuation, wears off in a couple of months, etc. But my husband and I have this, and it’s been 30 years. Seriously, I bury my face in his chest, get a good whiff, and it’s ON. And he swears that I never ever smell bad, I just smell more like me, which is hilarious, but I can confirm that his dick agrees.
And now our kids are adults, we’re having serious conversations about long-term relationships, and I wonder: Should I tell them to hold out for this kind of chemistry? That seems unrealistic. But I’m sad for people who don’t have this. What should I say to them?
Dear Sniff Test,
I have this ex-boyfriend who is now a dear friend. His parents are incredibly supportive of each other. His father has severe medical issues, and his mother has been right there, decade after decade, taking care of him. As he’s grown and gotten to know himself better, he’s spoken about his unrealistic expectations in relationships. As someone who dated him, I can corroborate the fact that some of his expectations are, in fact, unreasonable.
So I think you want to be careful here. Let your kids know that sometimes people get really lucky with a match, and—if you feel this is right—encourage them to value those good matches. But don’t encourage them to overvalue certain things. After all, they might smell-match with someone who has completely different political values, or who is abusive. (And sometimes smell changes. I’ve dated people whom I loved the smell of until they hit a high-stress period and then I couldn’t stand to have them naked around me. You can’t stake a relationship on smell or any particular kind of attraction alone.)
This might go without saying, but I’m confident your kids won’t want to hear the details in your letter about Mom and Dad’s sex life. So tell them, in the abstract, that you knew your partner was special based on [whatever qualities in addition to their scent], and encourage them to hold out for something special, whatever form that takes.
Dear How to Do It,
I am a single, straight male right at that point where adulthood is tipping over into middle aged. I would call my dating history “reasonable.” It isn’t as if women were beating down my door, but I don’t feel like I’ve missed out either. I’ve never been married, and that seems to be developing into a detriment in the eyes of people I know … as if my never having been married says something about my ability to commit, my stability, my reliability, my heterosexuality? Honestly, I don’t understand it. But it seems to be something that’s out there, so even if I don’t like it, it’s something I have to work around.
But there’s a second trend—perhaps not unrelated—I’m noticing that seems localized to my friends and acquaintances. I don’t want to sound harsh, but somehow, it feels like I’ve become everyone’s preferred backup plan. Over the last couple years, I’ve had a few brushes with this. There was a woman I dated whose previous relationship had lasted over a decade. She ended our relationship to go back to her ex. Then there was a divorcée who dated me for a bit, then decided she wanted to “explore” more, which meant dating a lot of people, and she didn’t think I was equipped to be involved with someone like that. There have been other instances where I’ve been encouraged to ask out women going through a dry spell or a rough patch because I’m “such a nice guy.”
Everyone in the above examples was very polite in the moment. The women in the first two examples were clear they wanted “x” out of their relationships, and they didn’t think they were going to get that from me. But they tried to couch their language in the kindest way. However, the women in those two examples eventually decided the grass was not greener and tried to pick up where they’d left off with me. And those other examples where people encourage me because I’m a nice guy? What it feels to me like they’re really saying is I am a safe option until these women get their feet back under them. So everyone (the women in question, my friends trying to set me up) seemed surprised when I decline. It’s like the idea that I have my own perspective never entered their minds. As one of my friends said when I passed on the setup, “It’s not like you have a ton of prospects out there.”
Maybe I don’t, but that doesn’t mean I’m content to be the metaphorical waiting room folks spend a pleasant amount of time in before fate decides their one true love is ready to see them now. I accept that no one is trying to hurt my feelings, and that I should have done a better job in the past of communicating what my limits are. What I’m looking for is some help in establishing boundaries/expectations and some language that makes it clear my dating life does not exist solely to ease the burden for others. Any suggestions or insights would be appreciated.
Dear Second Fiddle,
Like having been married and getting a divorce are better than never being married in these people’s eyes? Pffft.
Before we dig in, I want to thank you for illuminating the experience of the Nice Guy. I’ve run into self-described Nice Guys who are incredibly bitter. I’ve wondered how they got that way. Now, thanks to what you’ve shared, I think I can empathize a little better.
Being someone’s backup plan sucks. It’s a gross feeling. I’m sorry it’s happening to you. You can’t really stop people from assuming that you’ll be their backup guy, but you can tell them upfront that you’ve sensitive to that because it has happened before. You can simply tell former partners “No” when they express interest in revisiting the relationship. You’ll have to be firm and adhere to those boundaries. There’s no telling how many more partners you’ll have to sort through until you find one who appreciates you for you. And you’ll probably always feel safe to a woman in the relationship—ideally in a healthy way—so it’d be a good idea to spend some time meditating on the difference between “safe on your own terms” and “safe as a fallback.”
As for your friends, sit them down and tell them to knock it off with this backhanded setup thing they’re doing. Push back. Say, “The way you talk about my dating life hurts. I don’t appreciate when you make comments about my prospects or describe me as a ‘nice guy’ in a dismissive way. You don’t understand what that phrase means to me. It means I’m a safe space for people to regroup, and that feels crappy.”
