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,
Given the extended period of physical distancing we’ve been experiencing, I have begun to explore online dating. Particularly, I have been looking for someone who both shares my sexual interests and is a good human being overall for the possibility of a long(er)-term relationship.
While I feel like I might have found this person recently, the fact that they are a high school teacher and have a strong interest in role-playing student-teacher and my own dating history make me wonder if this kink is a healthy outlet for someone in their position or a foreshadowing or indicator of something more sinister. While I do not want to rule out someone for “pre-crime” or “thought crime,” I also want to make sure that our sexual liaisons do not in any way contribute to their venturing (or furthering) into unethical and destructive—not to mention illegal—territory. Given your professional experience and your access to experts, I am eager to hear your input on my situation.
Dear Teacher’s Pet,
Those experts you speak of have described sex as a forbidden playground, an arena for exploring ideas that would be impossible to even approach in other venues of life. “Sexual fantasy doesn’t work like other fantasies,” Esther Perel writes in Mating in Captivity. “If people tell me they daydream about a vacation in Tahiti, I believe they want a vacation in Tahiti. … But sexual fantasies don’t reflect reality in the same way. The point about sexual fantasy is that it involves pretending. It’s a simulation, a performance—not the real thing, and not necessarily a desire for the real thing.” Indeed, Justin Lehmiller’s large survey of Americans’ sexual fantasies, the results of which he reported in his book Tell Me What You Want, found that some of his respondents—about 20 percent—said they did not want to act on their favorite fantasy. Sometimes what is attractive about fantasies is the very fact that they are not real.
So it’s conceivable that a teacher engaging in teacher/student fantasy with another consenting adult is manifesting a self-contained catharsis. But the actual fact of the matter is something that is impossible to determine from my vantage point—or yours, for that matter. You could question your teacher on just how close to living their fantasy they have come in the past or would like to in the future. More tactfully, you could attempt to gauge just how important this fantasy is to them—how often they think about it, how central it is to their sex life. Lehmiller argues that when a nonconsensual or risky act becomes one’s preferred fantasy, it’s “an indicator that it’s time to seek help.” How much real estate this fantasy takes up in your potential partner’s head is a crucial bit of data for you to uncover. It won’t be easy, but some felicitous investigating on your part may get you closer to an answer.
There is a chance that this fantasy is just and only that, and there is a chance that you’ve stumbled upon one of the great boogeymen of society, a la the predatory Scout leader or abusive priest who “mentors” boys and girls. One thing you should know is that you are not responsible for the illegal behavior of another—if this person took it upon themselves to harm a child, it would not be your fault for previously having had kinky sex with them. Play and reality are two discrete facets of life. However, it seems like you’ve stumbled upon a red flag for you, and I’m always going to come down on the side of caution when advising a reader where to err. You wouldn’t have written this letter if you didn’t have misgivings. If you go with your gut here, you greatly reduce the probability that you’ll be kicking yourself later over your choices.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a straight woman who has been dating a man for six years. I have a very high sex drive, but when it comes to actually having sex, I’m very particular. To me, there’s a certain order that things have to go in, and I don’t really like deviating from that. Everything also has to be “perfect.” A giggle or weird sound or a stray thought or my boyfriend making a weird face turns me off completely and I shut down. Yes, I’m this neurotic in other parts of my life, too, but it mostly affects my sex life. The only way I can really relax and enjoy sex is if I’ve had three or four drinks or if I’ve taken a benzo beforehand. I know my boyfriend wants to have sex while I’m sober but I find it very stressful. Once something pulls me “out of the mood,” it’s impossible for me to come back. There’s no history of trauma or anything, and there’s nothing physically wrong. I saw two different sex therapists but didn’t find it particularly helpful (someone telling you to “just relax” is not very relaxing!).
I love my boyfriend and we have a great relationship outside of this. We’re always talking and laughing and having a good time. I almost want to break up with him so he can have actually enjoyable sex with a partner who is normal. How can I learn to relax?
Just relax! Kidding, kidding. I mean, that is ultimately the answer, but it’s nowhere nearly as simple as “just” might imply. I’d liken the challenge here to the quieting of one’s mind that happens during an ideal meditation session—it can take months, if not years, to develop this skill that seems rather straightforward and simple (just stop thinking!) but is an immense challenge given the typical human mind’s tendency to inner monologue and wandering.
That brings me to my first piece of actual advice: If you aren’t meditating, I urge you to try it. Through meditation, you can learn to acknowledge that which might distract you, and eventually push it from the forefront of your cognition. It seems like you could use as much practice managing external stimulus that you can get. Living in the moment need not be an occasional, special event; it can be a lifestyle. You have the power to zero in on what is useful and discard what is not. And it could really help you manage the distraction that is so inhibiting your sex life.
I’m not going to encourage you to continue turning to substances to enhance your sexual enjoyment—for one thing, if you’re having sex several times a week (a possibility, given your very high drive), you may be fostering a dependency on booze and pills. But if the sex and thus substances are occasional and produce no demonstrable side effects, no incapacitation that clouds your judgment or impedes your ability to consent, it does seem like you’ve found a solution, however flawed it is. How much of an issue is this to your boyfriend? Does he merely wish that you’d bang him when sober, or is the fact that you won’t actively distressing him? If it’s the former, at least he’s getting laid, even if it isn’t his ideal scenario. Life only rarely presents us with those.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a married woman. I would love your take on my issue with sexual desire and sexual orientation. Long story short, I’ve always had low but present desire for my husband—I could almost always enjoy myself once we got going, but I rarely felt eager to have sex with him on my own. Simultaneously, I have had an attraction to and fantasies about women that I only acted on that typical “one time in college.” I never saw it as a problem to stay monogamous within my marriage. But over the past two years, this interest in women has increased, culminating in an intense crush on someone at work that has consumed my thoughts for months.
