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 boyfriend just asked me if he could send me snippets of porn he watches to show me what he wants me to do to him in bed. I feel slighted by this, because I already try to do things that I would otherwise not do already to keep him happy. What should I do? Say yes and see what he sends me, or set a boundary now to make him know my limits sexually? He’s already pushing anal sex, which I would do to make him happy, but it’s the least attractive thing to do in bed to me thanks to surgery I had. I can only imagine what’s in these other clips.
—Doing It Wrong
Dear Doing It Wrong,
If you are at your limit, you’re at your limit, and that is that. Ideally, your boyfriend would be extending the same consideration to you that you are to him in terms of your needs and desires—including being mindful of what you don’t desire. But sometimes people are not particularly good at reading context clues, so I do think an explicit setting of boundaries would probably be useful. You are under no obligation to do anything in bed, and you happen to have a concrete reason for not wanting to do anal. That’s all fair and intelligible—this shouldn’t be an issue, and if your boyfriend makes it one, it’s time to start asking yourself if you’re actually compatible enough to be in a relationship with him.
That said, is there potentially a happy medium to achieve? Is it possible that there is stuff he wants to try that you haven’t even considered and might not be opposed to? And aren’t you at least a little bit curious about what he’s proposing? Investigating his evolving taste isn’t the same thing as entering a contract to perform whatever is in those videos. At the very least, they could inform you further regarding compatibility. I understand why you are taking his request as a slight, but his desire to explore is not necessarily a reflection of your performance—sometimes the sex lives of couples are like sharks in that they have to keep moving or they die.
Dear How to Do It,
I am a woman in a relationship with a man with genital herpes (HSV2). When we met, he disclosed before there was any physical intimacy, and it was clear that he had been horribly misinformed about how HSV2 is transmitted. He was bleaching the shower and toilet every time after he used it, policing his used towels lest someone accidentally use one, and was convinced that he was unlovable and untouchable. His disclosure was basically, “I am diseased and unworthy of love and affection. I know you will now leave me and be angry at me for not telling you sooner. Are you willing to have a companion-based friendship with me where we care for one another but never touch?”
As it turns out, he became symptomatic after marrying a woman, and it is unclear whether he brought the HSV2 into the relationship or if he contracted it from her. They are divorced now, but while they were married, she insisted that he cheated on her, and she is the one who told him all of the horrible misinformation about the virus. She refused to get tested or share her medical records with him, but told him she didn’t have it. She also refused all intimacy as a way to reinforce his diseased status. I am the first person he dated after his divorce, and he was a self-enforced celibate for several years. He says I am the first person important enough for him to risk disclosing and pursuing a relationship.
After almost two years of dating, I believe that, through love and support, the stigma he felt is largely gone and our relationship is healthy and understanding. I would love to move our relationship to the next level and stop using condoms every time we are intimate. We are committed to the long-term, deeply in love, and have merged our lives in all other ways. I long for the intimacy of being fluid bonded, and the spontaneity of having sex without the obsessive preparation checklist. Moreover, he is wholly asymptomatic and has never had an outbreak since we started dating; he takes famciclovir twice a day (and he has had a vasectomy, so pregnancy isn’t an issue). When I approach this issue with him, he freaks out at the thought of “infecting” me and “ruining my life.” No matter how much I reassure him, he thinks that one instance of unprotected PIV sex and I will be infected.
The question I can’t find the answer to anywhere, and that no medical professional has been willing to answer for me, is what is the real-life transmission risk for HSV2 in a discordant couple where the infected partner is on suppressant medication and doesn’t have outbreaks? I am not asking for you to tell me it’s OK to have unprotected sex, but to inform me of the actual statistical risks.
Dear Risk Factor,
Thank you very much for your clear directive. It makes writing this column easier, and it also makes me feel a little bit more like Robocop. I say “more like,” because like Robocop, I generally approach this job with the goals of serving the public trust, protecting the innocent, and upholding the law. For expert help, I called Fred Y. Aoki, a doctor and professor at the University of Manitoba whose area of research is clinical pharmacology (especially antiviral drugs—here is a study he co-authored on the antiviral your partner is taking, famciclovir). Aoki told me that without any safer sex measures taken—no condoms, no drugs—the transmission rate of HSV2 between heterosexual couples is between 5 and 15 percent per year. (It’s higher if the man is the one who has it initially, lower if it’s the woman.) This is the information he’s gleaned after reading a number of studies on this.
Aoki pointed me to this study, apparently the go-to when discussing this issue. It followed 1,484 heterosexual, monogamous couples for eight months in which one partner had HSV2 and the other didn’t. Half of the partners with HSV2 were given the antiviral valacyclovir (better known by its brand name, Valtrex), and the remaining with HSV2 were given placebos. Over the course of the study, 27 transmissions were recorded in the placebo group (3.6 percent), while 14 in the valacyclovir group did (1.9 percent). What that means for this study is that medical suppression reduced transmission by more than 50 percent. Aoki was not aware of such a study for famciclovir, but theorized that you could expect a similar rate, because “all these drugs do the same thing”—they all reduce outbreaks and shedding by about 80 percent when taken daily.
