How to Do It

Should I Pause My Open Marriage Because of the Coronavirus?

My mother is immunocompromised.

A woman kissing a man, with the COVID-19 virus in neon.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Joeri Bogaert on Unsplash.

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 husband and I have an open marriage. My mother is immunocompromised. Is it unreasonable to ask my husband not to swap fluids with his girlfriend until the coronavirus blows over?

—Risky Business

Dear Risky Business,

As someone who uses a handrail on each set of stairs I traverse, I understand that you can never be too safe. (I am also extremely conflicted these days because what if coronavirus is on the handrail? Would it be better to die by broken neck or virus? I guess I’ll see…) Given China’s apparent success in slowing the virus by isolation measures that some might call draconian, there’s an argument to be made for social distancing to help contain a potential pandemic. Limiting exposure to crowds is one way to help mitigate the disease. As a Vanderbilt infectious disease expert, William Schaffner, explained to the New York Times, “If you can stretch things out long enough, you buy more time for the development of the vaccine and the research to be done for treatments.”

So far I’ve yet to see a public health official weigh in on limiting one’s exposure to his girlfriend. To be safe, you could ask your husband to do so. Also to be safe, make sure none of you leave the house for any reason whatsoever, wear gas masks constantly (even in the shower, even to bed), and apply hand sanitizer so often that your skin is never not gleaming with an alcoholic dew.

Or you could just live your life and follow basic public health advisories. I suppose mathematically, your husband being in close contact with another person does increase his risk of contraction, but unless he and his girlfriend are into public sex (like, in-the-middle-of-Times Square public) or are handrail-licking fetishists, the elevated risk is probably negligible. Swapping fluids seems like a surefire way to pass or contract the virus, but you don’t need to get to the point of raw boning in order to spread the coronavirus—experts say it can happen with a kiss on the cheek.

If your mother lives with you, or you are otherwise regularly in her proximity, she certainly does require special considerations here. Don’t let anyone who’s showing any symptoms of illness near her. Make sure you wash your hands when you’re around her. Talk to your husband about your fears—perhaps he’ll be amenable to some risk-reduction measures that will help your peace of mind. I am assuming that you’re operating on good faith and not using this public health crisis as a way to drive a wedge between your husband and his girlfriend. If that is what you’re doing, please don’t. Everyone’s got enough drama to deal with as it is.

Dear How to Do It,

Most of my friends have never had one-night stands or random hookups with guys, but I recently moved and have met a lot more women who do. Recently, a group of my friends started chatting with a group of other women at a bar. At the beginning of the night, one woman, “Amy,” said she saw a guy she wanted to hook up with. Throughout the night, the guy seemed uninterested in Amy, but very interested in “Tami.” At one point, Amy found Tami making out with this guy and flew into a rage yelling that Tami had betrayed her. She got even madder when Tami left with him. Neither of them knew the guy before, so there were no chance of deep romantic feelings involved. I asked the women in my group if this type of behavior is normal. They were split down the middle on the topic. I could see Amy being upset she didn’t get a guy, but I don’t really get why she’s so mad at Tami. Is this normal? Is there some kind of a rulebook for random hookups?

—Rat Race

Dear Rat Race,

Amy called dibs, she was denied the dibs, and so it stands to reason that she’s miffed. However, when it comes to casual sex, encounters are about as bountiful and full of empty calories as appetizers at a bar and grille. Her reaction sounds as ridiculous as someone throwing a tantrum over their friend eating the last buffalo wing without asking if anyone else wants it. It’s not that deep. But there’s something about sex—the procurement and sometimes ensuing obstruction of it—that really gnaws at people’s egos and causes them to act out in ways they might think better of in another scenario. If you’re out to get laid and your friend happens to seal a deal on a night that you don’t, you should be happy for that friend and realize that soon enough your night will come. Transient dick isn’t worth ruining a friendship over. It’s barely worth more than that last buffalo wing.

Sometimes I feel like people should have to carry licenses to be able to sleep around. Would be impossible to enforce, and the last thing people’s sex lives need is more governance, but such a working system would make things way easier for those who can hang and not lose their minds.

Dear How to Do It,

My husband and I have been married almost 20 years and have two children. I love him, but have never orgasmed from sex with him. I can orgasm in a variety of positions when masturbating. I orgasmed hard when dry humping my first teenage boyfriends. The frustration, isolation, guilt, and uncertainty about the future of my marriage are driving me crazy.

When I tried to broach the subject of exploring my sexual needs (gently! and early on), he was surprisingly assertive about the fact he can’t improve or change. He turned defensive and self-pitying. He just seems oblivious to my reaction or pleasure. After several years together, I told him frankly about a mild kink. He was willing, but just so bad at it. Stilted and rushed. I went from eager to never mind in one session. He has asked for what he wants in bed from me (“can you make sexy noises,” etc.) but has told me that my asking for things is a distraction and a turn-off. When I started not wanting to have sex, he quickly accused me of “withholding” it, which is language I hate.

He was happy to go to a marriage counselor about that. I’ve seen counselors; we’ve seen counselors. I can’t go to another one in good faith. I could give other examples. Actually, let me list some examples:

• When we were babysitting a preschool age cousin, and I had to deal with her masturbating in the family room, he was astonished that girls masturbate.

