How to Do It

My Wife Went to a Women’s Workshop and Now Says the Sex We Have Is “Demeaning”

A man sits up in bed next to his sleeping wife, with neon circles with no bars flashing in the background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Viacheslav Peretiatko/iStock/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!

Every week, the crew responds to a bonus question in chat form.

Dear How to Do It,

Let me first say how much I appreciate your kind, practical responses. I’ll try to keep this brief: I’m a middle-aged straight man married 10 years to a middle-aged, straight-ish woman. Second marriages for both. Early on, we had a blast exploring all the non-vanilla stuff we had been constrained to during our previous marriages: reading erotica, watching porn, discussing fantasies. There was nothing we couldn’t talk about. Eventually, we tried a few nonmonogamous experiences. It was edgy, a little scary, and mostly fun. It’s important to note that we were equal partners in these adventures, which were often at her suggestion.

A few years ago, after attending a women’s workshop, she told me she couldn’t engage in those types of experiences anymore because they were demeaning and socially harmful to women. Taken off guard, I basically said “OK” and that I supported her decision. In retrospect, I know I should have at least insisted on a fuller conversation, but so much for hindsight.

Today, our sex is quiet, vanilla, and brief. We nearly never talk about anything of a sexual nature. When I’ve brought the subject up, regardless of context, it’s brushed past or ignored. I know you can’t and shouldn’t force an issue your partner isn’t into. Totally get that, and agree. And sexual frequency and preferences change over time—that’s a given. But this seems like something more along the lines of a religious conversion after years of marriage. Maybe I should just be happy to still have any kind of a sex life at this age. But I really miss a little spice, and to quote Peggy Lee, “Is That All There Is?”

—Break Out the Booze

Stoya: I loved being complimented on practicality. This may be the first time that’s ever happened.

Rich: I feel like he gets us.

Stoya: Super appreciated. I think what he says about religious conversion is pretty appropriate.

Rich: Have you ever heard of anything like this? Nonmonogamy being equated to the mistreatment of women?

Stoya: I’ve definitely seen watching porn like the letter writer mentions described as socially harmful to women.

Rich: Right. Dworkin, et al.

Stoya: Which … go hunt down some stuff made by women. It’s out there. A lot of it is good.

Rich: Yeah, or like, talk to women consumers of porn instead of assuming that you know better.

Stoya: Yep. I think I can see an argument for nonmonogamous experiences being socially harmful to women. There’s an inherent objectification to a lot of sex. I don’t think this objectification is necessarily bad, when done consensually in the container of the sexual experience. But I do think there are sex-negative feminists out there who disagree.

Rich: Right, I love a good objectification volley with a hot guy.

Stoya: Worship requires objectification.

Rich: I just don’t do sex negativity, at least not when it’s prescriptive. If you aren’t interested in sex, that’s valid, but that’s as far as that ideology can go without taking on a controlling or warped view of humanity. People like sex, and they keep having it. Unilateral sex negativity negates how the world actually works.

You know, I finally get to put my most recent celebrity-memoir obsession to use here, because Demi Moore talks about this in her book Inside Out. She says that she and her ex Ashton Kutcher indulged in some group play, supposedly at his urging, which she says was a mistake, in retrospect:

Having other people in our marriage presented a totally false sense of power and an absolutely temporary sense of excitement. … Part of the point of monogamy is the energy of somebody making the sacrifice or the choice for you and that you thereby hold this special place that no one else can have. As soon as another person is brought in, you are no longer being held in that sacred spot.

Again, this is too prescriptive for my taste (I’d prefer “I” instead of “you” to express Moore’s specific position on monogamy), but I wonder if our letter writer’s wife made a similar discovery about her own attitudes. There is for sure a vast difference between something like nonmonogamy existing in the abstract and actually living that life. And I have found that sometimes the two do not match—not in terms of my personal attitude toward nonmonogamy, which remains gung-ho, but in partners.

Stoya: I feel like it’s reasonable to force a meta conversation. A “Can we talk about how we aren’t talking about this one specific thing?”

Rich: I mean, I am tenacious to the point of annoying when it comes to seeking clarity in partners’ behavior that I don’t understand so just can’t imagine going through such a drastic relationship change without an in-depth conversation

Stoya: Exactly. It strains my mind to think that there’s been no discussion. I believe it, but it makes my brain hurt.

Rich: I do think that this is her call to make, because I believe that to maintain harmony (not to mention the very continuation of your relationship), you have to defer to the person who is most sensitive about nonmonogamy. It doesn’t work if you’re not both all-in. So I think our writer, broadly, did something right. But I couldn’t live without knowing the exact mechanics of my now born-again monogamous partner’s thought process.

Stoya: I feel like I need to point out that leaving the relationship after such a drastic shift including reluctance to talk about it would be reasonable. It’s an option.

Rich: Definitely. Sometimes it takes experience to realize that you are incompatible with your partner.

Stoya: Middle-aged people can absolutely have adventurous, fulfilling sex lives.

Rich: Absolutely. That he let the subject drop, though it was out of respect, makes me wonder how communication is in the relationship overall.

Stoya: He doesn’t mention. If the communication otherwise is good, they should be able to at least talk about why they aren’t talking about it. And if the communication isn’t otherwise good, that might be an indicator to try couples counseling or reconsider the marriage.

Rich: Yes. And if this remains territory that is impossible to chart, regardless of the overall state of the relationship, counseling still might be a good option. Having an impartial mediator could really help get to the bottom of what’s going on. I would love to know her rationale! I want an update on this one.

Stoya: I admire your curiosity. And yes, please do let us know how it goes.

More How to Do It

My wife and I have been in an open marriage for five years. We both strive to encourage one another to explore, and even playfully push the limits, romantically and sexually. For as long as I have known her, my wife has been interested in “incest” role play. While it isn’t my cup of tea , I have been willing and happy to support her in her exploration of this kind of fantasy and role-play. Recently, though, things have started to move in an uncomfortable direction for me. My wife is very close with her older brother, with whom we often speak very openly about sex and sexuality. A few nights ago, and after a few drinks, my wife got to talking fairly explicitly about some of the “family” role-playing that she and I are into, and her brother—who I thought would be horrified—was not only entirely supportive, but vaguely expressed interest in exploring this kink with us. My wife seemed to think it was a really good idea. In principle I don’t have a problem with the idea. I guess at bottom, I am just worried about how this could affect my relationship with my brother-in-law. Is there a way for me to make this happen, without it getting weird?