How to Do It

A Week Before Quarantine, My Boyfriend Made a Devastating Confession

Now I’m frozen.

A woman looking contemplative.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

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,

A week before our city went into COVID lockdown way back in March, my boyfriend of two years suddenly admitted to cheating on me multiple times in the few months prior. I was caught totally off guard. I broke off the relationship immediately because cheating is a line in the sand for me. After the breakup, I was really hurting, and I told myself I needed to take some time off of dating and sex. Luckily, being in quarantine made this a little easier.

In the past two months, I’ve decided to redownload the old trusty dating apps and start swiping, because I am interested in dating again. The thing that I’m struggling is that whenever I match with someone and he starts a conversation, I literally freeze up and can’t answer, and I either unmatch with them or let the message sit in my inbox unopened. There are a number of things that are going through my mind when I freeze up: I am currently unemployed due to COVID, I’ve gained some weight in quarantine, and I have a general fear of meeting up with someone during this time. I am also at a point in my life where I want to have a serious relationship that leads to marriage and kids, and I have this fear in the back of my mind that I’ll get stuck in the cycle of short-term hookups if I start another app relationship.

In an ideal world, I would be out with friends, meeting new people and hopefully finding a new partner face to face, but I feel like right now I’m just going to have to suck it up and use dating apps for the time being. Do you have any tips on how to get out of this funk? Any advice that would help me from freezing up whenever someone messages me? I know the easiest solution would be just to wait for things to get back to “normal” to start dating again, but I am at an age where I need to be conscious about my timeline for having children, and I am worried I am going to run out of time.

—Frozen

Dear Frozen,

It seems to me you aren’t ready to get back into dating, despite what you may believe. It’s one thing to envision what you want in the abstract, and as your body’s response is showing you, it is a much different thing to know it in the moment. Freezing is often considered to be part of the same group of responses as “fight or flight.” Without any intervention, this reaction to a perceived threat is largely out of your control, at least while it’s happening, and can even trigger physiological manifestations, such as changes in heart rate or breathing. Freezing is generally associated with trauma or anxiety, and if the shock of your ex’s cheating isn’t something you’ve worked through entirely, or if perhaps you have negative associations with dating apps, those could be driving your response.

Therapy is probably the most prudent course of action here, but there are several other things you can try on your own, starting with meditation and physical activity, which I think everyone who can should be doing anyway, just for the sake of optimizing mental health. Try not to push yourself beyond your boundaries of comfort. While I understand you’re feeling the reproductive time crunch, anxiety in that matter isn’t going to help produce a mate (a mate whose DNA you’d like to combine with yours in the form of a baby, no less), and it might actually impair the process. So try to relax there, in particular, and grant yourself the time you need.

Dear How to Do It,

I’m a woman who has only ever had sexual relationships with men. I’m married to a lovely man and have no current desire to be nonmonogamous. Up until about four years ago, I would have said I was firmly heterosexual. More recently, I’ve become aware of my possible attraction to women. I’ve always thought women were just more beautiful than men, from an aesthetic standpoint. I find some of them quite alluring. However, I’ve never had the desire to touch female genitalia. I love a good dick. I can’t tell if I’m sexually attracted to women, or if I simply like being around them.

I don’t feel a pressing need to answer this question in my private life, where I accept that I may just dwell in the “questioning” part of the LGBTQ spectrum, that sexuality is fluid, etc. I don’t feel a need to officially ever “come out.” It gets stickier when I’m asked by other people. I work in the arts, and there are many award and grant opportunities specifically created for members of the queer community. Many of my good friends and associates are openly queer. I don’t know that it’s ethical for me to publicly define myself as queer, and thus potentially “take” money or opportunities from people who are definitively queer (what if I’m not?). This question does get asked occasionally, from simple forms I need to fill out to people assuming my queerness (I dress androgynously from time to time). How do I behave ethically? How do I gently correct the assumptions about my sexuality coming from a well-intentioned queer person, without taking up too much time or making it a big deal?

—Spinning Wheel

Dear Spinning Wheel,

When it comes to correcting other queers’ assumptions, you could simply repeat much of the language you used in your letter, or even smile, shrug, and say, “Actually, I don’t even know what I am yet!” Tone here is key—kindness and humility will endear you. I think you are on a journey to understanding yourself and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that—in fact, for many, this journey is a lifelong process. You don’t need a label to dignify your existence, and you may in fact never find one that fits. If that means you need a few sentences to describe what you are instead of just a word, well, take the sentences. Anyone who’s interested in what you have to say will allow you the additional seconds to explain yourself.

