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 am a straight woman in my late 20s dating a man of the same age. My boyfriend told me he was asexual when I met him. I am not, but that was never a problem; he is OK with hand stuff and receiving oral sex, and we have had a satisfying relationship for more than three years. Recently, we have begun having penetrative sex at his suggestion. Personally, I am thrilled. I had never hoped to change him or try to suggest penetrative sex, but I do really enjoy it and am happy that we can bring it into our relationship. I have been trying to have more conversations about it just to make sure he is comfortable with this shift, but he does not really want to have them after sex or in the daylight at all. He seems to be having an OK time with it (he enjoys himself during the act and continues to initiate it), but he does not want to talk with me explicitly about how he currently identifies. How can I best support him in what seems to be a transitional period regarding sex and sexual ID?
This is not my wheelhouse, so I called in Cyndi Darnell, sex and relationship therapist and friend of the column, for some expert advice. Here’s what she had to say about what you can expect from your partner:
How your partner identifies is important and how he participates in sex may be influenced and determined by his identity too. Similarly, your sexual and emotional needs are important and require care and attention also. He may not want to discuss his identity with you which, while frustrating for you, is his private business. However, if he is having sexual interactions with you and you want to talk about that, he needs to recognize that having frank and honest discussions about sex and its effect on your relationship is an important part of any mature adult intimate relationship. Talking about sex—when you’re not in the middle of doing it—is crucial to keeping tabs on how it’s going.
His identity is not a get-out-of-jail-free card to avoid having conversations he may find challenging. People of all orientations and identities are obliged to nourish their relationships by participating in communication and care. Discussing sex is a crucial part of having a rich erotic relationship whether you’re having intercourse or only giving each other oral and hand jobs. Whether he’s experiencing an erotic transition or morphing into demisexuality rather than strictly asexuality, it may be as bewildering to him as it is to you.
To help you get a little clearer, I invite you to consider what exactly you’d like to know about his identity, especially given that he’s initiating sex, and, as you say, appears happy about it. Are you simply trying to connect with him, or is there more you would like to know to help you understand the relationship further? Perhaps if you guided him around your communication motivation, he may be a little more open to it. Or perhaps talking about sex squicks him out, in which case now is a great time for him to learn to practice stepping up and doing it differently.
To summarize, you’re going to have to talk about (some of) it.
Dear How to Do It,
Woman in her 40s here.
Do vibrators decrease sensitivity to pleasuring with fingering? I learned to masturbate in my mid-20s and initially just used my fingers and porn. I never had a vaginal orgasm, although I do very much enjoy vaginal intercourse. My first masturbation orgasm opened a whole new world for me. Then I discovered vibrators, and instead of 10 to 15 minutes for me to orgasm, it was two to five minutes for the most part—sometimes longer, but rarely more than 10 minutes.
I never orgasmed from fingering from a partner until my current spouse, and while it took a while, it still happened maybe every second or third time. I loved it. Then we had kids, and no one has the energy for loooong sex sessions anymore, so it was easier for me to just use the vibrator after (together) or on my own. Some years went by, and we now have a bit more time occasionally, and he’s put some real effort into masturbating me, but has not been able to get me to orgasm again. I’ve come close, but then I always get anxious about how long it’s taking, and whether he’s tired already, and I “lose” it.
One thing I’ve wondered about is whether my use of vibrators has “dulled” things, making me less sensitive? I can no longer finger myself to an orgasm anymore either, nor do I have the patience or energy, frankly, when a vibrator will do the job in two to three minutes. I do use a very strong vibrator and like it that way. My spouse is OK with me using it after to “finish up,” but I do miss orgasming from his fingering. Do I need to suck it up, stop using a vibrator, and learn how to masturbate with my own fingers again to regain it? Do vibrators make a difference to sensitivity and that is indeed the issue, or is that a myth?
Is it all in my head, and it’s my anxiety about me taking too long to orgasm with his fingering that is stopping me from reaching orgasm? Is it possible to orgasm from someone else’s fingering, when I can’t even do it for myself anymore? Your insights on this will be greatly appreciated.
—Can’t Put My Finger on It
Dear Can’t Put My Finger on It,
The body can absolutely become accustomed to a certain kind of stimulation. Yes, that includes vibrators. Take a break from the vibe for a few weeks and see what your sensory input is like after you’ve had some time off.
