How to Do It

I Keep Getting Called a “Bad Feminist” Because I Won’t Do One Thing in Bed

A woman in front of a spiral.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Prince Akachi on Unsplash.

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 a bisexual woman in my late 20s. I’ve dated about the same number of women and men. I hate performing oral sex on women (for what it’s worth, I don’t particularly enjoy receiving it either). There’s something about the smell and taste that really, really grosses me out. I don’t think it’s just a one (or two) time thing because I’ve gone down on around 15 women, and it’s gross every time.

I don’t mind performing oral sex on men (I’ve only encountered one gross-smelling dick before), and most guys are thrilled not to have to go down on me, but women react very differently. I’ve been called a “pillow princess,” a fake bisexual, a bad feminist, etc. when I mention I don’t really like oral sex. I now exclusively date bi women, and they’re less judgmental than lesbians, but some are still put off. My ideal night with a woman involves making out, boobs, and fingering/mutual masturbation (I don’t like strap-ons, either!) to finish the night, but most women don’t want anything besides oral.

Is there some way I can learn to at least tolerate performing oral sex? I can do it for about two minutes before getting grossed out and needing to brush my teeth or get a stick of gum.

—How Many Licks

Dear How Many Licks,

Are you familiar with dental dams? They’re a nonporous sheet of material that you can place over internal genitalia (vulvas and anuses) and are usually found in a safer sex context. I think they may be useful for you. If they can prevent the spread of infectious bacteria, they can prevent your taste buds from coming into contact with vaginal secretions, which may solve your issue.

Part of the difficulty and negative reaction you’re encountering may have something to do with your phrasing. “Gross” is hard to hear. I hope you’re choosing different words when you’re speaking to current or prospective sexual partners. Of course, people are still going to have their opinions on the genuineness of your sexual identity—identity policing isn’t going away anytime soon—but you can do your best to help them remain receptive by using phrases like “I prefer to give and receive digital stimulation” or “I’m generally not into giving or receiving oral.”

Try to remember that dating is a process of sorting through mismatch after mismatch until we find the person, or people, who click with us. When someone calls you a pillow princess as a pejorative, questions your bisexuality, or judges you for your open disinterest in oral, that’s a signal that it’s time to move along.

There very well may be a woman out there who you find attractive and who will be thrilled to never engage in oral sex again. Put your energy into locating her. If you’re going the online dating route, this may mean listing your preference in your bio to keep things efficient. If you’re dating in the wild, I’d be upfront as soon as the subject of sex comes up. Good luck.

Dear How to Do It,

I’ve been dating my boyfriend for almost three years now. We met freshman year of college, and I was immediately interested in him. The start of our relationship was rocky, which makes sense considering we were both young, slightly stupid college students who didn’t know what they wanted. Since those rocky few early months, things have been great—except for one incident about eight months into our relationship. After a party, we stumbled drunk to my dorm and had sex. In the middle of it, he did a sexual act I had previously expressed discomfort with. He didn’t do it for long, and I didn’t know how to feel. I still don’t. The next day I talked to the school therapist, who gave some not-great advice about how I shouldn’t be ashamed of what I enjoy in bed. I also confronted him a few days afterward. He apologized profusely, I forgave him, and he hasn’t done anything similar since then. If anything, he became more careful about both his drinking and making sure I’m OK during sex.

A year later, in an emotional and vulnerable conversation, he confessed he once got reported for sexual harassment during his last semester of high school. He had inappropriately touched a girl. There’s no denying he is at fault here and what he did was wrong, but also he comes from a very conservative and patriarchal society. Nobody ever taught him about sex ed or consent. He was punished and has a note about his report in his academic record to this day. He apologized to the girl and kept his distance from her afterward. He seemed incredibly sorry for his actions and regretted it. And I appreciated him being so honest with me and sharing something no one else knows. However, once again, I didn’t know how to feel about this. I still don’t. I almost never think about both of those occasions, but there’s an increase in conversation about sexual assault in my home country, and reading about it makes my boyfriend’s actions fresh in my mind again.

I keep thinking how differently I might have reacted had I known about his history. If I had broken up with him back when he was sexually inappropriate with me, I would have missed out on years of a wonderful relationship. If I had reported him, which I could have done, he would have been expelled and all his future prospects ruined. I don’t think of myself as a victim, and I would be hard-pressed to think of him as an abuser. I simply want to make peace with what I know about him and myself. I want to move past that bad moment in our relationship, but I don’t know how.

