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 (18, FTM) have been dating my boyfriend (25, M) for a few months now, but we’ve been good friends for much longer. The relationship has been great, and we both discuss our comfort levels when needed. However, ever since I’ve known him, he has expressed interest or joked semi-seriously about starting sex work, be it through physically, or cam work, depending on the joke or comment. I’m really uncomfortable with open relationships, and I feel happiest and most comfortable and safe in a fully monogamous relationship. This includes not dating a sex worker. I support consensual sex work wholeheartedly, but I would not be mentally healthy in a relationship with someone who works in that field. I know the answer here is to approach him about how these comments make me feel and express my boundaries, but I deal with emotional and sexual trauma and abandonment issues—both of which I am working on! But it still impacts me heavily. Anytime I even think about trying to talk to him about it, I have a panic attack out of the fear that either I or both of us are going to end up upset, despite knowing that he has been very kind and understanding to some boundaries I have set regarding sex (again, trauma). How should I approach him about this without feeling like everything is going to go horribly wrong?
You say you know you wouldn’t be comfortable in a relationship with a sex worker but that the whole time you’ve known him he’s been expressing an interest in sex work. So I’m wondering why you started dating someone who wants to be one. You’d be asking him to change course because you aren’t comfortable with it in this new context, and I worry that’s a recipe for disaster.
Keeping in touch with what we want in a relationship is crucial, as is choosing partners whose own desires are within stretching distance of ours. Your perspectives on sex work and monogamy might change as you grow and mature, but right now, they don’t align with your boyfriend’s. I’m not saying you two need to break up immediately, but you appear to have arrived at a fundamental difference. There will be plenty of other people you find attractive, who you can also come to feel safe with. Some of these people will be happy with the full recreational and professional monogamy you’re after. Those are the ones you should be dating.
In the meantime, you can absolutely work on communication. This might mean working with a therapist. This might mean practicing in small, lower-stakes areas like telling your friends you’d prefer Chinese food over pizza tonight and increasing your vulnerability as you feel comfortable. This might mean practicing by yourself in a mirror, looking yourself in the eyes and saying “I want ___.” The key is to exercise that muscle so you have an easier time when romantic feelings are involved.
At some point you and your partner—whoever they are—are probably going to be upset with each other. You’ll want to work on distress tolerance in that area, both existing in spaces with people who are upset and remaining present when you’re upset. This is also something a therapist can help with. If professional counseling isn’t an option at this time, work on breathing and body awareness. Checking in with ourselves and noticing our emotions can help diffuse them.
Dear How to Do It,
My husband and I, both mid-30s, have been together for five years and married for two. He is a fantastic, caring partner, and he’s easily the most enjoyable sex I’ve ever had. (I am his first sexual partner; I’m more experienced.) I have a lot of hang-ups due to my terrible romantic past. I am rather unattractive in not easily solvable ways, and the men I have dated and slept with aside from my husband always made it clear they were “settling” for me. As a result, I struggle to relax in bed. I can’t orgasm with a partner, though I have no problem when I’m alone. Things that I enjoy in fantasy, like receiving oral sex or kink, horrify me in real life. My deepest, scariest fantasy is to be wildly desired. My husband loves me deeply, but frankly, I don’t excite him in that way. He’s attracted to me enough for sex, but isn’t really invested in pushing me to be more intimate sexually. I love not having that kind of pressure on me to “perform,” and this worked really well for us. I help myself out solo before we have sex one or two times a week.
A year ago we decided to start trying for kids, and I went off the birth control I’d been on for most of a decade. After several months, we found out I had mild thyroid problems and also wasn’t ovulating. I’m now on a strong dose of medication that prompts ovulation, and it is messing with me. Three weeks out of the month, I feel happy and satisfied with my sex life. Then the one week I’m ovulating, it’s like someone cranks the volume control to max. I’m insatiably horny, simultaneously bereft and angry that my husband doesn’t desire me intensely, wanting all those fantasy things that usually freak me out. Sex isn’t satisfying; I resent him for not really caring about my pleasure. Logically, I know how ridiculous and unfair I’m being. The majority of the time I push his hand away if he touches me in certain places, and he has to be in another room for me to orgasm.
