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,
Since a very young age, I have used porn to explore my own sexuality. Nowadays, the way I view porn is on my phone when I’m alone and wanting to masturbate. I have been in a relationship for over five years but haven’t been truthful with my partner about the extent of my porn watching. Early on when we started dating, she told me she was totally turned off by and against dating men who watch porn. My response was to keep it hidden from her because I didn’t want her to break up with me. This wasn’t hard because my porn and masturbation are very private things in my life.
However, everything changed a few months ago. She came home and found me jerking off and watching porn. After being caught, I decided to come clean, going as far as telling her porn stars I like, when I’d watch it, how many times a week, and that I check out good looking women on occasion in real life and on Instagram. She has told me she feels deeply hurt by me keeping this secret from her all this time. She tells me there is a part of her that doesn’t feel like she’s enough for me physically and sexually if I’m seeking porn/ Instagram models to get off. It’s been a very hard few months and our conversations don’t seem to go anywhere productive. Sometimes, without warning, she can just burst into tears about the issue.
My partner doesn’t watch porn and she has barely masturbated in her life, which makes it harder to explain why I would want to do this. This has also been very hard for me because I haven’t discussed my masturbation with anyone before, let alone with someone I’m in a relationship with. I feel very judged and vulnerable. I will say since she has found out, I have not used porn to masturbate, nor do I plan on doing so because of how it hurts my partner. I love my partner and our sex life is fantastic; however, I still like to masturbate to help relieve stress. Sometimes I just like to get myself off, but now I feel like I’m doing something wrong. How do I explain to her that what I do alone with my body doesn’t mean I love her less or want to replace her? How do I have a productive conversation with my partner about this? How can I better understand her feelings and also help her understand mine?
I’m wondering why this relationship got past the early stage at which your girlfriend declared her aversion to dating men who watch porn. That was your big sign that the two of you aren’t compatible. But you’re here together now, so let’s see what can be done.
I think you might have overshot with the level of detail you gave when you did eventually share your use of porn. Sometimes details—like a specific porn performer you mentioned—stick in people’s heads and attract their focus with uncomfortable frequency. The abrupt tears seem like they might be related to this phenomenon.
On your end, you shared a whole lot of stuff in a high stress, emotionally charged situation. Stuff you haven’t shared with people. Your discomfort is valid and deserves acknowledgment as well.
I’d have one relatively gentle conversation that starts with something like “I imagine that whole revelation was intense, and might have had a roller-coaster quality to it.” Let her respond, and apologize directly when she’s expressed herself. Then practice that vulnerability again, and say “I’m sorry, I’m bumbling this. I’m [nervous, afraid, anxious, whatever is going on with you] because I’ve never discussed masturbation. It’s new for me.” See where it goes, and slow it down if emotions start heating up.
I believe that your masturbation is your business and nobody else’s judgment should affect whether you engage in it, but I understand that feelings don’t necessarily work that way. Erring on the side of caution, you might forgo masturbation and look into other forms of stress relief besides masturbation. Exercise, breathing, meditation, walks, showers, and baths are all self-care activities that might be worth a try.
Lastly, have more talks. Ask her about her relationship to her body, and why she rarely masturbates. Gently share your own perspectives. Listen with as much attention to detail as you can muster. And spend time thinking through these things on your own. You’ll likely have an easier time expressing yourself to her.
Dear How to Do It,
I have been with my partner, a cisgender man, now for 17 years, since his early 20s. Within the past year or so, there have been discernible changes to his erection—to the point when I think it is impacting my enjoyment of penetrative sex. In my observation, visually and physically, it is less hard and has less girth.
I have not mentioned it to him because (A) how could I even without sounding awful? And (B) I know penis-havers’ erections do change over time. On the other hand, (A) erection changes can be indicators of problems, and (B) it is impacting my enjoyment of our sex life.
My understanding is that most of the factors making up an erection, including erect penis size, are out the control the penis-haver. I don’t want him to feel bad about something he doesn’t have control over. But maybe something is wrong? But what if it’s not and all I’ve done was make him feel self-conscious about getting older. It’s not like I point out new wrinkles or gray hair.
