How to Do It

I Don’t Think My Husband Knows About My Secret Sexual Outlet

How can I be more open without hurting him?

Guilty looking woman next to a man in neon.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Champja/iStock/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,

I’m a woman in my late 40s who’s been with the same man, father of our kids, since my 20s. We have a solid relationship. In general, our sex life is fine, if slightly more vanilla than when we first met. We both orgasm most of the time, if I’m able to relax enough. He’s usually the initiator and would like it more frequently and more adventurously than I do or dare. We have a good emotional connection overall and decent communication, but for one issue: I masturbate without him knowing. I don’t know if he does too (probably), but we don’t talk about it at all. I’m afraid if I tell him he’ll feel deceived by me, because clearly I am hornier than he knows. The thing is that I have almost never felt good about myself physically (directly related to my weight). He knows this, and as I’m getting older, I’m slowly working on being less self-hating with professional help. Still, I have a hard time believing he wants me, and I think the main reason he wants to have sex with me is just his sex drive. This is also the main reason for the vanilla part of our sex life. Solo sex is an outlet where I don’t have to think about how my body looks and feels. It seems like something different than being with him. I feel guilty about it and sad that we have this unspoken thing between us. Can I be more open without hurting him?

—Wank, Don’t Tell

Dear Wank,

Masturbation and partnered sex are different experiences. Masturbation does something for you that partnered sex doesn’t—that’s common and nothing to feel guilty about. I suspect your husband also masturbates, or wants to, and that masturbation also does something for him that’s different from what he gets out of partnered sex. If you talked with him about it, he might feel relieved that he can be open about his own habits and overjoyed that you’ve got that outlet. He also could absolutely be hurt. He might find out by surprise, stumbling across you when you’re caressing your kernel. And, of course, any number of responses in the middle. It’s impossible to know until you discuss it.

I think it’s best to broach the subject gently. You might think through your response to various reactions he might have and prepare for the range of possible outcomes. What will you say if he’s upset? How will you protect your solo time while acknowledging his feelings? What if he wants to be involved? Will his presence impair your ability to let go? Are you OK with trying to masturbate together and seeing what happens? You don’t have to settle everything in one conversation, but to be more open, you’ll have to start talking.

Meanwhile, keep doing the work in therapy and try to think about the positive things your body does for you. You might start your list with “orgasms.”

Dear How to Do It,

I’m recently divorced after a decades-long closed marriage to a deeply jealous and insecure man. I am still relatively young and have gotten into online dating. It’s been amazing, and my sex life and sex drive are phenomenal. It’s raining men. I’ve been with a couple carefully selected partners during this time and identify as polyamorous at this point. The honesty, variety, and intimacy are more fulfilling than I could imagine. Being a single adult with grown children is where it’s at. I am torn between keeping my main lovers as my primary source of sexual and emotional fulfillment, for health and safety reasons, but I love the fun and intellectual stimulation of connecting with a new person. Is there somewhere between ethical nonmonogamy and meeting tons of cool new people who attract me in different ways? Can this even be done safely? I’m feeling greedy, but everyone is informed and happy.

—Too Much of a Good Thing?

Dear Too Much,

This is beautiful. The world is your slippery, vulva-esque mollusk. Ethical nonmonogamy still isn’t super well-defined and, really, neither is monogamy. We all have the opportunity to search for and negotiate toward exactly the relationship conditions we want, regardless of how open or closed they are. Unfortunately, many don’t take that chance and operate on assumptions and the inertia of implied societal expectations.

Right now, during COVID, I’m being extra careful. I broke off my previous relationship in July due to the strain of distance and am sticking to phone sex and sexting. I’m methodically considering a possible snuggle session with a person who is in my roommate’s special lady friend’s bubble, and maybe some bemasked outdoor banging with a long-term intermittent lover if the weather clears up. Previously, I might have had sex of varying quality with several people in a month. What I’m saying is that times are … different. And that focusing on socially distant ways of connection is a smart way to reduce risk.

For the time being, online mixers and dating apps that attract poly people might be the best ways to get your flirt on. And that’s a completely valid relationship structure—nesting with one person and flirting around, with varying degrees of sexual interaction on the menu depending on what your boundaries are. Just, you know, digital. COVID is airborne and highly communicable, so it’s important to have fun but also stay safe.

