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 wife and I have been married for 40 some years and retirement is near. We have (now adult) children, so sex hasn’t been off the table. But sex has never been a priority for her. She’s not into much of anything beyond, “Stick it in, and don’t take too long.”
I will admit: I’ve strayed a bit in the past. I’m not proud of it, but I can’t apologize. It is a fact. I’ve been careful, safe, and never disrespectful of her during my interludes. I haven’t used my few “friends.” We remain on good terms.
But I’m not doing that now, and I want to focus on my wife. We are a good couple in most ways. We raised great children, and we share political views. We are of the same mind on finances and have built a good nest egg. We’re not rich, but don’t have any real financial worries. I have plenty of shortcomings, and I have always deferred to her. I smoke and drink, neither of which she cares for. That said, I’ve been a professional man, earning a fair income, and been a good father. I wash dishes. I sweep the floor. We had our children later in life. We put the kids first. We focused on them and the household, not ourselves. But suddenly, the kids are gone, and we’re in our 60s.
Now that I’ve turned my attention to my wife, I’m not sure how to proceed. She doesn’t like deep kissing. She doesn’t like giving or getting oral sex. She doesn’t like fingering. Extended sex “hurts” (even though my size is entirely average). I haven’t even considered asking about ass play. And now we’re alone. It keeps getting worse: She yanks me for a while, I get hard, and then wilt when it’s time for penetration. She says I’m getting old. True. I told her that as one ages, sex is more about the mind than the testosterone. Frankly, I can’t get hard thinking about doing a wet pillow. My question: Can you give me suggestions on how to have a conversation, and take an approach, that reflects both her issues and mine? I fear the “golden years” absent of fun and play.
—Not Dead Yet
Dear Not Dead Yet,
You should both see doctors. You to make sure there isn’t an underlying medical issue causing your willy to wilt, and her to make sure there isn’t an underlying medical issue causing sex to be painful.
The physical part might be simple: If you are healthy, E.D. drugs could help offset the changing hormones you mention. You’re using lube when you have sex, right? If not, for many women, that’s crucial for pleasurable sex, especially as they get older.
You’ll have to have a conversation with your wife to encourage her to see the doctor. You have options ranging from “This advice columnist I wrote to says please go for a sexual health checkup” through to “I love being close with you, sexually, and I want to make sure there’s nothing physical preventing you from enjoying sex.” Maybe a combination. Tell her you’ll go too.
Presuming there’s nothing physical, you’ll want to have another talk. Have you ever conversed significantly about sex? If so, you can draw on what’s been successful in the past—success being defined as open, calm discussion. If not, there’s a place to start: “We’ve never really talked about sex, and I’m curious about your feelings and thoughts.” Or a simple “Can we talk about sex?”
She might be experiencing pain that she doesn’t have to. She might think enjoying sexuality is shameful or dirty. Her own hormones may be changing her appetite for sex, though you say this has long been an issue. She might be asexual—not interested in sex—and having sex out of a sense of duty. You won’t know until you talk about it.
If your wife is uninterested in sex, you might ask how she feels about you taking other lovers. If she doesn’t mind, wouldn’t it be nice to have your sexual appetites met and be transparent about it? Because to be clear, if you were stepping out without her knowledge, that was definitely disrespectful.
Dear How to Do It,
I am a single mom on the brink of turning 40 this year, and excited about it! I love my career; I think I’m doing a great job raising my teenage son; I have hobbies and interests that keep me active and mentally stimulated; I am healthy; and I believe I am attractive. That said, I have an extremely hard time dating, or finding a connection with a man. I am what some might consider Type A. I am an alpha in most areas of my life, except relationships. I really truly enjoy traditional gender roles in a relationship. But I don’t think anyone takes the time to learn that about me. I was engaged once, and we did have a balanced, very healthy (in many ways) partnership. Our families could not blend, so we broke up. I have coped and done some very serious healing and wouldn’t be trying to date if I wasn’t ready. Prior to meeting my ex-fiancé, I encountered the same thing that I am currently experiencing. But he just understood me, and he was strong but not cocky or dominant. He brought out a very soft and feminine side of me.