—Confessional

Dear Confessional,

I think it’s more useful to think of this situation as one where a person engaged in an act of sexual abuse toward another person, and one where a person experienced sexual assault. You don’t have to let one instance of inappropriate sexual behavior make you a victim, or think of yourself as one if that framing doesn’t fit for you. And if “person who has experienced sexual assault” feels like too much for you, you don’t have to identify that way either.

I hear that nobody ever taught your boyfriend about sex ed or consent, but has he taken steps to educate himself? I’m guessing you’re both roughly 24, which is plenty adult enough to start taking responsibility for our mistakes. So, is he leading the education project, or are you doing most of the heavy lifting? The answer to that one should tell you a lot. I think you’re giving him an undeserved gold star for “being so honest with you.” Waiting a year after sexually assaulting you isn’t exactly forthcoming. On the other hand, his caution around drinking feels like a good sign, as does an increase in checking in during sex.

It sounds like the school therapist you spoke with wasn’t paying attention to you. I think it’s worth seeing an independent therapist to help you sort through your feelings. They—like me—won’t be able to tell you how you feel, but they can help guide you through the process of figuring it out. You also might try talking with a trusted friend—someone calm, not reactionary, who can be trusted to protect your privacy. Journaling works for a lot of people, too.

Whichever methods you use, give yourself time to move through different stages of feelings. Don’t expect to understand everything in a single session or discussion. Sometimes these situations are onionlike. We understand one layer and find another layer underneath. And remember, you can choose to leave at any time.

Dear How to Do It,

I’m a bi woman dating a straight guy I’ll call Ben. He is seriously awesome—definitely who I see as my life partner—and we have great sex. We’ve been together for 11 years, had a lot of firsts together, and our sex life keeps getting better as we get better and better at communicating and trying new stuff (mainly BDSM) together. The problem I’m having is that my best female friend Hannah recently asked if I would be interested in casual sex with her the next time we see each other (a month or so off, depending on pandemic, jobs, etc.). I am really, really interested in this! I have never had sex with another woman, because I didn’t realize I was bi until after being in a committed relationship with Ben. Ben and I have talked a bit about possibly exploring threesomes or some other casual nonmonogamy, but it’s always been pretty hypothetical and I’ve always worried about falling into the “unicorn hunter” stereotype. I don’t want anyone to feel used! Ben and Hannah enjoy each other’s company but I’m definitely the connector person in this trio. Hannah and I discussed Ben being involved and she’s open to the idea, but I haven’t talked to him about this yet. These are the two most important relationships in my life, and I don’t want to mess them up! But I also feel like someone just told me that I could have everything I ever wanted and I want to do this so badly. How do I have these conversations and move forward as ethically and openly as possible? Can I really have my cake and eat it too?

—Cake Wanter

Dear Cake Wanter,

You might be able to have your cake and eat it too, or the mixer might explode, leaving you cleaning flour off the ceiling. There’s a small chance that everything will go swimmingly and you’ll end up being the connector in a sexual V of people who adore you and each other, or as one point in a balanced, loving poly triangle. There’s a big chance that you lose your friend, your boyfriend, or both. Other possibilities include trying a sexual context with Hannah and finding that it doesn’t work for one or both of you, which could go fine or poorly.

Your instinct to be worried about messing up what you describe as the two most important relationships in your life is valid and useful. I think you should listen to it. You and Ben can open up your relationship to allow you to explore your desire for women, or you can bring in a third partner—who isn’t your best friend—together without falling into unicorn-hunting behavior.

The problem with unicorn hunting is objectification. If you treat your potential thirds as humans and prioritize their needs and desires, I think you’ll be OK. Sure, bisexual female thirds are rare and in high demand, but so are seriously awesome straight dudes you can have great sex with, and you found one of those. Remember that looking for a third partner is still dating, and still requires time spent sorting through mismatches. Good luck.

Dear How to Do It,

I’m a 65-year-old guy. My wife (I’ll call her “Diane”) and I have been together for nearly 47 years, 45 of them married. We’ve been through our share of ups and downs, some of them pretty serious (we’re both cancer survivors). But our marriage has been successful, except for one thing. For the majority of our time together, we’ve struggled with sex. My wife’s libido was strong at first, but quickly began to fade. We’ve been in and out of couples counseling many times without resolution. So I’ve just sucked it up over the years as we had sex less and less often … down to fewer than 10 times a year. And that sex was not very satisfying. I could tell that Diane was often just accommodating me.