Dear How to Do It,

Thirty years ago I fell in love and had an intense affair with a man, “David,” I worked with. It lasted three months before I went back to my husband out of guilt. Ten years later, my husband left, and David and I happened to run into each other. We took up where we had left off, and continued for five years. He made me feel safe, smart, funny, and desirable, but distance, family obligations, and my health ended that relationship, which had slowly worked its way from just sex to mutual love.

Fast forward to now. There is a possibility of getting together again. We’ve spoken by phone and text; we haven’t seen each other, but the interest is definitely there. The sticking point is that neither of us has had sex in a really long time, like 10-plus years. We’ve both gained weight, we’re both starting to get creaky (I’m 57, he’s 60), and neither of us moves like we used to. We have stressors now that we couldn’t have conceived of 15 years ago that can make it hard to relax. I know the most common advice would be to “get back on the horse,” but this rider has gained 40 pound, has crow’s feet and bad knees, and sleeps with a CPAP machine. And he has his own issues. We haven’t had the benefit of growing into our ages sexually—neither with each other or with others. How on earth do we begin having sex when both of us are uncomfortable in our bodies, and unable to use them with the wild abandon we did in the past? Are there positions that will work better for overweight people ? I know we’ll never move like otters the way we used to, and my biggest fear is setting our expectations too high, but lowering the bar seems like settling. The thought of all this is holding me back from getting reacquainted.

—We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Horse

Dear We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Horse,

I reached out to Kelly Shibari, longtime colleague and star of Jessica Drake’s Guide to Wicked Sex: Plus Size 101. For larger bodies, Shibari recommends erring on the side of physics and ergonomics. “Sex isn’t really about athleticism or ‘proving’ anything—it’s actually all about being comfortable enough to relax and let go, so that you can fully experience the happy fun of having sex.” She notes that there are plenty of variations on traditional sex positions. Take doggy style: If it’s too hard on knees or wrists, move off the bed so you’re both standing. “Bend at the waist so your weight is mostly on the mattress, and he’s standing behind you. If penetration is an issue, you can always move one leg up (or even just one knee) onto the mattress or even or a chair. This will help you keep the weight off of both of your knees (as well as your wrists!), and you have some additional support to counter the rocking. This position also moves bellies, which can sometimes be a problem in getting deeper penetration, out of the way,” she says.

There are a few options for missionary position, too. “Look into heavy, solid pillows (shredded memory foam is amazing), or invest in wedges made for sex, such as the ones made by Liberator. Therapeutic wedge pillows, like the kinds recommended for sleep apnea, can also work in a pinch,” Shibari says. “With you on the wedge with your pelvis in the air, it moves things like bellies and breasts up toward your head, which can help with penetration. (The recommended position for him would be to stand.)”

If you want to be on top but your knees or wrists object, try facing away from him in a modified reverse cowgirl. Shibari calls it a “fantastic” position, “since the visual is great for him, and because your motion isn’t particularly up-and-down—it’s more like forward and-backward—it can be easier on you as well.” She also notes that there are different kinds of sex chairs on the market that allow you to sit and bounce on while on top of him. “If you two want to embrace your inner HGTV obsessions, and your preference is to face him while on top, you can always build handles into the ceiling for support,” she says. “Just make sure that they’re secured sturdily into your house’s construction (advice for anyone installing weight-bearing things, regardless of size).”

Another fun position that Shibari recommends is borrowed from tantra:

Sit toward each other, legs splayed open, and then move your hips onto his. This position is for softer, slower, connected intercourse—you can simply rock back and forth in a sitting, hugging, kissing position that takes the weight off your joints except your hip flexors. This may be dependent on his size, but it usually works well. And don’t forget all of the other kinds of sex as well—toys (for you and for him) can be amazing, as can oral and manual sex.

“Sex is about fun and connecting, so if the libido is there, then it’s never about doing it ‘right,’ ” Shibari correctly concludes. “It’s about trying different things and laughing over the hiccups. Tease! Take breaks! Have snacks! Play! And remember: You don’t have to have an orgasm every time. Building up to it can actually be super fun. I hope you and David are starting on a really great journey of exploring a bunch of new, playful ways to have sex—how fun!”

Dear How to Do It,

I’m a cis woman with a disability that causes, among other things, tactile desensitization in my genitals most of the time, and occasionally shooting pain. I learned to orgasm for the first time with my partner, the first and only person I’ve ever had sex with, and it worked because we focused on above-the-waist erogenous zones, which are unaffected by the nerve damage and have never sustained any injuries or damage from illness. This was great!