So naturally I’m inclined to believe that someone out there could do the same—or maybe I’m fooling myself. I hear men say they want a strong, independent woman. But I find that the more they say it, the less likely they are to know what to do with a strong independent woman. This has been my own personal experience. I am mindful while still being myself when I meet men. I am open, pleasant, and can carry a conversation. I’m just feeling so discouraged. I feel like being who I am is a turn off. I have literally had men list all the reasons they’re attracted to me, tell me I’m relationship material, or even wife material, then go dark. Poof! Gone! So now I think it’s just a line and am turned off by dating all together. I’ve internalized this into thinking there’s something wrong with me. I tried something different, and the one time I actually told someone that I prefer traditional male-female roles—that I don’t like to “wear the pants” in a relationship—he misconstrued that as I want to be controlled. That ended quickly. Is being what society considers “strong and independent” really such a turn off? I love my life, and I would love to share it with the right person.
—Alpha in the Streets
Dear Alpha in the Streets,
You sound understandably frustrated. Dating, a process of sorting through various potential matches to find someone close enough to our needs and desires, sometimes takes longer than we’d like. It might make sense to take a break from dating for a little while to breathe and recover your self-esteem.
I’m wondering if you might consider putting your most soft and feminine foot forward. Rather than waiting for a man to bring it out, you would present it and see how he responds. The idea here is that this softness is, in fact, a part of you, not something spontaneously created by interaction with the right man. Your sartorial signals can be useful—dresses, soft blouses, and skirts. If you wear makeup you might make it softer, and if you don’t, you might use a little mascara. Make space for the kind of behavior you’re looking for—for instance, giving him a beat to open your door.
And there are ways of communicating your preference for traditional gender roles that might be more effective than “I don’t like to wear the pants.” Specifics seem helpful here—do you want to be ordered for at dinner? Do you like forward expressions of sexuality? Is it more about protective body language, such as keeping you on the building side of the sidewalk? Make a list of all these man things you’re into, and a list of all the lady things you like doing, and be prepared to be precise about this when you’re sharing who you are with your next date.
You will almost certainly encounter a few men who think you want to be controlled or mistreated. You seem like you know how to handle that. Remember that you’re equally getting to know each other, not going on auditions. And I’m sorry that it’s so hard to find a mate.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a 24-year-old Muslim woman. In my part of the community, sex has always been a “dirty, sinful” act, which ended up with me developing a judgmental attitude toward sex. Although I’m open-minded and acknowledge the fact that every woman has her right to explore herself—I’m horny all the time and had a few attempts to have sex, but couldn’t—I can’t stop feeling like a whore. I grew up with my mother telling me I would be cheap and nobody would wife me up if I had premarital sex. I lost my confidence. My logic and feelings conflict all the time. I’m angry with myself for allowing others’ thoughts lead to feelings that don’t actually belong to me. I can’t help but judge even myself for thinking about exciting and out-of-the-box sexual fantasies. In my community, your personal desires should literally die after giving birth. I even feel horrible after masturbating when my family is home. How do I not judge myself and not feel awful for having such sexual appetite?
Dear Not Cheap,
You can know that you’re doing something healthy and feel shame at the same time. You can believe sex is a positive aspect of life and fear the disapproval of your parents or religion. Many religions frame sex outside of a committed, monogamous marriage as bad, but you say you’re open-minded and assert a right for women to explore themselves. Logically, you believe that sex isn’t bad. You know that masturbation is a healthy practice. Acknowledging that your feelings aren’t logical might help.
Jesse Bering, in the book Perv, talks about disgust and arousal having an opposing relationship—arousal squashes disgust, and disgust returns soon after orgasm. I wonder if you’re experiencing something similar, with negative feelings creeping back in once you’ve climaxed. I think you should sit with those feelings for a bit the next time they happen. Listen to them and observe them. “OK, I’m angry, and that’s OK. OK, I’m ashamed, and that’s OK.” If you feel like writing or typing your feelings out, do that, but be cautious of discovery, since it sounds like you still live with family. See if your relationship to these feelings changes as you sit with or express them.
