How to Do It

When My Boyfriend and I Get Intimate, I Always Fall Asleep

He makes me so comfortable and peaceful that I drift off before we even get started!

Woman asleep in arms of a man with neon zzz's above her head.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

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Dear How to Do It,

I’m too comfortable around my boyfriend! I am a female in my mid-20s in a serious relationship with the most wonderful guy, “Rochester.” Unfortunately, we are currently long distance because of grad school, but we try to visit every six weeks or so. We have been together for three-and-a-half years and plan to get married in the future, when we both graduate. For religious reasons, we do not do anything that the average person would probably consider “sex,” but we are very physical—I think we both have “touch” as one of our love languages—and love spooning each other, kissing, giving massages, and generally being cuddly, as well as some more overtly sexual activities like playing with my breasts and touching over our clothes.

I feel totally at ease around Rochester, especially when we are cuddling. Being in his arms is pure contentment. His presence clears my mind of all fears and worries and allows me to detach from the stresses of the world. And this is where the problem comes in: I get so relaxed around him that I get sleepy! To some extent, he thinks it’s cute, but I know he is bothered by the differences in our energy levels. It’s very hard on him when he wants to play and I’m drifting in and out of consciousness—obviously it’s not very satisfying for him, plus he worries that he’s boring me. This issue is compounded by the fact that he is one of those rare people who can get by with very little sleep and frequently goes to bed after midnight, whereas I need a full night’s rest and like to go to bed early, so I get tired in general way earlier than he does.

As much as I love the idea that I’m so comfortable around my boyfriend that I melt into a blissful slumber, I hate continually disappointing him when we visit each other. I know he’s also worried about how this will affect us once we are married and actually having sex—if I’ll roll over and go to sleep as soon as we finish the first round while he still wants more. It’s not that I don’t find him attractive or he doesn’t excite me: Trust me, I do, and he does. It’s just that my feelings of turned-on-ness get drowned out by feelings of safety and peace. Do you have any suggestions for how I can stop using my boyfriend as a muscular pillow? I’ve gotten to the point where I’m chugging caffeinated beverages on evenings we are spending together, and it doesn’t seem to be helping.

—Zzz

Dear Zzz,

Have you told him why you suspect you’re falling asleep with the same amount of precision and detail that you did in your letter? If not, do that first. Though some people have a hard time believing others over their inner voice, it’s in his best interest to trust you and manage his suspicions that he’s boring you. Though it comes in an unlikely package, as a manifestation of your feelings of safety and contentment, your sleepiness is a compliment, not an insult. A gift is a gift, whether or not we would have picked it out for ourselves. Understanding you means understanding this. The idea that his needing less sleep is somehow superior to your sleeping habits is egocentric and not particularly sound from a physiological perspective. Sleep will keep you young, healthy, and sharp. Sleep is good. Unless you’re overdoing it, and I don’t think you are, if anyone should be conforming, it’s him. It’ll likely catch up to him anyway—being able to get away with just a few hours a night becomes harder and harder for most people as they enter their 30s and beyond.

You could experiment with daytime naps in order to balance out your sleep schedule, but that’s about all I’m going to recommend. I don’t think anyone is worth altering something as crucial to your wellbeing as the amount of sleep you’re getting. He can play with you when you’re consenting and conscious, and if he has problems with that, that’s too bad for him—and a red flag for you.

Dear How to Do It,

Here’s my deal: I’ve been with my partner of about 18 years, and in this time, we’ve had three kids. We’ve never married (I didn’t want to), and we have become more like friends with a mutual goal of raising our children. We sleep in separate rooms, and we retreat to our own spaces when we have a couple of precious hours in the evening when the kids have gone to bed. Basically, we’ve become pretty damn lazy where the other is concerned. We live in a big city with no family network, and when we’ve splurged for a babysitter, I can tell neither of us see the romance in it. The alone time just isn’t craved by either of us.

Oddly enough, though, we are now moving along with minimal strife, and outwardly we seem to those we know as a couple with it all. This is a tremendous improvement from where we have been at various times over the years. When there were financial challenges combined with three little children to care for, there were often arguments where things were said that diminished my warm feelings for him. Having children, I had to consider many things before making any major decisions like ending the relationship—which we talked about doing more than a dozen times. We ultimately attended couples counseling, and circumstances (financial and what’s best for the kids) kept us going. Things have improved as the kids got bigger.

However: There’s someone in my life, a friend—a friend to both my partner and me. We’ve known him casually for 17 years, but I could tell you every encounter I’ve had with him, every time I’ve run into him in the street, every time we’ve talked ideas and laughed … even the first time I saw him. I’m not sure what it is, but there are not many people I’ve met who seem to reach me the way he does. It’s a chemistry I’ve shelved, but man, it’s getting harder to ignore. I’m not at all sure what my friend thinks of me, but I’m guessing that’s irrelevant, and that he’s not the issue here. Then I think … well, I do have a nearly two-decades-old crush on the man, so perhaps this is about him specifically. As I have three kids to put first, I don’t want to jeopardize the relationship with the man who is their father and my friend (and I don’t want to hurt him), so should I continue on as is until my kids are grown? I have a pretty good idea my partner will not like the thought of sharing me, even if he doesn’t play with me that much himself … he gets little flares of jealously, nothing crazy, but if he could pee on me, I think he would. He’s very competitive.

