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 single conservative woman in her 30s. I became a widow at the age of 30, and since then have only been involved with one other man. I firmly believe that sexual relations should occur only within the bonds of a committed relationship. However, I literally spend hours each day thinking about sex. Can a celibate person have a sex addiction?
Dear Randy Sandy,
You could have an issue (though it’s not at all certain in the information you provided), but it probably wouldn’t be classified as an addiction by most clinicians. There’s actually a lot of controversy and disagreement as to what constitutes “sex addiction” and whether it’s an actual addiction. Sex addiction is often associated with more generalized disorders, such as hypersexual disorder. When HD was proposed for inclusion in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 2013, it was characterized as “a repetitive and intense preoccupation with sexual fantasies, urges, and behaviors, leading to adverse consequences and clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.” Its inclusion was ultimately rejected, though, for a variety of reasons including the failure of the proposed criteria to “adequately distinguish normal-range high levels of sexual desire and activity from pathological levels of sexual desire and activity.” And then in 2018, the World Health Organization added the related compulsive sexual behavior disorder to its International Classification of Diseases. According to the WHO, CSBD is characterized “by a persistent pattern of failure to control intense, repetitive sexual impulses or urges resulting in repetitive sexual behavior.”
You can see how both disorders’ characteristics go beyond the realm of thought. Since you aren’t acting on your sexual thoughts, I think your issue, if there is one at all, would be more along the lines of sexual obsession, which is a reportedly common symptom of obsessive compulsive disorder. The DSM defines obsession as “recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges or images that are experienced, at some time during the disturbance, as intrusive, unwanted, and that in most individuals cause marked anxiety or distress.”
In each case, these issues are characterized by their obtrusiveness. If your thinking about sex is getting in the way of your responsibilities and goals, it may be an issue. If it’s more a leisure activity—the way frequent, nondisordered recreational sex, too, can be experienced—then you’re probably fine. If thinking about sex is keeping you from your knitting, and you simply don’t have as many sweaters and scarves to give away come the holidays, eh, that’s not too big of a deal. If you can’t focus on your work or friendships because your mind is a constant bombardment of sexual imagery, that might be something to look into.
The fact of the matter is that it’s healthy to think about sex. It’s pleasurable, and as evidenced by the position I have taken to be writing you this advice, I think it’s interesting. Your beliefs are your beliefs and I’m not judging you for them, but if I were you, I’d wonder whether there is a correlation between your thinking about sex and not having it. Would a more active sex life mitigate the time you spend thinking about it? The answer is far from certain, and I’m not telling you that you need to renounce celibacy and let your inner horndog out. Live your life as you choose, but know that you’re sitting on some potentially compelling data.
Dear How to Do It,
I’ve been married to an amazing woman for 17 years. We’ve been going through a sexual renaissance in our lives by a very simple route: talking about sex. We never did until the last year. Ever. Religious upbringing and seeds of shame helped us stuff it in the back corners of our lives. Now that we are talking about sex (I highly recommend this, by the way), it turns out my wife has much more expansive sexual interests than me. So we’re working though that. And for the most part, it’s been wonderful to see her experience pleasure in ways she’s always wanted to but never thought she would get the chance to. I am working actively to be open minded and nonjudgmental as I listen to her wants and needs.
The only hiccup so far has been one thing: She like big dildos. And I’m small.
On one hand, I really am glad that she gets to experience a feeling that I can’t provide. Really, it’s enjoyable to know and see her feel so good from being so “full” in her words. I honestly have never seen her as turned on as she gets when the big toy comes out to be a part of our sex sessions. I struggle with this. Maybe not so much in the moment—in the moment, I see how happy and excited and turned on she is. I witness how much pleasure it gives her. And wowsers does she experience pleasure! I know that my hands and lips are damn talented. But I will never be able to give her that experience. And I know for sure she went 17 years never experiencing that with me. And it’s outside the moments—that’s when the thoughts enter my head that I’m not enough for her. If I’m not big enough, if I’m not man enough. And I don’t like this feeling outside the moment. How can I work through this to accept it better that I’m not enough for her? I want to flush that feeling out and just appreciate her desire for what it is, a part of her that she’s getting to enjoy and experience.
—Small and Caring
Dear Small and Caring,
Congrats on fostering what seems like a very healthy dynamic through open communication. I understand insecurity can feel reflexive, so hopefully I can provide some perspective to help start chipping away at it, because I think it will only be a liability here. You have too narrow a vision of what being “man enough” for your partner means—you think it has something to do with your dick being not being enough, when really, in this particular case, it has more to do with your mind being open enough. It’s natural for a partner to have interests beyond what you can provide naturally or even physically, and you should consider yourself lucky that your wife’s have required the simple purchase of a toy that isn’t going to independently vie for her attention. She has trusted you enough to reveal this interest, and she is invested enough in your collective sexual growth to incorporate dildos into your sex life, instead of handling them on her own (which would be well within her rights and no threat to your relationship, anyway—it’s just particularly cool that she’s expanding in front of you). And just because she likes big dildos, it doesn’t mean that she’s rejecting your dick or those talented lips and hands. People can and often do like more than thing, and it’s only positive that she has invited you further into her world of desire.
There is a ton of male social baggage built into concerns about dick size, and that isn’t your fault. But the mature, human response here—irrespective of traditional attitudes about masculinity—is acceptance of her sexuality in and of itself, and not as any reflection of your shortcomings. Anything less would, in fact, risk those shortcomings turning into real problems. If bad thoughts do creep in, remember that you’ve built a deeper, more pleasure-filled relationship with your wife after 17 years together—plenty of married guys with massive dongs would be envious.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m trying to work through some insecurity. Due to a religious upbringing, shame, and some shyness, the only person I’ve had sex with is my current girlfriend. She’s had a healthy sex life and has significantly more experience than me. This discrepancy has fueled negative thoughts. I have been getting stuck in the trap of comparison and worry that she’s had better lovers. I also question my competency—I’m fairly certain the more sex you have, the better you are at it, and I’m far short of my 10,000 hours.
