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’ve been seeing a guy pretty casually for about three or four months. We’ll see each other like once a week or so and mostly we’ll just have sex, but I always spend the night and we’ll watch a movie and cuddle and all that relationship-y stuff. We’ve gone on real dates multiple times, to the movies or out to bars. We agree about most things, we can have really good conversations about movies or politics, and I just genuinely really like him a lot. Here’s the deal: I have NO idea how he feels about me. I cannot get a read on him at all. I know that he’s not having sex with anyone else (I asked in passing and he told me, and we didn’t discuss it further), and I assume if he weren’t interested in continuing, he would have ghosted me or otherwise made it clear by now.
Here’s the real question: Our sex is definitely degrading and rough—which was completely my choice—and we both get really into the whole “slut/whore” thing. It doesn’t leave the bedroom (except sexting), but it definitely feels all-encompassing. Is it impossible to transition a relationship that’s based in large part on pretty dehumanizing sex to one that’s an actual boyfriend-girlfriend relationship?
Dear Rough Situation,
Your list of “relationship-y” stuff that you and this guy do is missing something crucial: communicating openly about the relationship and your feelings toward each other.
It’s possible to transition from a hookup to a traditional boyfriend-girlfriend relationship. It’s possible to have intensely objectifying sex and a healthy emotional connection with mutual support. It should be possible to transition from interactions based on sex with a hefty dose of dehumanization to a committed relationship. But you’re going to have to talk. You’re going to have to try harder than casually asking if he’s having sex with anyone else.
You might try something like, “I’m developing feelings toward you and want to know where you’re at emotionally.” Put it in your own words, or start with a different opening line altogether. Whatever works for you. Just have the talk. Talk about how you’re both feeling emotionally. Talk about whether you can fit into each other’s’ lives. Talk about what a relationship looks like for you, what’s important to you, and what you need to be happy. Do plenty of listening too.
It’s possible that he isn’t looking for anything more robust with you, so prepare for that possibility. Take some time beforehand to decide what you’re willing to continue with and what you’re going to walk away from. This guy you’re seeing might be unwilling to talk at all, which would be a huge red flag. But hopefully you’re able to have the crucial conversation and you two have a long, consensually degrading road ahead.
Dear How to Do It,
My wife and I have been together for over 10 years now. We have two beautiful children and are very happy in our marriage. We both love each other immensely. I’ve known from the very start of our relationship that she is bisexual, and it has never been an issue for me in the least (I am straight). In fact, through the years, I have encouraged her that if she ever wanted to seek out women outside of our relationship, I am totally fine with that, though I doubted she would ever actually take me up on it because she’s an anxious person who tends to be overly concerned about what other people think of her. I was OK with her being with another woman for two reasons: One, I didn’t feel that I would ever be able to give her sexually what another woman could, and two, I’m sorry to say, is that it was a huge turn-on for me, the idea of my wife being with another woman. My only real concern was that she could legitimately develop feelings for someone else, but I’ve come to realize even that should not affect how she feels about me, so who really cares if she also has feelings for someone else?
Fast forward to this past weekend, when my wife took a trip out of town for an overnight “girls night” in another state. Just before she left, I reassured her that if a woman hit on her while she was away that I thought she should go for it (mostly in a joking tone, but that’s how we typically operate). Well … it happened. She was super open about it and told me immediately the next morning that it had happened. I have to say that how I reacted to the news was different than how I expected. I was genuinely excited for her and overly supportive of everything. Essentially a way more positive response than I thought I would have.
