How to Do It

Telling the Truth About My Past Has Ruined My Sex Life

How can I make things go back to the way they were?

A man and a woman facing each other with a neon caution sign pulsing between them.
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,

I’m in a casual, but monogamous, dating relationship of 3-to-4 months. In a recent discussion about sex, I briefly disclosed that in my past (10+ years ago) I was in a brief sexually abusive relationship. I received help and have healed, and he seemed supportive and caring about my past and recovery, however the sex we’re having now is way more “cautious” than before. Mid-coitus he’ll ask if I’m OK repeatedly (and I’m not the silent type when things feel good) to the point of distraction. We’ve been more adventurous in bed, but now it’s only missionary and he seems reluctant to switch to other positions or allow me to perform oral. I like a bit of rough play like hair pulling, spanking, light restraint, and dirty talk, which was accommodated before, but is now nonexistent. I only disclosed my past due to the relevant conversation we were having at the time, and I made no comment regarding our sex life in relation to that past (there’s been no issues either!). We were very compatible sexually, but now I feel like he’s hyperfocused on not sexually abusing me due to my history, even though that’s not been an issue for us AT ALL. Otherwise, we have a wonderful relationship/friendship that I hope continues, but I’m unsure of how to broach this subject without causing him to focus even more on this problem. I really dislike talking about it, because it’s water under the bridge for me, but I need to take him off this overly cautious course!

—Bring Back the Fire!

Dear B.B.F.,

I think you have two options here: taking the lead or having another conversation. The former will require you to become a little more assertive during the act by verbally requesting what you’d like to do with him. He might just need to hear your enthusiastic consent in order to be comfortable getting rough again. Request it directly. Otherwise, I think revisiting the subject matter in a nonsexual setting may be useful. If he’s so concerned with your well-being that he’s altered his behavior, we can assume that he may reverse course when he hears how much you want him to. The guy seems malleable to me, as well as a considerate lover. Ask him if there’s anything beyond protecting you that has caused him to respond differently (if, for example, hearing about your abuse has had a direct effect on him) or whether he’s just being overly careful for your sake. Use this as an opportunity to check in with him and to reassert just how much you were enjoying sex before your big reveal.

Dear How to Do It,

I’m a somewhat ordinary, early-50s straight man. I’ve always found myself unable to resist looking at attractive women, which I’d say are a good 25 percent of the population. But, for as long as I can remember—including my VERY FIRST sexual encounter at the age of 18—I’ve been unable to orgasm with another woman without marijuana. I didn’t even try MJ until I was 21. There have been spells where I can O without it, but it’s rare. It’s been a part of what ruined my marriage. My ex would get impatient with how long it was taking me, which I could always sense (she didn’t hide these things well), and it only made it worse and worse every time we had sex. She was highly against MJ, and I never once even suggested it to her. Some women like the fact I can go so long, while others don’t. And I often can’t climax at all. If I have some MJ (have only ever smoked it), it’s a sure, 100 percent thing for me. I don’t want to smoke it anymore and haven’t in a year. I tried rubbing CBD oil on myself before sex and that didn’t help at all. My job would make it really difficult to even get a “legal” card, as they are completely intolerant if you ever test positive. Can you think of other items or techniques that might help me?

—Smokeless in the South

Dear Smokeless,

You report that you’re typically unable to orgasm with a woman without marijuana. That implies that you’re able to orgasm while not in the presence of a woman (i.e., during masturbation) without pot. If that is true, it might indicate that your issue is psychological in nature. The pot has perhaps been allowing you to relax, as it tends to do for people. Perhaps your ex’s impatience contributed to your anxiety that marijuana has helped alleviate.

Whatever the case, I’m going to recommend avenues of relaxation that don’t involve marijuana. Accept that you take a while to come and focus on the partners who find this trait attractive. Pursue a meditation practice to foster acceptance and calm. Also, see your doctor about delayed ejaculation. There are a lot of reasons why people feel they can’t perform sexually without weed (Vice ran a feature on this in 2017—you should read it and see if you relate). Habitual use of pot with sex may have instilled within you an association with the drug and the deed that will subside in time, but you may have an underlying issue. If it’s something like delayed ejaculation, that can be treated in a variety of ways starting now.