The couples in this study were offered condoms, but did not necessarily use them. Kenneth H. Fife, a doctor and professor at Indiana University’s School of Medicine who has researched herpes extensively and co-authored a study on famciclovir, noted via email that in the valacyclovir study, “there were no transmission events among those who took valacyclovir suppression and also used condoms every time. The numbers are too small for a detailed analysis, but clearly the combination of suppressive therapy and regular condom use provides the best protection.”
This is not to deliver a verdict on whether “unprotected” sex is OK, just to give you more perspective on your options. Fife said that the truth is that in couples with mixed herpes statuses, the risk “can never be completely eliminated.” (For that matter, you probably know that even condoms only do so much to prevent herpes transmission). He also suggested that you get tested for herpes if you haven’t been—it’s not uncommon for someone in your situation to have asymptomatic herpes, and this might already be moot.
You seem already at peace with the idea that contracting herpes needn’t be a calamity. Most people who have it will never even know they do, much less have severe symptoms or complications. It seems to me that in your partner’s case, it wasn’t the herpes that “ruined” his life, but his ex’s reaction to it. Keep your love and support directed his way, and consider encouraging therapy (or even attending it with him) so he can find peace.
Dear How to Do It,
I am a 65-year-old man, reasonably attractive, educated, and with a good job, and I have always thought of myself as straight. However, I have been in a sexual drought for about 37 years. I’m not asking for advice on how to end the drought; I am living proof that “one can get used to anything”—not having sex has become normal for me. I am writing to say that lately, I have been thinking I might be bi, or at least bicurious. I sometimes fantasize about sexual adventures with men. I’ve even thought of sexual activities with a trans man. (The best of both worlds, perhaps.) The things I fantasize about doing with men would never have even occurred to me when I was younger and dating women. Could I be having these feelings now because of the sexual drought? I’m inclined to think the answer is no—that if I am now seeing myself as bi or bicurious, I must have always been bi or bicurious but suppressed it somehow. Chastity wouldn’t suddenly change my sexual preference, would it?
Dear Bi Golly,
You know way better than I what proclivities you had going into your sexual drought. Is it possible that an absence of women prompts heterosexual-identified men to dabble with other guys, in situations like prison or the military? Certainly. That could be what’s happening with you, sure. But many people sit somewhere in the middle of a spectrum of sexuality and aren’t confined to the absolute poles. It could be that you have always had it in you to be interested in men, and you hadn’t bothered to seriously consider it until now.
You also may have come to this conclusion regardless of how or how little active you are. Some people keep evolving sexually, finding different things they’re into at different times. In an episode of Netflix’s Sex Explained, fantasies are compared to languages: Research suggests we don’t unlearn old ones, but we can learn new ones. Dr. Justin Lehmiller, who has studied fantasies extensively (he’s also lent his expertise to this column), suggests that one way of picking up new sexual interests could be exposure—via porn, for example—to something novel when on the brink of orgasm. For many, that’s when the disgust response is reduced. The ensuing orgasm could prompt the stimulus to be sought again, and a new fantasy/kink is born.
Whether that response comes as a result of circumstance or if the images just confirm something innate is an open question. (Lehmiller wasn’t commenting on sexual orientation either, but fantasy and kink.) I’m not going to solve nature vs. nurture here for you, mostly because there is actually no solution; the two forces are never mutually exclusive. People are both DNA and the sum of experience, at once. To what degree the factors inform who you are is a fun thought exercise, and research on the matter is interesting to read about. But ultimately, you are where you are at this moment, and this moment is the only thing there is. Make the most of it.
Dear How to Do It,
My girlfriend and I have been together for a few months now, and we have a really good sex life. The one issue where I’d like us to improve is oral sex. She really enjoys going down on me, but I don’t find what she does particularly pleasant, so I end up spending the time worried I might lose my erection or not come while she’s working hard. I really like that she enjoys this and would like to offer feedback or advice, but without discouraging her. Any advice on how to do this?
Dear Oral Warning,
In these parts, we are big proponents of taking time to talk these things out, but I’m going to recommend against the sit-n-chat for your particular situation—at least at first. Don’t make this a formal feedback or advice sesh. Instead, I think you should attempt to direct your girlfriend via suggestion and positive reinforcement during the act. When she’s going down on you, tell her, “I’d love it if you would (fill in the blank).” Make it hot, attach your live pleasure to what she’s doing, and see if you can gently steer her toward giving the head that you desire. Any cocksucker worth their salt is out to please the guy attached to the dick they’re working. She may even enjoy herself more if you give her some pointers and encouragement. You can have a (more) serious talk about it after if there are still things she isn’t getting, but be as gentle with you as she should be with your dick. So: no biting.
More How to Do It
I am a straight woman in her mid-30s married to a wonderful man. I was recently online on my computer when I noticed that the ads on the sides of the screen were for Ashley Madison. Is it possible that those ads are showing up because of websites I visit? I do read advice columns that address infidelity issues. Then again, I also notice that when my husband is on his phone shopping for car parts, I inevitably end up with ads on my Facebook feed for car parts, so I think it’s all interconnected. Am I just in denial?
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