Queerness is an ephemeral state of being irrespective of behavior. Taking people at their word when they say, “I am queer,” and not asking them to produce a résumé as proof, is the compassionate way to respond to these matters. However, in the case where an actual résumé does need to be produced for the kind of grants and awards you reference, I think it would be most ethical to forgo pursuing them until you a) have a clearer sense on your identity and b) are living that life or at least expressing it in your art. If there’s a chance that you aren’t queer, as you indicate there is, don’t take queer-reserved money and opportunities away from people who know for sure that they are. The idea behind these endeavors is to afford opportunities to people who have been typically neglected in the mainstream, and as a straight-passing and -living woman, you are theoretically endowed with the kind of privilege such grants and awards are meant to help offset. In this case, it may be more ethical, at the moment, to hang back and not identify yourself as queer in those particular situations, even if it feels like you’re dodging the truth in doing so. Hopefully, these answers will become clearer and easier to express with some more clicks on the odometer in your life’s journey. Be patient.

Dear How to Do It,

It’s been a crazy six months. I’m a 28-year-old man and have been in my first serious romantic relationship since February. It’s been really great but also have had a lot of difficulty. I was previously a virgin, and the first time we had sex, I did not ejaculate. And I have not ejaculated from penetration for the 50+ times we have had sex since then. This, at first, along with all the other worries about being in relationship—and being a mildly anxious person to begin with—triggered massive anxiety about the relationship. I got some counseling and some medication for that.

Then the pandemic happened and we went into lockdown. I decided to stay with my partner and her mum was also staying with her while we were locked down. It actually started out pretty well, but the thing is, before the relationship I probably looked at porn every couple of days. And I particularly used it as stress relief. But I wanted to slow it down, as I figured it might be what’s making it harder for me to come (as even masturbating is really difficult without it). After deciding to do it for the release, I felt compelled again to start watching it all the time. My girlfriend is fine with this, but I started seeing a sex therapist because it felt difficult to control. I went almost three months without looking at porn, but it didn’t help me come with her (though I made a little progress and am a little more able to come on my own without porn) and I became really frustrated because I didn’t have an easy out. Now I started looking at porn again. I feel bad about it, and I feel like I’m losing all my progress. I’ve figured out that it is mostly in my head and a large part of it is that I don’t feel relaxed. I so badly want to come with my girlfriend. I don’t know what to do. I feel stressed and don’t want to rely on porn, but it does help me. The reason I write this is because I don’t believe porn is bad, but I don’t know if it’s making it harder for me to come. Or is it difficult for me to come and I need the stimulation porn to help me get there. It’s been such a crazy year and I just want help.

—Fapstronaut

Dear Fapstronaut,

It has indeed been a crazy year. On that, I think, we can all agree—even those of us who see porn not as the enemy but as a cherished friend. The jury is still out on whether porn actually impedes sexual performance; some experts say absolutely, and some say no way. While the sex-negative right tends to argue for porn’s corrosive effects, as a sex-positive progressive, even I can’t deny that reports of sexual dysfunction in men under 40 are way up in the age of streaming internet and that some clinical evidence suggests, at minimum, that discontinuing use of porn seems to improve sexual functioning in problematic subjects. This paper includes case studies of guys whose sexual dysfunction (ED and inhibited orgasm) improved when they discontinued porn and masturbating with a firm grip, respectively. This fascinating metanalysis of studies on the matter also includes a clinical report of a man who said his sex life with his fiancée improved after he cut down on both porn and his use of a pocket pussy for masturbation. A huge caveat here is that these improvements are based on self-reporting, not clinical studies. With “No Fap” and other anti-masturbation movements out there pushing questionable information, it’s entirely possible these men simply believed masturbation or grips or toys were their hurdle, and that was powerful enough to make a difference. We just don’t know.