Remember, some people take decades to find their forever partner and others don’t even want one. Take some time to think about what you actually want before you dive back in, and don’t accept anything less.
Dear How to Do It,
There is a question bubbling in me for a while now that I haven’t shared with anyone before. During my 20s and 30s I was an occasional dater—really, I fled commitment while trying to find myself. Then, after a way-too-long sexless marriage, I took a step I’d never imagined before: I sought out high-end escorts through a now-defunct website.
I found the highest rated escort, and we connected in a way I had never done before. Suffice it to say, for a month my feet never touched the ground. And my sexual history before meeting my love vanished—she became, and remains, the ultimate FIRST. We had six months of bliss, a threesome where I wandered the hotel parking lot in a daze with a blissed-out smile, looking for my car but not caring the least about finding it. We indulged our passion for fast cars and went on a cruise together. I also learned so much about me, sex, and intimacy. My escort-love and I remain dear friends, in regular contact, which is not the case with my ex-wife. Even though escorting is a business, I never felt the connection was purely business.
Since then, I’ve dated non-escorts but have been uniformly disappointed. My last companion was so attuned emotionally and intuitively that she felt and knew precisely what turned me on without asking (and I value communication in the bedroom). I feel I can only really connect with escorts. My question is, is it crazy, self-destructive, or foolhardy to seek out sexual pros for intimacy and connection?
Dear Girlfriend Experience,
Thanks to the FOSTA/SESTA law, I have to be very cautious here. I must assume that you found a recommendation on a website for a legal Nevada brothel worker, or that you went overseas to patronize the countries where sex work is allowed in certain capacities, like Germany, or the Netherlands, or England.
Provided that, I’ll answer. I’ve spoken with a number of women over the years who do heavily interactive sex work—camming, stripping, or escorting—and many of them describe the job as half-therapist. Remember that the connection is part of the job. They’re doing their job well when you feel intimacy. If all you wanted was an orgasm, you’d have a different experience. You’d be given a different experience.
Generally speaking, people get into trouble when they forget what the deal is. This isn’t necessarily just about transactional sex. When feelings get involved, we start thinking with our hearts instead of our brains, and that can cause problems.
Set boundaries. Ask the people you’re having sex with what their boundaries are. Make a short list if you need to. Respect your partners by keeping those boundaries in your head and adhering to them. Respect yourself by developing your own boundaries—what’s too far for you? What’s too expensive? Let the workers you’re patronizing know those boundaries.
Stay safe, and good luck to you.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a 23-year-old woman in a relationship with a 22-year-old man. We’ve been together for almost six years and moved in together about a year and a half ago, after four years of long distance. Everything has been great since moving in together, except in the bedroom: I have depression and anxiety, so I don’t always feel like fooling around, but even so, I want to be intimate a lot more often than he does.
There are a lot of nuances to our sex life; we’re both bisexual and have been open for a while, but neither of us has done much dating since moving in together, partly because it’s made it more logistically difficult, partly because dating is hard, especially in queer circles when you’re in a different-gender relationship. We also tend to have a rather clear dom/sub relationship in the bedroom, but I end up initiating 90 percent of the time, even though I’d really like for him to take charge and initiate sometimes. The fact that when we rarely do fool around it’s always because I say something first makes me feel like he’s just doing it for me, when his enjoyment is really crucial to me feeling satisfied. He just seems to have a super-low libido, and like he’d be fine with never having sex, whereas I would like to a lot more often.
This is all compounded by mental illness—even though I’m getting treatment, I still have trouble feeling good about how I look and my attractiveness, so him never being the one to want sex first makes me feel like there’s nothing about me that turns him on. We’ve talked about this but nothing changes. Are there any steps we can take to have a more active sex life? When we lived across the country, we were pretty active over video chat, but since moving in together, things have fizzled out.
When you talk about the sexual dynamic, nothing changes? How about other dynamics? Do you have success with conversations about other important aspects of your relationship? Your inability to have a productive conversation about sex and implement changes that work for everyone is a red flag—not necessarily a danger sign, but definitely a warning.
I think you ought to take this to your therapist. The person working with you regularly is in a much better position to help you look for points of communication breakdown, or judge whether you’re having difficulty advocating for your needs. Use that resource.
Another factor is that long distance—keeping in touch via text and video chat—can feel really intimate, but that intimacy might not carry over into IRL contexts. You may need to build more in-person intimacy.
Do you have anxiety around sex? Does your partner? You say he seems to have a super-low libido, but that doesn’t sound like you’ve talked extensively about it. You want to know whether your partner has a low or high libido. You want to know what revs his engine and how to get him to that point when he wants it.
Have some talks. Texting each other is a perfectly fine place to start if that feels more intimate. Build up to being able to verbally communicate with each other about this stuff. Focus on sharing your feelings and listening to his. You’ve got this.
More How to Do It
My wife and I have been together for 15 years. I cook, clean, and play with the kids. Why won’t she agree to my sex schedule?