Since then, she has been trying to work through how she feels about it all, and I’ve done my best to try not to push her too hard. I would really like for her to consider actively looking for other women (or contacting the same woman, or any specific woman she might be into, it doesn’t matter) to see if she wants to maintain any sort of relationship outside of our marriage. My thought is that, since it took 10-plus years for her to feel comfortable enough to try it once, she should ride the momentum to help her figure out what she’s really interested in, rather than bury it all for the next 10 years. She doesn’t necessarily agree or disagree that that is a good idea and is still in the “figuring things out” stage. I’m really concerned that she will take the “societal norm” and others’ perspectives too closely to heart while she’s trying to decide what she wants, rather than just accept who she is and see how it feels in practice. If she pursues it a bit further than a drunken hookup and THEN decides it’s not for her, that’s totally fine—no harm, no foul. I think she would be doing herself a disservice to try to make that decision without ever really trying it, though. She said she doesn’t have any qualms about the actual hookup, just how she might be perceived if people found out. She actually really enjoyed being with a woman, as I’d figured she would.
With this being a turn-on for me, I am finding it hard to separate my sincere desire to want to support the person I love from the desire to fulfill some sexual fantasies. I am constantly questioning my own agenda, and it’s making it difficult to give her what she truly needs right now. By the way, I have no desire to seek a relationship outside of our marriage for myself with a man or a woman and would only support her bringing someone else into our relationship (like a thruple I guess?) if that were something she’s interested in. How can I possibly balance being the supportive husband she needs while offering her the right advice to help her feel more comfortable with who she is, making sure the health of our marriage is never threatened, keeping my sexual fantasies in check? Not to purposely throw in any other curveballs at the end of all this, but since her hookup happened, our sex life has seen a much-needed boost. I really just feel like everything that has come out of this weekend has been nothing but good and has brought us closer together, so it only makes sense that going further would be much better … right?
Dear Negotiating Nonmonogamy,
Your wife has explored hooking up with women to the degree she is currently comfortable with. Accept that. Cherish the memory you have and the boost to sexual interest you’re currently experiencing. Make the most of it.
“Who she is” includes the part of her that is concerned about societal judgement. Humans are social creatures. Ostracization by the group can be difficult, even today. Generally speaking, we need our communities. That’s why so many of us are scrambling to put together video chats and group activities that can be done remotely during this period of social distancing. Her anxiety about how she’s perceived by her social circle is understandable.
For people who tend toward anxiety, momentum can be terrifying. Going too far—something that is definitely possible here—can be a very scary prospect. People who aren’t anxious tend to focus on the positive—how well things could work out—while anxious people tend to focus on the potential dangers of a situation. This balance probably serves your marriage well.
If you masturbate, that’s a great time to indulge your fantasies that involve your wife with other women. You can absolutely enjoy those thoughts on your own time. You can share what you fantasize about with your wife, and you can ask her if she’s comfortable talking about them with you in a sexual way. (you know, as opposed to the nonsexual way you might discuss putting them into praxis). If she’s OK fantasizing with you, or hearing your fantasies, you might find that incorporating them as titillation strikes a balance between meeting your own desires and maintaining space for your wife to feel that her boundaries are being respected.
So, be happy with what you’ve got, back off on trying to get your wife to go further than she’s comfortable with, and gently explore the possibility of incorporating talk about your fantasies.
Dear How to Do It,
Do some guys not like blow jobs? I am a woman in my late 20s, and I’ve only dated about a handful of guys. I’ve recently been seeing a new guy (for obvious pandemic reasons we haven’t seen each other in a couple of weeks, though we are still talking), and the first time we had sex, when I moved to give him a blow job, he pushed me away. I didn’t think much of it—it seemed like maybe he was just eager to get to the “main event,” so to speak. But then he steered me away from going down on him again the next time I tried. Several dates later, I started moving southward, and he didn’t resist. But a few seconds in to the blow job, he instantly lost his erection and sex was immediately over—like roll over and go to sleep with no comment. In my (limited) experience, and everything I’ve heard from other people and pop culture, I thought guys loved blow jobs. My last boyfriend told me all the time I was very talented at it. Did I just find the one guy who hates them, or has an involuntary negative reaction to them? Is this common?
Dear Blown Off,
Guys are varied and complicated. There are indeed guys who don’t like blow jobs at all. There are guys who only like very specific blow jobs—I’m thinking about one particular man who requires a certain amount of gentle teasing with the tongue, and then a precise hand-and-mouth combination with increasing intensity until he ejaculates. There are guys who physically enjoy blow jobs but get in their head about the power dynamics of being “serviced” and go down a patriarchy-interrogating spiral that prevents them from staying present.