It also may be true that, like with nutrition and exercise, there will be no monolithic panacea because all bodies are different. It’s possible that discontinuing porn use may help one guy but do nothing for another. The length of time needed may also vary—you went three months, which is a substantial time, but I’ve read NoFap posts on Reddit in which guys report “rebooting” after years of abstinence. Even if this method works for you, it may take longer than the time you’ve already invested. It may never work at all. Given how easy it is to come to rely on porn as a masturbatory aid, halting its use proves a considerable challenge for many who attempt it—if you’re looking for an easy out, this will not be it. It might be frustrating and yield very few demonstrable results. I think part of the appeal of NoFap and other porn-abstinence programs is the discipline and regimentation that they require. You have to surrender to the process so much that you really sit in loss in order for it to work. I’m not saying that you have to enjoy the pain, but you at least learn to respect the suck. If it seems like you’re not ready to give yourself over, perhaps you could incorporate masturbation and porn into your sex life with your girlfriend?

At any rate, putting as much pressure as you are on yourself is not going to help you come—quite the contrary. You should not feel such profound guilt over this. Try your best to relax and keep open communication with your girlfriend, who seems to be understanding. Perhaps her compassion will help alleviate some of your anxiety.

Dear How to Do It,

I’m 31 years old, and my boyfriend and I have been together for eight years. We are deeply in love, but are very sexually incompatible. He is fine having sex once a week and probably would be OK with once a month. I want it all the time. He is strictly PIV—the only man I’ve ever known that doesn’t want a blow job or a hand job. Both of us must keep hands and mouth above the waist. There’s no toys, no role play, no fantasies. In recognition of this mismatch, he agreed I could have other sex partners as long as they aren’t romantic relationships and I don’t see the same man more than 10 times in any year. This has worked out just fine, since I was not looking for anything other than sex, and there is no shortage of men into that.

But I have a very dear male friend who I knew before I met my boyfriend. He was married when I met him and very committed to monogamy, so nothing ever happened between us, despite very strong attraction that we acknowledged with teasing and flirting and an occasional kiss. My boyfriend is jealous of him because of our emotional attachment, so I have always tried to make our interactions double dates or group get-togethers, avoiding the possibility of us being alone together. During the pandemic, I’ve had no social or sex life other than seeing my boyfriend a few times a week (we don’t live together), and we don’t have sex every time. So the situation was very volatile when I met my friend for lunch a couple of weeks ago. His wife was supposed to be there also, but she didn’t show. It ended with us going back to my place and making love—exciting and passionate, but also tender and loving—the way I always wished it could be with my boyfriend. I cried afterward because it was both so wonderful and so depressing. If I could have sex like this just once or twice a week, I don’t think I would feel the need to find strangers to satisfy me. We’ve had sex again several times since and I really think this is better for me than the previous plan, but I know my boyfriend would feel threatened by the idea. He really is the love of my life—I would happily marry him and bear his children and live monogamously with him into old age (this is what he has wanted from the start) if he could satisfy me sexually. I don’t want to leave him, and my friend doesn’t want to leave his wife. I think this really could work, but how can I make him see that our love and commitment to each other would not be threatened by my having an actual lover rather than multiple anonymous sex partners?

—Can’t Get No Satisfaction

Dear CGNS,

There’s no foolproof method of nonmonogamy—confining yourself to a handful of regulars (or even one) runs the risk of the building of deep emotional bonds that may threaten your primary relationship, while a series of randoms can be so distracting in terms of hunting for and securing the desired sex that it may take time away from your primary. That your boyfriend prefers that you take the latter tack hardly seems arbitrary, though, since you have developed an “emotional attachment” with this third person, despite your boyfriend’s jealousy and despite how threatened he’d be if you had your way. Also, did the lover change his monogamous arrangement with his wife, or are you now facilitating his cheating? The latter would just add to the potential messiness here.

You can’t have everything you want, but you can have some of what you want as a result of your boyfriend’s concessions. It seems that it’s still not enough for you, and you’d do well to appreciate what you have. The ethical thing to do would be to reconfigure your arrangement so that you could have your fun without threatening your boyfriend, or to pick partners to whom he has no emotional reaction and continue following the hit-it-10-times-and-quit-it guideline. It’s disconcerting that you believe you have figured out a way to do nonmonagamy that is better for you but that your boyfriend has already told you would not be better for him. What’s better for only one person in a unit is typically worse for the relationship. You’re being selfish, and I know good sex has a way of making people want more, but that’s hardly the proper way to treat the love of your life, who, all things considered, is being pretty cool about your mismatched libidos. Have some respect.

—Rich

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