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,
Since the pandemic, my girlfriend has been living with me, so we are spending much more time together and having much more sex. While sharing everyday activities is bringing us closer together in some respects, changes in our sexual relationship are driving us apart. We had what I thought was a fun and varied sex life. We role play, act out fantasies, play with toys and suggest new things to each other. Lately, she has been wanting more and more bondage, something that I always enjoyed—and initiated—as fantasy, but am becoming uncomfortable with in reality. Previously, the most I would ever do was hold her down while penetrating her and yell threats of more to come, but she has been shopping online like mad for handcuffs and straps and e-stim toys and wanting scenarios beyond my ravishing her to my hurting her. In the past, when we used clamps, I would put them on her, but she would control the tension. Now she wants me to control the tension, but she won’t tell me when she’s had enough. Yesterday, she started crying, so I immediately stopped the tension, took the clamps off her nipples, and asked if she was OK. But rather than being grateful for my concern, she berated me for going off-script (she was a spy, and I was torturing for information). She said it was like breaking the third wall in a play, and I spoiled the game. I told her I am no longer comfortable with this, but she dismissed my concerns because she is giving consent. Doesn’t consent have to be mutual? Just because she’s willing to receive pain doesn’t mean I’m willing to administer it. I don’t mind playing a KGB agent, but I don’t want to be one in real life. I love her and I want to satisfy her but this is just too much. What can I do?
You are absolutely correct that consent needs to come from all involved parties. And that consent needs to be specific—a broad consent to BDSM in no way means that you’ve consented to the full range of BDSM activities. And my, what a range there is.
I can absolutely understand how a person might get so wrapped up in the scene that they become agitated when there’s a pause or an interruption. That’s life, though. That’s part of playing sanely and consensually. It wasn’t OK for your girlfriend to berate you for breaking character. You did the right thing—if crying hasn’t been discussed, or it’s been discussed as something you’re uncomfortable playing through, you should absolutely stop to check in or honor your own boundary.
There’s an idea in BDSM that “the submissive is always in control.” It sounds nice, and is great to help lay the fears of outsiders to rest: The submissive is the one asking for this; they can stop at any time; they dictate what they do and don’t want to do, etc. But in reality, I worry that we can sometimes lose sight of the top’s consent and agency. All fantasy scenarios aside, the dominant usually wants to please their partner. They may be motivated to go further than they’re really comfortable with out of a desire to fulfill their partner’s needs. We need to be cautious of the comfort and consent of everyone involved in a scene.
Have the two of you ever done a yes/no/maybe list? There are plenty online, or you can make your own. The idea of the list is an exhaustive catalog of sexual activities people might do together that each party can independently mark their level of interest in. You might suggest the two of you engage in this exercise as a way of getting back on the same page. Once you’ve both marked your lists, you go through them together comparing to see where you overlap and discussing in more granular detail the maybes and the noes.
Remember, you get to have noes too, and I wouldn’t engage in this kind of play again until your girlfriend strongly affirms that.
Dear How to Do It,
Due to a smaller-than-average penis and lack of confidence regarding it, I have struggled for years to maintain relationships, and my girlfriends and partners have all decreased the amount of sex we had, some gradually, some precipitously, with many of them cheating on me. Only one ever told me my size was the issue. As someone with anxiety and depression, I often turned to alcohol to deal with these feelings of unworthiness and loneliness; conversely, while inebriated, I often gained the confidence to negotiate fairly regular hookups, none of which turned into anything. I am also significantly overweight, further (de)emphasizing this body part. Now I am two years sober, have lost some weight, and am starting to feel good. Do I bring my penis size up with the next sex partner I have? And how?
—One Little Thing
Dear One Little Thing,
Congratulations on getting sober and starting to feel good about your body.
I’m not sure your penis size is as much of a factor in the decrease in sexual frequency in your relationships over time as you seem to think it is. Your lack of confidence seems like a more likely culprit. And, of course, there could be factors that have absolutely nothing to do with your endowment or feelings around it.
I’m wondering if you’d feel more confident sexually if you bolstered your digital and oral skills, aspects of your sex life you can actually control. Many people get bogged down in penetrative sex and sideline oral and digital stimulation as foreplay—framing it as an appetizer or a warmup—when either can absolutely be a fantastic main event. There are plenty of books available. I suggest you start with the sexuality section of your local bookstore (or website, at the moment) and browse through a few to find one with a tone you enjoy. If you learn better from video, Nina Hartley, Jessica Drake, and Tristan Taormino all have educational series.
As for how and when to bring your penis size up with potential partners, it’s really about your comfort. If you feel supervulnerable sharing this about yourself, you might wait until you’ve developed a rapport. You might even wait until you’ve reached the point in foreplay where your underwear have come off, and mention that you’re aware of and sensitive about your size. If you want to date efficiently, and are comfortable doing so, you might bring it up as soon as the conversation turns to sex. I wouldn’t bring it up out of the blue before sexuality has been broached, as it may seem presumptive.
Remember, most of the fun parts of the vagina are within the first few inches, and hands are just as good as dicks.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m not sure how it happened, but I’ve been without sex for close to 15 years. I’m a straight woman who used to have a normal sex life, and like sex a lot! I had my heart broken pretty badly, then I got really sick, and in the course of that yearslong period, didn’t have the energy or the desire to date. I also gained a lot of weight while sick.
