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,
I’m a 26-year-old woman who’s been with my 30-year-old boyfriend for a little over a year, and although we moved in together a few months ago, we don’t have much sex. I’d love to have sex three times a week or more. He, on the other hand, has had a slowly declining libido and is never in the mood anymore. We used to have sex about twice a week, but nowadays we have sex maybe every two weeks, and even then, it feels like he’s only doing it to fulfill his “duties.” I don’t like the idea that anyone is ever obligated to have sex, and I believe that enthusiastic consent is the only real consent. But this is complicated by the fact that even in the beginning of our courtship, he was never the most passionate or enthusiastic lover, so it’s hard for me to read what a “real” yes looks like from him versus an “OK, I guess if you want to.”
I’ve started trying to make my peace with this situation and told myself to just wait and see if his libido will pick back up at some point. But what if it never does? We’re both very healthy and fit, so there should be no medical reason for his low libido. Sex is very important to me and I miss everything about sex—the physical pleasure, feeling desired, the emotional intimacy. Should I wait it out?
A second element to this: Making this all worse, I notice him turning his head to check out other women in front of me. He’s not subtle about it. I’ve talked to him about this before, and at first he tried to brush me off, saying he wouldn’t mind if I checked out other men in front of him and that we should both be allowed to look. Eventually, I got through to him that I find it hurtful (and also disrespectful to the women being ogled), and he agreed not to do it in front of me anymore. The problem now is that it’s making me question whether he actually has a low sex drive or he just doesn’t find me attractive. I don’t like to brag, but it seems pertinent here that I’m quite a looker myself. Many men check me out on the street, but apparently, I’m not attractive enough for my own boyfriend! The looking, which on its own I wouldn’t have minded so much, piled on top of his lack of desire for me has made me feel unattractive and inadequate. What do you think is happening here? And what can I do?
A drop in libido after commitment or moving in together isn’t that strange of an occurrence. A letter writer described a few columns ago how he couldn’t understand why he no longer wanted sex with his girlfriend once they were living together. I quoted a sex therapist to explain why that might happen. Since that column, however, I’ve heard anecdotally that commitment or significant shared milestones can act as an aphrodisiac for others. Humans—we’re varied!
Your boyfriend’s lack of libido doesn’t need a “medical” explanation, per se. Ask him what he needs to feel relaxed and turned on. He might be the kind of person who needs different stimuli to become aroused, or may be uninterested because he doesn’t feel secure in some aspects of the relationship. He also might be stressed about something at work and not making the connection himself. Are finances a problem? Again, ask. You can read more about different arousal styles in Emily Nagoski’s Come as You Are. You won’t know what’s going on until you go deeper with him.
It’s also possible, as you fear, that he isn’t interested in sex with you at this point. Brace yourself for that possibility before you dive in. If the two of you are a mismatch, try to keep in mind all the wonderful people out there who might be a better fit.
Dear How to Do It,
I have a question about safer sex. Every time I bring it up to people in the medical field, I get the most excruciatingly careful answers. I get it—when it comes to STIs and other maladies, sure, “anything is possible.” I am a cis woman who tops straight men. Sometimes, I receive oral sex from a man as part of our play. For the record, this is within a dating dynamic, not a group or dungeon thing. Also, I never reciprocate, so I am not exposed to seminal fluids. In fact, I once hooked up with an old flame and a week later another lady informed him that “they” had chlamydia. He did and I did not.
I feel like I am pretty safe sitting on faces. The only anecdotal info I have gotten about acquiring an STI from oral are stories of people who are receptively oral with men. What do you think? Am I at risk?
I love that little r so much. It’s one of the most important consonants in the English language, heading off any assumption that there is such a thing as safe sex—or really safe anything.
Here’s the thing, though—I get my information from those same doctors. So I also get those excruciatingly careful answers when it comes to STIs. And medical professionals tend to love outlier cases. I’m thinking of one in particular—a nurse if I recall correctly—whose eyes lit up with glee as she described a rare case in which a man caught gonorrhea from receiving a blowjob. When it comes to life—and bacteria and viruses are part of it—anything can happen.
Now, of course, a penis may go all the way into a throat—or other nice, warm orifice in which bacteria might make their home—where people with internal genitalia would seem to be at lower risk because we just can’t get that deep. As far as risk goes, the worst that might happen is some transmittal of herpes simplex (HSV-1, or “oral herpes,” can sometimes cause genital herpes), HPV from your vulva to their face, and maybe—maaaaaybe—the tiniest risk of chlamydia or gonorrhea if someone carrying it in their throat literally hocks a loogie into your vagina canal.
The bottom line is you’re probably fine but should get screened regularly like every sexually active person. Does every six months sound functional for you?
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a straight man in his mid-30s and was a late bloomer, something that stems from a lot of childhood sexual trauma, abandonment, and bullying until I was 18. I lived in a large metropolitan sprawl that is notoriously shallow. I moved to a small town of about 40,000 after high school, and a happy side effect of living in small boring towns was the proliferation of bored people who like to drink and have sex to pass the time. I had no desire to take things slow, and I engaged in as much of this behavior as I could, but drugs, alcohol, and low self-esteem fueled a lot of it. I’ve only had one serious relationship that was marred by addiction on both ends and was not healthy.
