How to Do It

My Girlfriend Has Incredibly Strict Rules for How We Have Sex

I call it “the Protocol.”

Rule books flash behind a man and woman having sex.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

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 dude who has been dating a woman for some time. I think we are set up for failure in the bedroom, and I don’t know how to fix it.

The problem, as I see it, is that the woman I am with has a very, very specific sequence of events she likes to have happen for sex. I call this sequence “the Protocol.” The Protocol generally involves 1) a long period of foreplay that consists solely of making out with perhaps a small amount of grinding, 2) sex where she is on top, 3) she orgasms first, 4) I orgasm second, and 5) sex is over.

The problem is that I am not physically capable of meeting the requirements of the Protocol.

The foreplay portion of the Protocol lasts at least an hour every time. If I have an hour of foreplay, I am ready to finish pretty much at the start of sex. Like, real quick. I try to control that, but I can only stretch out to a couple of minutes at the outside. It isn’t enough time for her to orgasm. The plus side, from my perspective, is that I bounce back really quickly. My girlfriend is on birth control and we are monogamous, so I don’t even need to change a condom. I can finish, stop for no more than 15 seconds, stay erect, and keep going.

But that isn’t in the Protocol. In the Protocol, I am required to make her orgasm first. And it has to be from vaginal penetration.

I am more than willing to do whatever it takes to help her finish first if that is important to her. I have offered to perform oral sex so she will finish first. Or to touch her clitoris (during or before penetration). Or to use toys on her. Or let her touch herself or use toys on herself. I have suggested “let’s try something else just for fun.” I have expressed openness to any other ideas she might have. But none of these things are in the Protocol. We never do anything other than the Protocol.

Instead, we just occasionally—less and less all the time—perform the Protocol, and I fail by having an orgasm. Then, she gets sad and distant for the rest of the day. I don’t like that it makes her upset. I know I let her down and that she is frustrated. But, at the same time, I don’t feel like she is being fair. I am simply not physically capable of doing the thing she wants, and I have told her that. She knows I would hold off longer if I could, so her frustration with me just feels unjust. And she refuses to try anything else that might give her the orgasm she wants.

I have tried to talk to her about this. Asked her why everything has to be done according to the Protocol, but she won’t tell me why. She doesn’t want to talk about any of it. She wants the Protocol, and that is that.

And this has led to a new problem. The last couple of times we’ve had sex, I have had trouble getting and keeping an erection. I am still attracted to her. And I get erections in the morning and when she is not around, so I don’t think this is a physical thing. I am extremely nervous and anxious about sex all of the sudden because I know before it starts that I am just going to have an orgasm that leaves me feeling guilty. I guess I am thinking that we might just not be sexually compatible. But I don’t want that to be the case. So I am reaching out to see if there is something I am not doing or something I am doing wrong.

—Crotch-22

Dear Crotch-22,

You say she doesn’t want to talk about it, but will your girlfriend tell you anything about the routine you call the Protocol? Like when it developed? Whether it was in response to anything particular? Was it sudden, or did it evolve over time? What are her motivations for continuing it? Has she ever spoken to a therapist about this?

I also have questions about the questions you’ve asked her: When do you try to talk to her? During the act, directly after, or at a more calm and neutral time, like a few hours later or the next day? Have you come from a place of curiosity? Considered what you’re curious about or feel is most interesting, and asked gentle questions?

It’s hard to tell you how to proceed when I have so little sense of what’s behind this, despite your lengthy letter. But it is completely understandable that your frustration and confusion might interfere with your physical arousal. Men were widely thought to be constantly on the brink of arousal, requiring nothing more than an invitation by a person of the appropriate physical specifics. I hope that’s changed somewhat—the idea is harmful to all genders.

You might consider stating your firm need to have a conversation. Explain that you’re experiencing a lack of sexual response, and that the way y’all have sex isn’t working for you. Ask your partner to open up to you or to a professional.

