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 in a relationship with a woman who I strongly consider to be a potential life partner, and if her words are anything to go by, she feels the same way about me. We share hobbies and passions, find the others’ individual interests fascinating, can talk for hours, and have a great sex life for the most part. I consistently satisfy her during sex in almost every way (you’ll see shortly why I say almost), and by her own words, I am by far the best partner she has had in terms of physical, emotional, and kink compatibility. However, despite my complete satisfaction with our sex life, she seems to be unable to believe that she is enough for me.
I’m well-endowed but fit my partner very well for vaginal sex (after some period of difficulty that we’ve worked through), and while my size can be a struggle for some positions and for anal, we’ve managed so far pretty darn well. My partner has also improved considerably with digital and oral sex (I like to think I have as well, given her reactions), and I find our sex to be spontaneous, adventurous, and fun. We are heavily into BDSM: I identify as a dominant with a penchant for “punishing” brat types and she is very much a pillow princess/brat type submissive with an ever-increasing interest in experimentation that I am happy to accommodate. On paper, it all works. However, while this paints our sex life as enviable, and I think it is, there is one glaring issue: I almost never ejaculate, no matter what happens.
I have, in the many, MANY sexual experiences we’ve shared, come maybe a half-dozen times compared to my partner’s firecracker-style orgasms from start to finish during nearly every sexual session we have. This is no fault of mine or my partner. I received physical trauma to my body a number of years ago in a way that has impacted my ability to feel touch as strongly as some might. My sensations of touch and pain are muted, and for some time, fine motor control was a serious struggle. To give a good analogue, raw sex feels to me now like what sex wearing a condom used to feel like, if I also coated my dick with a numbing cream (I use this analogy because in my teen years I made exactly this same mistake). My skin itself feels next to nothing, and I can feel pressure and resistance to a lesser degree. This is something I’ve come to terms with after years of struggle to find a way to enjoy sex with a high libido and no ability to find relief. I spent years being a veritable tantalus in terms of orgasm denial, which in part introduced me to BDSM as a submissive as a means of coping and, eventually, I found my way to where I am now happiest, as a dominant sexual partner. I’ve found that by focusing on my partner’s pleasure and enjoying sex in my own way, I’m able to fulfill my sexual desires in a meaningful, truly satisfying way. I can get hard almost on command by now irrelevant to my own mood, and my loss of feeling has helped me become a more attentive, sexually successful partner in almost every respect. So again, wherein lies the issue?
Well, the issue lies in my partner’s perception of my sexual satisfaction. She constantly worries my not orgasming during sex is proof of my lack of pleasure no matter what I say. She has never experienced someone like me, who focuses on their partner to an extreme like I do, and while she finds sex satisfying, by her own admission during aftercare and post-sex “clarity” (I hate the term), she desperately wants to make me come more often. She has improved her oral techniques over our relationship, works harder in bed, and constantly tries harder and harder to bring me to orgasm despite my constant reminders that she does NOT need to focus this heavily on this virtually unattainable goal. I come rarely, and seemingly at random—I have no idea what the context for my orgasm needs to be, as it has come from both extremely heavy play and simple penetrative missionary sex and happens both rarely and suddenly, and I choose not to make it my focus to come for the sake of being able to actually enjoy sex. Not that I mind her improving her sex game, but for me, it’s honestly more of a cerebral enjoyment, knowing my partner wants to please me. The issue is that she tends to become despondent after any form of sex if I don’t orgasm, worried that she isn’t enough no matter how much I try to reassure her that sex for me is just a little different in end goal than sex is for her. This is a repeating pattern, of her expressing feelings of inadequacy, despite the fact that I constantly tell her (truthfully) that she is the best sexual partner I’ve ever had the pleasure of sleeping with. I’m at the point now where sex gets soured every time she forces me into this song and dance.
