How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Have a question? Send it to Stoya and Rich here. It’s anonymous.
Every week, the crew responds to a bonus question in chat form.
Dear How to Do It,
I raped my girlfriend.
Some background: My girlfriend and I were high school sweethearts. We have been together for 12 years and were each other’s first sexual partners. Five years ago, she cheated on me with a friend about whom I had expressed discomfort with her hanging out with because she snuck around to hang out with him. I did not hear about this until last year. A year after she cheated, he had completely tossed her aside, and he was moving across the country as she and I were preparing to move in together to be closer to her graduate school. She was withdrawing and pulling away from me; I was stressed and I angrily pressured her to have sex with me more often. I raped my girlfriend. I did not threaten her with a weapon of any kind, I did not physically force myself on her, and she verbally gave consent, but it was still rape because she did not want to have sex—I just did not know it at the time.
Once we were moved in together and all settled, things drastically improved. We were a happy, loving couple, and we had somewhat regular sex. Her libido always seemed to be lower than mine, so we developed strategies for her to reject me without the pressure of upsetting me. This continued until this past summer, when she was doing some self-improvement work and she put some pieces together. Every time we had sex after I raped her, she was essentially performing for me; though I wanted the feelings to be genuine, the trauma I caused did not allow her to feel that her actions were her own choices. She always had fun, she always orgasmed, and she would initiate sex, but she never felt that she had agency of her own body.
When she shared her revelation with me, I was overcome with shame. Though I can explain the feelings behind my actions, there is no excuse for them. It has been almost five months since we last had sex. We are both going to our own therapists to work through the trauma we have caused each other. Or at least that is what I thought. I found out that she has been using the time to work on more petty issues, like general anxiety at work and the stress she has been feeling with our recent move. Her therapist has not even been made aware of the trauma I caused and the sexual issues resulting from it. On top of that, my girlfriend has seemed happier now that sex is completely off the table. I can always masturbate to fulfill my needs, but it seems empty, hollow, and lonely. The only physical intimacy we have experienced this whole time is limited to her lying on me while we stream TV shows.
I don’t feel that I can bring up my concerns for fear of being seen as the sex-hungry rapist that I was. The frustration of this is leading me to become angry and resentful, which then leads to shame and guilt at my own past actions and current feelings. I am deeply ashamed of my own actions. I have tried to provide a safe place for healing and growth, and I have paid attention to her needs, feelings, and boundaries. However, I do not feel that I am being respected. What can I do? I’m struggling every day with the maelstrom of feelings that I am a despicable creature, the heart-wrenching yearn for touch, the resentful feeling of neglect, and the shame associated with all of the above. How do I broach the topic of my own needs and struggles without coming across as a pig in man’s clothes? How do I give my girlfriend the things she needs to heal without badgering her and making it seem that I’m trying to get her to speed her healing up so we can have sex again?
Stoya: This one is a doozy. I’m glad we’re handling it together.
Rich: Me too. For as much information he provides, I wish we had more. I want to know exactly what this looked like: “I was stressed and angrily pressured her to have sex with me more often.”
Stoya: Exactly. Given his opener, I feel like it’s fair to make some assumptions. I’m irritated by his self-flagellation.
Rich: I don’t quite know how to take it. He spends too much time on that and not enough disclosing what exactly he did.
Rich: Here’s what I think about the “pressured” line: I can’t tell if he’s describing coercion, which he very well could be, or if he’s so wracked with guilt that he’s distorting things. Voicing frustration about misaligned libidos in a monogamous relationship is not necessarily coercion.
Stoya: I had a similar take during my second read, but then I decided that if a man is admitting to rape, we should probably just believe him.
Rich: You know, that’s fair. If she’s traumatized, and he’s not contesting her experience, the granular details are beside the point anyway.
Stoya: I can definitely say something about her relationship with her therapist. Admitting to having been raped carries stigma. It takes time to build a relationship with a therapist, and it is utterly reasonable to want to work on issues that seem smaller first to establish rapport with the mental health professional. Furthermore, that’s between her and her therapist. He doesn’t get to say what she should or shouldn’t be working on in therapy.
