How to Do It

I Feel Bad About This, but My Boyfriend Is Ugly

We’ve been together 13 years.

A man with a grimace emoji over his face.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ranta Images/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 am a 34-year-old woman and I’ve been with my boyfriend for 13 years. We don’t have kids (yet), we have a great relationship, the sex is always good, and we hardly fight. I honestly cannot complain: He’s the type of man every woman would want. He’s caring, very thoughtful, funny—I could keep going, but you get the point. Anyway, I feel bad for even thinking this way, but I am and never have really been physically attracted to him. Over time we both have gained weight and let ourselves go a little, but as we get older, I am getting less attracted. I know people will probably wonder how I stayed with someone for so long whom I never thought was cute or handsome, but I was attracted to his personality and his love for me, and that’s what matters, right? Now, I find myself looking at other men online, and on the street, I wish my man looked like them or had some of their features. I really wish I didn’t feel this way—I feel extremely shallow. I want to look at him and have the desire to rip his clothes off, but I look at him and sometimes say to myself, “He’s ugly.” I don’t want to have these thoughts in my head—they’re mean and selfish—and I could never bring myself to tell him to his face that I think he’s ugly. Please help!

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—Shrek

Dear Shrek,

I’m about to be that guy who invokes The Simpsons in his advice column (in 2020, no less). I understand if you, or anyone else reading, never wants to speak to me again. The B-plot of Season 7’s “Lisa Gets an ‘A’ ” involved Homer buying a small supermarket lobster that he planned on fattening up before eating, thus paying a small price for an eventually large lobster. Homer’s plan kinked when he developed a fondness for the crustacean that he named Mr. Pinchy. In one scene, he attempted to convince Marge of his new pet’s charms by thrusting Pinchy in her face to show her how cute he was. What Marge saw was a giant bottom-dwelling war bug with beady eyes and disconcertingly roving antennae; what Homer saw was a smiling little sea puppy replete with saucer eyes and dainty little lashes. Cute as a button. That’s love: finding a lobster cute.

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I use this example because I like thinking about Pinchy but also because it’s a way of illustrating the relatively common wisdom that the more you look at someone, the more attractive they become to you. (I realize that common wisdom also says “familiarity breeds contempt,” but let’s not focus on that wisdom right now.) There’s even some data to back up the flattering effects of prolonged gaze. I would assume this would be especially so with someone whom you get along and have always good sex with. So in your case, the first thing I’d look at is whether your relationship is really as great as you make it out to be, or if your physical repulsion is indicative of a greater issue. This is not necessarily so, and your experience can certainly deviate from what studies suggest, but I just make sure that you’re, in fact, square there.

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You chose a guy who was less physically attractive because of his abundance of other qualities that are unrelated to his appearance. However, these traits—his caring, thoughtfulness, and humor—were nonetheless attractive in their own collective way. They attracted you. The stark rarity of human perfection makes choosing a partner a negotiation. You will inevitably have to forgive shortcomings for the sake of getting the rest of the package. You picked a boyfriend for reasons that many would qualify as mature and nonsuperficial. And now things have changed. Maybe you’re not the person you thought you were; maybe your priorities have shifted; maybe you’ve spent too many fertile, horny years with a dude who doesn’t exactly water your plant. The high-minded, rational advice would be for you to appreciate what you have (a guy who is everything but hot), not what you don’t (a guy who is simply hot), but I know how important attraction can be in relationships.

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If the relationship really is otherwise great and yet you’re still just not into him, I feel that this issue will continue to plague you. If you don’t want to live in this state, consider finding a new partner. That would be really sad, but what else can you do? You can’t rearrange his face—only your situation.

Listen to the story of Bim Adewunmi’s foundational thirst objects on Thirst Aid Kit.

