How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Have a question? Send it to Stoya and Rich here. It’s anonymous!
Every Thursday night, the crew responds to a bonus question in chat form.
Dear How to Do It,
My girlfriend of a few months is a light smoker (a couple of cigarettes a day), while I’m very sensitive to the smell of tobacco. Generally, this isn’t a big issue: She’s incredibly thoughtful and doesn’t smoke around me, and even makes sure to wash her hair and change her clothes before we meet up. But … I swear that when I go down on her—which I love to do—I can taste the tobacco. Sometimes it’s almost unnoticeable, other times it’s like I’m licking an ashtray. I haven’t told her about this, and I’m well aware that it might be my imagination, in which case I’ll just have to get over it. Is it my imagination, though? Can the taste of tobacco be carried through the body? If so, is there anything I can ask her to do, short of giving up smoking completely, to counteract it? Maybe some kind of food or drink that will help flush the tobacco from her body? And how do I approach the subject with her? Obviously, I don’t want to hurt her feelings, but on the other hand, if there was something about the taste of my semen that she found offensive, I’d want to change it if I could.
Stoya: Everybody brace for me to take things personally on this one.
Rich: I’m strapped in tight.
Stoya: YOU’RE DATING A SMOKER.
Stoya: She was a smoker when you started dating her. The letter writer inquires what the girlfriend can do “short of giving up smoking completely,” and I hope they stop there: It’s unreasonable to ask her to give up smoking completely. I’m offended on behalf of all nicotine users if that’s even on the table.
Rich: Where there’s smoke there’s … the smell of smoke.
Stoya: Now that I’ve vented, let’s talk about flavored lube.
Rich: I have zero experience with flavored lube. I didn’t even really know that it was … anything but a novelty product. You find it useful?
Stoya: I’m thinking of a particular guy early in my sexual adventures who tasted a bit funky. So I covered his dick in flavored lip gloss. I imagine that a lubricant engineered for sexual use would be an improvement. Not to mention safer for use with condoms should things become penetrative.
Rich: Yeah, I think improvement is the most that can be expected here. This is not an easy thing to fix all together if her smoking persists, which it sounds like it will. I did research.
Stoya: I’m thrilled. What’d you turn up?
Rich: First, a word on sweat glands. We have two types: eccrine, which cover most of our body and open directly to the skin, and apocrine, which open into hair follicles and are localized in areas that are densely hairy, such as the crotch. Nicotine is emitted by sweat glands, and a higher concentration is found in the apocrine, according to this study. Our writer suspects that this may be in his head, but it is possible that they’re smelling or tasting the nicotine coming out of her body and associating that with a “tobacco” flavor. (Nicotine is apparently pretty bitter.) And if that’s the case, it seems that the only way for it to cease is for the smoking to cease. The practical remedies are bound to be imperfect workarounds, like flavored lube, as you suggested.
Stoya: Or a not-too-strong mint in his mouth! (Mint can cause a burning sensation on delicate vulvar tissue. Some find this a plus, and others do not.)
Rich: I think other stuff that could help in this matter—breathable underwear, pube shaving, even being careful to use antibacterial soap or sensitive detergents—but that puts a lot of responsibility on her, which doesn’t strike me as fair.
Stoya: Agreed. I’m reacting strongly to what seems like a series of inquiries about how she can change to accommodate our writer. And I am focusing pretty hard on things they can try for themselves. I do think it would be permissible to gift her a vape.
Rich: Well, here’s the thing—the body-odor stuff might have mostly to do with nicotine, but it would be an interesting arm-chair experiment to see if her taste changes from cig to vape. So maybe do that and submit your data to us?
Stoya: But if she smokes once or twice a day, she might not need the nicotine.
Rich: Oh, are there nicotine-free vapes?
Stoya: So many. Stepping down to 0 percent vape fluid is a key part of many modern smokers’ quit plans.
Rich: I also think that they can have a conversation with her without it being necessarily fraught. She knows our writer doesn’t like smoking. It’s potentially scientific that they can taste it on her. The ball is her court to determine what, if anything, she wants to do about it. And the answer could be: nothing. And the writer would have to accept it.
Stoya: She’s already catering to them by washing her hair and changing clothes before meeting up with them. She’s already meeting them halfway. Any conversation about further habit change should start with acknowledging how much she’s done to accommodate them.
Rich: And the writer should also acknowledge that this relationship is their choice.
Stoya: Which, in fairness, they do to a certain extent.
Rich: But if smoking is a deal breaker … don’t date a smoker. At least it’s still early. They’ve only been together for a few months. In the words of Judge Judy: You picked her!
Stoya: If she hid the smoking. that’s one thing. But that isn’t specified, so I’m assuming she was upfront about it. Once our writer has tried everything they can do on their end, they might consider broaching the subject from a “Fun fact!” starting point.
Rich: Fun fact! This approach may provide the levity needed to keep the conversation from becoming an argument.
More How to Do It
In high school, my younger sister “Eva” got very intensely into a conservative church, purity pledges and all. My brother “Josh” and I never did. Eva remained very involved in her church, and three months ago, at 22, she married her similarly devout husband. Recently, Josh informed me that our brother-in-law confessed to him (over too much to drink) that he and Eva hadn’t consummated the marriage despite multiple attempts together. My BIL said it was also his first time and he felt pretty lost. I feel terrible for them! I’m trying to figure out if I can say something to Eva: Do I give her an adult version of The Talk? Slide a pamphlet in her purse and run away? I have no idea where to start, because I doubt she’d approve of my unmarried sex life.
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