I’d bed them both at the same time if I thought I could get them interested, but I can’t imagine that conversation with either of them. And recently I’ve been texting with said friend, not anything of a sexual nature, but more frequently than a casual “how ya doin”? We are interested in similar things and I could talk to him … on and on. Then yesterday I noticed I was waiting for his text and I said “oh shit” to myself and started writing this letter looking for advice. Is this something to explore, and if so, where to start? What is a fox who is not getting any action at home to do?

—Sniffing Around

Dear Sniffing Around,

If a fox isn’t foxing, is she even a fox? Probably, but just in case, I suggest you get moving. You have a pretty good idea that your partner will not like the thought of sharing you, but a lot of people have a pretty good idea that they’re going to heaven when they die. They don’t know—it’s only something you can be sure of when you get there. Life is short, so you make heaven a place on earth and have the conversation with your partner. He’s experiencing this mostly sexless relationship alongside you and perhaps has his own thoughts on the matter and designs for satisfaction. An active, rewarding sex life is a completely reasonable thing to want, and his role as a partner is to provide for you what he can, especially those things that are within reason.

I think you have a strong case for opening things up. Acknowledging that sticking with this relationship was a mutual decision and that it has, in fact, steadily improved is a good way to lead. Tell him you don’t want to lose him, but you’d like to have a more active sex life. Definitely keep the door open for his suggestions as to how to attain that. Ask him what he thinks about opening up the relationship and if, in fact, he’s at all interested in group sex. If he bites, tell him you have someone in mind. There are many ways to conduct an open relationship, and I find that a lot of couples like the we-only-play-together dynamic, because it allows everyone to be present for the extracurricular activities and leaves nothing to the punishing recesses of each party’s imagination.

I’d start there: A loving conversation that affirms the worth of maintaining the relationship, but honestly assesses the dissatisfying state of your sex life and sows seeds for improvement. The solution that would allow you to stay partners with this guy but have sex outside the relationship will probably require time, work, and communication, and it may bring its own drama—and this is the best-case scenario. The worst is that it will catalyze your breakup. But I can’t imagine you being truly happy just leaving things as they are, and I don’t think you can either. So get started on your home improvements.

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Dear How to Do It,

I have a technical question: After we have sex, there’s a ton of dead skin on my boyfriend’s penis (and on my vagina, and on my bed). He doesn’t feel anything, his penis doesn’t look like it’s peeling or anything, and nothing bothers him, but it’s like sex is aggressively exfoliating his penis. For context, our sex tends to be missionary, fairly aggressive, and fairly long duration; we use silicone-based lube because the water based dried up too fast and caused irritation for me. He also has a significant difficulty orgasming with a partner, so we usually just stop when one of us needs a break or water. He also doesn’t have health insurance, so seeing a doctor isn’t really an option for him. Is this likely to be a sign of something more serious?

—Flaky Frustration

Dear Flaky Frustration,

Unless his penis is so flaky that you can scratch the word “DRY” on it, you probably aren’t sloughing the skin off his dick with your vag. Your vagina, after all, is made of flesh, not pumice. I shared your question with my go-to urologist source, Dr. Charles Welliver, professor of surgery at Albany Medical College and an American Urological Association member, who agreed that it’s “pretty unlikely they are shedding that much skin despite what sounds like impressive sex.” He said that he suspects it could be smegma, if your boyfriend is uncircumcised and not particularly concerned with cleaning under his foreskin. He said it could also be your lube drying up and solidifying—an easy way to test that would be to change it up. You could try a different brand, or experiment with something like coconut oil since water-based lube didn’t work for you.

It really could be a matter of lube and your respective bodily fluids mixing together to make your own unique vaginal santorum. Could it be yeast or some infection (like bacterial vaginosis) on your part? That’s worth investigating—he doesn’t have health insurance, but assuming that you do, see your gynecologist to make sure the sex flakes you’re seeing aren’t of your body’s making.

Listen to Bim Adewunmi and Nichole Perkins discuss their feelings for John Boyega on Thirst Aid Kit.

Dear How to Do It,

I’m a woman in her late 40s. I have been married to my husband for close to 15 years, and I love him very much. The past five years have seen my sexual interest take a huge nosedive, and I don’t mean just the act of intercourse: I never fantasize, rarely masturbate, have no desire to be held or kissed, and I don’t see myself as a sexual person with any sexual needs at all. I’ve never had a high sex drive except for during my teen and early adulthood years. Because I’m in perimenopause, I thought this had something to do with hormones, but all my tests come back “normal.” I have struggled with anxiety and depression the past few years because of a series of family illnesses. I say this to recognize that my mental state surely must play a role in my desires, but as my sexual problem began before these illnesses happened, I can’t blame them.