Dear How to Do It,

I’m a single man in my late 30s who never has really been close to marriage. I’m very much an alpha, and while I have had many girlfriends and lovers, I’m getting to the point where I would like to find someone to settle down with. My problem at this point is my options. I am employed by the federal government. When I first started way back in the early 2000s, I was a basic employee. So finding women at work was fairly easy—but now I’m in an upper-management position. And as part of my code of conduct, I cannot date anyone who is a subordinate (even though I’ve broken that rule in the past). So that cuts my options at work to practically nil. However, I will get women subordinates flirting with me, making suggestive comments like “You have big hands,” “What’s your shoe size,” etc. I don’t even acknowledge them for fear of being a #MeToo statistic. So, it brings me to my next point. I know that as an alpha male, I can be difficult to be with in relationships. I’m sure you know all about alphas, and I don’t need to explain the reasons. How do I find someone who can understand me and mesh with me so I don’t get on their nerves too much? And what type of women, personalitywise, should I be searching for? I’m tired of driving women away, but I can’t seem to help it. Does it have anything to do with my younger years, when I preferred jumping from girl to girl and not wanting anything exclusive? Or is it just part of being an alpha male?

—Alpha Dog

Dear Alpha Dog,

I actually don’t know all about alpha males, and I’m not convinced there’s a difference between someone who believes he is so special that it is his destiny to control and dominate every situation and a garden-variety asshole. No offense. (Though I’m sure that, as an alpha, you can take it.) I also wonder what the women who’ve been with you would say about the existence of such a difference.

You write that you’re an “alpha male” several times like this is a fixed state of being, like “alpha male” is what you were put on Earth to be. If you’re alienating people and not getting what you want, how alpha are you, actually? What separates the illusion of superiority and endless confidence from straight-up delusion is net results. And bro, you’re struggling with those, hence you writing into an advice column.

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I think you’re better off divesting yourself from this “alpha” picture in your head, which I’m sure diverges from behavior seen in other species alphas. In a 2017 TEDMED Talk, primatologist Frans de Waal (whose book Chimpanzee Politics helped popularize the term alpha male) discusses how the alpha male chimps he observed weren’t the bullies that so often self-designated human alpha males tend to be. Instead, the chimp alphas are diplomatic and highly empathetic. They make their fellow chimps, particularly those with low social standing, feel seen. Leadership! Meanwhile, multiple studies on women’s perception of human alpha males and the traits associated with them found that dominance was most attractive to female respondees when it came with prosocial behaviors. In an analysis of the studies, University of California–Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine reported, “Taken together, the research suggests that the ideal man (for a date or romantic partner) is one who is assertive, confident, easygoing, and sensitive, without being aggressive, demanding, dominant, quiet, shy, or submissive.”

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Given what you’ve written, I think some tinkering under your hood is in order. You cannot underestimate the value of kindness—it could only fortify your cause and end up making you look stronger. If you’re difficult because you’re alpha, it’s in your best interest to be less alpha, or at least to expand your definition. Start by being less concerned about becoming a #MeToo statistic and more concerned with the well-being of women who have been systematically abused and exploited since the dawn of civilization as we know it. Just a tip!

Dear How to Do It,

I’m a 40-ish-year-old man. About 10 years ago, after a failed marriage, I embraced the fact that I am a submissive cross-dresser who is attracted to dominant men. After years of anonymous sex, one-night stands, and a couple of bad relationships, I met a wonderful dominant man who enjoys me being me. We have been together for almost one year. We live separately, but pre-virus, I would see him almost every day and would spend weekends at his house. He would have anal sex with me about five times a week, out of which I might orgasm at least once, sometimes more often.

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Since the virus, I have been laid off and he is working from home. We see much more of each other; I might spend a couple weeknights at his house. He is having a lot more sex with me, 10 or more times a week. He enjoys being dominant and having sex at his demand, and I really enjoy being there for him, but I have not had an orgasm for quite some time: about six weeks. I get erect, and sometimes I feel close, but it just doesn’t happen. Being able to orgasm from receiving anal sex is a big bonus for me because we practice orgasm control/denial, and he has always allowed these orgasms. I’m nervous now that I have lost my ability to orgasm from anal sex—it has started to get in my head when he does have sex with me. I don’t know what is going on—stress maybe, or can all the sex be dulling my sensitivity? I want my orgasms back.

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—CD Troubles

Dear CD Troubles,

Whenever we see changes in our physiology, it’s a good idea to visit a doctor, because such changes may indicate an underlying condition. So try that first. Anorgasmia (sometimes referred to as delayed orgasm or delayed ejaculation) is often treated by proxy, targeting its causes. Hyperstimulation, often as a result of masturbation, is one of the said causes, so perhaps the increased frequency of sex is affecting you. More likely, though, is a psychological cause like anxiety. That you’re becoming anxious at your inability to orgasm may likely be making your ability to orgasm less likely. These kinds of vicious circles decimate sexual satisfaction. Another common cause of anorgasmia is antidepressant medication.

