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 have been with my husband (I’m a woman) for almost eight years. We are in our mid-30s, have a good relationship, and are happy. We communicate pretty well and are good partners and co-parents to our three young kids.
Now to the obvious “but”: Sex has started to gross me out. I can’t explain it, but it just seems so nasty. This isn’t really an issue of mismatched libidos—his is slightly higher than mine, but we have always compromised on this well. I still get horny and sometimes masturbate on my own a few times a week, which he doesn’t know about.
We have sex once or twice a week. He always finishes and I usually am able to, but I can’t get out of my head while we are doing it that it’s gross and nasty and sticky. I haven’t had this problem with other partners, but I have never had another really long relationship like this. I of course am at a different time in my life with kids and a full-fledged career. My feelings limit the amount we have sex and makes me feel sad and ashamed that I can’t move past this to let us have our best sex life. I also find it embarrassing that I feel this way. I am not some boring prude, but man am I stuck on this. What can I do?
We’ve covered the interaction between disgust and arousal in this column previously, so know that you’re not alone. I reached out to sex and relationship therapist Cyndi Darnell for some insight, and she sent me a paragraph from her upcoming book that feels relevant to your situation. Let’s put on our clinical hats.
“Studies have suggested that disgust is an ‘adaptive’ or learned psychological response to something outside of ourselves that compels us to move away from the object of our repulsion. In contrast, lust is also an adaptive response that compels us to move toward the object we find appealing,” she writes. “The cognitive links between ‘lust’ and ‘disgust’ have been shown to interact powerfully yet counterproductively within our brains and bodies when it comes to sex.”
The passage describes one study in which women were asked to perform certain “gross” acts (like taking a sip from a glass of water with an insect in it) and described less disgust for it when they were sexually aroused than when they weren’t. Darnell summarizes:
The study hypothesized that the presence of physical sexual arousal produced an effect within the body and mind that can override the “disgust” mechanism. This may explain how some of the most common “disgust” elicitors—open mouth kissing, sweat, oral sex juices, rimming (licking the anal opening) and bad body odor can be revolting in one moment and intoxicating in another. The trick is, for those for whom the space between those two places feels daunting, finding the motivation to get to the other side requires more than just will power, but actually involving the body in such a way as to produce arousal. This suggests that if full sexual arousal is present first, the disgust factor may be significantly reduced. This is great news for lovers whose erotic longings may appear to be mismatched.
In other words, you may have more success if you get yourself aroused before you and your husband begin any activity that comes with a squick factor for you. Or when you’re already aroused, you might approach your husband for sexual interaction over masturbation sometimes. You also might consider what’s different about masturbation for you and look for clues as to how you can carry that into partnered sex with your husband. If this persists, you might explore more strategies with a sex therapist of your own.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a straight man. I don’t have a very strong sex drive, but from time to time I do jerk off to relieve stress and like to watch porn to help get myself in the zone. The thing is that I almost always feel really guilty afterward. It’s not that the acts depicted seem nonconsensual or anything—this is mainstream stuff—but somehow it just makes me feel awful afterward, even though it’s hot while I’m watching. I think deep down it just feels exploitative. It’s almost like a compulsion, because I know how it makes me feel post-orgasm. (I will say that things like deep-throating are flat-out disturbing to me—I can hear performers gagging from time to time, and sometimes think I can see a look of worry flash over their faces for a moment as they try not to vomit.) Is there anything I can do to watch porn without feeling nasty and dirty afterward? Maybe a particular brand or performer? I never feel this way after sex with my wife, but we only do it about once a week.
Dear Dirty Mind,
Many jobs are inherently exploitative to some degree, including commercial pornography. Performers sign contracts that explicitly give permission to exploit the resulting media. But that’s true regardless of the industry. And to your specific worry, some performers prefer rough sex. Certainly not all, but some are quite happy to be deep-throating to the point where they nearly vomit. Others enjoy pushing their bodies to the limit for the satisfaction of the viewer. Just because the job involves sex doesn’t mean you need to make assumptions or feel guilty.
You can definitely seek out feminist, queer, and independent pornographers though. I’d say start with Pink & White Label’s VOD site for a good selection. I think you ought to try the OnlyFans and JustFor.Fans accounts of performers you find attractive. (Disclosure: I have an OnlyFans account.) You also might find cam performers an engaging sexual outlet. Essentially, any form of sexual media where the performers are running the show and therefore only beholden to the market (OK, and to the IRS, and to the bank, and to a couple of other entities, but overall more in charge than they are on a high production set for a mainstream company). You also might enjoy erotic fiction, but there’s still probably some “exploitation” in the process somewhere. There is all over our society.
Dear How to Do It,
I am engaged to my boyfriend of nine years. Our official wedding has been delayed because of the coronavirus, but we already consider ourselves “married”—we bought a home together and consider ourselves in a loving, monogamous, committed relationship. I am excited to get married and love my partner. He makes me incredibly happy and I know I can support and trust him in ANYTHING life throws at us (and it’s thrown a lot so far!). There isn’t anything I would change about our relationship.
