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 girlfriend has decided we’re no longer kissing. We’re in our 30s, we’re both women, we have been together for about 18 months and lived together for about a year of that, and we have been having problems with our relationship since we moved in. Most of it was mental health–related on her part, and she didn’t have a sex drive. She says that has changed, but whenever I try—and I am always the one to initiate—it is awkward and stops right away. I have been trying to get her to talk to me about it, but she refuses, and this results in fights.
The main point problem, however, is that she thinks I am biting her or grating my teeth on her when we make out. I am not doing this consciously, and I have been hyperaware of it to try to stop. This is not something that has ever come up before, and I don’t believe I have changed how I kiss. I love her very much, but sex is very important to me, as is communication, and the way she talks to me about this is very hurtful. I feel like she just isn’t into me anymore, because really, she doesn’t like kissing or touching. She denies this. The only times we’ve had satisfying sex in six months has been when we’re messed up on something. It is crushing my self-esteem. How can I learn to change to fit someone’s needs when they don’t articulate how that looks? Is there a way to reconcile this (besides a therapist, which she won’t do), or is this over?
I’m sorry to say this situation sounds hopeless. I can make guesses about why your girlfriend is behaving this way, but neither of us can know for sure if she can’t open up about what’s going on. You’ve tried to talk about it and ended up with fights. You’ve tried to alter the way you kiss to avoid the teeth issue she reports. She won’t go to therapy. What can you do?
There’s one last thing I can think of for you to try. Start over with kissing. Use all the different ways of kissing that you can muster. Use your lips and tongue. Be extremely cautious of your teeth. Focus on trying new things that your girlfriend might like, and ask her to point out anything that works for her. If there’s any movement, try the same approach for other kinds on intimacy—a reset across the board.
I don’t have much confidence in my recommendation, but I do think it’s worth one last effort before you cut your losses and move on.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a 32-year-old heterosexual woman. I’ve been with my husband for seven years, married for four. He was my first serious relationship, and from the start there have been a few minor but important incompatibilities, notably where intellectual interests are concerned. From the beginning, Hubs and I were skeptical of monogamy, and made a pact that if we ever found ourselves wanting someone outside our marriage, we’d talk about opening things up. The issue didn’t come up until the fall of 2018, when I started a new job and promptly fell hard for a co-worker, “Robert.” We had an immediate connection unlike anything I ever experienced when single. I told my husband right away about my feelings, and as they grew stronger over the months, Hubs basically gave me permission to pursue a romantic or sexual relationship with Robert. Last spring, I brought up the possibility to Robert. He confirmed that he fully reciprocated my romantic and sexual attraction but was too worried about ruining a valuable friendship to introduce sex. Plus, he’s really ready to settle down and doesn’t see polyamory as his preferred form of romantic relationship for the future.
Cut to almost a year later: Robert and I are deeply emotionally intimate, go on amazing “dates” several nights a week, and support each other the way romantic partners would. (He’s still very single, despite actively dating.) It would be a perfect situation for me, because he provides the intellectual compatibility lacking in my marriage, which is stronger than ever as a result of this outside relationship. But there’s one problem: I CANNOT get over how badly I want to sleep with him. I am so horny for him. I have never felt sexual longing for anyone as strongly as I do for Robert. I am so attracted to him it’s distracting. We recently revisited our decision not to have sex, and he reiterated the same concern: If we have sex it will end up ruining our friendship. So my question is twofold: 1) Do you think it would actually ruin our friendship to have sex? We are incredibly good at communicating with each other, and we already navigate a unique emotional relationship. How would sex affect it? 2) Obviously I’m going to respect his “No” and not actively try to change his mind. So how the hell do I move past my sexual attraction bordering on obsession? How do I release that tension without any consummation? I have regular, satisfying sex with my husband, but it doesn’t alleviate any of my desire for Robert. Any ideas?
Dear Frustrated Friend,
Sex has a way of changing things. There’s an alchemical effect. We can’t know what introducing sex into a relationship will do until we do it. But it doesn’t really matter whether having sex would actually ruin your relationship here: Robert is concerned about that possibility, so I’m glad to hear you frame it as obvious that you’ll respect his no.
Get it down in your head that sex with Robert is off the table. Imagine him as a Ken doll below the waist, all smooth mounded plastic with no protrusions or insertable parts. Stop thinking of your outings with Robert as dates—you’re friends, not lovers. You’re having dinner or seeing a movie, not going out with each other.
Robert gives you sexual energy. Sexual energy doesn’t have to mean sex, and even if it does, it doesn’t have to mean sex with that person. Make a habit of banging your husband’s brains out when you need to blow off some sexual steam. You might consider finding something else to channel sexual energy into, like working out or cleaning your kitchen sink. It won’t be going into Robert.
Dear How to Do It,
I was diagnosed as bipolar a few years ago, after meeting and marrying my husband. When we first met, I was extremely hypersexual and into vigorous, intense, often painful sex. Butt slapping, hard thrusting, and hair pulling were all turn-ons, and I was ready to go anytime, anywhere. He really liked that I was into it, and enjoyed more dominant styles of sex. He also has a very large penis.
Now that I am stable and medicated, my tastes have shifted significantly: I don’t like being hurt! And everything hurts! He’s rough, and hard, and (literally) pounds me—to keep his penis from bruising my cervix (or hitting my IUD), I often wrap fingers or a hand around the base so that he doesn’t thrust as far in. When he goes down on me, he goes fast and hard and won’t let up until I physically pull away. (He knows I don’t typically get off that way.) When I’ve tried to bring up my preferences and ask him to change, he gets really offended and upset. It’s gotten to the point where, when we’re going to have sex, I have to gird my loins and often do not enjoy myself, letting out the requisite moans and waiting for the part where I get to get off. The times that sex goes well for me and I feel connected are when we have nonsexual foreplay or romance earlier in the day. He is loving and attentive and tries really hard (no pun intended) to please me, but he doesn’t listen to my (new) needs. How do I communicate with him?