Another factor here is that sexuality shifts over the course of our lives. What you liked in your 30s and what you like in your 40s may be two different things. You might need different pressure or technique than you needed before you had kids.
You can experiment by yourself or with your husband. The goal here is to try all the things and find out what works now. Start with broad pressure (rest your palm on the pubic mound and apply gentle pressure to the vulva with your flat fingers). Move into strokes around the clitoris and clitoral hood. Work directly with the clitoral glans. Pay attention to the bottom of the labia and the crease between inner and outer labia. Follow what feels good. You’ve got this.
Dear How to Do It,
My husband and I are straight and have been poly for a couple years, and it’s working out really nicely for us. We’re fantastic, loving partners and parents together but aren’t sexually compatible, so I initiated the change to poly. We’re both stable, long-term-relationship kind of people. We both spend about the same amount of time with secondary partners, but he spreads his time among a few regular secondary partners and I prefer to have a single secondary partner. My secondary for the last year has been a man with a primary partner, and it’s been great. I don’t know his primary well, but my partner did a good job of balancing both. I felt cared for. We recently broke up, sadly but amicably, because he needed to focus more on his primary relationship.
While I’m not ready to date again just yet, it has me thinking about what’s next. If I could order up my perfect secondary, I’d like a single (divorced, widowed, whatever) man for whom I am the only one. I’m thinking someone who has a fulfilling independent life and/or busy enough schedule that a married woman he sees a couple nights a week fits. Someone with long-term potential who lived on his own but was maybe part of our family dynamic and who my kids saw as a family friend.
I’ve dated two single men before, and one wanted more of my time than I could give. The other one actually fit that ideal profile and it worked well for a while, but we broke up for unrelated reasons. I’m trying to decide if this is a realistic thing for me to seek. Are there men this might appeal to? I mean, I found one. Surely there are others? Or is it “un-poly” of me to want a secondary partner who sees only me, and I should be unpacking my reasons for wanting this? Am I really a monogamous person making do, and is that bad?
Dear Single Secondary,
I’d like us to take a minute to separate “poly” from individual needs and desires. Yes, there’s a poly community that does things in certain ways. Yes, there are a few books about poly relationships that seem to dictate how “poly” should be done. At the end of the day, though, different relationship structures should be about getting people’s needs met in ways that work for everyone involved.
So let go of any pressure you might be feeling to do poly “right.” As long as everyone involved is happy, I think everything is fine.
I do think you should unpack your reasons for wanting the arrangement you desire—for your own sake, and for that of your partners. The more you understand about what you want, the better you’ll be able to communicate that to your potential partners.
Remember this whole mono/poly thing is a spectrum. A forked spectrum. Complete monogamy is on one end, and the other end forks at ethical nonmonogamy into polyamory and relationship anarchy. The top fork is about structure and the bottom fork is about, well, not structure. You might be a 0.5 on the mono-poly scale. You might be a 1. Some people are in a relationship anarchy zone that requires the one word I promised my editor I wouldn’t use in this column: polyfuckery.
I do want to caution you that it’s unlikely you’ll find someone who wants to be a monogamous secondary for an extended period of time. Then again, the universe might surprise us both. Good luck out there.
Dear How to Do It,
My husband (of 13 years) says his preferred frequency is sex three times a week. I could go three months without thinking about sex. What do we do? If you’re going to say I should spend more time with my body by masturbating or using toys or porn or flirtatious texting—we have tried it all. Our sexual incompatibility remains the source of greatest tension in our relationship.
—Tale As Old As Time
Dear Tale As Old As Time,
Have you considered opening up the relationship? It isn’t necessarily going to be easy, but it would allow you to have sex on your own schedule while knowing your partner’s needs are getting met.
You might find Emily Nagoski’s Come As You Are useful, too. It talks a lot about different arousal styles and how partners can use that knowledge to help their lover’s engine get started.
Either way, remember that you love each other and communicate to the best of your ability.
More How to Do It
I’m dating a new man. When we became intimate, I was pleasantly surprised that he was very well-endowed (about 8 inches). The sex is solid and getting better, but I’ve noticed his erections are not particularly, well, erect—he’s definitely hard and penetration isn’t a problem, but he’s not rock-hard like many men I’ve been with in the past. I raise this question because it reminded me that another very well-endowed man I was with in the past also had this issue; he’d be hard, but he was never going to cut a diamond. Is this common? Is there just not enough blood to power the biggest guys?