But now we are sheltering-in-place in different places. I would like to figure out how to bring myself to sexual climax by masturbating. So far, nothing is working. I don’t really know how to turn what my partner does to me back onto myself (like, I can’t kiss myself on the neck while caressing my own breast, for example). Are there any good guides or tutorials for women masturbating if touching your genitals isn’t going to do much? Do you recommend any toys specifically for enhancing above-the-waist sensation? I tend to feel shy or embarrassed watching porn, but I am willing to sign up for a porn subscription if you know of something that demos DIY ideas for people with nerve damage or even paraplegia specifically.

I also feel a bit awkward and embarrassed when I try to masturbate in general. I know nobody is judging me! Nobody else is even in my apartment! It’s just that even after years of therapy, it’s hard to stop the mental voice that’s like, “This should be easy, everyone else can do this, why are you so bad at such an easy thing?”

—Awkward and Isolated

Dear Awkward and Isolated,

You have so many possibilities here. “Orgasm is a brain-mediated response,” Mitchell Tepper, a sexologist who specializes in sexual health for people with disabilities, chronic medical conditions, or serious illness, told me. “Any area of the body can stimulate an orgasmic response if you pay specific attention to it with the proper intention. … Trust, safety, and connectedness have the ability to transcend any physical loss and is the pathway to pleasure and orgasm.” This indicates that fantasizing and thinking yourself off would be great options to explore. You might enjoy older magazine spreads from a more artistic time, erotic literature, or videos from a feminist porn company like the highly inclusive Pink and White Productions.

Props might help you stimulate your upper body. Feathers, glue-on finger nails, small floggers, and soft pieces of fabric are all ways you can give yourself sensations without feeling like you’re touching yourself. If you’re into nipple sensation, there’s a whole world of implements ranging from inexpensive wood clothes pins to more elaborate clamps to gorgeous nipple frames that provide a slight sensation of being squeezed. You might also enjoy the sensation of a vibrator on your nipples. (You’ll want a small, classic-tipped vibrator like Crave’s Vesper, but speak with your specialist before using a vibrator on your genitals.) Canned air can replicate the sensation of a lover blowing across your neck or behind your ear, but you’ll want to keep the nozzle a good distance away from your skin and be cautious never to blow into the ear or eye. Tantric solo sex might work for you as well, and Barbara Carrellas’ Urban Tantra is a great place to start. Generally there’s a lot about breathing, intentional focus, and presession preparation rituals that could help easy your anxiety around masturbation.

Tepper notes that you likely have a 2-inch (or so) band of hypersensitivity above the edge where you lose sensation. This hypersensitivity may result in uncomfortably sensitive and very pleasurably sensitive areas, and is worth exploring. Tepper also notes that some studies indicate G-spot stimulation of paraplegic women may reduce pain for up to a few hours. You’ll want a firm, curved wand with a fairly broad tip for this. NJoy is widely considered the best manufacturer. (And for more from Tepper, check out his book, Regain That Feeling.)

And as for “everyone else can do this”: You are 100 percent incorrect! Many people struggle with orgasm, regardless of the specifics of their bodies. (One study found that a little more than half of women with spinal cord injuries could orgasm with the right stimulation.) Learning what works for our bodies is a process we all have to go through. Your path is less common, so your journey is less well-mapped, but you’re doing a wonderful job of figuring things out for yourself. Remember to focus on process and pleasurable sensations over a goal of orgasm, and stop as soon as it starts to feel like work. Good luck!

—Stoya

More How to Do It

In high school, my younger sister “Eva” got very intensely into a conservative church, purity pledges and all. My brother “Josh” and I never did, and both of us turned out to be pretty nonreligious with unremarkable dating lives. Eva remained very involved in her church, and three months ago, at 22, she married her similarly devout husband.

This past weekend, Josh informed me that our brother-in-law confessed to him (over too much to drink) that he and Eva hadn’t consummated the marriage despite multiple attempts together. He didn’t mention what kind of difficulties they were having, only that it was also his first time and he felt pretty lost. Josh was focused on getting him sober and getting him home, so the conversation didn’t continue.

I feel terrible for them! I’m trying to figure out if I can say something to Eva: Do I give her an adult version of The Talk? Slide a pamphlet in her purse and run away? I’d be happy to give advice, but I have no idea where to start, because I doubt she’d approve of my unmarried sex life. We have a warm but not deeply close sisterly relationship (think: coffee together a few times a month), so I have no idea where to start. Josh said he would be open to talking to our brother-in-law too, if he could figure out what to say.