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Dear How to Do It,

A friend of mine had been bugging me to catch up in person for the last few months, and she asked that we try to get together before it gets too cold. I agreed, and we were planning to meet for brunch in an outdoor socially distanced setting … except that day it was 42 so we had to move inside, which I wasn’t a fan of, but went with the flow. Her friend was also in attendance. Lots of strong drinks later, I get too drunk and wind up having a threesome with my friend’s friend and her man. I didn’t regret the sex because it was fun, but I regret that I forgot my scruples about me and that there’s a pandemic going on. After it happened, I quarantined and got tested. The girl I had the threesome with is now looking to get together for us to hang out again. How do I tell her that I don’t feel comfortable doing so? Prior to the threesome, my levels of safety were much stricter, so I feel bad that I broke them that one day, but I don’t want to be that reckless again. I don’t want to shame her, and it’s not that I don’t want to hang out with her, but again, it’s a pandemic.

—Regrets Risky Threesome

Dear Regrets,

The contents of your letter make for a fine explanation: You were drunk, you made a decision you might not have if you were sober, and you still care enough about social distancing that you aren’t comfortable repeating the encounter. (It would be a mistake to do so, anyway—sex that you aren’t comfortable with isn’t worth having.) Tell her what you told us. Lead with saying you had a great time and don’t regret the actual sex. Acknowledge that while physical health is important, so is psychological health and it’s only human to want some fun after going without for so long. Say that in any other circumstance, you’d be down for a double dip but with some clarity, you’ve come to realize that you’re just not ready for regulars and are going to resume your strict lockdown measures. Tell her that you’re down to reconvene “when all this is over,” if that is in fact the case. You’re well within your rights to withdraw and that you are so concerned with doing it considerately is a good sign that you’ll be able to achieve that goal. You’ll be fine.

Dear How to Do It,

I am a college student (bisexual man) who is struggling with confidence when it comes to sex. I had sex for the first time last year with someone who I had a short-term relationship with. We had sex maybe three or four times, and each time I didn’t feel great about how it went. I didn’t last long and sometimes couldn’t get it up. I know that these are normal experiences for your first time, but I can’t get them out of my head.

When I think about any sexual experience now, I get anxious about my performance, with memories of the experiences from last year playing in my head on repeat (I did Kegels every day for six months, if that gives you any idea of how much I think about this). I know I’m attractive, so it’s not about physical insecurity. I also feel like a lack of confidence feeds a lack of performance and so on and so forth.

Any advice on how to get out of my own head and break the cycle?

—Trying to Unhaunt

Dear Trying,

You’re not alone! Confidence is something a lot of people struggle with in social situations, including, but certainly not limited to, sex. Some different framing might suit you well—think of your past sexual performance not as a reflection of you, a fixed being, but as a reflection of your reaction to the situation. While your functioning could be a result of physiological issues, your age makes it more likely that the causes were psychological. Maybe you didn’t feel safe, maybe you weren’t actually in the mood, maybe your partner wasn’t right for you. A lot of people are unable to perform on command, and some underwhelming early encounters hardly signal that you’re broken. You’re thinking about this as your failure, but that only assumes an ideal environment/pairing in which you were the errant variable. If you haven’t noticed, environments and pairings are rarely ideal. Maybe it was the circumstance that failed you.

Do your best to dispel notions of what your performance should be, and instead go after what you want. Maybe intercourse isn’t your thing. Find partners with whom you feel comfortable enough to move slowly and/or experiment. Focusing on activity that doesn’t necessarily depend on your stamina or even your erection (like kissing, body contact, or giving oral) could help you acclimate. You could pursue ED drugs, which you might not need technically but could alleviate anxiety and allow you to focus on the fun, but again, you’re young and a doctor might not readily prescribe them. It might also help to think of sex not as a performance or as a means to impress your partner, but as a mutual exchange of pleasure to which you are just as entitled as anyone else who’s present.

More How to Do It

I really need your help. When I masturbate, I have orgasms of varying intensity. Some are way more intense, but I can always feel it. When I have sex, I feel myself approaching an orgasm, but then I don’t feel anything. I feel the come-down from a great orgasm but literally nothing during the actual orgasm, unlike when I masturbate. I’m a bisexual cis woman, and this happens no matter the partner. Obviously, I don’t have this feeling during bad sex, but even when I have amazing sex this happens, and it’s a little weird to me. Is this normal?