Dear New Me,
“When he goes down on me, he goes fast and hard and won’t let up until I physically pull away. (He knows I don’t typically get off that way.)” This is a huge red flag. Why would you give oral sex in a way you know the recipient doesn’t like?
Another red flag is his reaction when you try to communicate with him. I think you should have a conversation about that before you try to work on the sexual issues. Are there arguments? Is this a pattern with other subjects, like finances or decisions around the home? If there is a deeper issue, you should consider therapy to get outside help on it.
If the communication problems are specific to sex, you’ll still need to have a meta conversation before you dig into the specifics. Is he sensitive about his masculinity? Is he confused by the change in your sexuality and experiencing a bit of mental whiplash? I imagine it took you a bit to figure out what was happening and begin communicating about it, and neither of you could have guessed the extremity of the change until it already happened, so he might be struggling to keep up. Talk about what’s going on that could be making it hard for him to hear critique.
When you’re ready to dive in, start with the headline: “My sexuality has changed drastically,” or however you’d like to phrase it. Follow with something that acknowledges the team nature of the situation, like “I’d like to explore what works for me now, together.” Or “Can we experiment with softer, more gentle sex?” If he changes, give him loads of positive reinforcement when he touches you in ways you like.
He might not change, or he might be unable to have a calm conversation about sexuality with you at all. Prepare for that possibility, and be ready to cut your losses if needed. What you describe can’t continue.
Dear How to Do It,
Because of a congenital defect with my urethra, I’ve undergone five surgeries that have left my private parts—primarily, my penis—looking pretty rough. In fact, in my crueler but still objective moments, I’m more inclined to say downright repulsive. For this reason, I’m deeply insecure of being naked and having sex.
That said, I want to have sex and, even more so, be in a long-term, sexually intimate relationship. Roughly 95 percent of the time, I operate under the belief system that I’m not worthy of either, and I chalk these beliefs up to the heinous appearance of my penis. The other 5-ish percent of the time, I can cast these thoughts aside, make myself believe that there may be some guy out there who doesn’t care, and dive into the dating pool, though reservations almost always creep in and foil this. These forays into dating occur less and less these days, but in my 20s, I gave it a shot at least every six months or so. In the few times I’ve had undressed sex, it’s always been outside the context of a developing long-term relationship, and with a jockstrap. It feels easier to convince someone (and myself) that I’m doable for a one-time thing. In light of my predicament, I’ll be honest that I’m grateful that I’ve always been inclined to bottoming; I have never felt a desire to top or to receive oral sex on my penis. Given my fixation on my physical inadequacy, I can’t fathom what it would mean for me if I desired those things with my current equipment. I do not believe that my desire to bottom comes from the fact my penis looks the way it does. I think my sexuality, at least in this fundamental respect, emerged long before my surgeries.
So, from time to time, I can psych myself up just enough to believe that it really doesn’t matter to some guys that my penis is fugly. I have other physical assets that could be enough to make them happy. But for the 5 percent of the time that I can make myself believe this, I’m still stumped. When am I supposed to tell someone? Is there a wrong time to tell someone? Some friends have cautioned oversharing on first dates (let alone a dating profile), but it feels unfair to make someone wait through, say, six dates while we get to know each other and emotionally invest, and they patiently await sex, only then to reveal that my penis might be very disappointing. That moment is devastating.
I’m not writing to ask for your permission to date, or to feel worthy. I know that has to come from within, and I know I have work to do on that. But if and when that time comes, or maybe even in the meantime, for those moments I do feel like vulnerability is doable, how do I communicate this information about myself to someone else I’m dating in a way that’s fair to him and to me?
I look forward to the day you feel worthy of physical human connection. Or, rather, I look forward to those periods increasing into days and weeks at a stretch. You’ll get there.
Meanwhile, the disclosure should be tailored to the venue. If you’re on Grindr and just looking for sex, be upfront—“I’ve got a unique-looking penis.” How you steer that around to scheduling sex is up to you. On a site like OKCupid, you’ll want to feel the person out and disclose when things might become physical. If you’re with someone you met out in the world or were introduced to, the third date seems like a good time to bring up sexual specifics. If things are moving fast, you can always bring it up earlier. If the relationship is more tentative, it’s OK to wait another couple of dates.
Have a succinct explanation ready. Write it down. Try to use a less loaded descriptor than fugly. Say your penis has scars from surgery for a congenital defect—everything’s fine now, but it has an unusual appearance. Edit it to be as neutral as possible, and focus on what people need to know—is there associated pain, or something they shouldn’t do? Now memorize it and practice in the mirror. When you’re explaining to people, speak slowly so they have time to process what you’re saying.
You absolutely will run into people who are jerks about it. We all run into jerks. I’m sorry in advance. But I promise that there are men out there who won’t care what your penis looks like as much as they care about you.
More How to Do It
I’m a 35-year-old married mother of two small children, and I’ve never had good sex. I do not have orgasms from intercourse alone, which I have gathered is not unusual. None of the men I was with when I was single in my 20s were interested in learning about the clitoris. Neither is my husband. I used to think that women who cheated were being ridiculous because the only thing I’ve ever gotten out of sex is ego gratification. Why risk the stability of your marriage and family for something as ephemeral as that?
Recently I’ve begun to think that this may not be all straight women’s experience of sex, and maybe some straight women cheat because they’re having orgasms with their affair partner. I want that. I wonder if it’s really possible. What if there is a reward to be had? What if some straight men are interested in the clitoris and understand how to operate it? What if I can have an orgasm with someone else before I die? That reward would be worth the risk.