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 lucky to be in a truly amazing marriage. I’m a man in my mid-40s, and my wife is the same age. We’ve been together nine years, married for six. We get along well and make each other laugh, and our sex life has always been very hot and blissfully satisfying. I’ve never thought that I was missing anything, and I honestly haven’t felt a strong attraction or lust for anyone else since we got together. Having such a smart, beautiful woman want me in her life, put such effort into spoiling me sexually, and make sure that I know what she wants and how to please her is already more than I ever expected from a relationship. It’s magical, and I don’t want to risk damaging the bond that we have—but it’s starting to seem like taking some risks could be a lot of fun.
My wife has a best friend, “Jim,” who is a gay man. She and Jim have been very close since they were teenagers and tell each other everything. Jim has been in a committed relationship for more than 15 years, and I’ve grown close to Jim and his partner. My wife has mentioned a few times that she envies the way that Jim and his partner are able to include other men in their sex life without harming their relationship. She would talk about how much fun they have and how exciting it must be, but always followed with “I just don’t think straight couples can navigate that as easily, especially if one or both don’t want to do same-sex stuff. It would be so much fun, but how could we not screw up what we have together?” I basically agreed that it sounds fun in theory but seems risky, and we left it at that.
The other night, we were having sex, and we could hear our neighbors in the shared yard outside the window, and we were both turned on by the “audience” and the struggle to have sex quietly. (It was amazing sex even by our standards, and I don’t think we succeeded at being discreet.) In the middle of this, my wife started telling me that when she masturbates, she imagines me having sex with other women and wanted me to describe what I would do with another girl while she watched. Needless to say, this was all incredibly hot and ended up being some of the best sex we ever had. I don’t know if this will stay just a shared fantasy for us, but I think we have to at least explore the idea further. How do we prepare ourselves to cross that line (after this pandemic is over, obviously)? How do we prevent succumbing to jealousy, or altering our relationship in a way that we’ll regret? And how on earth do we find the right person to join us, especially the first time?
Dear Grand Opening,
The first thing I want you to know is that alterations to the relationship can be reversed. In the same way that you can alter the relationship you currently have, you can alter it again if the first alteration isn’t working. You can even frame a change as an experiment: “We’re going to have one sexual experience involving another person, wait a couple of weeks to see how we feel, and discuss future possibilities from there.”
Have these talks outside the bedroom, when both of you are in a calm, focused state. Don’t take anything said during sex as permission or a statement of intent. Do have conversations during nonsexual times that talk about qualms, fears, fantasies, and what you’d both like to do with all of those feelings. Read a couple of polyamory books—start with The Ethical Slut—together and talk about what might work for you and what feels wrong.
I’m wondering if the two of you might enjoy having sex together at a club where everyone is consenting to watch, like a swingers club or other sex-positive private space. Happily, performing a good scene together in a public space is just the sort of thing that might entice thirds to approach the two of you for flirtation. You’ll want to discuss thoroughly how far the two of you will go on your first adventure before you embark on it.
Jealousy will probably happen. The thing to do is mark that jealousy, sit with it, and share your feelings and concerns with your partner. Good luck.
Dear How to Do It,
I think I’m broken. I’ve been on antidepressants for nearly 25 years now, and after multiple attempts to wean myself off (under a doctor’s supervision), I’ve come to the realization that I’m going to be on these for life if I want to stay functional. The trouble is the sexual side effects, including the impact on my sex drive. This is common, and once upon a time it was manageable, but as I’ve gotten older—well, the ardor hath diminished and the side effects have prevailed. I’m no longer interested in sex—not with my wife, not with anyone else. Occasionally I get some transient horniness and can masturbate to orgasm, but that’s no more than a couple times a month, and the orgasm is weirdly unsatisfying; the more common outcome is that I just give up and do something else.
Obviously, there are things I could potentially do for her, but to tell the truth, the whole messy enterprise seems absurd to me now—a deeply weird thing for human beings to do. The notion that married couples have sex a few times a week (or even a few times a month) is implausible to me on some gut level.