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And could the stress of a pandemic and what feels for many of us like imminent apocalypse be affecting your performance? Sure could! I wish I could help you out with that one, but it’s bigger than me. At least we’re “all in this together,” and in a way, your delayed orgasm is a metaphor for how dissatisfying this year has been for so many of us. Again, that doesn’t help you, but know that your pain is felt far and wide.

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Dear How to Do It,

I am a woman and I suffer from terrible, lifelong difficulties with insomnia. One of the things that triggers my insomnia is having an orgasm. If I have an orgasm from sex at night, I won’t be able to nod off for a good two hours or more, which can also lead to half-the-night insomnia. (Apparently I am not alone in this, and other women find orgasms energizing rather than the reverse.) So the only way to manage sex at night is to not let myself get that into it and avoid orgasm entirely. Luckily, I have an extremely understanding partner who doesn’t feel emasculated if I avoid orgasms and too much pleasure. The standard solution would be to try sex in the day, which I greatly prefer anyway, but we live in a teeny-tiny apartment with a grade schooler, who cannot leave the house for school, camp, or to play with friends because of coronavirus concerns. What this basically means is that I never, ever get to orgasm, at least under the current circumstances. Disappearing into the bathroom for 30 to 40 minutes is not an option because our kid would notice, not to mention the fact that having sex in cramped bathrooms is not particularly orgasm-inspiring for me. Even when the kiddo was able to have weekend play dates away, they were only maybe twice a month. So daytime sex is basically off the table. Neither of us is a fan of morning sex for various reasons—plus, our kid usually wants breakfast.

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The second part of the issue is that, after years of searching, I have finally found a non-addictive sleep med that works, but I have a “window” in which I can take it. If I take it too late, I am nonfunctional the next day. So taking it post-orgasm is not an option. I can’t take it before sex, because, 30 minutes after taking it, I am a nonsexual zombie, and it takes me at least 35 to 60 minutes to orgasm. I have basically given up on the possibility of ever having partnered orgasms again, at least until our kid is a teen and goes out on weekend days. But that’s not until about seven to eight years from now. Is this even a problem that you can solve, or do I just have to embrace tantra and make having no orgasms the whole point?

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—No O

Dear No O,

Embracing tantra isn’t the worst idea, given your rather extensive limitations and the rigidness with which you have discovered and upheld them. It seems like morning sex is worth getting into—”not a fan of” is a softer no than just about everything else on your list. If indeed the choice is between waking up early and never having an orgasm, I think the right option is apparent. Also, keep in mind that in theory, sheltering in place will one day come to an end, which will help in freeing up your apartment for your dalliances. When physically possible (and if financially feasible), I’d consider hiring a babysitter and renting a hotel room in the early evening so that you can indulge in a horizontal early bird special without disrupting your sleep. I also think that there are worse things than your kid noticing that you disappeared in the bathroom for an extended period of time (things like not orgasming ever), but your parenting choices are your parenting choices and I respect them.

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Your condition is unfortunate and I feel for you. While I’ve read about people being energized by orgasms, the extent to which you are—so that they appear to affect your sleep patterns—is not what I’d call common, so it’s worth talking to an expert. Your PCP, a gynecologist, a sleep specialist, and/or a sex therapist may provide some tailored help and determine whether there are underlying causes.

—Rich

More How to Do It

I am a woman seeing a new man, and we waited a few dates to sleep together, mostly because he didn’t try. I didn’t think much of it, but when we did have sex, he was sheepish to take off his underwear, and yep, it turns out he has a small penis. This is OK for me—I do prefer some size, but he’s eager and good at other things, so I am not too worried about it. (I’m pretty sure he’s below average, if you’re wondering what I mean by “small”; I’d say 4 inches or fewer.) He eventually opened up and confirmed the reason he waited to initiate sex is that he wanted to get to know me a little bit so I wouldn’t reject him outright. I was a little hurt by this, but what he told me next is the real problem.

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