My impression of our sex life and relationship in general is that it’s healthy and good. We have sex regularly and both enjoy it. I’ve done my best to use her nonverbal and verbal cues to improve. When I check in with her, she tells me she’s satisfied. I struggle with some cognitive dissonance where I KNOW that things are good, but I FEEL differently. I believe some of this comes from the fact that I lack perspective. I have no other experience to relate ours to for assurance. I love my girlfriend a lot and I have no desire to be with anyone else. What can I do to feel more confident in my sexuality, stop comparing myself to others, and worry less about not being experienced?
Dear Junior Pilot,
All you can do is believe her. Create the opportunity for as many verbal cues as possible and, without taking up too much air—because, frankly, needless insecurity is annoying and can create connectivity problems that weren’t there in the first place—discuss ways to improve. I also can’t help but wonder if you yourself are less than satisfied. Maybe the issue at the root of the discord between what you know and feel is more projection on your part than analysis of her experience. I don’t recommend an entirely selfish attitude about sex, but it’s really OK for you to have your own needs and ask for them to be met.
Otherwise, if it’s good to you, and it’s good to her, then it’s good. Don’t let anxiety contort a sexual dynamic into something that it isn’t. If your anxiety is relatively low otherwise, consider starting a meditation practice. Ideally, it will help you appreciate what you have and live in the moment.
And by the way, a seasoned sexual partner is often a good thing, but there’s no real hard and fast rule about this. I’ve been around enough to know that sluttiness does not preclude sloppiness. Whether you are “good” largely depends on your chemistry with your partner, and a lifetime of friction will not ignite a fire that doesn’t want to be lit. However, you can help set sparks with things like openness, honesty, generosity, kindness—the basics of all positive social interactions, really.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a queer woman in my mid-30s married to a dude whom I love and adore. Our sex life is incredible, and we’re always spicing things up. We currently have an open marriage (I date women; he doesn’t play outside our marriage, by choice), and it’s all lovely. The only hiccup is I’ve never had any sort of sexual experience with a woman that went further than kissing. For as long as I can remember, I’ve really only ever fantasized about women—the first porn I ever watched (well, looked at, this was before videos were readily available online) was lesbian porn. I’ve never been super attracted to men, and at this point, I have no attraction to cis men besides my husband. I’ve had plenty of male partners and long-term relationships (this is my second marriage), but I don’t have a great reason for never having been with a woman. My question, I guess, is how do I keep these years of fantasies build up to disappointment after my first same-sex encounter? I meet enough cute girls on Tinder and such to probably make it happen, but I don’t want to put so much pressure on a partner, or myself. I know from enough first-time sex encounters that the first time isn’t always the greatest, and I’ve always had my best sex with partners whom I trust so I have no disillusionment that it will be life changing but I also don’t want to go in to it thinking “this is the moment I’ve been waiting for!”
Dear Girl Virgin,
You people and your hiccups this week. Luckily, the solution (or as much of one as I can provide) is as simple as drinking a glass of water upside down. Sexual gratification can be a process of trial and error. To keep your years of fantasies from resulting in disappointment, you should understand that disappointment is a distinct possibility. By that I mean: Keep your expectations at a low-to-reasonable level going in. The first few times I had sex with men in my early 20s (after sleeping solely with women, though not many), I did not really enjoy myself. It was confusing and made me wonder if I was actually gay. I had everything riding on my homosexuality, so the idea that it might not actually exist shook me existentially. However, the third time was a charm. After that one, I thought, “Oh, I’m really gay.” It just clicked. I’ve certainly had disappointing sex since, but the good stuff is easier to ferret out and achieve.
I’ve found that this almost always owes to finding the right partner, a job seemingly made easier by apps, though in my experience, apps actually complicate things. From them you may derive selective, too-flattering portraits as composites of what the other party presents and what your hopeful brain fills in. I’m not anti-app, but pounding for pounding, I’ve had better sex with people that I’ve met in person first. Talking is a richer experience than texting, and watching someone move about the world is a more useful gauge of your attraction to them than reading what they have to say about themselves. I understand that the coronavirus pandemic complicates this advice considerably, but “when this is all over,” consider prioritizing the live arena over the virtual one when you are hunting for prospective partners.
Regardless, if you don’t want to go into your first girl-on-girl encounter thinking, “This is the moment I’ve been waiting for!,” well then don’t think that. Think more along the lines of: “This should be interesting.” The moment may not turn out to be the one you were waiting for, but no matter what, it will be interesting.
More How to Do It
My husband and I have an amazing relationship, and I love him deeply. A few months ago, at my suggestion, we started trying threesomes (with another woman) and have really enjoyed it so far. It’s brought us even closer—it’s given me a chance to explore that side of my sexuality—and it’s been a really fun and positive experience. One of our boundaries concerns his orgasm, which we decided from the beginning should always be with me. It just felt like a more intimate thing, and it hasn’t been an issue until our most recent encounter. The other woman and I had spent quite a bit of time teasing him, and he wasn’t able to hold back when he was inside of her. He feels absolutely terrible, and I understand how it happened, but I’m now feeling uneasy. I feel like my trust has been broken. I’m trying to process how to move forward and also not spend our next encounter worrying about it happening again. Any advice?