It took quite a long time being alone to deal with these issues, and now that I finally have some self-worth, I’m ready to try to find a long-term partner, My problem is that my instinct to have one-night stands and pick up women only for sex seems to be a reflex I can’t shake, and this is a problem because ALL of my female friends and acquaintances have been on the receiving end. Most of the time, they initiate, because I have a natural ability at gaining trust and because I legitimately love and care about people. I’m often seen as a protector, but they screw me and then have no desire to date, and they usually end up having children and getting married right after our escapades. I’m still friends with all these women, and I’ve managed not to ruin the bonds we share. A lot of this rejection was my fault because of how insecure and emotionally clingy I was—they often told me they had feelings for me and I couldn’t play it cool.
Well, it keeps happening. I work in a job that keeps me on the road, and I can’t continue therapy, and trying to start and maintain a relationship when you’re only home a week out of the month makes it difficult for women to see me as anything more than a booty call. I get urges like everyone else, and I have a lot of female friends, and when we catch up: bam. I know most men won’t complain about this, but it makes me feel like this is what I’m destined to be. I’ve set personal boundaries in the past, but I’m really bad at balancing, and it has to be all or nothing. If I like someone, I have to give her the impression I don’t have any feelings, because if I try to broach the subject, I end up practically proposing marriage. Are there any books or any advice you can give or a direction you could steer me toward so I can learn how to actually build a relationship in a healthy way that isn’t predicated on sex? I’m a very open person and I value honesty, even when it means oversharing and potentially ruining my chances. Honesty has not been the best policy, and my boundary-setting keeps me alone.
I’m curious about whether this all-or-nothing approach appears in the rest of your life. Maybe you have issues with nuance in other areas as well. Maybe you don’t. Either way, we can work with that.
If you do have all-in-or-not-at-all problems in other aspects of your life, you can work on it in less combustible conditions than sexuality. If you don’t, you can look for the differences between how you handle other things and how you handle relationships.
Another thing you can do is practice middle-ground statements. For instance, “I like you” or “I find your company relaxing.” There are definitely ways to express what you’re feeling without jumping to marriage levels of commitment. Take some time after each hangout to check in with yourself and observe your feelings. Note the positive ones, and use them—to form compliments or positive responses to the time you share—in future interactions. Make sure you give yourself time to process and think about what you actually mean.
A hard truth here is that you may not be able to build the kind of meaningful relationship you seek while you’re traveling constantly. Stability requires stability, as it were. But you absolutely can build healthy, happy relationships with people. Think about what you want, what you can fit into your life, and what the overlap there is. You might consider asking one of your favorite sexual partners whether she’s interested in something like texting in between liaisons with an eye toward mutual emotional support and long-distance companionship. Then use those middle-ground statements to keep things at an appropriate level. It might take a while for you to find an arrangement that fits your life, so try not to get frustrated if it doesn’t happen immediately.
And remember, you have agency in these situations. You can say no, even when you’ve already said yes in the past. You don’t have to keep letting “bam” happen.
Dear How to Do It,
I am a 23-year-old woman who has been in a relationship with another woman for two years. She is the only person I’ve ever had sex with. I almost never feel anything during sex. My body reacts—I look and sound enthusiastic and I never fake anything—but I don’t feel pleasure. And if I start to, I freak out and shut down. I always make my girlfriend stop if I think I’m getting close to orgasm. One of the last times I got close, I just started hyperventilating. I can’t tell if I’m asexual and in denial or if there’s something deeper going on. I don’t have any reasons for having hang-ups—I wasn’t raised religious and I don’t have any trauma on this front. (Sometimes I wonder if I repressed memories or something.) We went through a dry spell for a few months because of some of her personal issues, and I found myself a little annoyed with her because I felt that we had been so close to a breakthrough, only for me to be hung out to dry. There are things I like about sex: foreplay, the intimacy, her intensity. I get turned on, and I have fantasies. The sessions we had last time I visited (I’m still in college; she graduated) were incredible and the closest I’ve ever gotten to feeling like I was having “normal” sex. But after two years of being sexually active, I still haven’t felt the things I’ve been told I would feel, and I’m both desperate to feel these things and terrified of them. I’ve tried multiple vibrators and strap-ons. Sex is better than masturbation, and when I masturbate, I build myself up and then it feels like someone turned a button to turn me off and I’m unable to go further despite my frustration. I turned my vibrator up as high as it would go today and when I felt a second of pleasure, I got scared and just wished my girlfriend were with me to help ease me through it. Is there any hope for my sex life or do I just not like sex?
Orgasms can be powerful, and they can feel scary. There’s a reason we call it the little death. There’s a loss of control that almost always happens. There doesn’t have to be any deeper reason to feel fear or panic leading up to one, especially for the first time.
I want to know specifically whether you’ve tried the Magic Wand (formerly known as Hitachi), or any of the various brands with a small mouth that goes around the clitoris. (Disclosure: One such company pays me to do advertising on social media for it.) Vibrators can be fun, but both of these are a whole other level. Try penetration with vibration too, if you haven’t yet.
Ask your girlfriend to help you through it. Go to her and tell her that the last time you felt pleasure you wished she’d been there. Ask her to hold your hand through the process of submitting to the body’s responses and allowing pleasure to happen. Ask her to be there for what occurs.
Whatever combination of girlfriend and pleasure implements you go with, give yourself permission to bail out as many times as you need to. Not all women orgasm. There doesn’t need to be any pressure on you to perform.
More How to Do It
It recently got out that someone at work did porn when he was younger. This porn does not line up with his apparent orientation (he’s married to a woman). We’re a small workplace, so this got around quickly. I worry about how this is going to affect him at work. At one point, I caught a couple co-workers sharing an image from one of the videos and joking about it. The thing is, I don’t think he has any idea that people know. Should I tell him?