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 am a 22-year-old pansexual person assigned male at birth. Since I was around 15, I was deeply engaged in various forms of BDSM, but primarily bondage, sadism, and domination. I should mention I am not a rough partner; I love giving massages and tending to my partner in bed, but I crave absolute control. Through college—for context, I started at age 14—and other life experiences, I was able to sleep with a number of people who were interested in some form of kinky play. I quickly found out that I had a knack for it. I was able to make my partners—male, female, or otherwise—finish with stunning regularity. I found out that for some of my partners, I gave them their first orgasm. To describe my usual kind of play, I would have my partner lay or be tied down, blindfolded, and I’d give them a full-body experience. As they’d come close to climax, I’d administer small and very precise amounts of pain to drive them insane (e.g., biting the clit or frenulum, depending on gender).
However, about a year ago, I came to the conclusion through therapy that my kinks were damaging my mental health and relationships. I was becoming more controlling, manipulative, and deceitful. At that moment, I decided to disengage from BDSM, and instead enjoy vanilla sex. As a result, I felt my relationships began to improve. I can stand here today and say that the choice was the right one. My difficulty is that I’m struggling to enjoy vanilla sex. And not in the sense that I don’t climax—I do—but it feels like my performance is inferior. I still make my current lover finish consistently, and she says she is more than satisfied with me, but I know I could do more. It feels like every time I make her come, there is a voice at the back of my mind reminding me how much faster and better I could’ve done it had I succumbed to my urges. How can I feel confident in my sexual prowess without returning to BDSM?
How the pendulum swings. You went from dom-ing others to beating yourself up. The issue here seems to be born of perfectionism. Look, we could all do better, but if you’re consistently making your partners orgasm and doing so yourself, you’re doing something right. The standard of perfection against which you are judging your current vanilla sex is BDSM play, which you’ve already barred from your life—as you are well aware, the downside of compromise is that it often necessarily involves giving something up. From there, you make do. Within a therapeutic framework, you’ve already accepted that you can’t have everything you want; now it’s time to live that truth.
I do have questions about that framework, though. I wonder how sex-positive your therapist was, and how linked your sexuality really was to problems with your mental health and relationships. Human variation abounds, and I do not want to discount the possibility that you have figured out how all the pieces of your life have fallen into place, but if sex is now creating anxiety and other negative feelings, you should be asking yourself if this change is actually as good for your mental health as you think it is. Some people use sex as the opportunity to explore facets of themselves they wouldn’t dare to in the light of day, perhaps confining their dominating tendencies to the bedroom. It seems to me that compartmentalizing in this manner might have been a good option for you—certainly, refraining from controlling, manipulative, and deceitful behavior in one’s daily life is something people manage actively, without having to amputate important features of their lives. This is not a prescription—you know what you need, and I’m willing to believe your therapist does as well—but just some things to think about as you sort out your life path.
My Girlfriend Wants to Sleep With Other Men. I’m Not Sure I’m OK With That.
Stoya and Rich join Slate’s How To! With Charles Duhigg to discuss how to have an open relationship—and how to tell if one is right for you in the first place.
Dear How to Do It,
How do you get out of your own way when you have fantasies that you don’t think you’re hot enough to pull off? I’m really into the idea of consensual exhibitionism, and my partners and I have had a pretty good time fantasizing about it. But sometimes it’s hard for me to stay in the moment and enjoy the fantasy because I get embarrassed and worried: I just don’t think I’m hot enough that people would actually want to watch me have sex. (This also makes watching porn fraught: Thoughts like, “oh man, I want to try that” are always followed by “but she only gets to do that because she’s gorgeous.”) I think this anxiety is probably irrational—a reasonable number of people who I want to date or have sex with also think I’m attractive, and I’ve been to enough sex parties to know that if people are having sex, plenty of people will want to watch them more or less by default.
I’m even pretty familiar with what the local kink scene has to offer and have a clear idea of how I could pull off doing the things I’m into (once the pandemic is over, obviously). But I still end up worrying that I’ll just humiliate myself if I try to make these fantasies happen. It’s sort of like, isn’t it ridiculous to presume anyone would want to see that? How dare I think I deserve that kind of attention and lust? Even at sex parties, where I’ve had opportunities to put on a show, I’ve stuck mainly to other activities I like that involve doing things to and for other people. This issue obviously ties into larger insecurity about my body, and I’m working on it in therapy with a pretty great (and open-minded) therapist, but I’d love advice specific to the sex and kink aspect.
—Cute Enough, I Guess
Have you ever had one of those dreams where you predict that something will happen, it does, and then you don’t put it together that you just manifested it, and thus are capable of lucid dreaming? You’re so close to living your own lucid dream here. Precisely what you are lacking is what could make all the difference for your sex life: confidence. Confidence is widely seen as attractive (provided it isn’t out of control). DNA and healthiness are just two criteria in the portfolio of attractiveness; swagger is another. The nice thing about confidence is that you can project it even if you don’t quite possess it, and no one’s the wiser—and then, assuming you get positive feedback, it may help your overall sense of confidence. Voilà: confidence manifested from nothing!
