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,
How do parents of preteens and teens have sex without the kids knowing or hearing? Our kids, 11 and 13, are becoming more aware of what sex is with every passing day. In the last year, they’ve found our lube and Googled what it was before telling us we were gross, found an adult DVD from our college years and threw it at their dad in disgust, and realized that my “back massager” might not be for just those kinds of muscles. We’ve had a lot of talks about limits and have started asking they not dig around in our room.
However, they are also staying up later. We used to be able to put them down before 9 p.m. and get it on after 10 with them fast asleep down the hall. Now, even if we send them to bed before 9, they’re still up reading (no electronics in rooms) past 10 most nights. My husband and I tried moving sex to the morning, but we both aren’t morning people. We’ve tried the middle of the day, but my husband gets home weekdays at 6 and the kids are home constantly with the pandemic lockdown, so it doesn’t work. Sometimes I’ll beg them to watch TV on the main floor or basement TVs, but then they just get suspicious about the fun they must be missing out on and don’t go. We’ve tried staying up but either we fall asleep or we are incredibly grumpy the next day.
I’m still a bit grossed out from being a teen and hearing my parents, so that’s my biggest fear for them. Do we just tell them to get lost and be blunt about what we’re doing?
Dear Privacy Please,
If I were in your position, I’d start blasting music at random throughout the day, get the kids used to that as a regular occurrence, and then use it to mask the sounds of making love. But I’m not a parent. In fact, I’ve meticulously avoided parenthood. So I reached out to Dan Kois of Slate’s parenting podcast Mom and Dad Are Fighting, and here’s what he had to say:
Having sex in a small house with awake teenagers is a real challenge, to be sure. It involves door-locking, being a little quieter than you might otherwise be, and stoutness in the face of withering teenage disdain. The key is not to tell them when you’re having sex, but to be clear that you do have sex, that it’s a great thing that you do, and that everyone deserves their hard-won privacy, especially in the pandemic era. Make it clear that past a certain time, you and your husband will be in your room, door locked, and it is not your job to feel guilty for anything your children might hear and be annoyed by. Perhaps, in hopes of not overhearing you, they’ll go to sleep a little earlier some nights.
One other thing: As a grown adult, are you really still grossed out by the idea that your parents had an active sex life well into their marriage? I’d urge you to view those years from your current perspective and think about how great it is that they still had the time, energy, and desire to get it on, even with a daughter in the next room making a Mr. Yuck face. Now you know how difficult it can be!
Some additional thoughts: If you’ve got the budget, and feel comfortable leaving the kids to take care of themselves for a night, a hotel staycation might give you the space—literal and metaphorical—to have sex. And seconding what Dan said, it might be bumpy right now, but as your children mature, I expect they’ll relax on the sex shame and even come to appreciate what that aspect of your lives brings to your marital relationship. This shift in perspective might even begin to shift around the time that sex becomes interesting to them.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a woman in my early 30s, and I’ve been having sex with men since I was 14. The first time I had sex with someone in my “age bracket,” I was 21. I’ve got your garden variety trauma of being an underage girl who slept with older men, but it’s something that I have either been able to transform into feelings of empowerment or to acknowledge as fucked up/abusive scenarios. For most of my 20s until now, I have been in long-term relationships. Basically, I slept around a lot when I was a kid, then settled into “might as well be married” situations.
Here’s my issue: Since the end of 2018, I’ve been single and dating for what feels like the first time in my life, and I’m having an incredibly hard time having sex more than a couple times with anyone. I’ve opened myself up to dating trans dudes, nonbinary folks, as well as cis dudes, and it’s all the same. Like, physically turning my head away when they go to kiss me, or ending conversations if they start to get sexy. I know this is hurtful. It’s not that I don’t like sex or sex with them; I just can’t get into it after a certain point. And then come the waves of guilt butting up against “I’m allowed to say no anytime” butting up against “but I like you and I don’t want to hurt you.” Am I doomed to never have a calm, easygoing sex life? This feels super weird to ask but: Is there a point where it makes sense to “go along with it” because you like someone, even if you’re not in the mood? Before you ask, yes, I’m in therapy, and yes, I do want to start a family one day.
—Go With the Flow?
Dear Go With the Flow,
Have you talked about this with your therapist? I imagine they’d have more insight, since they work with you one-on-one and have the opportunity to ask follow-up questions. I’m wondering how your relationship with them is, since you’re bringing this to me. Do you feel safe and supported in your therapeutic connection? Do you value their opinion? Do you bring them your fears around intimacy and ask them for help? If the answer to any of these is no, you might want to find another therapist.