My wife is … not really OK with this. She’s sympathetic—she’s a biologist and knows about the pharmacology involved—but she wants a sex life, and it clearly bothers her that we don’t really have one. I’m sympathetic too. I can vaguely remember what sexual frustration felt like, and it creeps into all aspects of our life. Neither of us is OK with an open relationship. Help?
—Unhot and Unbothered
Dear Unhot and Unbothered,
Before we dig in, I want to make sure that you’ve tried—under the supervision of an actual psychiatrist—all the antidepressants available to you. A primary care physician can be absolutely functional at treating clinical depression, but a psychiatrist who focuses on specifically psychotropic medication might be able to help you find something that works but doesn’t dampen your interest in sex.
If that’s the case, you may find solace in the asexual communities. There are other people in the world who aren’t interested in sex, and many may also feel that sex is a messy enterprise and a deeply weird thing for humans to do. Frankly, it’s a weird thing for those of us who are into it, if we take a minute to think about the description of sex on paper. “So, you’re going to rub this little nubbin until I’m lubricated, and then you’re going to put a small appendage inside me, and then we’re going to grind our pelvises together for a while until we both experience a pinnacle of good feeling.” It’s weird. Fun, for many of us, but weird. It might help to talk to other people who aren’t interested in sex and may be navigating similar situations you’re in with partners who desire sex.
Since neither you nor your wife is OK with opening up the relationship, I’m hoping you can find a way of giving your wife sexual connection without going past what you’re comfortable with. Can you give your wife oral and digital stimulation, or is that just too much? Incorporating props and toys might help as well. You can also hold her while she masturbates. If none of that works, you can maintain your connection through nonsexual intimate touch. Make sure that both of you understand that touching doesn’t necessarily mean the initiation of sex, and then get to it. Wash her hair. Give each other massages. Snuggle up. Tangle your feet together on the couch or in bed.
But I’m also curious why the two of you aren’t OK with opening up. I’m wondering if there might be some misconceptions about how an open relationship works. The options are endless. You both get to design your own boundaries and state your own limits. The relationship rules can be written exactly to your collective comfort. Something to think about.
Dear How to Do It,
I have a problem that has plagued my sex life since I’ve had one. From a young age, my sexual fantasies—during sex with others and masturbation—have centered on people who repulse me in real life. After dreaming up a fantasy in which I get it on with a perverted man—or a colleague who grosses me out in real life, you name it—to reach orgasm, I am in turn repulsed by myself.
The fantasy morphs into something else entirely when I’m dating someone, a fantasy in which I play a small role—or from which I am absent from altogether. I must imagine my sexual partner is cheating on me with another woman; the woman in the fantasy has shape-shifted throughout my relationships, molding to whatever I, rationally or not, surmise to be the perfect woman in my partner’s eyes. The woman is never me, and often nothing like me. I only appear in the fantasy if I am catching them in the act or having sex with someone I’m repulsed by in real life. It’s cut and dried. One or the other. It is near impossible—and I stress that—for me to climax during sex or masturbation without fantasizing about a situation that would emotionally destroy me were it to occur in real life.
I fear I am broken, like my wires got mixed up. Some friends have advised me that it doesn’t matter, “whatever gets you there.” That I could even have fun with it. But I have a pretty hefty sexual appetite, and these fantasies have only ever left me with a feeling of deep sadness afterward. My therapist, a man, told me to focus less on reaching orgasm, to try to be present: “Life’s about the journey,” and so on. But let’s be real: In sex, I want to reach the destination. For context: I’m 30. Considered good-looking. (I personally go back-and-forth on it.) And in my current relationship, I have no reason to question my partner’s sexual desire for me. None of it seem to make a difference. I am jealous by default, and I get paranoid. I’ve just started seeing someone whom I’ve been friends with for a long time, and already I’m becoming paranoid of other women and questioning my worth in ways I didn’t when I was single—in tandem with the fantasies starting. I really want to be there with him, and I fear this problem is unsolvable. Please help.
