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 have been happily married for 17 years, with two children ages 12 and 13. My husband and I have always had a very active and satisfying sex life. With the exception of a few illnesses and when I was in the hospital giving birth, we have had sex at least once a day in the 20 years we’ve been together. Spontaneity and creativity were always a big part of that, but we had to cut down on the spontaneity when the kids came along. Once they were old enough for sleep-away camp, we initiated “Sizzling Summer Sex”—eight weeks where we went at it anytime, anywhere, as loud as we wanted. We would ramp up the excitement by each making our own to-do lists throughout the year, then teasing each other with hints for a few weeks in June, and the day the kids were launched, we would compare lists and prioritize which things we would do (never enough time for them all).
We were hopeful that the pandemic would be over by summer and all four of us were disappointed when it was announced that there would not be camp this year. The kids whined and complained at first, but I pointed out that they now could watch all the TV and play all the video games they wanted, and that made them happy. I am a realist, so I just accepted that there would be no special summer fun. But my husband began sulking like a 2-year-old who’s just been told he can’t have cookies before dinner. I finally got him to stop by telling him that the children were taking it personally and thought he didn’t want them around. He jumped to rectify that by spending time with them playing video games, going on nature walks, and having impromptu picnics. He also resumed talking to me in a civil manner. But he has been a total asshole to me in bed. He shows no interest in doing anything I suggest although he still asks for—practically demands—his favorite things. He wants me to go down on him, but he won’t go down on me. Foreplay is virtually nonexistent, and he doesn’t wait for me to be ready for penetration. He’ll play with my breasts but stops as soon as he comes, as though they’re there for his pleasure and not mine. He doesn’t even care if I don’t climax. And most disturbing of all he now goes at it like a jackhammer—like a 15-year-old boy who thinks making love is just whacking off inside a vagina instead of his own hand. Sex is just not fun anymore, and it’s sometimes actually painful. I have tried to talk to him about this, but he refuses to discuss it beyond saying this is the only way we can have sex with the kids around, which of course is not true. I feel like he is punishing me. When I told him I don’t want to have sex anymore and suggested we see a therapist, he got irate and defensive: “So I guess I’m crazy because I want to make love to my wife?” He can be difficult and uncompromising at times, but his current attitude is well beyond our worst arguments. What can I do to coax my wonderful lover out of this angry, resentful man?
—Camp Crystal Lake
Dear Camp Crystal Lake,
I’m not sure coaxing is the best move here. Your husband has thrown almost two decades of healthy, happy, consensual sex out the window and is treating you worse than most people treat their masturbatory devices. I advise a direct reckoning. Something like “Your behavior toward me is not in line with how I like to be treated. Our sex is one-sided. Your reasoning for why this is the case is illogical and unfounded. As your wife of 17 years, I feel entitled to some effort on your part to return to the happy, healthy sex life we had before COVID, and I think a professional therapist might help us to achieve that efficiently. Are you comfortable and willing to help me understand why you reacted so intensely to the idea of outside help?” And then, in theory, you’ll know more about what you’re working with.
COVID-19, and the associated stress, lack of security, and general pressure is a lot for all of us to be dealing with. I’ve definitely seen people choose to believe that it’d only be a couple of weeks or months, or not really be that bad, and then become devastated—sulky, withdrawn, angry—when their hopes were dashed. It isn’t right to take it out on you, but it is understandable that your husband might have been telling himself that everything would be back to normal before July and now be struggling to process how bad the situation really is. I want to really emphasize the first part of that last sentence: It isn’t right to take it out on you.
If he still won’t talk to you, you can escalate things to an ultimatum. If this behavior is threatening the future of the marriage, tell him that. If not, you can still absolutely refrain from having sex until he’s willing to work on treating you like a human, or—to use his own words—actually make love to you.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a thirtysomething straightish woman in a relationship with a thirtysomething straight man. Both of us are in long-standing stable open marriages. We’ve been together for a year and a half, including six months of no in-person contact because of COVID, and we’ve built an amazing sexual and emotional relationship that I value deeply. We met up recently, and I learned that in the meantime, he and his wife started couples counseling, largely in part because his wife has been jealous of me and my continued relationship with him (“What does she have that I don’t?”). I have a don’t ask–don’t tell policy with my husband. None of us are dating others at this time to minimize risk, but he and I did pre-COVID, as did his wife, but she does not have a similar stable secondary relationship. He and I have talked about this and how his wife has been more hesitant about the open marriage since I came along, and he knows that he needs to advocate for me and my needs since I am not involved in their couple’s counseling sessions. Despite (or because of) this, it can feel like I’m being talked about behind my back and that the grown-ups are making decisions without me. My biggest fear is that she convinces him to close the relationship; this almost happened a year ago when she suddenly decided she wanted to have a baby (they decided it wasn’t the right time and put that on pause). What can I do? Should I ask to be included in the sessions? I really don’t want to lose what we have. I have found a lot of information for the primary couple in navigating open relationships, but there seems to be a lot less out there about secondaries advocating for themselves.
—Not the Other Woman
You’re the secondary in a hierarchal relationship system that builds on the existing concept of monogamy, itself a prioritization of the couple form. You aren’t doing relationship anarchy, and you aren’t doing equal-yet-different polyamory. You have a primary, your secondary partner has a primary, and primaries tend to come first. If your husband said he was experiencing jealousy, what would you do? What if his emotional turmoil was threatening the stability of your couple? Would you ask to include your secondary partner in couple’s counseling? Would you be weighing the desires of each partner equally? Or would you and your husband decide what is best for the relationship and go from there? These questions are genuine.