Another thing to keep in mind is that while you are into the idea of exhibitionism, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily for you. I like the idea of traveling into space, but I’m not good at astrophysics, and so I will not be pursuing a role at NASA. Sometimes it’s useful to push yourself into situations that make you uncomfortable because it can stimulate growth. But you need more to get into exhibitionism than an appreciation for it in the abstract—if it’s not coming from within, it just may not be for you. It might be something you just enjoy watching, which is a whole other thing.
Dear How to Do It,
On my birthday, I invited friends over to my apartment to smoke and have some drinks. However, only friends of my boyfriend of four years were able to actually show up, all men. He has this one particular friend who I think is attractive. He has never shown interest in me before until my birthday. After toking it up and a shot or two, we go play video games. I end up sitting between my boyfriend and our friend. After five to 10 minutes he starts to make sure his knee is resting on mine; if I moved, he moved, making sure he was touching me. Eventually, he starts to make sure I know he is trying to touch me by touching my hand to eventually grabbing and leading to other places.
I’m not sure if I am ashamed or not, but I ended up giving him a hand job and him fingering me with his brother and my boyfriend in the room. After, I messaged him to see what is going on between us, but he is acting as if I am pranking him or something. He says he doesn’t remember. Then when I saw him recently, he couldn’t make eye contact with me. He ended up blocking me. Now I know for sure he knows what we did. Why is he acting like this? I assured him I wouldn’t tell my boyfriend because it would ruin all of our relationships. Is he embarrassed of what he did? What is your advice on my next step? I don’t know what to do.
It sounds like there is shame on his part, but as I am not him or capable of reading the minds of our readers’ boyfriend’s friends (or anyone for that matter), I cannot say for sure. Perhaps he feels he acted out of character in some way. Perhaps because there were substances involved, he feels taken advantage of. Perhaps, as it often happens, the sexual act looked very different to him before, during, and after—a hard dick can radically color someone’s thinking. People make decisions all the time that they regret, and whether or not this retrospective assessment is fair, it seems that’s what happened. My advice is to accept his response as an answer—he seems uninterested in following up with a second round. Don’t try to change his mind. Ask him if he’s upset or feels bad in any way, listen to him, and try to make things right if possible.
Dear How to Do It,
I am a newly divorced man who has always had a certain level of flexibility as it pertains to my sexual orientation. I’ve been with women, men, and trans women. I have been exclusively hetero-romantic. After I hook up with a guy, I don’t really have romantic interest. As I’m reentering the dating world, I am plagued by figuring out my identity. I am certainly somewhere on the bi/pan spectrum—that seems clear—but truthfully I don’t know if I like men because they are simply more available. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a nice dick from time to time, but I suppose my central question is if this is a core part of my identity or if I’m just flexible, more so when I’m horny. It stands to reason that the only way to iron this out is to wade into the sea of dicks that is Grindr, but if I decide it’s not for me, how obligated am I to be open with future partners about my exploration on the high seas of semen? I also find myself put off by the total disregard for sexual health I see in my local gay community. Any advice or suggestions? I want to explore but feel inhibited by the prospect of having “a secret” in future relationships, as well as carrying an STI with me as a souvenir.
—Swinging for the Dick Fences
After reading Anne Fausto-Sterling’s Sexing the Body—an examination of the way our genders, sex, and sexuality, and those concepts themselves have been constructed—I like to think of identity as a process, not a stable trait. This, I think, allows for personal evolution and helps illustrate how the formation of individual identity is far from standardized. It’s really up to you to determine whether rubbing your dick on some dude makes you more than someone who enjoys doing that. Some people see their sexuality as central to their existence; for some, sex is a hobby. It doesn’t have to be any deeper than that.
I think honesty about these matters is a good standard, but I also recognize that some queer/queer-adjacent people feel that honesty would compromise their safety. In the presence of lesser stakes, lying about one’s queerness is unconscionable to me for the effect it has on the community of people who do claim that identity (queer people remain marginalized enough that it’s still important to stand up and be counted). However, you don’t have to explain your past to your partners if you aren’t comfortable with doing so, as it needn’t have anything to do with them. Ideally, your partner would be someone with whom you could discuss any aspect of your life without receiving judgment, but life isn’t always ideal.
About the “total disregard for sexual health” in your local gay community, I’m apparently not there. You run the risk of STIs by having casual sex, period, regardless of with whom (HPV is rampant, for example, because it does not discriminate). Men who have sex with men are more likely to be on PrEP, which may prompt some to abandon condoms entirely, but also means that they’re getting regularly tested, and regular testing catches asymptomatic cases of syphilis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea. You have the option of stating that you only hook up using condoms, and some people will consent to that, while others will immediately lose interest. However, if you’re not using condoms with oral (and few do), you too are guilty of that which you accuse others. Vigilance is important but so is perspective. Here’s a perfect example of where queer identification can be useful: It chips away at the them-versus-me mentality that you’re exhibiting.
More How to Do It
I am a 34-year-old woman and I’ve been with my boyfriend for 13 years. We don’t have kids (yet), we have a great relationship, the sex is always good, and we hardly fight. I honestly cannot complain: He’s the type of man every woman would want. Anyway, I feel bad for even thinking this way, but I am and never have really been attracted to him. I find myself looking at other men online, and on the street, and I wish my man looked like them.