Dear Lizard Brain,
I mostly agree with your friends. Mostly. “Whatever gets you there”—unless it distresses you. If it distresses you, I think a different, sex-positive therapist is the way to go. It’ll probably take a bit for you and the therapist to feel comfortable with you, and you might have to try a couple before you find one who can help, but once you’ve established a relationship, you’ll have someone to help you work through connections between shame and arousal, and the feelings that result from your unwanted fantasies. Know that we’ve received other letters like yours, and you’re not alone or broken. I can’t offer a magic fix—there could be so many things going on, and so many solutions—but I do believe you can make progress with the right therapist.
In the meantime, you might also try going on a search for new fantasies. Websites like Literotica are full of erotic stories about various kinks, and there’s a ton of ethically made porn available online. Next time you feel like masturbating, you might try scrolling through new-to-you ideas in the hopes that something might pique your interest and be a functional substitute for these fantasies that bum you out.
Dear How to Do It,
I’ve been with my boyfriend for six years. In our second year together, while I was still in med school, we had a baby but lost it. Things have been difficult for me emotionally since then because I knew I wasn’t ready for a baby at the time, but losing it still stung and hurt me in unimaginable ways. I also had to go under the knife for the first time to have it removed, so it was kind of traumatic. My boyfriend was nothing short of supportive, caring, and understanding. But after this event, it clicked for me that we had different levels of libido. Naturally, after the operation, we took some time off and didn’t do it as often because of my fears. But slowly, as I found my sexual (and physical) confidence again, I noticed that he wasn’t as adventurous and horny as me. I know that nothing really changed for him, since he’s always been at this level, ever since we got together. But after years of processing my trauma, working out, gaining confidence—basically working on myself to regain my composure and self-worth—I realized that he will always treat me as this delicate flower, not this sexy, confident, alpha woman I always was deep down. I can’t help but feel rejected every time he doesn’t respond positively to me sending nudes or acting friskier than usual (he’s more vanilla than I am now), and we can’t even talk about sex is a normal, erotic way. It has to be scheduled and refined. He’s not spontaneous. He’s loving, understanding, and everything I want. But I can’t help resenting him for not reciprocating my level of sexual confidence, when he put me on this path in the first place. I really don’t know if this is a deal-breaker.
I can’t make this choice for you, but I might be able to help you think through it.
Is sex important to you? Partnered sex? How important? Pick up a pen and start writing about how you feel about sexuality. Fill a notebook page. Make a list of everything you want in a romantic partner. Is sex on there? What kinds of sex? And lastly, make a list of everything good about your boyfriend. Now compare these two lists. Are you getting everything you want? How about just everything you need?
If there’s a close match, aside from your inability to talk about sex in an erotic way, you might want to keep trying to make the relationship function for you. You might go to your boyfriend and say: “Hey, I need to be able to discuss sex. Can we talk about how we aren’t talking? Is there reluctance on your end?” If it isn’t a close match, you might decide to move on. You also might decide to stay. It’s entirely up to you.
If you do decide to continue in this relationship, I encourage you to broach the delicate flower issue. Tell him you’ve grown and are stronger and more solid than you were when the two of you started dating. Ask him to give you space to stand on your own two feet and see your confidence. It might take a while for him to internalize your newfound alpha-ness, and remember, even alphas need care and love.
More How to Do It
I’m a 29-year-old man engaged to a beautiful 28-year-old woman who has an odd habit: She feels compelled to shave herself before every time we have sex. It makes no difference to me whether she has body hair or not, and I’ve tried to gently tell her so on multiple occasions, but she gets anxious and says she needs to shave before she can feel beautiful or attractive. Typically, things will start to get frisky, and then she’ll disappear into the bathroom for 15 to 20 minutes while I’m left on the couch to read a book. I just want her to love herself as much as I love her. Is her habit even a healthy thing to do?