It’s been like this for four months now as we’ve fiddled with the dosage. I’ve been telling myself that it’s temporary hormones and will go away once I’m pregnant, but that one week a month is like a roller coaster, me clinging on by my fingernails. The only other option to have kids (I asked my doctor) besides this medication would be IVF, which is too expensive. But it could be another year before we conceive. What can I do during the crazy week to walk this tightrope? My friends say I should pursue therapy to be more comfortable in bed, but honestly, if I did that, then my sex life with him wouldn’t be as great—he’s just not enthusiastic about me that way. I feel like I’d be changing the rules that have worked so well for us thus far. Do I just hang out and grit it?
—Sexual Jekyll and Hyde
Dear Jekyll and Hyde,
Moody Bitches by Julie Holland immediately comes to mind. Her insight on hormones and psychology seems useful here. The most useful new trick I picked up from the book is to keep track of the things that are boiling my blood during my period and address them a week or so later with a more clear head. You might make a list that week, come up with solutions or functional arguments against each item, and use that to keep yourself level on the next cycle.
Regardless of the specifics, it sucks to have a partner who doesn’t desire you. Without any other sexual partners as data points, I’m not entirely convinced that this is 100 percent you-specific, but either way, you aren’t getting what you desire. Are you sure you want to have children with this person? You might feel a lackluster sex life is outweighed by his positive qualities as a life partner and likely traits as a parent, and that’s OK. That’s your choice to make! I want to make sure you’ve considered leaving as an option, though, before you take that huge step together. It seems like there’s a lot to unpack in your relationship, so your friends’ suggestion to see a therapist strikes me as a worthwhile move. Either way, I’m glad you’re able to give yourself pleasure and enjoy sex with your partner. That’ll serve you well.
Dear How to Do It,
Newlywed lesbian here! Adore my wife in every way, and we have a killer sex life—far and away the best of my life (she says the same), and we both get off every time. She loves it when I go down on her—I’m the first partner who’s ever been able to get her off that way, which I do nearly every time. It’s awesome. It can take her a while to get off, and she’s pretty self-conscious about it, even though I reassure her that I genuinely love doing it and have no problem giving her all the time she needs.
That being said, she requires a lot of pressure and consistency to orgasm that way, and pausing to switch up the angle or give alternate stimuli causes her to lose steam. I’ve noticed from watching each other masturbate that it’s basically the clit equivalent of death grip. And like I said, I truly love going down on her, but it can honestly get pretty painful for me. (I actually cut the bottom of my tongue on my teeth the other day.) We have plenty of amazing sex via other methods, but she’s said she’d really like me to go down on her more. I’m hesitant to say something and exacerbate her self-consciousness around it. Help?
—Making My Way Downtown
Congratulations on your marriage! And a mutually satisfying sex life that surpasses past encounters.
A couple of companies make toys that simulate oral sex. If your wife is at all open to them, I think they might help take some of the pressure off of you. If you already incorporate toys in your sex, it’s as simple as buying one. If you don’t, you’ll want to have a conversation about bringing them in.
I hear that you’re concerned about adding to your partner’s self-consciousness around what it takes for her to orgasm by broaching the subject. That’s a real and valid concern. Pick a time when you have plenty of time to deal with any potential fallout. Start with reassurance—repeat what you’ve said here about how much you love her and how great your sex life is. You might emphasize what you get out of giving her orgasms, particularly orally. You might need to do some introspection here beforehand. Then gently share the effort it takes—you probably won’t need to say much, she’s likely to know what you’re talking about—and propose some actions. Maybe you’d like to explore more gentle sensation for an hour and see how she reacts. Maybe you want to bring in that toy. Maybe you need reassurance yourself around the acceptability of moving to a different form of stimulation when your mouth gets tired. You’ll have to come up with the specifics yourself. Make sure to create space for collaborative problem-solving during the conversation, too.
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Dear How to Do It,
My wife (early 50s, the love of my life) has a bad back. Not occasional soreness or sciatica. She has a very bad back.
Her first surgery was in her 20s, she’s had three more since including a two-level fusion in her lower back 10 years ago. She currently has six bulging or herniated discs ranging from just above her fusion up through her neck. She also has hip issues stemming from the fusion, as well as arthritis and stenosis. She regularly has numbness and tingling in her limbs, and there are days where getting out of bed and walking around by itself is difficult. Yet she pushes through the pain and manages herself. She is an amazingly strong woman.