I want to be able to help my partner through this difficult situation, but I can’t physically change. No form of stimulation in new and exciting ways seems to change my rate of orgasm, and by this point, I’m mentally in a place where I don’t even know if I want it to. I LIKE me, as I am, because I know I can’t change it. I would just like to enjoy sex the way I want to, without feeling wrong for it after we finish due to my partner constantly making me feel as though my not coming is in some way fundamentally incorrect—a misreading of the script she seems to feel sex must follow for her to have successfully sexed. I know my orgasming is a turn-on for her as well, so I’m hesitant to say something like “It’s my body and you need to stop pushing your standards on me.” But it’s disillusioning to get constant reminders that I’m causing my partner these troubled thoughts after sex, despite making her come out of her mind for hours and loving every second of doing so. I just want to either help her manage her fixation on getting me to orgasm or help myself manage this feeling of brokenness it creates for me. I’ve found mine is a case that’s so specific in detail that I can hardly find any adjacent information to pull from for advice, and so I come to you: someone who is much better versed in sexuality literature and media than I am. If you could point me in a direction I could look for information that could help us, or if you have your own personal advice for me on how I could improve my approach to this issue, I would greatly appreciate it. I’m not so proud as to think there isn’t a better way of handling this than the way I’m currently trying.
—Not Feeling It
Dear Not Feeling It,
It’s rare to read a letter to this column that with such clarity articulates its writer’s issue, the issue’s cause, the process of mental resolution, and the ultimate embrace of a condition. You are about as self-actualized in this matter as a person with a problem can be. It’s unfortunate that your partner doesn’t see it this way—unfortunate that her hang-up is the actual problem here. It’s almost impossible to change other people, but what you can do is offer her some perspective. I don’t think you should be so brusque as to say, “It’s my body and you need to stop pushing your standards on me.” Instead, share the emotional toll of her reaction. This makes you feel rejected, right? It makes you feel bad because she’s not acknowledging your hard work: You’ve gone through bodily trauma, found a way to manage it, and in fact like the person that all of this has made you. I think you should approach her feedback by centering the conversation on how it makes you feel. One could argue that this might lead to an irreconcilable clash of emotions—and maybe it will—but I think your stance here comes with a lot of specific experience, whereas hers is attached to a notion of how sex should be. You have a memoir of evidence; she has a fairy tale.
Trust is so important in relationships, and by not taking you at your word, what she is conveying to you is that she simply doesn’t trust you when you tell her that you’ve discovered a way to enjoy sex given your body’s limitations. Perhaps she has not been exposed to the notion that this is even possible. Last year for this column, I interviewed sexual health educator Rafe Eric Biggs, who is paraplegic, about the ways he’s learned to enjoy sex with a disability. Maybe she could read that column, or more of his writing. Your situation is less extreme, obviously, but what you’ve overcome is in a similar realm. I hope such data will open her mind. And of course, you have the option of couples counseling with a sex-positive focus on top of that. You describe your relationship as potentially lifelong, and this as a major obstacle to that. Make sure your partner understands the urgency here.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a 31-year-old woman, my husband is 29, and we have two children. Our sex life is amazing—my husband is great in bed, he turns me on, and vice versa. We don’t have any complaints with the way we do anything, and he doesn’t have a problem staying hard (even between ejaculations!). But my dilemma is that my husband always tells me that he’d rather watch porn and jack off. Now, since I’ve known him, that hasn’t been the case. I would say we have sex way too much for that. But still he always tells me this. He says that he doesn’t care for sex; he loves that we can move past the sex and actually have conversations and have fun together. I’ve asked him before about why he feels that way, especially since we get it on at least three or four times a week. He just restates that he would rather not have sex, and that he’d rather jack himself off. I’ve told him how this makes me feel when he says it, but he just brushes it off, usually saying something like, “That’s because you always want to have sex.” He says it in a joking way, and we laugh about it. The strangest thing is that my husband is usually the one that initiates the sex as well. I sometimes joke with him about why, if he doesn’t always want sex, he still always wants to go at it. No real response. What do I do? I’m not sure if I can handle anymore of his “I’d rather jack off” talk before I just blow up. Am I thinking too much into it?