I’ve been significantly healthier for years now, and I would love to get back out there, but I have no idea how. Dating has changed so much since my mid-20s, when I was last active, and I haven’t clicked with anyone I’ve met on a dating app. Part of me would love to have casual sex, but I’m super self-conscious about my body—I have seriously lopsided breasts and a lot of scars due to my surgical history, and that plus obesity has me doubting anyone would be interested. I also don’t know that I can go the casual sex route with complete comfort. I guess what I’m asking is, how do I dive back in? How do I find someone who might be attracted to me, and do I have to admit I haven’t been having sex for longer than I was sexually active? I’m of the age where I don’t meet many single men in the wild, and I quite literally don’t know how to do it anymore (both the meeting and the sex).
—Back in the Game
Dear Back in the Game,
I don’t think the framing of “have to admit” is useful here. Ideally, you’re having sex with people you feel comfortable being vulnerable around, and you’re able to share your nervousness, apprehension, or worry with them. You don’t need to go into your medical history or divulge other details that you don’t want to divulge, but you should be able to communicate your emotions to your sexual partners—at least in broad strokes.
It isn’t so much that sex is like riding a bike as it is that every single new person has to be figured out from scratch. You have to find your snuggle angles. You have to learn how they like to be touched, with what amount of pressure at what time, and how they react when they’re close to experiencing orgasm. And, of course, each individual has some variation from moment to moment and from sexual act to sexual act. Don’t excessively focus on your long hiatus—we’re all a bit disoriented with new partners and have to rely on trial and error and communication.
Apps are hard. People may look far more—or far less—attractive in person than they do in photos or even over video chat. Even without choosing our best angles or having a terrible eye for photography, cameras are simply tricky that way. And whether there’s something to pheromones or not, being in the same physical space with someone is a different experience than communicating digitally. I still think you should keep at it, perhaps focusing on sites with an older and more cerebral demographic, like Match.com and maybe OkCupid.
You also might practice approaching men you find attractive out in the wild. At the end of the day, dating is a frequently long, sometimes arduous process of sorting through lots of great-but-not-right-for-you people, extricating oneself from the occasional train wreck, and continuing to put oneself “out there” until we find a match. Much like job hunting, there’s a considerable amount of rejection. Remember that it isn’t necessarily about you, and keep stating interest. You’ll get more comfortable with time.
Sex educator Vonka Romanov often suggests directly stating interest and leaving the ball in the flirtee’s court. At a bar it might look like this: “I think you’re attractive. I’d love to buy you a drink. I’ll be over at the bar for the next hour” and then walking away. In a grocery store it might be more of a “I think you’re attractive. Here’s my number. I’d love to chat a bit and see if we’re a good match for each other,” and then walking away. Obviously, if the person says “Wait! Stay!” then that’s absolutely acceptable. Good luck.
Dear How to Do It,
I am a mid-20s heterosexual woman. I am in an excellent relationship with a man I plan on spending the rest of my life with and whom I do have excellent and regular sex with. However—and this has happened to me before in other long-term relationships—I find myself feeling not quite as turned on as I used to be, including not fantasizing or thinking about sex nearly as much as I used to, not feeling a need to masturbate, and sometimes having trouble getting really turned on in the moment. I am by no means forcing myself to have sex with my partner, and I always enjoy the sex once things all get going, but to be blunt, I kind of miss that feeling of being really horny! Is this just a natural part of being with someone for a long time, a birth-control side effect, just part of getting older, or something else? I am not interested in having sex with other people (again, I really do love the sex that my partner and I have), but I do miss that intense lust that came with that first time. Any advice to reconnect to my old hornster ways?
Dear Wannabe Horndog,
Unless you went on the birth control pill in the middle of these other long-term relationships and then experienced a lowering of your sex drive, I don’t think hormonal birth control is the culprit. Same with getting older—unless the issue has been increasing in intensity somehow with each successive midrelationship dip, I don’t think that’s the culprit either.
Anecdotally, I’ve found that life stressors have a dampening effect on my libido. The more work stress or shared household stress, the less I feel like having sex. I’m wondering if the emotional care and mutual support inherent in healthy relationships takes up more of your plate than singledom and edges out sexuality.
Also, yes, we humans are generally novelty-loving creatures. Monogamous partnership naturally runs out of novelty after a certain point. I believe this is the genesis of all those “spice up your sex life” clickbait articles. Fake it till you make it is a standard piece of advice, and it seems like you’re following that with some success, since you say you aren’t forcing yourself and you enjoy the sex once it starts.
You might apply the same tactic to masturbation. Try some different kinds of porn—Shine Louise Houston’s PinkLabel.tv is a great place to start—and some erotic novels or short stories. Get a spiffy new toy like one of those clit-sucking vibrators. Start masturbating, and once you feel desire, focus on fostering it. You may find success with edging, too. Get yourself aroused and then stop, leaving space for your desire to build and boil. Tease and deny yourself and see if the frustration helps you feel more sexual interest.
More How to Do It
How do I deal with men who don’t want to do certain things in the bedroom because they “respect me too much”? I’ve run in to two men specifically who’ve said this to me (a straight woman) over what I consider to be fairly garden-variety stuff, like if they wanted to come on me versus just in their hand. I’m now engaged to one of those guys. He’s absolutely amazing, and I’m with him for more than just sex obviously. But this is something I’d like to work on, and it feels like a Catch-22: I can talk with him about it until we decide to move forward with one of those “disrespectful” things, but I’m concerned that this Madonna-whore issue will then truly make him not respect me in a weird way.