How to Do It

Before Lockdown, I Was Managing My Sex Addiction. Now I’m Spiraling Out of Control.

My moral code demands no sexual expression outside of marriage. How do I deal with these unwanted desires?

Woman biting her lip next to neon pink eye icons.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Digital Vision/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!

Dear How to Do It,

I’m a middle-aged lady who happens to be a sex addict. I have been in and out of treatment (therapy and 12-step programs) for years, with no real progress on sustained sobriety. For the record, I come from a family background with extremely conservative behavioral expectations for women: Essentially, no form of sexual expression is permissible, with the exception of agreeing to the sex one’s husband wants within marriage. I basically behaved according to expectations until my husband divorced me because he said I had a “slutty body” (he didn’t want me to make noise or climax during sex), and after that I experimented with casual hookups, masturbation, viewing porn, reading erotica, and dressing less conservatively, all of which led me to feel such incredible guilt and shame that I fell into a deep depression. After failing to achieve full sobriety, I decided to allow myself to masturbate once every two weeks as a mechanical exercise, so long as I didn’t look at porn or let my mind wander into sexual fantasies. Otherwise, to manage my sex drive, I stayed very, very busy with wholesome activities outside the house.

Then came the lockdown, and my behavior has spiraled out of control. Of course, I am not going on real hookups, but I am masturbating several times a week, using porn and erotica, and even sexting with a friend (just words, not photos). I don’t want to be doing any of this—it is extremely important for me to honor the values I was raised with, mostly because being sexual triggers depression and anxiety for me, and many rounds of therapy have not changed that. I’m planning to check myself into a residential rehab center once the lockdown is lifted, but what do I do in the meantime to return to a state of abstinence? (I do recognize that these behaviors aren’t necessarily dangerous or even immoral for most people, but they put me in conflict with my own moral code.)

—Sick of Sex

Dear Sick of Sex,

We have opposing first principles. I remain unconvinced that sex addiction is a condition, and I’m a firm believer in the right of all women to sexual expression and satisfaction, should they want it. But a moral code is a moral code, so let’s see if I can do something to help you.

Is your Sex Addicts Anonymous group meeting virtually? I know AA has digital meetings now, and the helpful front desk people at Sex Addicts Anonymous in New York City told me over the phone that they’ve moved their meetings online. Are you still in touch with your sponsor? Now would be a great time to reach out and ask for some support from the framework you’re invested in. What skills did the 12-step programs teach you? Use those skills. Especially the ones that have worked for you up till now—redouble your efforts on those. And if you’ve still got your green book, you can turn to that.

I get that you can’t go out of the home, but there are ways to engage in wholesome activities on your own. You can check in with your friends and lend an ear to their experiences and distresses. You can cook stews that freeze well. You can take up a foreign language. You can read other books. If it’s allowed within your belief system, you might consider meditation. Practice letting those unwanted thoughts of sex float, leaflike, into a stream and get carried away by the current. (They’ll come back, and you’ll have to let them go again.) If that isn’t allowed, you might pray, whatever that means to you.

I reached out to Joe Kort, Ph.D., LMSW, and ASSECT-certified sex therapist, and he advocated acceptance. “I do believe that if she accepts this part of herself, it doesn’t mean she has to be active and doing it, but by understanding that it’s OK, the compulsivity will go away or greatly reduce.”

Cold showers really do help, too. Holding ice might work for you. And any other activity that occupies your mind.

Dear How to Do It,

My wife and I have been together for 10 years, and we have no kids. For almost a year there has a complete hold put on all intimacy. Not just on sex, but intimacy in general. No sex, no cuddling on the couch, no holding hands. The only thing we did have was kissing goodbye before leaving for work.

When this started, last March, it was framed as something temporary: She was working through some mental blocks that prevented her from thinking or talking about her fantasies. The plan was that we would take a break from sex for a month while she did some soul-searching then come back and work on fulfilling those fantasies.

Once the first month was over, progress came to a halt. She unearthed some trauma from her college days, and her work life got busier. We talked about it, and I agreed that more time was needed for things to calm down and for her to work through the trauma before exploring her sexuality more. After this talk, all intimacy left the relationship; it was never discussed, it just happened. A month later, we had to suddenly move, as the lease we were sure would be renewed was not offered because the landlord wanted to do renovations and jack up the rent.