I had eventually come around to the idea that perhaps my sexuality was changing, and I was swinging on the scale toward asexuality. I didn’t have a huge problem with that except as to how it impacted my partner. I do love him, and we do still have sex, though not as frequent as he would like. He respects how I feel, and is supportive as we have tried to figure this out. I had tentatively broached the topic of opening our marriage so he could fulfill his sexual needs, but he is opposed to the idea. But now something unexpected has happened: Within the past six months or so, I have started having very vivid sexual dreams and wake up very aroused, close to orgasm. If I were truly asexual, could I experience dreams like that? How can I be aroused in my dream state but never (and I mean never) when I’m awake?

The dreams aren’t wild—they are pretty vanilla actually and not even that graphic—so I don’t think it’s my unconscious trying to get me to pay attention to an unexplored desire. Is it my mind saying I’m not asexual and it literally is trying to find a way to reclaim that part of me that has been dead for years? Or is it like when one dreams one is a superhero saving the world? Sure, it’s nice, but it doesn’t make me a superhero in real life. Should I just be happy that I get some arousal even if it’s just in a dream? If I’m not asexual, how to I transition what my dream self tells me into real life?

—Heat of the Night

Dear Heat of the Night,

For some expert insight, I reached out to Julie Sondra Decker, whose writing on asexuality includes the 2014 book The Invisible Orientation: An Introduction to Asexuality. First, we could use some perspective on asexuality, in its most widely used definition. Decker wrote:

It’s a sexual orientation that means you don’t find people sexually attractive. If you’re asexual, it’s generally about who you’re attracted to—not whether you experience arousal or desire/accept sex. It’s not a synonym for “no sex drive,” and I found it difficult to respond to this from an asexuality standpoint because the wording seems to consistently use “asexual” to mean “not really interested in sex or excited by it.” I am not one to confirm or deny what someone’s orientation is, but it does sound to me like you are describing a sex drive fluctuation, not a change in sexual orientation.

As you are well aware, changes in hormones, particularly around menopause, can cause fluctuations in desire. That said, as Decker points out, “many asexual people experience erotic dreams and arousal.” Decker reminds you that “the label ‘asexual’ is free to use for anyone who feels it’s the best representation of their experiences,” so even if you don’t fit any sort of classic asexual mold, it’s OK for you to claim the orientation. I think for the sake of precision, thinking about your orientation in terms of your history (did you always suspect you were asexual, even when you were having sex?) and perhaps the bigger picture of asexuality (through reading) would probably be useful.

How much or little you’d like to do about your erotic dreams is really up to you. “Regardless of whether you’re asexual, that word shouldn’t be what holds you back from something you want,” wrote Decker. If you aren’t asexual and are experiencing female sexual interest/arousal disorder, a doctor can help you treat it (there are even prescription meds like flibanserin and bremelanotide, which are both approved for premenopausal women).

I’ll end where Decker’s email did because I thought she did a great job of organizing your potential next steps and how to further think about your situation:

If you regard what you’re going through as a problem you would like to solve in the direction of having a more active sex drive, I recommend at least some personal research into desire disorders and possibly contacting a specialist. If you prefer to conclude that you are asexual and your understanding of asexuality fits better with your concept of yourself, please know that asexual people can and do have sex dreams and sexual arousal sometimes. If you feel more comfortable identifying as asexual and keeping with the existing level of desire and sexual interest, sexual arousal isn’t uncommon among some asexual people, and you needn’t feel compelled to “do something” with sexual arousal from your subconscious if you don’t want to. (Conversely, if you do want to, there are options, and patterns like yours are established and probably familiar to those who would be able to help.) And it’s wonderful to know that your partner is supportive through all of this. You may wish to discuss some of this with him since he seems a compassionate person who really knows and understands you.

Good luck.

— Rich

More How to Do It

I’m a bisexual woman in my early 30s, and I’ve been in a relationship with an amazing woman for the past nine months. We both care about each other deeply, and it’s the happiest and most stable relationship I’ve ever been in. Here’s the thing, though: Before her, I’d only ever slept with and dated men, while she’s dated almost exclusively women. I feel painfully inexperienced compared to her, which is uncomfortable for me because I’m used to being the more experienced one. It kind of feels like being a virgin all over again. For what it’s worth, these worries are all coming from me—she has never made me feel bad about my bisexuality or my past relationships with men. But I can’t stop worrying. To me, the sex in our relationship is great—but what if she thinks something is lacking? Mostly, I worry that I might not be as good as her exes (several of whom are “gold star” lesbians). How do I compete with that?