Should I keep quiet? Or any advice on how broach the topic?
Unlike wrinkles and gray hairs, eroding erections can absolutely be a warning sign of something more serious.
One of my friends stayed at my apartment a couple of years back, and it turned out they snore very loudly. My roommate and I very politely said nothing about this to them. Later, we were chatting on the phone and they mentioned having just found out that they have a breathing condition. If someone—maybe me—had mentioned their intense snores to them, they might have discovered their condition earlier. Everything worked out fine, but it might have saved them a year or two of poor sleep quality.
In your case, you’re probably the only person who is going to notice this change in your partner’s body. Softer and smaller erections are expected as aging progresses, but approximately 40 feels a bit on the early side. In these current COVID times, I’d suggest a telemedicine appointment with his primary care physician to start with. They can decide whether a specialist is needed.
As for how to broach the subject, you’re best positioned to work out the details. Draw on those 17 years of partnership and craft your own version of “I’m afraid of hurting you, and I love you exactly as you are in every moment. Your body is changing, which is part of life, but I’m worried that there might be something going on with you medically, and your well-being is important to me.” You’ll know how to pick a good time to talk, and what language will be most reassuring for him to hear. From there, listen. He’ll likely give you clues as to how you can best support him through a doctor’s evaluation.
Dear How to Do It,
I work freelance and about five years ago, I decided to spend three months in a warmer climate. I love my hometown, but I hate how cold it gets in the winter. A few years ago, I met “Tom.” He was funny and smart and basically everything I had been looking for. He also sometimes came to my hometown on business. With our schedules, we decided to see how this went over about a year and then reassess. We decided we wanted to have a relationship. I increased my time away from my home city and he talked his bosses into letting him spend more time in mine. It worked out really well. We had talked about moving in together before COVID, and I realized it would be better for me to be locked down in his home rather than in my apartment. So I moved in over the summer and everything was going well. Tom’s company laid him off with the intention of rehiring him. It was great.
Between his unemployment benefits and the reduced cost, I was able to scale back my hours of work. During that time, we went at it like rabbits. Then he got rehired. He told me before he moved in that his hours were highly variable and when he worked a lot, he would have very little sex drive. This was fine since I also like masturbating. For about the last month he has been busy at work and we’ve had almost no sex. We’ve gone from several times a week to once, maybe twice. Because of this, I’ve started masturbating more.
Well, he caught me the other day and was absolutely shocked. He thought that when he said he had no sex drive when he was busy with work that that meant I wouldn’t be doing anything either. After a little bit of back and forth, he finally admitted that he thinks it’s unattractive when women (only women) masturbate. I told him if he was too tired to get it up for sex, there were other things he could do to me. He said it was ridiculous that someone would do that and not get off. I told him that women have sex all the time with men when they aren’t very horny and that I’ve done it with him. He seemed so upset by this. I’m upset that his views are so misogynistic. Is this a red flag? Should I be reevaluating this relationship? We both grew up in somewhat conservative religious households—could this be something from that? I’m debating telling him that he can either get me off when I’m horny or let me masturbate, is that too much of an ultimatum? In every other way, he’s a wonderful partner. Where do I go from here?
—Not So Handsy
You should be reevaluating this relationship. “He thought that when he said he had no sex drive” followed by anything that implies his level of horniness will affect yours is a flag. Expressing shock at the fact that you masturbate is a flag. Expressing shock at the idea that a partner might pleasure their lover for the sake of it without an orgasm of their own is another flag. You’ve basically got a front row spot at Lenin’s funeral.
All of this could absolutely be tied up with growing up in a conservative religious environment, but that doesn’t make it OK. And it doesn’t sound like he’s in a place where he’s ready to dismantle the toxic aspects of those ideas. He might loosen up over time. It’s up to you how much waiting to see you’re willing to engage in.
The stakes aren’t superhigh right now. You’re COVID-cohabitating, but you don’t mention any financial ties to each other, you aren’t married, and you don’t have children. I often hear from people in these letters and elsewhere who married someone they don’t sexually match with, and once they’ve procreated, extricating themselves is a lot more complicated.
