How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Have a question? Send it to Stoya and Rich here. It’s anonymous!
Dear How to Do It,
My husband “Matt” and I have been married for just more than eight months. We recently took a weekend trip with a group of college friends for another wedding. After one too many drinks, a friend began to reminisce about how Matt and his best friend “Will” (who is gay) would get drunk and have regular sexual encounters—both during and for years after college. Up until this point, I had absolutely no idea about this; everyone else in the group seemed to know except for me. In fact, another friend asked, “How did you not know?” When I asked Matt about it, he confirmed and said that he can’t remember exactly when it ended.
Do I have the right to be upset that my husband chose to keep this from his me, his wife? We have an extremely open and honest relationship. I have told him about all of my past relationships. I always thought I could expect the same. Does he not trust me? I am now wondering what else he is hiding from me and exactly “when” this sexual relationship stopped, or dare I say, if it has stopped at all.
Stoya: I want to validate this woman’s surprise first. It can be really surprising to learn something about your partner from their friends. They had a whole life before you, and we don’t necessarily keep that at the forefront of our minds. Regardless of whether we’re talking sexual exploits or a talent for headstands.
Rich: Yes. I can even relate a bit.
Stoya: Ooooh! A personal sharing moment.
Rich: My boyfriend recently told me that years ago he hooked up with a mutual friend of ours, a quite unlikely candidate. He hadn’t mentioned this previously, and we’ve been together for more than three years. I don’t know if he consciously withheld this information or just never mentioned it, but I think he felt weird about it regardless.
Stoya: Do you have any insight into why he might have felt weird?
Rich: They remained good friends, and it only happened once. The guy is decidedly not his type, and the situation in which it occurred was, while not inappropriate, unusual. I think there was a slight amount of shame on his part. I was shocked! But … that’s life.
Stoya: How did you handle your shock?
Rich: My poker face is pretty dire in general, and I don’t tend to hold back with the person I’m closest to in the world, anyway, so I said, “I cannot believe you have never told me this before.” We talked about it for a few minutes. And then you know—whatever! It’s in the past. It has absolutely nothing to do with me. He’s hooked up with many people before me. I’m not going to start combing through his past experiences to make sure they fit my conception of him.
Stoya: With the letter writer, I’m wondering if the husband considers his relationship with Will to be a different sort of bird than, say, dating someone.
Rich: It is a distinct possibility.
Stoya: I’ll tell all kinds of stories about sexual exploits as they come up, but when asked to describe my past relationships, those interactions don’t pop into my head.
Rich: There’s so much stigma attached to gay sex that it is understandable when people suggest being forthcoming about it, too. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, and yet there’s plenty in our culture to indicate that it, in fact, is. Ideally, people have no shame and are upfront about every aspect of their sexuality, but this is not always (perhaps even rarely) the case in practice.
Stoya: Even her reaction subtly perpetuates stigma, specifically bisexual stigma, with her “Dare I say, if it has stopped at all.” It’s giving me a throwback vibe to the late ’90s when it felt like everyone was telling people to pick a side.
Rich: Yes, this would probably take on a much different tone if she’d found out he had hooked up with a woman he’s now friends with.
Stoya: So she might do well to think about her feelings and assumptions around homosexuality, bisexuality, and identity.
Rich: Yes, but I don’t want to denigrate her feelings. She has a right to them whether they are logical or even toxic. Feelings are feelings.
Stoya: I think she’s reeling from shock.
Rich: For sure. There still exists the idea that if a guy has had sex with one other guy, he must be gay.
Rich: You know, it’s a total ’80s TV show scenario that people apply to their lives.
Stoya: Four years of hookups with one other guy does not a homosexual make. And bisexual people are perfectly capable of committing to a single person of one gender, if he is in fact roughly there in the spectrum. He might even be totally hetero aside from his (presumably beautiful) moments with Will.
Rich: There’s also a potential advantage she’s overlooking. In general, I find bisexual guys to be exceptionally good in bed for sheer open-mindedness alone. There’s a sort of relaxedness toward sex one can take on when he embraces quite varied tastes. Not unlike the gay guys I’ve played with who are fully vers and palpably at peace with it.
Stoya: So maybe some of that open and honest relationship that she values is because of his open-mindedness?
Rich: It’s a distinct possibility.
Stoya: The more I think about it, the more I wonder what time of day this question came in. I imagine our writer sitting at her computer expressing something that has been keeping her up at night, with no filter engaged. I’ve moved from a defensive stance to an empathetic one.
Rich: I empathize with both of them. The forces at work here are bigger than them. And that Matt completely owned up to it when confronted should reaffirm his commitment to open communication. Given her reaction, she could be holding prejudice that she doesn’t even realize, and perhaps revealed something during their relationship that made him think twice about offering information about him and Will freely. (And then her rather shocked reaction tracked.)
Stoya: He might have been reacting the same way I reacted at first and felt like he wasn’t entirely safe revealing this part of his sexuality.
Rich: Right. The thing here is to use this as an opportunity for her to affirm to him that she accepts him for who he is today. I would hope that this conversation landed on her reminding him that he can tell her anything. We have no indication of her reaction, but I hope that it was one that fostered more openness and not threatened to shut it down.
Stoya: Even if it was—if she made a mistake—she can still circle back, apologize, and be more accepting moving forward. I suspect she’s coming from a “How can I believe what he says?” stance, and curiosity would be more useful here.
Rich: Right, given that stigma we talked about, past gay activity is in its own class of “things about me that you might not know,” not that it should be. So one could assume reasonably that this is the one thing he kept from her. Who knows if it is, but it’s possible.
Stoya: Totally. If he did keep it a purposeful secret, that’d be understandable, as is her reaction. And even if she did freak out on him … hey, sometimes we have to eat a bowl of our own words without whipped cream on top. Chew thoroughly, and it’ll go down fine.
More How to Do It
I live with my partner of 10 years. He’s a fantastic person and very considerate and giving in bed. So what’s the problem? I desperately want to have sex with other people. Every time we have sex or I masturbate, I think only of other people. Everywhere I go, I get crushes: subway passengers, my bank teller, co-workers, the gamut. I can’t imagine a better partner in life for myself, and I really don’t want to break up over this, but I also know that suggesting we open up the relationship would be devastating. I should have known this was going to be a problem before, because even in the beginning it wasn’t his physical appearance that attracted me to him, but we fell in love anyway and have now built a life together. How do I manage this?