You aren’t doomed, but you do have to do the work. You’ll have to figure out what you want. You’ll have to unpack bad habits and toxic attractions. I’m not sure that this is the case, but it’s possible that your sexuality was wrapped up in abuse for so long that your libido isn’t sure how to respond without some kind of negative emotion putting you on edge.
As for “going along with it,” fake it till you make it is absolutely a real phenomenon. But I think you’re selling yourself short if you settle for someone you have to fake it with after two hookups. Hold out for someone who really turns you on—like incredible, soul-inspiring amounts—and then foster that connection. You’re in your early 30s. You still have time to find the partner you’d like to procreate with, who you find attractive and sexually engaging long term.
Two things can be true at once. You can know that you have the right to—and should assert the right to—say no or cease the sexual interaction at any time, and feel reticent to withdraw because you don’t want to hurt the other person’s feelings. You can also know that you care about this person and prioritize yourself. You can like someone and stick to your own boundaries.
You can absolutely build a calm, easygoing sex life, but you’ll have to search for it just like the rest of us. Good luck.
Thirst Aid Kit listeners have, um, “thoughts” about John Boyega, Aidan Turner, Pedro Pascal, Andy Samberg, and Seth Rogen. Listen below!
Dear How to Do It,
I got married to my wonderful husband in October. We’d had some rocky experiences prior to getting engaged and sought therapy. It came out during that process that although we are present in the same situation, our experiences are totally different. He has a very defined interpretation, and I have a very flexible interpretation. We worked through it and agreed we were able to accept each other for who we are.
However, this has not totally been the case. He continues to have expectations that either our experience be the same, or his experience is correct. I tell him that sounds controlling, but he insists it’s just me showing him how unimportant our marriage is and he is to me. This sparks arguments, silent treatments, and reasons to continue therapy. All of which lessens my attraction and desire for sex. Strong, confident, and passionate men have always been a turn-on, because I am a strong, confident, and passionate man as well.
We recently had an experience where I went for a run with a friend (socially distant) and returned home 45 minutes after the time I told him to expect me. I communicated my tardiness and set a new expectation. When I finally returned home, he told me that by going beyond the initial expectation that I made my friend more important in the moment and I was treating him unfairly. He was expecting to have dinner post run, and I didn’t put our marriage first; I put my friend first. How do I convey to him that what he’s doing is controlling? How do I reassure him that he is important to me even if we have differing experiences of the same situation? For me, this has reached the point of looking into the D-word.
Dear Run Away,
I’m hoping the D-word you invoke is divorce, not denial.
You’ve been through therapy together, and he’s still pulling this kind of garbage. There’s no use in throwing good money after bad, and there’s definitely no sense in continuing to try to convey the reality of your husband’s controlling and abusive behavior to him if he still refuses to acknowledge it.
Get out now, take some time to heal, and look for a partner who values your perspective and experience.
Dear How to Do It,
I am a 30-year-old woman, and a virgin. And when I say virgin, I mean it. I’ve never kissed someone before, or even held hands. There was one guy in high school who I kind of dated, but it was never physical, and he ended up later coming out as gay. In college and all through my 20s, there was no one, probably in large part because I didn’t seek out situations where I would meet men my own age. Now I’m starting to think it’s time to change that, but I keep hitting a stumbling block: I think I might be asexual, but I don’t know for sure. I’ve always thought of myself as straight because I know I’m not interested in being intimate with a woman, and I can recognize when a man is attractive in a sort of abstract sense. But I don’t think I’ve ever met a man in real life that I really wanted to have sex with. I don’t think sex is gross in the sense that I am not bothered by other people having sex that they find enjoyable, but when I think about having sex myself, I mostly feel a mixture of confusion, embarrassment, and fear. Some things are a definite hard no for me, like anal sex, and I’m not too keen on the idea of putting a penis in my mouth, but even something that many women would enjoy, like receiving oral sex, makes me hesitate. The idea of someone seeing and touching that part of my body makes me feel embarrassed and uncomfortable. I masturbate occasionally, but I don’t always enjoy it. Sometimes the sensation feels too intense, and I don’t like losing control of my body. Plus, whenever I orgasm, my body releases all this fluid that feels like I’m peeing. I guess that’s squirting? I hate that my body does this, and I would be mortified to do it in front of another person. I enjoy reading romance novels with sex scenes in them (but not erotica), but sex always feels like it’s something other people do, not something I can do.