• He recently expressed surprise that I can even feel sexual arousal during my period, because it’s “illogical.”

• One attempt at cunnilingus in 20 years that was him poking the tip of his stiff tongue into my vagina like a thrusting penis.

• Early on, I asked him if he wanted to watch me masturbate because I thought it would be A) hot and B) instructive. Response was “nah.”

I fantasize about other men during intercourse all the time. I don’t want to leave him, because I love him and our children. He is attracted to me and loves our sex life. I am not afraid to be alone, but I sure don’t want to be. I had many dry lonely years before I met him. At least with him I have companionship and affection and loyalty. That feeds into my resentment as well: Although he has stopped saying it, due to my pushback, he definitely came into the marriage believing he was entitled to sex when he wanted it. He is Jekyll and Hyde: Outside of sex, he is not only gentle and caring, but willing to listen to other points of view about anything, playful, reasonable, courageous, principled. He worries about the feelings of total strangers. He has increased immensely the share of housework and child care he has done over the years because of discussions we have had. He has become more responsible with money. What I want is to share my sexual arousal with him, to share my hot, deep, solo orgasms with him. At this point I feel like I’m grieving that I can’t, ever.

—Jekyll and Hyde

Dear Jekyll and Hyde,

It seems like you have done all that you can do. You’ve assessed, you’ve requested, you’ve recommended, you’ve taken care to be sensitive, and you’ve been clear. You have spent way more time working on this issue than your husband has, and yet he’s the one with the enormous (and ultimately debilitating) sense of entitlement. I suspect that he is driven by the kind of misogyny rife in our culture based on the idea that women’s bodies are for men’s desires and not their own. I would be surprised if it didn’t manifest itself in other facets, but if this attitude is confined to the realm of sex, it would suggest to me that he has deep sexual issues (his turning victim when confronted about his performance would seem to confirm it). You say you’ve seen counselors—I understand that you’re at your limit, but if you have not visited together someone who is a sex therapist, I recommend doing so. It’s time to target his particular sexual issues without him being able to squirm out of the conversation.

You could perhaps use your uncertainty about the future, or your thoughts of divorce, as a catalyst for a blunt conversation about this. If your husband can’t make it through a simple request for gratification without getting bent out of shape, it seems unlikely he will respond well, but he needs to know that your relationship, at least as he knows it, is in danger. If he chooses to remain inactive, the relationship may expire. He should be aware of just how dire the situation is. He is essentially asking you to live a life without the pleasure you crave, and for no specified reason. It would absolutely suck for you to have to get a divorce over this, but sexual incompatibility has led to the demise of many a relationship. You’re not a bad person if things end up going that way; in fact, the effort that you’ve put into this suggests that you are a good person who’s perhaps approaching sainthood.

Dear How to Do It,

I am a 30-year-old woman and I was recently diagnosed with a serious, likely terminal illness. It has destroyed my life—I had to quit my job and move in with relatives. I’m often in too much pain to do anything, but when I’m feeling better, I miss sex, and I’d like to be able to pursue it. But obviously I am not in a place where I can be in a relationship, so I will have to try to date casually. My problem is explaining my situation to a guy I’m interested in without freaking him out. I don’t know what I should say about why I can’t be in a relationship or why I don’t have my own place. If I tell someone I don’t know that I’m dying, I doubt they’ll still be interested in me. I feel very isolated and frustrated because this is all so confusing. How can I approach this?

—Sick of This

Dear Sick of This,

This may sound a bit jaded, but there are people that I’ve fooled around with whose names I never caught. Just never came up. In a hookup scenario, you really aren’t obligated to share more information than you’re comfortable with, and you certainly aren’t required to enter into a relationship as a result of a hookup. Some people will want to know more; others won’t. Gravitate to the latter cohort of guys who want no-strings sex and aren’t big on asking questions. (I’m sure an app like Tinder could give you a variety to choose from.) Say you “prefer to travel” without elaborating.

It may also serve you to check out the podcast Dying for Sex, which chronicles the sexcapades of a 44-year-old woman named Molly who has been diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. Molly’s diagnosis prompted an avid hooking-up hobby (“Sex makes me feel alive—and it’s a great distraction from being sick,” she says.) The topic of disclosure is handled in detail in Episode 4 (“Coming Clean”). She found she was able to sort of skirt the truth for a while, until she just didn’t have it in her anymore. You may find it a cathartic listen; I think it’s fascinating by any measure.


More How to Do It

My husband recently had an affair with a co-worker. He has recommitted to our marriage and we are trying to heal, but dealing with the fallout has been horrendous. He has already told me that he finds this other woman more physically attractive than me, and when I said I know the sex with her must have been better than it is with me, he is just silent and looks away. My husband is my only sexual partner—we’ve been together since we were teenagers—and I feel utterly unequipped to handle this. A small part of me wants to go to have sex with someone else. My husband does not seem to object to this idea, which in turn makes me feel worse that he wouldn’t care. How do I get the images out of my brain? How can I regain confidence about myself and the sexual experiences I provide my husband?