Do you want to continue to be involved romantically with a person you’re considering delivering an orgasm ultimatum to? Who—outside of any consensual BDSM play—is someone you’re describing as needing to “let” you masturbate? Gather your sexuality, pack your bags, and get out the door.
Dear How to Do It,
I am a man in my mid-60s, still working full time. I have been separated from my wife of multiple decades for a couple of years. More than a year before our separation, when we were already discussing its probability, I began a sexual affair with a married woman I’ve known for many years through work. The affair continued, quite secretively, right up to the COVID crisis and has proceeded electronically since then. It is the only affair I’ve had during my marriage and since. The woman is 12 to 14 years younger than I am, lives with a husband even older than myself, and has teenage children. And whereas my wife is generally considered a great beauty, the woman is not, though she became more attractive to me as the end of my marriage became apparent.
From the outset, she made it clear that she was not leaving her husband or jeopardizing her relationship to her kids, which I gladly accepted and gladly continue to accept. We also assumed that this would not be a long-term, exclusive relationship and that it would be primarily sexual, which it certainly has been. What surprised both of us was how intensely pleasurable and compelling the sex itself was and continues to be. Before our affair, her sex life with her husband had been minimal for years, sex had never been especially exciting for her at any point in her life, and the sexual intercourse she’d had with men had always been brief. I had many more lovers than her prior to marriage and a satisfying sex life in the marriage until about 10 or 12 years ago—from that point on I’d had relatively little sex.
But in this relationship, the passion is prolonged, with me staying erect and aroused for hours and she having at least four and sometimes as many as eight or nine orgasms when we meet. We have experimented in many different and exciting ways. We’ve periodically tried to “cool it,” i.e, suspend, though not put an end to, our meetings, with not much success as it is extremely satisfying. We never go out together in public, though we talk at length in bed and I enjoy her obvious intelligence. And while we have common professional concerns, we have very different interests, personalities, friend networks, and so on.
She occasionally says that she feels as if she’s holding me back from pursuing a more complete relationship, and, in fact, that is still what I want. But COVID restrictions notwithstanding, I wonder why I haven’t done so. I’ve dated some, mostly people to whom women friends have introduced me, but not been particularly interested in these dates. I eventually want to move on, but this relationship has been so easy, so convenient, so sexually enjoyable and places so few demands on me that I’m not inclined to let it go or put the work into finding and sustaining a fuller partnership in which sexual, emotional, and intellectual needs are met. On the other hand, I don’t want to grow old alone, and I like being with someone. What can I do?
I feel like it’s worth separating this into current COVID times and the after times. For now, it makes absolute sense to continue this good thing you have going with a person you deeply enjoy the company of and who you can presumably communicate effectively with regarding airborne virus harm reduction. I see your justifications for the affair and have no argument against them that I think you’ll find valid. You’re adults who’ve made your choices, and I imagine you can both calculate the risk to her familial relationships if you’re discovered.
As for the after times, I think you make your own case for why your lover feels she may be holding you back from a more multifaceted relationship. As long as you have this sexually supercharged interaction which—placing few demands on you and being easy—allows you to avoid the work a full relationship requires, you’re quite understandably reluctant to move on. It’s like you’re considering giving up the chicken wing in your hand for a four-course dinner with roast that you’ll have to help with the serving of and washing up after in the proverbial bush. Usually we say stick with the single bird. In this case, I think you’re selling yourself short.
I’m wondering if you’re struggling because you want both—this relationship you’ve invested time and found comfort in, and a potential relationship with more emotional connection and ability to be seen together in public. It’s worth doing some introspection there. You might find that it’s a case of one now and the other later.
When you do decide to go searching for a more traditional significant other, I do think you’ll need to make the space in your life. You’ll want to use the hours you spend with your lover meeting new people and building on connections as you find people who are interesting to you.
More How to Do It
I’ve noticed that you tend to admonish people for snooping on a partner’s phone no matter what. Is the answer that simple? I understand that in a perfect world you confront your partner if you suspected something was amiss, but in the real world, it’s not that simple. What if they lie? What if the accusation ruins things, even if there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation? What if you’re right? I dunno—could you talk through why the “don’t snoop” answer seems so natural to you and, frankly, all advice columnists?