If your partner refuses to have any kind of conversation about what’s going on on her end, and won’t speak with a therapist about it, then it might be time to move on. I’ve fielded plenty of messages from people in relationships that involve a sexual mismatch. I assume this woman is great, engaging, fun, and funny, but if the sex isn’t working for you, it simply isn’t working. And if she’s not ready to broaden her sexuality or even discuss it on a basic level, there’s nothing further you can or should do to force it.

Dear How to Do It,

I’m a straight man in his 50s married to an insanely hot woman about 10 years younger. She’s somewhere between bicurious and bi on the scale, but we’re happily in a long-term monogamous relationship, so unless I get hit by a bus, that part isn’t very important. The sex is great. Like all couples, it ebbs and flows, but sometimes it definitely flows. We have compatible kinks—she’s a sub, I’m a dom, and neither of us has the slightest desire to switch, although the D/s thing only plays out every couple of weeks when the kids are both away.

I think I’m listing all the positives because I’m a little self-conscious about how trivial my question is. There is one small thing I would change about our sex life: She has inverted nipples and feels less stimulation from nipple play (or even nipple clamps) than she does when I kiss her neck. I happen to really like nipple play, and in prior relationships, it was a significant part of sex and foreplay. I have extremely sensitive nipples myself, and they’re a major erogenous zone for me. Most of the women I’ve been with before were similar that way, to the point of often being able to bring to an orgasm keeping both hands (and my mouth) above the belt. I’d love for her to experience that sensation. So, is there a way to increase nipple sensitivity? Recreationally—not surgery or anything drastic. I’ve gone down the Google rabbit hole about gels and stimulants, but it’s impossible to tell the soft promotions from anything objective on the subject.  She’s game for anything that can bring more pleasure to our sex, and is as interested in your answer as I am.

—Nip Tips

Dear Nip Tips,

I want to be very clear that what I’m about to suggest might not change your wife’s sensitivity. But it’s worth a shot, right?

Focus on your foreplay. Are you using touches that stoke desire or heading straight for the nipple? Warm up her breasts with teasing touches. Draw her awareness toward that part of her body. Take your time. If her neck is more sensitive, you might start there and move down to the breasts—and then nipples.

Another thing you might try is tiger balm liniment or some other stimulating ointment. Directly on the nipples. Make sure not to get it in your mouth, eyes, or other mucous membranes.

You can also attempt to gently push her nipples out enough for a clamp to grab onto them.

Mostly, though, I think you should be grateful for what you have—an “insanely hot” woman who is happy to be monogamously together with you, enjoys kink in a way that complements your own taste, and wants to please you. I get you’re coming from a good place, but some people just don’t have sensitive nipples. She has a whole 15 square feet or more of luscious, responsive skin to play with. And if you really need to provoke pleasure via a nipple, you have your own.

Dear How to Do It,

I am a woman in her late 30s, married to a man the same age. We’ve been together 13 years, married for 10, no kids by choice. Happily, we have a very good marriage and love each other very much. I experienced a sexual “dry spell,” figuratively speaking, for about 18 months. I literally prayed to have my libido back, and it happened. Now I can’t seem to keep my hands off my husband. I feel like a teenager in her first relationship: I think about him constantly, wake up in the morning fantasizing about sex, daydream at work, and practically beg him to take me to bed as soon as he gets home. It’s exciting!

Alas, he hasn’t had the same renaissance. His level of desire is about what it’s always been. He’d be glad to have sex twice a week or so, very loving and gentle in the bed before going to sleep. And all of that is great! We honestly adore each other. But I’d like to try some new things in bed, and to do it more often generally. He’ll do whatever I ask, but with varying degrees of enthusiasm. As an example, I asked to try a little rough play, and he’ll hold my hands down while he’s on top, but I think that’s about as far as he can imagine. Role-playing is unfathomable—I literally can’t picture him pretending to be a lord in a castle flirting with the maid or whatever people do. I’d like to explore a little more, but he’s generally not an imaginative person and, as much as he loves and is attracted to me, it’s just not his way. And I quite emphatically do not want to sleep with anyone else; I’d rather have less sex with him than more sex with someone else.