Now, for the past couple of months, I can’t summon any sexual desire for my husband, and the thought of sex with him is unappealing to me in a way that it never was before. We overall have a good marriage—he is a good dad and hasn’t done anything that would cause me to care for him less. I am wondering if I am transitioning to more of a lesbian identity versus a bisexual identity, or maybe I am just not into my husband right now, and there is a chance it might come back. Open marriage is not an option for my husband—we have discussed all this completely. Yes, I bought and read Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski, and it was amazing, but it didn’t help me figure out this issue. Frankly, the idea of this being all there is for me is depressing, but I have a 10-plus-year marriage, two kids, and a home with a good man, and that is a lot to lose as well. Do you think there is a decent chance my sexual interest in my husband might return to baseline, or am I in a new territory here? Thank you for any advice!
For your situation, I’d actually prescribe another go-to How to Do It book over Come as You Are: the above referenced Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel, which is all about managing waning desire in long-term relationships. However, Perel’s examples of lust resuscitation tend to concern couples who had it in the first place. I think you may frustrate yourself attempting to rekindle what previously existed as a faint glow, but it’s at least worth considering.
Perel’s principles generally involve seeing your partner with new eyes—because eroticism has so much to do with mystery and the unknown, she argues that for many, it is at odds with intimacy. Sexuality is complicated, and it’s not my job to ascribe an identity onto you, but I would like to point out a few things regarding the notion that you are “transitioning” to lesbianism. The first is that what you describe strikes me as being less indicative of a total sexual makeover than simply falling for someone—this is very much how it would look in someone retaining a bisexual identity. You meet someone, you become smitten. When you’re bisexual, that person could be a man or a woman. There is a chance that you will leave your marriage, end up with your crush, and never date a man again, thus effectively living as a lesbian. But who’s to say that you’ll never be attracted to a man again? Why even bother closing that door? It may only yield more confusion. I’d be careful here not to conflate an attraction to a new person with revising your own personhood. At the very least, I think this requires more time to determine.
The second thing is that perhaps you are so consumed with your crush because of the very novelty that Perel describes. Newness is intoxicating. In that respect, what may be drawing you to this person is beyond gender—it has more to do with the striking contrast between how much you don’t know this person and how much you do know your husband.
I hardly know you better than you do, though, and what you feel is valid. I don’t know if your attraction to your husband will return to a baseline; perhaps Perel can help you figure that out. I’m just trying to provide you with some things to consider before you leap into a whole new life at considerable cost.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m straight, male, late 30s. I think it’s fair to say that I’m sex negative. I grew up in a religious household, but went to a liberal school. Somehow, I internalized both extreme religious guilt over sexual desire as well as the view that straight sex is a form of violence against women. I want sex always, but don’t feel comfortable having it and hate myself for wanting it. I’m not asexual, I’m just very sex negative.
Happily, my wife is not particularly interested in sex (as far as I know). We have sex a few times a year, and I do my best to attend to her needs. Our sex life is in no way fulfilling, but in a weird way, we’re actually quite happy together.
My issue is that I don’t want our daughter to grow up this way. I struggle though because I don’t know how to raise a normal kid. She’s reaching the age where she’s beginning to notice and express interest in boys, and I find my instinct is always to try to shut her down. I know this is unhealthy for her and will probably end up destroying our relationship in the long term, but I have no sex-positive experiences to draw inspiration from. How can I encourage her to form positive attitudes toward sex when I don’t have any of my own? Should I just lie?
Dear Sex Ed,
There’s a difference between lying and not defining something by your own subjective experience. You know this! In fact, you know a lot. I think most sex-negative people wouldn’t even label themselves as such because, however paradoxically, it takes a certain amount of intellectual curiosity to understand the difference between sex positivity and sex negativity. Sex negativity is generally defined by a lack of that kind of curiosity. You know enough to not want to infect your daughter’s sexuality with the negativity that has permeated yours—and knowing is key here. It may not make you properly sex-positive, but in just a few paragraphs, you’ve exhibited the willingness to be pointed in that direction.
The most crucial thing is to not get in the way of your daughter’s positive associations with sex—even if it means not saying anything or, when asked a question, saying very little. It’s unfortunate (and telling) that you don’t know more about your wife’s interests in sex, but perhaps she can pick up the slack here. Otherwise, educate yourself. The website Sex Positive Families has a host of resources, broken down by subject. Even if you’re essentially reciting a script, the talking points provided may help you in the endeavor to do no harm. Also, consider also buying books for your daughter to read, like Michelle Hope’s The Girls’ Guide to Sex Education and Jennifer Lang’s Consent: The New Rules of Sex Education: Every Teen’s Guide to Healthy Sexual Relationships, which may answer questions that you can or will not.
More How to Do It
I’m a straight, divorced woman in my late 50s. My last sexual relationship was two years ago, when my ex-husband and I attempted to rekindle things after having been divorced for six years. It limped along for a while, but he broke it off. When we got back in bed during that time period, I was surprised to find that he had shaved the hair on his genitals—not a very happy surprise, I must add. He was never very hairy, but we’d been married for 19 years, and it wasn’t something I’d expected to find. He was pleased about it, and asked if I’d ever considered shaving my pubes. The answer is a resounding NO! It seems crazy that this should even be an issue, but in recent years it seems to be the trend. If I’m turned off by it, how do I express my feelings?