You’re not reading too much into it. It’s not at all hard to understand why this would be hurtful. You have to wonder why he would even bother to say something like this to you, let alone “always” say it, when it could obviously make you feel bad, especially since he indicates that he’s especially invested in the nonsexual aspects of your relationship like communication. If he’s being totally honest with you, the disconnect between what he’s saying with his words and with his body is alarming—engaging in behavior that one’s conscious mind purports not to want is typically classified as compulsion. I think couples therapy might be most useful here, but I think you also need to have a direct talk about this where you don’t laugh it off with him. In the meantime, you could try taking him at his word and holding him to it. For a week or two, see what happens if you refuse sex when he initiates it. Perhaps at the very least it will help him to verbalize further what’s going on with him.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a 52-year-old nonmonogamous woman who has been sleeping with a 39-year-old man on and off now for about four years. About a year ago, he decided to make it exclusive with someone else he was seeing. I was disappointed, but understood. We stayed in contact, and he let me know very clearly that if things shifted, he wanted to see me again. We went for a walk recently, and he let me know that while he is still seeing that same person, his relationship is now open. I’m thrilled that we can see each other again, and have already been fantasizing about all the fun we’ll have. We have great chemistry, and we’re both very open and adventuresome with each other. My question is this: How do I shift from being solo to being in a bubble with him? I live alone and have only had social distance outside hangs with friends and family. He’s sort of an essential worker (not in health care though), and will still see the other woman, who is a remote worker. I know other nonmonogamous folks have made the shift, but wondering if you have any suggestions. I can’t imagine another year without any physical contact or sex, so this is something I really want, but also worry a bit as I’m older than him. I’m in good health, but COVID is so tricky.
Dear Bubble Booty,
Most of the reading I’ve done on the matter of expanding one’s bubble suggests each party getting tested and then quarantining for two weeks before official expansion. Your once and (potentially) future partner’s job complicates matters a bit—his relationship less so, though if everyone wants to be really safe (and I’m recommending being really safe), his current partner should probably be tested as well. Though you are older than he is, you aren’t in the highest-risk age range of 65 and older. That’s not to say you can’t get COVID or that you’re ensured a mild case in the event that you do, just that your age isn’t a tremendously troubling factor here.
MITMedical has a clear set of guidelines for bubble expansion, which include setting rules and defining what constitutes a breach (in the event of a breach, you’ll want to requarantine for two weeks). I urge caution and mask wearing, but I can’t fault you for seeking human contact. Our mental health is enormously important and this facet of our well-being was necessarily ignored in the strict lockdown advocacy we saw in the spring. At this point—and this could change any day, depending on rates of infection where you are—risk reduction seems like the most sensible way to reconcile one’s physical and mental health. Be vigilant and have fun.
Dear How to Do It,
I have just started seeing a new partner, who is wonderful. Before we got down to anything too dirty, we both disclosed our STD status. I have genital herpes and he has HPV. We’re both accepting of each other’s status (as everyone should be!), but there’s a problem. I’m not symptomatic right now (and we have agreed that I’ll take antivirals to reduce my risk of transmission to him), but he is, and has genital warts. I really like him and would LOVE to have oral or penetrative sex with him, but I know there’s a good chance I could contract HPV despite using condoms. He’s already been to the doctor and is receiving treatment, but they said it could be MONTHS before the warts go away, and even then there’s a risk of transmission. Do I really have to stick to handies until this resolves? For the record: I had the Gardasil vaccine, but the doctors haven’t tested to see which type he has, and even so I’m not sure I’d want to test the efficacy of my 15-year-old vaccine.
Dear Full Disclosure,
In 2014, the FDA approved Gardasil 9, which expanded the previous vaccine to protect against five additional strains of HPV—31, 33, 45, 52, and 58—that, as reported at the time, caused 20 percent of cervical cancers. I highly recommend getting the updated vaccine, as your 15-year-old shot wouldn’t have covered those strains. That said, you are already vaccinated for strains 6 and 11, which cause 90 percent of warts. To be extra safe, ask him to ask his doctor to test which strain he has (there is no FDA-approved test for men, but there are lab tests from companies like Roche that may be available, so it’s worth asking). Then you’ll know for sure. Otherwise, a roll in the hay is a roll of the dice, and you have to decide for yourself if it’s worth it to pursue sexual contact with someone that you know could transmit HPV. Keep in mind, too, that HPV transmission is possible through manual stimulation. It’s rare, but any skin-on-skin contact is a potential risk. Good luck!
More How to Do It
I am a woman who’s begun dating a man who it turns out is a virgin. He went to Catholic school his entire life. He’s focused on reading up on how to please a partner while he’s spent his time alone, and I’ve gotten the benefit of that, but he also didn’t know … some other pretty basic things about getting a woman pregnant.
Update, Sept. 28, 2020: This column has been updated to clarify the type of testing available for men who may have HPV.