Here are the two real “catches”: One, he’s the only person I’ve had penetrative sex with, by choice. I wasn’t his first, however, so obviously he had sexual experiences without me and had a chance to figure out what he was into. If I don’t experience something with him, I just won’t experience it. Two, he’s a naturally quiet person. Not shy, exactly, but quiet. He doesn’t think it’s exciting to talk about possibilities. Flirtatious text messages are returned with “I love you too.” Now for my questions: Can you help me find a way to get him to talk to me? Where can I start to try to open him up just a little bit? And also, he was very patient when I wasn’t interested, like, at all, so it seems unkind to drag him into things he’s not interested in when he didn’t do that to me. What, if any, advice can you offer?

—Came Roaring Back

Dear CRB,

First, I think you should make a list of everything wonderful about your husband and your relationship with him. Just to remind yourself of the positives. Your sexual history isn’t a “catch”: You made a choice, a little over a decade ago, to marry this man without having penetrative sex with other people first. You say you don’t want to sleep with anyone else now, either. So that’s that.

Your husband may simply be vanilla. Vanilla tastes great. Breyers comes in at least three different flavors of vanilla. But you’d like some crumbled Oreo mixed in. Or maybe some M&Ms. So let’s make this as easy on your husband as possible.

Make another list of things you want to try. Get somewhat specific. Make a paragraph for each. For instance, “I fantasize about you topping me. I appreciated that time you held my hands down while you were on top of me. I’d like to go a little further—I’d like you to do me from behind while you hold my wrists together behind my back. I want this because I want to feel your virility and strength.” Or, you know, whatever works for you.

Then go to your husband and tell him you have some fantasies that involve him, and ask him to take a look and see if anything feels doable to him for the next time you have sex, or in the future. Approach him carefully and don’t put too much pressure on him. This should be fun.

I want you to prepare for the possibility that your husband simply isn’t a sexual improvisor or very sexually explorative. If that’s the case, I encourage you to indulge in your fantasies during solo time. Pornography and erotic fiction can be great ways of vicariously experiencing different sexual acts.

Dear How to Do It,

I’m a 60-year-old heterosexual male. As I get older, my dick doesn’t always work. Its hardness has nothing to do with how aroused I am—I can be as excited as I’ve ever been, but still sometimes can’t stay hard. That doesn’t bother me; I don’t need a hard-on to have fun, and sometimes I’ll turn to Viagra or an equivalent. But one girlfriend gets particularly disturbed with EITHER of those options: If I can’t get hard, she thinks it means I’m not attracted to her. And she thinks if I take a pill, it’s cheating.

But: Sometimes I “cheat” and take a tablet before I know we’re going to make love, or sneak into the bathroom to take one. If she knew, she’d be upset. But it works for me, and unbeknownst to her, it’s working for her also. Am I cheating by going against her wishes and taking a viagra without her knowing it?

—Cheat Code

Dear Cheat Code,

You shouldn’t lie to her—directly or by omission—about your Viagra use, and she shouldn’t be putting you in that position in the first place, either. You’re between a rock and an, um, hard place.

When you say “one girlfriend gets …,” I wonder whether there are other girlfriends. If you do have other partners, I’m extra curious why you’re trying to indulge this unreasonable demand. If you don’t, I’m still curious. She’s expecting something that is impossible for you to deliver, and what you’re experiencing isn’t exactly rare in your age group. I think it’s time to consider breaking up and moving on.

Listen to Slate’s Thirst Aid Kit in the player below.

—Stoya

More How to Do It

What is up with this: My husband (we’re straight) and a few of his circle of friends seem to have this flirtatious homoerotic thing going on where they pretend to (or actually do, in the guise of a joke) flirt, rub each other’s shoulders or thighs, and make breathy jokes about each other. Their wives and I often joke about it, like “so and so is going to run off with your husband, hahahah.” I’m not going to make a big deal out of it either, but I want to know—is this a thing?? Are these guys just really horny for each other?