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When it comes to … let’s call them intimate gifts, there are a handful of “reliable” go-tos: mall lingerie, bubble baths, massage gift certificates. I say “reliable,” because while those gifts are all well and good if that’s what you and your partner are into, from a judgmental outsider’s perspective (mine), they’re not particularly creative or exciting. You can’t spice things up with blandness. Intimacy is deep, bespoke engagement, and not typically something that’s prefabricated or phoned in.
To give your mistletoe a run for its money, I’ve compiled some sex-and-relationship–adjacent gifts based on the needs and desires of people who have written in to Slate’s How to Do It advice column, which I co-write. (They’re listed in the context of an FAQ.) Hopefully your partner can actually use these gifts—it’s even better if you can use these gifts together. My goal in putting together this selection of presents less commonly found under the tree is that they will help foster intimacy and perhaps even improve an area of your love life that you find lacking all year round.
Q: Help! Am I normal?
Readers ask my co-writer Stoya and me this question again and again in different forms. What I try to explain to people is that they aren’t, because there’s no such thing as normal. And I believe that’s a good thing. I treasure this quote from Michael Warner’s out-of-print (but widely available used) 1999 book The Trouble With Normal: “To be fully normal is, strictly speaking, impossible. Everyone deviates from the norm in some way. Even if one belongs to the statistical majority in age group, race, height, weight, frequency of orgasm, gender of sexual partners, and annual income, then simply by virtue of its unlikely combination of normalcies one’s profile would already depart from the norm.” Warner’s book is specifically written about queer life, but I think it contains plenty of applicable wisdom, regardless of the reader’s sexuality.
For something with a broader purview, check out Jesse Bering’s Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us, a rather delightful exploration of the wide, wild world of sexual variation (including fetishes) that argues quite plainly, “We’re all perverts.” Similar in scope is Justin Lehmiller’s Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life, which is based on the results of a survey Lehmiller conducted on the sexual fantasies of more than 4,000 Americans. Lehmiller has no problem with the word normal, though he uses it to signify statistically common findings of his, which very widely. (Of course, if everyone is normal, no one is.) If your partner has at moments (outwardly, or implicitly) expressed a fear of being abnormal, especially in the realms of identity and desire, read one or all of these books together.
Q: Desire in my long-term relationship has dried up. What can I do about it?
Relationships are their own universes, replete with both predictable patterns and reality-upending surprises, so questions like this are almost always the hardest for me to answer from afar. Esther Perel’s Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence has been an invaluable resource, both in terms of providing ideas for how to keep things fresh in my own relationship and as a recommendation for several people who’ve written in to the column. This is another one that would be great read together. Even better: Give a gift that has no price tag but infinite value by reading the book yourself and enacting Perel’s tips.
Q: Neither my partner nor I are big readers. Can you just give me a few of Perel’s suggestions?
A good way to reignite desire is to disrupt the routine that you’ve fallen into (and probably can’t quite climb out of). That might mean booking a local hotel room on a semiregular basis to provide some scenic variation and/or give you the thrill of the illicit. It might mean exploring outdoor sex, which luckily for you is free (but also potentially illegal, so your best bet is to do it in a private space). If you have kids but are looking to explore temporary freedom, you’ll want to hire a babysitter, which is a gift in itself, and sometimes the best one you could possibly give. Conversely, sometimes distance can foster closeness: If you gift your partner a trip (say, a weekend adventure with a friend or two, say, to Vegas) unaccompanied by you, you’re creating an opportunity to miss each other. Some couples lose their grasp on eroticism to the extent that they no longer touch; there’s great power in just holding each other, and that’s all the more comfortable on a set of nice sheets, like these from Parachute.
Fostering intimacy need not break the bank. There’s a host of erotic fiction you could read together. Are you aware that Stacey Abrams (as in Georgia House Representatives minority leader from 2011–17) writes erotica under the pseudonym Selena Montgomery? True story. If you’re looking for something kinky, try Stoya’s go-to The Slave.
If your eyes are tired, you have the option of exploring the burgeoning world of audio porn. You could also try your own hands at writing in the form of erotic notes to each other in which you explain your desires. Perel recommends setting up email accounts for this correspondence; you could also do it on stationary. This Little Box of I Love You contains 40 postcards that seem “cute” and could come in handy here.
Q: My partner’s penis doesn’t work. How can I help?
Probably the best thing you could do is be cool about it—anxiety is a great boner killer, and external pressure or even pronounced fretting could make a fraught situation worse. In terms of commodities, you have options. There is of course the route of seeing a doctor and looking into meds. You could also try a cock ring. (Here’s one that’s cheap, effective, and easy to put on.) Some say strengthening one’s pelvic floor with Kegels can result in stronger erections and better orgasms. If they can’t quite figure out how to exercise those muscles, they could try an electronic Kegel toner like the K-fit.
You can both read about their tricky dick in the entertaining and comprehensive The Penis Book by Aaron Spitz. Do you own a dildo? It’s not everyone’s idea of a proper substitute for the real thing, but it’s not a bad backup, and as a bonus, you can put it up their butt for a different kind of fun. Here’s a rather simple, inexpensive one.
Q: My partner can’t orgasm. Is that it, then?
Nah, keep trying. For an in-depth guide, my colleague Stoya swears by Emily Nagoski’s Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life, which is about women’s sexuality broadly but certainly covers orgasm. I recently perused and recommended Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens’s The Explorer’s Guide to Planet Orgasm, which takes a step-by-step approach and argues there are many types of orgasms and several ways to get there.
If your partner suffers from pain during penetrative sex, due to endometriosis, prolapse, or other health conditions, look into the Ohnut, a device that can help make sex more comfortable by customizing penetration depth. You may also want to invest in a vibrator. Stoya recommends Lelo’s Sona Cruise (but then, she reminds us, she has an official partnership with the company). Some people swear by the Hitachi Magic Wand, but beware: It’s loud.
All of these suggestions assume your partner is open and looking for help; perhaps they aren’t yet there, though. In that case, talking about these things is the place to start. Without applying any pressure, check in to see if they’re satisfied with your shared sex life, and ask if there’s anything you can do to help, and whether they’re ready to explore options like those listed here. Don’t merely lend your partner your ear—gift it and have them know that it’s always there to listen, regardless of the season.
Q: Most of what you’ve listed here is a little racy for my reserved partner, but I’m desperate to spice things up. Any tamer gift ideas?
Yes! There are. A massage oil like this one made by Shea Moisture is nondescript-looking enough that it doesn’t immediately jump out as something that might later be used as lube. Some nice pajamas from Les Boys Les Girls that don’t scream “Sexy!” and are, in fact, even sexier for not doing so? A nice bottle of wine? Sky’s the limit—you know that. Just don’t get your partner a robe; they’ll be able to tell you didn’t put much thought into it. They know you. You can’t get much past them.
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