If he has the privacy one might understandably want during this period of isolation, now is a great time to talk about it. You can simply ask how he feels about blow jobs. If you want to ease into it, you can bring up that first redirection and then ask if he remembers why. If he’s quarantined with someone else and doesn’t have a door on his room, you might want to hold off. (Yes, I know this sounds insane to readers who don’t live in NYC, but some of us don’t have doors on our bedrooms.)
Once you have some insight into his behavior, you’ll be able to act accordingly.
Dear How to Do It,
I am a stay-at-home/work-from-home mother of three children (4 years old, 2 years old, and 3½ months old), and I need help with how to communicate with my husband that I’m not ready to jump back into our before-baby-three sex life. I don’t mean no sex, but I’d like to ease back into things. Maybe a year or so before the baby was born, we had become more adventurous, and I know that he really, really enjoyed it. I did too! But less than four months postpartum, my generally-low-anyway libido is zilch. While I am lucky that I had a very easy birth and a recovery so quick I myself was shocked (it was not this way with the other two), I still am the primary caregiver for three tiny humans and in charge of the house, plus trying to figure out how and when to work. I am happy, but I am also tired. I am busy. I feel incredibly unattractive because I am obviously not yet back to my pre-pregnancy size (I know, I know, give yourself grace), and I’ve been having some major acne issues (I have recently seen my dermatologist, so that is being taken care of). In the evening, the very last thing I want to do is take off my clothes and be touched by ANYONE, and mornings are off-limits because I get up early to work.
I know this will pass, especially as the baby is sleeping in his own room, we have a little more normalcy going, and I feel more at home in my own body. But I am not the best communicator. I can tell he is bothered, but I am also a little resentful because, hi, I had a baby not that long ago, I am home with the kids by myself all day (we are working on finding some child care help, and he does take the older two to work with him when he can), and he also spends most evenings on his phone. I want to talk to an adult and see two eyes looking back at me. I want to be able to sit next to someone without having to cuddle or be touched nonstop. Sometimes I want to sleep without a grown man wrapped around me like a vine. But I also want to honor his feelings, because I know that physical touch is a big deal for him. How do I lovingly, gently communicate that I need more time?
Dear Hands Off,
I couldn’t figure out where your communication issue was, so I brought in friend of the column and certified sexologist and marriage counselor Cyndi Darnell. She highlighted every instance where you exhibit effective communication—13 of them, including “but I am also tired” and “I want to be able to sit next to someone without having to cuddle or be touched nonstop.”
Here’s what Cyndi had to say:
You are not a poor communicator. You did an incredible job here. What’s stopping you telling him this, just the way you said it here? Afraid you’ll hurt his feelings? You’ll hurt them more by not telling him and shutting him out, leaving him guessing. Why is he on his phone most nights? What does he want? Ask him. There is a distinct possibility he doesn’t know how to touch you without it leading to sex. It’s a skill that needs to be practiced. You won’t know if you don’t discuss it.
As for how to have the discussion, Cyndi encourages the “sex sandwich”:
Compliment first: “I love how you (used to) hold me and wrap yourself around me when we sleep.”
Sandwich filling: (aka what you want) “I want to connect with you in the evening, phones off, TV off, just you and me together.”
Compliment last: “I know sex isn’t on the menu just now, but it will pass, because it’s important to me too. I know that touch is really important for you and I love you.”
Good luck. I think you’ve got this.
More How to Do It
My girlfriend no longer wants to shave her armpits (hetero couple). I admitted this wasn’t my preference but recognized it was likely for bullshit reasons and she went ahead. We still screw with abandon. However, I also took this as an opportunity to stop trimming myself downstairs, because honestly it gets itchy and I was only doing it for her. She was fine at first, but now seems reluctant to give blow jobs because of the unintended floss. I want to leave it! Do you think this goes both ways, or is it totally different?