The shit really hit the fan when Diane was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her treatments included the removal of both breasts, her uterus, and her ovaries, and numerous nasty drugs. The treatments were successful, but Diane’s interest in sex dropped to zero and never recovered. That was over 10 years ago, and we hadn’t had sex for a few years before that. I waited for a couple of years or so, hoping that things would improve. I understood that penis-in-vagina sex could be uncomfortable, so I suggested that we try other things. But for Diane, the only acceptable sex was PiV—no BJs, no hand jobs, no mutual masturbation, no toys, no porn, and don’t even THINK about anal. I was surprised when she started giving me blow jobs about a year ago. She’s gotten better at them and even says that she enjoys them, but I can’t get past my inhibitions and feeling that she’s just accommodating me. And they happen only once a month or so.

I’ve stayed faithful to our vows by masturbating and using porn, and I’ve learned some things about masturbating. I’ve discovered that I like using a variety of toys, and that I enjoy anal and prostate stimulation. But Diane isn’t willing to participate with me. I’m tired of this “sex life” of mine. Diane suggested that I should look outside of our marriage for sex, but I couldn’t see myself doing that, until now. I’ve done a lot of reading about ethical cheating including The Ethical Slut and Love in Abundance: A Counselor’s Advice on Open Relationships. I have no interest in polyamory or open relationships, but having a friend with benefits sounds like a possibility. And I don’t want to end our marriage.

I’m in singles counseling (Diane dropped out), so I already have that covered. Am I wrong to be considering stepping out, even if Diane gives me permission? I sure feel guilty, even though I haven’t done anything? If I do step out, how does a guy approach a friend for sex? I’ve never been with anyone else, so I don’t have any experience to draw on. How does a FWB relationship not screw up the friendship? How do I convince someone that I really do have permission to see someone else, and that I’m not some philandering jerk? What else do you have that might help me?

—FWB Protocol

Dear FWB Protocol,

You ask if you’re wrong for considering stepping out if Diane gives you permission to pursue sex outside your marriage, but it sounds like she already has. The first thing I think you should do is confirm that permission and get a more nuanced picture of what that permission entails. I hear that you have no interest in polyamory or open relationships, but you don’t mention your wife’s comfort level or what those categories mean to you. Ethical nonmonogamy is a pretty new concept, and using shorthand with sexuality can get us into serious trouble. Have a talk with your wife about what exactly she’s comfortable with. Will she be upset if you develop a friendship with someone you’re having sex with? Will she feel threatened if you start having sex with someone who is already a friend? Figure out exactly where her boundaries and your own are.

Your boundaries, along with your preemptive feelings of guilt, would be great topics to talk with your therapist about.

Friends with benefits can absolutely mean that you’re adding a new layer to an existing friendship. This comes with the risk of losing that friend if things get weird. And if the particular friend is also friends with your wife, there’s a huge potential for weirdness. Sometimes a friends-with-benefits relationship does screw up the friendship. Friends with benefits can also be something you list on a dating site to indicate that you want a friendly, casual sexual relationship. Like, “I’m interested in significant connection along with the sexual interaction, but not in a dating or romantic relationship.”

I don’t think you should continue sucking it up. At least not before giving ethical nonmonogamy a serious try.

As for how to approach friends for sex, you presumably know the friend and can figure out what the best way to broach the subject is. For instance, “Diane suggested we open up our marriage.” Or, “I’ve always found you attractive and a sexual relationship is now allowed under the terms of my marriage,” depending on how direct you feel comfortable being.

There absolutely may be potential partners who need to be convinced that it’s OK to have a sexual relationship with you. Be honest and forthright. If they still don’t believe you, move along.

Before you go, I have some general flirting advice. State interest and leave the ball in their court. The absence of yes should be understood as a no. Be patient—it may take months to find someone you find attractive who is interested in the kind of relationship you’re looking for and able to have according to your wife’s comfort levels and your other obligations. Especially because they also need to find you attractive and have the bandwidth for the kind of relationship you’re looking for.

—Stoya

More How to Do It

I’m a 27-year-old straight woman. I recently dated a man for several months who was odd about sex—he frequently mentioned that he had a small penis (which he did) and that oral sex was what made him a good lover. I don’t particularly care for oral sex, but I cared for him very much. There were a lot of problems in the relationship outside of sex—he had a bit of a cruel streak, and then there would be an apology spiral—and we eventually broke up. I have moved on and am dating a lovely man, but yesterday my ex sent me an email confession that made my jaw drop.