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,
I (35, male) started dating someone (33, female) recently that I’ve really enjoyed connecting with and have found a higher level of chemistry with than anyone else I’ve dated. It’s exciting and has given me a chance to imagine a stable future with someone, something I’ve struggled to imagine in the past. But there’s something else that’s new for me this year that complicates things: I’ve started seeing sex workers.
To be clear, I’ve attempted to pursue it in the most ethical manner possible, being careful to consider everyone’s safety and consent. The moral issue of sex buying is a serious one for me, but one that I’ve ultimately come to believe can be ethical in the right context. What ultimately drove me to go in this direction is the desire to have good sex without judgment or pressure and in a way that doesn’t involve random hookups via dating apps.
But to most of the people in my life and our society, this comes with an incredible amount of stigma. It just doesn’t seem plausible to me that she’d be accepting of this part of my recent past, let alone my or our future. Our sexual chemistry isn’t terrible, but it isn’t as strong as I’d like nor as strong as the nonsexual chemistry we have. This has left me torn and wondering how I can bridge the two desires to have a stable, fulfilling relationship with an exciting, expressive sex life. If there’s anything I’d want my new partner to understand, it’s that I believe seeing a sex worker can make me a better partner. Not unlike seeing a therapist, seeing a sex worker allows me to focus on myself for that moment and it alleviates the expectation that my girlfriend be or do things she’s simply not comfortable with or good at. Getting certain sexual needs taken care of elsewhere would allow me to better focus my attention and invest in our relationship.
Am I crazy? Is this simply me trying to have my cake and eat it too? Or do I need to drop my fear of judgment, stand up for what I believe is true, communicate all of this to my partner, and see how it plays out? My inner voice says to do the latter, but everything I know about our culture says the former is how she’ll react.
Dear Side Hustle,
If I have this right, you started seeing sex workers, then you started dating someone and stopped seeing sex workers, and now you want to do both. If this is true, all of your rationalizing about the good this will do for your relationship is just theoretical. If you don’t have practical experience that illustrates the precise effect that you speak of, you’re just concocting a tale. I advise you to cram it. For as fortifying as this outside sex may be to your relationship, if it’s a direct cause of its demise (a distinct possibility, you realize), it will turn out not to be so useful after all. And then you will be wrong, not just in theory but in practice.
If in fact I have the timeline incorrect and you’ve been seeing sex workers while dating this woman, you’ve been cheating on her, assuming you’ve agreed to be exclusive. That does not bode well for the shared stability of your future.
You’re right that given our culture’s prioritizing of monogamy and stigmatizing of sex work, convincing any partner that you should be able to have paid sex on the side is going to be like swimming upstream uphill. Unless you meet via a nonmonogamous community or nonmonogamous intentions are stated upfront and essentially written into your union, relationships tend to morph over time into an open arrangement. It’s rare to hear that being sprung on someone and the other person being game, especially within the first year of a relationship. Ideally, you would focus on your new partner for a period of time and then (after a year or two or five), look into opening things. But if being a patron of sex work is simply etched onto your identity now to the extent that you will not be satisfied without practicing it regularly, you should tell her this as soon as possible so that she can make an informed decision about her future and whether that’s the kind of partner that she wants in it. With no mental gymnastics or rationalization, that is something you can do for her and not you.
Dear How to Do It,
My boyfriend “Mark” and I have been together for over a year after meeting at a show and falling in love. It’s a long-distance relationship (we live in two different big cities, but see each other once or twice a month in my city or his, or he’ll plan us a rendezvous somewhere else entirely), and I feel like I’m going to lose my mind if I don’t get some perspective on something.