Two months later, we were all settled in our new apartment, everything had been unpacked, all decor was in place, and we were feeling more comfortable than ever. I asked if she was comfortable having sex, and when she said she wasn’t and she needed more time, I gladly gave it to her. This continued until September when I calmly approached her and said that I felt like my needs for intimacy and physical touch were not being met, and while I respected her healing process, I felt that my patience was at its limit. It had been half a year, and I was the only one bringing up the subject of our lack of a sex life. She agreed to go to therapy and asked me to be patient for just a little longer.

We’re now in January, and after a tear-filled (mostly on my end) discussion, we are finally reintroducing intimacy into our relationship. The wall of blankets between us in bed has been broken down, we’re cuddling on the couch, and we’re holding hands. I’m excited at this step forward, but at the same time I’m longing to have sex with my partner again.

I respect her boundaries, but I’m in no way prepared to go through another seasons-long journey to get us there. She is still averse to us going to couples therapy, and she is against opening our relationship, not that I would want to either. How can I be supportive to my wife through her healing process while also feeling like my needs can be met within a reasonable time frame?

—Patience Wearing Thin

Dear Patience Wearing Thin,

You don’t mention age, so I’d like to point out that menopause can dramatically change sexual response. Additionally, our sexualities grow and change over time, and sometimes we may go through periods where sexual touch is of low importance or even off-putting.

You’ve given your wife over a year of space. You’re saying that this is an unreasonable amount of time to wait for physical connection with your partner. You’re at an impasse. If you value the relationship and can’t wait any longer to have what you describe as a need met, I suggest you force the issue of therapy.

When you say your wife agreed to go to therapy in your fourth paragraph, was that individual sessions? Did she follow through? If so, you might ask her to talk through her aversion to couples counseling with her own therapist. You might sit your wife down and explain that something has to give in this situation, and it can’t continue to be your patience. Be ready for her answer—she may decline again. If that’s the case, you’ll have to weigh your options and decide whether you want to remain in the relationship.

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Dear How to Do It,

I’m a fortysomething hetero woman, recently single after a long marriage, and I’m trying the dating apps—the ones that are supposed to be for DATING. I’m definitely up for some casual sex, but nothing about my profile advertises that. I’m fully clothed in all my pictures and don’t say anything sexual in my profile.

It’s just that I’ve become distressed by the number of men in my age group who seem to think that “I’m above-average DOWN THERE” is a pickup line. The mixture of euphemism and audacity is annoying, for one thing, and for another, if a guy’s best-foot-forward is an above-average dick, then it doesn’t sound to me like he knows much about women. Stoya’s always talking about cervix pain and how men don’t get the importance of girth, and I just nod emphatically every time—I can work with just about any size (let’s just say I had a lot of fun before I got married), but if a guy believes that my sexual pleasure is all about his dick, I feel like he’s probably bad in bed.

Anyway, I get that line maybe once a week, with slight variations, within the first five or six messages with someone, and I usually either block him or just don’t reply. But I wonder if I should say something? Like, “that was a huge turn-off for me when you started talking about your dick in the first five texts”? Why do men even say that? Do other women like it? Who says “down there” after like sixth grade?

—Grow Up

Dear Grow Up,

Dating apps can be a mixed bag. They’re generally much more like a bar than meeting socially—even the ones that focus on dating over casual hookups. And there will always be people who didn’t research the app before signing up, and therefore don’t understand what the majority of users are there for. Your experience isn’t exactly rare.

Unfortunately, plenty of adults do have difficultly describing their genitals, directly addressing sexuality, and reading the room.

How much of a project do you want to get into? It is absolutely possible that some of these guys think they’re being enticing and do need to be told that “I have a long cock” is neither polite nor all that relevant to many women. Do you want to be the educational saint of swiping? Bestowing wisdom about how to treat women as people, blessing befuddled dudes with the knowledge that application almost always upstages size, and that human connection is required for satisfactory dating? You’d be doing a public service. But beware—some may not take your response kindly.