If masturbating when your family is home makes you feel worse than when they’re gone, choose your times wisely.
Another thing you can do is interrogate your own thoughts about sex. If your philosophy around the subject is shaky, those doubts have more fertile ground. Ask yourself why you believe sexual pleasure is a right for women. Ask yourself why you have a sexual appetite at all, and why you have an organ that as near as science can tell is solely for pleasure. Develop your thinking around sex. Be prepared to answer yourself when that little doubting voice appears.
Dear How to Do It,
My wife and I have been married for nearly 14 years. We married in our early 20s and are both products of a fairly religious upbringing. We were both virgins before we were married, and while we had dated other people before marriage, the most that had ever happened with other people was heavy making out. Despite internalized religious pressures of “purity” and lack of experience on both our parts, good sex actually came relatively easy for us. We had talked about it extensively before we were wed and have tried, over the last decade and a half, to keep communications open and evolve our sex life with our lives. We mutually left our religion a number of years ago and my wife came out as bisexual. We’ve technically had an open marriage for running on five years so she could explore that side of herself. She’s had a few girlfriends, while I’ve been content to stay monogamous to her.
So, what’s the issue? While she doesn’t have any problem talking about sex, initiating sex in any way has been a major hurdle for my wife. She says she’s too shy to ask for it, and prefers that I initiate. I’m generally fine with this, and it has worked out all right, but it has led to some friction since it sometimes leaves me feeling undesired. If I don’t ask for sexual intimacy, it just doesn’t happen. We can go weeks or months without it. While her libido is certainly lower than mine (she says she’s good with about once a week, while I would prefer daily—this is fine, we get it, libidos are different), she does get sexually frustrated with long gaps and wants sex but just can’t bring herself to ask for it.
I’ve tried to approach this from various angles, and we’ve talked about ways to make her feel more comfortable. But nothing seems to change how she feels—and she feels too shy to initiate sex or any other kind of sexual intimacy. Even kissing. We used to kiss a lot when we were dating and first married; but now we rarely kiss more than a second or two. Again, she says she’s just too shy to kiss—it makes her embarrassed. We’ve talked about if there are any physical issues (e.g., she’s self-conscious about her breath or that she doesn’t like my beard, etc.), but she says it’s none of those things, just her shyness.
It’s unfortunately also interrupted her other relationships outside our marriage. Her last girlfriend and her broke up in part because she wanted her girlfriend to do all the initiating and was too shy to kiss. Any advice or recommendations on how she can feel less shy and embarrassed about even small acts of intimacy and about initiating sex when she wants it?
—Rarely Been Kissed
The fact that you’re writing in and not your wife is raising a flag for me. I suppose it is possible that she’s also too shy to reach out, but it sounds like you’ve talked about it, your wife has told you what she needs, and you’ve chosen to magnify the issue.
I have all sorts of questions. I want to know if she became shyer after marrying you. I want to know if anything happened to cause that change. If she was this shy when the two of you were dating, how was she overcoming it to kiss you then, and what’s the issue with applying those same tactics now? And what about kissing is embarrassing for her? The attention? The fact that touching our mouths to other people’s mouths is actually pretty weird when you stop to think about it? Does she see her inability to initiate sex as a problem?
Without more information, it’s hard to know how to help, but maybe she can write back with responses to some of my questions. I’d love that.
More How to Do It
I don’t know exactly how to come to grips with something that happened last night. I have been with my boyfriend for about five years. We are exact polar opposites of each other: I’m emotional and feeling; he’s not really emotional or feeling in the way I am, although I know he does love me and care about me. Last year, we were having sex about once a month, and I felt very distant from him. I asked him what I could do so that we were intimate more often and he said, “Nothing, we’re just really busy” (we were, to be fair). After that, he seemed to be more conscious about sex, and we were having sex an average of once a week. Now, for the last month, things cooled down again. Last night, I told him that I’d really like to work through this. I asked him if this had been a problem in past relationships. He said no. I asked him to please tell me why we didn’t have sex more so I could fix it. I could tell he wanted to say something, but he wasn’t going to. I asked again, and what he said devastated me.