I love Mark truly, deeply—meeting him has been such an incredible change in my life. I love so much to wake up to see he’s texted; I love knowing he’s thinking of me; I love talking to him and making him laugh. Sexually, I love being with him too—he’s in great shape, attractive, all that. He’s 20 years older than I am. (I’m in my 30s.) My 20s were a hideously unhappy time—lots of drinking, lots of insecurity both financial and mental, giving myself to older men for money and … yeah. It’s been a long road. I’ve been sober nearly 10 years now, largely independent, but things are still a little precarious. Therapy when I can afford it. But what’s really started to weigh on me is something seems wrong sexually. I’ve only ever had an orgasm once with Mark. In fact, when I bottom for him, I’m rarely hard at all. Erections for me are tough to maintain with him—I don’t know if it’s a pressure thing, or a self-sabotage thing, but it’s this negative feedback loop that I can’t get out of. He always comes when we’re together, and it’s my absolute favorite; I love making him come more than almost anything. But he wants to reciprocate, and not only do I not care if I come or not, but I am not usually hard for it to even be an option. He worries I am not attracted to him, or that I don’t love him. FWIW, when I’m with some rando for a hookup, I’m hard. Boom. No problems. I come just as soon as I’m ready.
I feel like I’ve got a great big ol’ floppy albatross around my neck. I love Mark more than I can easily say, but I’m terrified that I make him feel unwanted. What’s your take on this? Should I try something different, do something different? How can I thread this needle?
—Come Again Soon
Dear Come Again Soon,
A lot could be going on here. It could be as simple as psychology bringing you down. You said it well: “negative feedback loop.” Anxiety is a great boner killer, especially when that anxiety is a direct result of killed boners. Try some E.D. meds and/or a cock ring and see if you can get yourself over the hump and back to humping.
This could also just be a product of chemistry, which isn’t to say that your chemistry with Mark is bad, just different than that which you experience with strangers. I’ve heard guys talking about difficulties they have performing in committed sex versus the casual variety. Clearly, the former has higher stakes than the latter. But also our response can range from partner to partner—this is crystal clear to me, a vers guy whose appetite for particular sex acts and roles changes seemingly with the weather. Because you like doing something with one doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll enjoy it with another, and this may just come down to the ineffable nature of sexual dynamics. Maybe you’re such a sub bottom with Mark that your dick doesn’t even get hard. Certainly, there are plenty of bottoms whose tumescence is immaterial to their love of getting railed.
If/then thinking can only go so far to explain sexual response. There’s too much variation to apply a hard set of rules to everyone. Your softness is bigger than the rigidity of “how things should be,” and making him come is one of your favorite things in the world. Your body and brain are telling you who you are. This isn’t your problem; it’s Mark’s. He needs to trust you and accept that there are infinite routes to gratification, and he happens to be in love with someone whose is a bit off the beaten path. Continue to show him how much you love giving him pleasure. Make that pleasure which you derive from his unmistakable, and he may finally get it.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a 22-year-old female graduate student, and I’ve been in a nearly two-year long-term relationship with my partner (23, male) that has seen us graduate from our B.A.s, move to another country, and start M.A. programs together. We have lived together for a total of about a year with some breaks during the summers when one of us had to go home. Until this September, we used to have regular and very enthusiastic sex, and both had high sex drives. But now, since we’ve both started grad school, I just can’t bring myself to have sex most days and weeks. I am constantly exhausted and going through some serious mental health troubles because of my fears about the future, and as a result we only have sex about once every three to four weeks. I love him with all my heart, and I’m still deeply attracted to him—that hasn’t changed. I know this decrease in sex is disappointing to him, even though he’s very understanding and supportive of me and we are very good at communicating about our mental health and the things we’re facing. I’m disappointing myself too—I miss being spontaneous and sexy and able to just pounce on him, and I feel like I’ve lost a part of myself by losing interest in sex so young. Whenever we do have sex, it’s amazing. I just have to psych myself up for it, and it feels like I really have to put effort into wanting it, rather than simply … getting horny. I still masturbate from time to time, but it’s never sexy, it’s always just for the physical release.