The catch? He is the only person I have ever been with—both relationshipwise and sexually. I’ve always been self-conscious about this throughout our relationship. I find I go through phases where I’m OK with it and times when I really wish I could experience what it would be like to be with someone else (mainly sexually). I’m scared this feeling is going to live with me forever and won’t go away. I have tried to talk to my partner about it, and he is understanding. That said, there’s not much he can do about it, so I guess I’m a bit stuck. I’m worried this will affect our relationship long term and I’m also worried I will regret not having had sex with other people before being committed to one person for the rest of my life. Is there something I’m missing? Some way I can keep these feelings at bay or in check? My biggest fear is I will succumb to the temptation to seek this experience outside of the relationship, and I would hate myself if I ever did anything to hurt my partner. He’s a pretty traditional guy, so I’m not sure he would ever be open to an idea of an “open” relationship. Help!
—One and Done
Dear One and Done,
You’re not sure if your partner would be open to the idea of other liaisons, but you haven’t asked. It’s worth a discussion. Pick a time when both of you are able to focus and are calm. Reiterate your commitment to the relationship. Share your worries and consternation. See what your partner has to say. He might surprise you.
But what do you think you’re going to find if you have sex with another person? Experience? Greater sexual pleasure? Whatever it is, think through the best possible version of it. Make it glorious and perfect in your imagination. Now understand that that almost certainly won’t be the case. Realistically, you’ll have an awkward genital mashing session in which you’re struggling to find each other’s rhythm and pace. It’s easy to build things up in our heads to be amazing, and the reality is usually less than we’d hoped for. If your partner is open to this and you do go ahead, you can talk through more of what it might look like—bringing in a third, perhaps, or vetting a buddy to try on your own—but another sexual encounter alone probably won’t quell your anxiety.
As for how you’ll prevent yourself from stepping out on your partner, simply don’t do it. Every day, you make the choice to honor your commitment. Every day, you decide to behave in accordance with your vows. You’re very committed to each other—trust your partner, be honest, and work through this together.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m 21 and still a virgin. Most of the time, it doesn’t bother me. Every once in awhile, though, I get the urge to try a dating app or two. Then my anxiety gets in the way and I give up. I’m scared I’ll be awful at it, or I won’t be so attracted to dates in person. Now that COVID-19 has me living with my family for possibly a long time, I’m kicking myself for not just taking the plunge earlier. Whenever I had the prospect of a hookup, in person or online, I froze up. If someone expressed interest in me, I got nervous. I wish I could have the same confidence as my friends, but they lost theirs in relationships or in high school. I know there’s nothing wrong with not having had sex yet, but I feel like I just wasted time. For whenever this is all over, how can I get over my anxiety about losing my virginity and going for casual hookups?
The way you describe the anxiety you feel as “yours” makes me wonder if you experience anxiety in other areas of your life. If so, now’s a great time to start working with a therapist on how anxiety affects your life and ways to mitigate it. If you’re able, tele-sessions aren’t a bad way to start right now while you have the time.
Have you spoken with your friends about how their first sexual experiences happened and how they felt beforehand? My suspicion is that they were a lot more nervous than you’re imagining they. The first time we have sex with a person—no matter how experienced we are now—we’re starting from scratch and figuring out what they enjoy.
When you freeze, is there something specific in your mind? A particular fear? If so, keep track of these feelings for later. When you’re able, it’s worth thinking through the concern and applying logic. Maybe you’re afraid it’ll hurt—and you can intellectually know that that pain will be temporary and may not even occur. Maybe you’re afraid you’ll get stage fright and not have an erection; that’s OK. You can do all sorts of other pleasurable activities. Come up with plans for worst-case scenarios, even though you’ll probably never need to use them.
Do you tell prospective hookups that it’ll be your first time? You might find that being transparent about this helps you feel calmer. It’s worth a try, at least, when you do try to date again. I wouldn’t go so far as to list it in your presumably short dating profile, but an early mention seems prudent. You might find someone who is overjoyed at the idea of shepherding you through your first erotic excursion.
And I’m pretty sure you haven’t wasted time. You’re 21. I think you’ve been doing other things that are just as important as fostering your sexuality.
More How to Do It
I’m a straight, single guy in a casual relationship that’s been going on for almost a year. “Peggy” and I hang out two or three times a month. We enjoy each other’s company tremendously and the sex is great, especially oral, which we both dig giving and receiving. Here’s the issue: The last time Peggy slept over at my place, she woke me up with a blow job. Now, being asleep, I couldn’t technically give consent. I didn’t feel violated or victimized though—actually, I felt fantastic. It beat the hell out of any of my phone’s ring-tone alarms. After she finished, she acted like it was no big deal and we snuggled until I was ready to reciprocate. My question is this: Since she introduced the act, is it OK for me to return the favor by going down on her the next time I wake up before she does? My instinct is that since she’s already taken the initiative with me, she’ll be receptive, but I’m concerned about the questions of consent and physical power imbalance, and I certainly don’t want to do anything to make her feel violated or victimized. (I know that the obvious answer would be to ask her permission the night before, but that’d spoil the surprise.)