Regardless of what your choices would be, the wife of your secondary partner absolutely might ask him to reclose the relationship, and he absolutely might do so. After all, he was willing to do so when they were considering having children—something that will certainly come up again in the future. And relationships end for all sorts of reasons all the time. That’s part of the risk you take with any relationship, especially with complicated structures like this one: the risk of loss and hurt.
I don’t think you should ask to be included in the sessions. That strikes me as inserting yourself into a delicate situation and prioritizing your own desires over those of the wife—and, again, you’re the secondary here. Let the two of them work it out together, and try to remember the difference between want and need.
Dear How to Do It,
I am a 40-year-old straight man. I got married to the woman I lost my virginity to when I was 24. We got divorced six years later. One of the reasons for the divorce (even though it was never said outright) was our sex life. I suffer from premature ejaculation, and even with a condom, I will last a few minutes tops, usually less. I’ve tried the creams, extended pleasure condoms, and different techniques I’ve read about, all to no avail. I’ve gone on a few dates, but I will not let it get to the point of us having sex because I know she will be disappointed and I will be extremely embarrassed. I have not had sex in the 10 years since my divorce because of this. I have no idea how to move forward now after this long. Please help!
Dear Fast Draw,
Have you tried Round Two, though? In my experience most men can absolutely have sex a second—third! eighth!—time after anywhere between one and 40 minutes of rest. With men who ejaculate very quickly, it makes sense to achieve orgasm for them, engage in other forms of sexual interaction while they have their refractory period, and then consider penetrative sex.
The point here is that there’s so much more to sex than inserting a penis into a vagina. Lots of people manage to have very fulfilling sex without involving a single phallus, much less a flesh-and-blood penis. Oral sex, digital sex, skin-to-skin contact, kissing, frottage, and the involvement of vibrators are all common activities. You can absolutely satisfy a woman without ever involving your dick. Work on bolstering your other skills—maybe take an online class, or read some books—and give yourself permission to put P-in-V aside.
I know you said you’ve tried different techniques you’ve read about, but I want to check that this includes practicing bringing yourself to the edge of orgasm without tipping over. Once you find that spot, you can pause during sex to give yourself some room to breathe (and not ejaculate) before returning to thrusting. You may even need to pull all the way out.
Before you go, I want to tell you about a friend of mine who takes a long time to ejaculate. That disappoints women sometimes, too. I think we’ve got this idea that ejaculation is the end of hetero sex, and if it comes “too soon” or “too late,” then something is wrong. It doesn’t have to be this way! You can absolutely take a page from the queer community and move out of that framework. Good luck.
Dear How to Do It,
I am 26 years old, but I have virtually no experience dating as an adult. I met my ex my sophomore year of college. We were together for six years—two in that nebulous “we’re dating, but we won’t say it” phase and four in the adult “we’re a couple” phase. We broke up late last year, and I’m just starting to consider the notion of dating again. Setting aside the realities of the pandemic, I just don’t know what to do. I haven’t been single since I was 19. I’ve never gone on a first date as a proper adult.
I have so many questions and I’m too embarrassed to ask my friends for advice. What are the rules outside of college? Am I allowed to sleep with someone if we’ve both been drinking? Do I have to wait until the third date? When am I supposed to tell them I spent the entirety of my early 20s in the same relationship? Do I lead with that or bring it up later? Do I have to wait until I’m totally over my ex? I know there are no silver-bullet answers here. I’m just scared—and I feel like I missed out on a half-decade of formative experiences that my peers got. If you have any advice, I’d really appreciate it.
—Cleared for Reentry
Dear Cleared for Reentry,
There really aren’t rules. Each social group has norms, and there are as many opinions about how a person should handle dating as there are friends of people who are dating. They’re all different.
You are “allowed” to sleep with someone if you’ve both been drinking, but I strongly advise against hooking up for the first time or engaging in any other first (like incorporating anal or kink for the first time in that relationship) when either party is under the influence of any substance that they aren’t prescribed for daily use. Yes, that includes marijuana.
You do not have to wait for any date. If you feel so moved, and they’re consenting, you can start humping before the first coffee meetup. This may send a certain signal, however, so be prepared for the fact that people still frequently equate fast and direct with “easy” and noncommittal.
There’s no time you’re really supposed to tell them you spent the entirety of your early 20s in the same relationship. This isn’t a Big Thing to Disclose—it’s not even herpes—it’s a fact about your life that ideally comes up organically. You share when you’re ready to share, and it seems like an appropriate time.
And no, you don’t have to wait until you’re totally over your ex. If there’s some romantically triggered bad habit or a lot of unrequited longing, you might want to sort through that before you start another relationship, but otherwise you’re probably OK.
Remember, dating is awkward even for experienced daters, and it’s really common to feel apprehensive when we’ve been in something long term for a few years and are starting to date again. You’re not alone. You’re going to be fine. And you might put some effort into overcoming your embarrassment around speaking with your friends about this stuff—it’s one of the perks of emotional platonic intimacy.
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. But then the other day, he broke one of our clearly stated boundaries right in front of me—and I’m trying to process how to move forward and not spend our next encounter worrying about it happening again.