I’m still young, and I know that given my line of work I am likely going to be very stressed for a very long time, and will always have money problems, and will always be tired because of long days. How do I make sure this lack of sex drive doesn’t become a lifelong characteristic of mine? I miss having sex and part of me wants to, but that part of me feels like its overshadowed by a bigger part of me that just wants to sleep. Do you have any tips to get more excited, be less tired and stressed, and recommit to my sex life?
—Master of Worrying
Dear Master of Worrying,
The anxiety in your letter is so palpable that I think I have an ulcer now after reading it. You can’t predict the future, so you don’t know that you’re going to be very stressed for a very long time, and will always have money problems, and will always be tired because of long days. And while I admire the sense of civic duty that I’m assume has driven you to sentence yourself to a stressful, underpaid, overworked life, my God, you’re 22. You do know that it’s not nearly too late for you to choose another life path, right?
Regardless, because your brain is still developing, there is a good likelihood that you will acclimate to the life you’ve taken on. Right now, it all seems big and scary, but most people learn to manage their reality, or they alter it so that it becomes manageable.
In the short term, it seems like sex is just something that will require work on your part. It is understandable that you feel the way that you do, as exhaustion and stress can wreak havoc on libidos. There’s nothing wrong with taking a break while you tend to future building, but if this distresses you, it’s going to require a conscious effort. Keep doing what you do to psych yourself up, and do it more often. You’ll find as you get older, a lot of things that once came naturally require a manual tending-to—fitness, skin elasticity, memory, socializing, etc. Basically, everything good in life. You’re learning a tough lesson early, but that may give you an advantage in preparation. Internalize it.
Dear How to Do It,
I was violently raped in my youth by my high school boyfriend. Despite the fact that the incident involved a weapon, it took me a long time to accept that it was rape and not just unpleasant sex—chalk it up to loneliness and inexperience. Fast forward to a few years ago. My engagement (to a different now-ex) was ending, but we decided to attend an out-of-state family event. He had suggested that we use the event as an occasion to rekindle physically, but because he and I were on terrible terms relating to his drug use and drinking, among other issues, I had made it clear that I was not interested in any sexual contact. On Day 1, he asked to have sex, and I said no. On Day 2, he commented that I should have a drink or two because it’d “set the mood.” I said no and dumped my drink, and made it clear any sex would be nonconsensual on my part. On Day 3, I woke up to his fingers inside of me, with him moaning in my ear. I freaked out and refused to be alone with him for the rest of the trip. Years have passed, but I still think of this often. It wasn’t violent, it wasn’t painful, it didn’t involve someone I hated. But though I felt violated and disgusting, I still can’t decide whether or not it was rape, since it felt so different than the nightmare that was my previous assault. What do I call it, then?
I’m so sorry to hear about what you’ve been through. It is a tragedy that you were taken advantage of and a triumph that you’re still out here surviving. Regarding the latter scenario that you described, you can call it rape because that is what it is. Via the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network: “The term rape is often used as a legal definition to specifically include sexual penetration without consent. For its Uniform Crime Reports, the FBI defines rape as ‘penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.’ ” You were raped. Rape needn’t conform to a single narrative to be rape. It comes in many different forms. If you haven’t received counseling, it will almost certainly be beneficial in your healing process. You can also contact RAINN at 800-656-HOPE for immediate support. They offer a range of free services, including someone who can talk you through what happened to you and refer you to more formal counseling in your immediate area. I recommend it. Stay strong.
More How to Do It
I’ve recently become official with a guy I’ve been with for a few months (hetero, in our 20s). He’s a little bro-y, you could say—he was in a frat, his friends are mostly loud men, he likes beer and football on the weekends, and so on. And there’s one thing that keeps getting to me: He often says things about other women that are crude at best and misogynistic at worst. He’s made comments about an overweight woman eating fries at a bar; he called a friend of mine a slut (a word she’d happily use for herself, but he did not say it that way); he made a weird joke speculating about how two lesbians we know have sex. Every time he does this, I shut it down, and he apologizes. But I wonder if I’m too easy on him because I want to be with him, and he doesn’t treat me this way. What do you think?