Rich: I totally agree—it’s an individual process. Strange that he’d include that info, and also the bit about her cheating on him, when it seems that he forgave her and moved forward with the relationship. I can’t really make sense of how that information is useful other than to … I don’t know, paint her as fallible? On one hand, he’s so shameful it’s cartoonish, but then it almost seems petulant to include these details. “See? She’s not perfect either!”
Stoya: It’s almost like he was trying to say, “She hurt me too,” like that makes it OK. Spoiler, it doesn’t.
Rich: He’s never going to make progress with a tit-for-tat attitude.
Stoya: And nothing justifies sexual coercion.
Rich: If you’re sorry, you’re sorry without condition. The person you offended against is inevitably imperfect too. That goes without saying.
Stoya: “How do I breach the topic of my own needs and struggles without coming across as a pig in man’s clothes?” gives me pause as well. He seems more concerned about appearance than contrition.
Rich: Yeah. Isn’t the question how to do this without causing her more damage?
Stoya: Yep. That’s certainly what I’d prefer to be seeing here. And again, “without making it seem that I’m trying to get her to speed her healing up so we can have sex again?” Still the wrong question. I want to give him the angry answer.
Rich: Go for it!
Stoya: Forgiveness isn’t owed to you. She may never be able to stand your touch again, no matter how much you perform self-flagellation. You may not be allowed to be part of her healing. Your continued presence in her life is a gift, and it seems like you’re blowing it. These are the consequences of your actions. You can’t make this right any more than it was right to make her have sex with you. Accept that you can’t control her healing and learn to live with that. I don’t want male tears; I want better male behavior. And this guy, for all his self-deprecation, isn’t showing me better behavior.
Rich: The relationship may be doomed. Recovering from something like that is such a huge task. I agree that he doesn’t seem to be doing the work. Why aren’t they in therapy together? You know, it’s generally not a great sign when the absence of sex comes as a relief to one partner.
Stoya: Why isn’t he asking his therapist how to deal with his guilt?
Rich: Right, we hear about her therapy, but what about his? I mean, this smacks of control issues.
Stoya: And, like, he doesn’t feel respected? IT IS COMPLETELY REASONABLE NOT TO RESPECT HIM! (Wow, still angry.)
Rich: So, a huge factor here is that they live together, which makes breaking up infinitely more difficult. She could very well just be biding her time because of economic strain, for example, and has no plans to repair anything. Maybe she’s saving up to move out.
Stoya: It’s possible. It’s also possible that she doesn’t have any plan other than immediate survival.
Rich: It’s so over the top that I wondered initially if he was somehow being gaslit. But I do think your read on the rape question is right—this is just so extra. I think the only course of action for him is to stop and wait for her. They can only make progress when she is ready to. He just has to sit on his hands and jerk off with his loneliness.
Stoya: He could look into restorative processes, but mostly I want to do some expectation management. This might take years to recover from. Like maybe five years or more. If ever. I tried to find a rapist to consult with about how our writer might process his feelings of shame and guilt. Asking around over the past few days didn’t get me anywhere.
Rich: Well, look, you tried. Bold in itself.
Stoya: So the best advice I have for that is for our writer to be brutally honest with his therapist. If his therapist can’t handle it, find one who specializes in anti-social behavior. Mostly, I want him to know that he isn’t uniquely monstrous. People have coerced others into sex countless times throughout history. We’ve all done things we regret, and we all have to live with the ramifications of our actions. If he can be brutally honest with a qualified therapist, I believe our writer can get to the core of why he did this, grow, and never do it again.
More How to Do It
Last night, I went on a date someone who I had met somewhat spontaneously a week or so ago. We were having a really great time—natural conversation, very similar interests, just a good vibe. I don’t normally click with people this easily, and I was so glad our connection didn’t start on an app, so I followed the mood a little more than I might have otherwise and went back to his place. We slept together, and it lived up to the rest of the night. But in the afterglow, he casually let it drop that he’s dating someone seriously, but they’re open. I felt extremely betrayed, like he got me in bed under false pretenses. I left, and he texted later and said he hadn’t meant to mislead me. But he did, didn’t he?