When it comes to our love life, we are fairly well-matched. We indulge in each other’s kinks, are generally equal in libido, and know our hot buttons in the bedroom. The challenge for us is that sex almost always leads to pain. I suppose things would be fine if we found satisfaction in the occasional quickie, but we both desire more. When she gets excited, she is an orgasm machine. I love giving. Unfortunately, orgasms and prolonged play have a tendency to wreck her back—not in the moment, but the next day, and sometimes over the next few days.
We try to take it easy, but in the heat of the moment, when she’s asking for more, it’s hard to say, “Let’s be done.” It’s never clear where exactly the “too much” threshold even sits. Even if we spread play out over the day, the accumulated pleasures often result in pain for her. She oftentimes expresses desire, but then has trepidation because she wants to function the next day with less pain.
Do you have recommendations as to how to manage an active sex life with a bad back? Toys or cushions or something else that we could try? Positions that may be less impactful? Or are we destined to have to just manage this and the frustrations (sexual) that ensue? We both want to play without worrying about the consequences!
—Back in the Saddle
Orgasm is a pretty intense process, involving tension and release. It’s unfortunately logical that a plethora of positions and orgasms would cause strain on the spine. I’m sorry you’re navigating this, and that your wife is living through it.
I reached out to Bee Dawley, a content creator who experiences chronic pain themselves, for some tips. They start with more substantial supports, saying, “I’d suggest looking into a wedge pillow made specifically for sex, for the best support. Liberator makes a good one. Experiment with what makes her feel comfortable, but I find personally that using the wedge underneath your butt to lift the pelvis up slightly takes a lot of the pressure off of the lower back. You can also lie on the pillow to elevate your bottom in doggy style. As far as positions, missionary is usually a good standby, but going slow and moving positions when she gets uncomfortable is really the best option. And maybe stay away from positions that put pressure on her back—I’m afraid the piledriver is off the table.”
Clara Cosmia, another adult content creator who also experiences chronic pain, notes that sex should depend on which angles and positions are comfortable for her—how she rests and sleeps are good examples. “Start from comfortable, safe positions, and try and build play into those, as opposed to the other way—trying to adapt a less functional body to a given position,” Cosmia says.
Dawley also suggests a warmup and cooldown. “Make stretching together [or] massage part of the foreplay and aftercare. Sex is exercise, and some light stretching after will help keep those muscles around her spine from getting angry at her after a good romp. … Massage is always a sexy time! Get a nice massage oil and go slow and gentle. (Don’t try to deep-tissue massage a person with chronic pain. You might hit a pain point and make things worse.) A pain reliever cream is also a great post-sex massage lotion.” Dawley also recommends an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory (with her doctor’s approval) afterward as a preventive measure. Another good practice: keeping her body warm! “A hot shower (or ideally a hot bath with Epsom salts) before sexy times can not only put her in the mood for romance, [but] it can loosen up all those muscles beforehand and relax the body. In fact, try some foreplay with some waterproof toys in the tub, so you’re both raring to go when you’re toweled off!” Dawley adds that if your wife has medical mobility aids, they can absolutely be incorporated into sexual interaction.
Internalized ableism is something to keep an eye out for, Dawley notes. “The most important piece of advice I can offer, though, is to communicate and to encourage her heavily to listen to her body,” Dawley says. “We live in a really ableist culture that rewards us for ‘pushing through the pain,’ but this is silly nonsense that ends up making us worse in the long run. In bed and out of it, it sounds like your lovely wife needs to slow down a bit and even when things are getting hot and heavy, it’s best to take some breaths and slow down and check in.” Cosmia concurs: “Above all is communication, patience, and knowing it’s nobody’s fault. You’re both allowed to be frustrated at the situation—it doesn’t make you frustrated at your partner.”
More How to Do It
My long-term partner and I opened up our relationship a while ago, but we’re not sure how (or if) we should disclose this new facet of our lives to our friends, families, and anyone else. We live and work in a small city, so we are worried about being seen by people we know with someone else in a romantic context. How should we play this?