Another reason to engage is curiosity. If you ask gently, you might actually get answers to what men are thinking when they lead with their length. You might gather data on the reasons they find that length so impressive. You might discover the secret motivations of all this shlong sharing. If you decide to do it, please report back.

Dear How to Do It,

My wife and I are both in our early 30s. We’ve been together for over 13 years. About a year-and-a-half ago, my wife admitted that she has a physical attraction to other women. I suspected as much, but she never admitted to anyone or really herself until then. I was glad she could finally admit it. She says that it’s strictly a physical attraction: that if, for whatever reason we weren’t together, she would hook up with another woman, but couldn’t see herself having a relationship. I’ve asked her if she would like to explore it physically, with the two of us and another woman. She says that she doesn’t want this because we’re together. I think that part of it is jealousy; she hates the idea of me finding another woman sexually attractive. She has physical insecurities about herself like most people. I try to convince her that she is beautiful, and I love how she looks. We talk about her being with another woman in bed as a form of role-playing, but she can’t won’t entertain the idea, even hypothetically in bed, of her, myself, and another woman. It’s always just her and another woman. I’ve offered that if we were to have a threesome, we would have rules, up to and including no touching between myself and the other woman. She says she doesn’t want that.

My qualm is, about 10 years ago she was with another man. We weren’t in a great place in our relationship. She wanted to know what it was like to be with someone else, as I was her first and only, which is understandable. We were young, and she was curious. Through a lot of time and talking we were able to get past that. I worry that at some point, after her realization, she may want something different, again. I don’t want her to look back at her life and have regrets that she didn’t explore her sexuality more. I don’t want her to possibly resent being with me as the reason she didn’t find more, or another kind of happiness. I don’t think she would be with another woman alone, even with my permission. But that isn’t something I would want. After her being with someone else once I don’t think I could handle it again. If we were to share someone else, I think it could be something that would fulfill sexual fantasies for the both of us. I don’t press her about it because she has made herself clear she doesn’t want that. But, with my worries, is it something that we should possibly pursue further, or should we do nothing and hope she doesn’t want that something else or live to have regret?

—Worried Husband

Dear Worried Husband,

Unless she’s on her deathbed, no day is too late for her to experience sex with another woman, should she decide she wants to experience it. We don’t generally portray older people as sexual, but sexuality continues later in life for many. She’ll still have attractive qualities. There will still be lesbians and bisexual women.

Your wife, for whatever reason, doesn’t want to have a threesome with you. And you suspect—though you don’t say you’ve directly addressed it—that she wouldn’t want to have sex with a woman alone, and you doubt your ability to tolerate it anyway. Let it go.

Focus on your feelings. Make a list of your fears: She’ll eventually be enticed to sneak around again; a consensual liaison with a woman now might bring up negative feelings from the last time she had sex with someone else; that she’ll resent you later. Think about the list for a couple of days. See if anything else comes up, or if you gain any clarity on the existing points. Go to your wife. Pick a time when things are calm and distractions are unlikely. Start by saying that you’re not asking for a threesome. Tell her you’re experiencing strife and want to share it with her. After 13 years, I assume you know how to phrase things so they’ll be heard well. Remember to listen to her, too.

You may never experience a threesome. Some fantasies are best left fantasies. Your wife also may change her mind at some point. Be cautious of pushing or convincing, though. These things should be entered into willingly and with desire and curiosity.

—Stoya

More How to Do It

I have been sexually active since I was 17. I am now 29 years old. (I’m a straight, cis female.) A majority of the sex I had between 17 and 21 was only when I was drunk, so I don’t remember most of it, but I know I didn’t climax. I got sober and started a serious relationship and started actually enjoying sex, but I have one big issue: I can only climax if I think about awful/degrading things. And I do mean awful. Incest, non-consensual, old/young, or degrading scenarios have to be playing in my head for me to climax. I would in no way want these awful/terrible scenarios to happen to myself or anyone else, but I do need to think about them to come. In the moment, it gets the job done, but I feel terrible afterward, and I feel really awful that I can never come from thinking about my loving, caring, wonderful boyfriend. I’ve tried not thinking about them—that just means I won’t come. Am I doomed to come up with ever more creatively awful fantasies my entire life to get off?