I want to meet someone because I don’t want to die alone, and because I want someone in my life who loves me because they chose me, not because they have to, but I am genuinely not sure that I can manage the kind of physical intimacy that any man in his 20s or 30s is going to expect. But I don’t know if that’s because I am genuinely asexual, or if it’s because I just haven’t met a person I feel really attracted to, and that if I were to just meet someone I clicked with, I would feel differently. Three additional things about me that might provide additional context: Though I’ve never been officially diagnosed, I suspect I might be a little bit on the autism spectrum; I have social anxiety that mostly centers around a fear of being judged for not having the right interests, not being good at something, or not doing something the right way; and I was raised in a religious context that preached no sex before marriage and all that, though I no longer believe in those teachings. How do I untangle all this? How do I fix it? I’m 30 years old, and I have no concept of myself as a sexual person or as someone that men might find attractive. I just want to feel normal.
Dear Potential Ace,
Let’s start with “normal.” Either there’s no such thing as normal, or normal has an enormous range. You can take a look through the archives here to get an idea of what human sexuality is. In the 18 or so months I’ve been writing this column, I’ve heard from multiple asexual people and at least one reluctant squirter.
Asexual people describe their experiences as being on a spectrum. Some asexuals are completely uninterested in sex of any kind, including masturbation. Others are interested in sex, only under very specific, emotionally committed conditions. You might find some solace in the asexuality message boards at asexuality.org or other places online where asexuals hang out. There’s nothing like meeting our similarly minded peers to help normalize the aspects of ourselves that we feel weird about. You might meet people who are as uninterested in sex as you are, and looking for close, emotionally intimate relationships without that particular aspect.
Dying alone is up next: This can be mitigated with friends and neighbors. We’ve got this toxic framing in the West that prioritizes the romantic and married couple over other forms of social engagement and other relationships. I imagine that coming from a religious background that shames sexuality gave you a double dose, but most people in the English-speaking world have to navigate this at some point. Whether you decide you’re asexual or not, put effort and energy into your friend relationships and be a part of the community you live in. Even if you do end up with a love of your life, those other relationships will serve you well and help prevent piling all of your needs onto a single person—a high-risk and exhausting move.
You don’t mention which religion you grew up in, so I’m not sure exactly what the word of your god says about sexuality. But if you still have some connection to that tradition and think it would help, you might also consider going back to the source text and reading it critically for yourself. Keep in mind that this is coming from a woman who thinks that the Ten Commandments absolutely allow for swinging and nonmonogamous relationships, so my interpretation of religious texts can be nontraditional. Read it and make your own decisions about what’s OK and not OK.
As for the unwanted ejaculation, you may be able to train your body to hold back by clenching your PC muscles inward when you begin to orgasm. Note that I said “may”—this is a possibility but not a guarantee. You can find your PC muscles by stopping your stream of urine. It may help to think of your pelvis as a bowl with a tube running through the middle, that tube being your vaginal canal. Clenching the tube should stop the flow of urine and help you get in touch with that part of your body. Then do the same clench as you begin to orgasm. However, some women report a burning sensation if they get close to ejaculation and then don’t, so—even if you can achieve it—this may not be a solution for you.
Please don’t diagnose yourself. Differential diagnoses are tricky. You don’t have the training to sort out what might be autism and what might be trauma, social anxiety, or social awkwardness due to your upbringing. You’re much better off seeing a qualified professional over some period of time so they can get a picture of who you are and where you struggle in life. And most importantly, they can teach you skills to help you navigate society and your inner world. Get yourself to a therapist. I think you can sort this out.
More How to Do It
My husband has a physical disability. I love him, and our sex life is OK. We aren’t intimate too often, but when we are, the sex is fun, intense, loving, pleasurable, and adventurous. I am very attracted to him, and his disability does not change that at all. The issue is that he has fetishized his disability. He watches and reads porn exclusively related to his disability. He is interested in bringing disability play into the bedroom and wants me to roleplay as someone with his physical disability. I am not into it, and it makes me uncomfortable even thinking about it. I don’t want to shame him for his kink. I also don’t want to shame him for his disability. But it keeps coming up in the bedroom, and it isn’t for me! His disability isn’t a problem—it just isn’t something I want to focus on in the bedroom. How do I work around the disability fetish, while still embracing the disability?