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 have been married for about 15 years to my husband, and we have two kids together. He is a kind and caring person, a good dad, and a thoughtful partner. We enjoy spending time together. The problem is I am 0 percent attracted to him and don’t have any desire for sex with him. He hasn’t changed very much physically in the time we have been together—it’s my response to him that has. I don’t like his natural smell, I don’t like the way his skin feels, I don’t care to look at his face, and I have no interest in cuddling. We have sex a couple of times a month, usually because I am horny and he is a convenient and willing partner, or when it’s been long enough that I do it to keep him from getting too grumpy about a lack of sex. I thought for a long time I was one of those people whose desire decreased as I got older (late 30s).
A couple of years ago, I had an affair that lasted several months, and I learned I do still desire sex. A lot. Just not with my husband. The affair is in the past, I haven’t spoken with my affair partner in over a year, and I don’t care to again. My husband knows about it, and we worked through it and went to therapy. We have tried experimenting and playing with new ideas. He is willing and responsive, but it’s still mostly ho hum for me. I have read Mating in Captivity and Come as You Are, and neither helped very much. I can’t bring myself to want to desire him. I don’t want to blow up my marriage over this—it’s mostly a good marriage. But I can’t help but feel like I am ignoring a huge part of myself and wasting my sexual years. My husband mentioned opening the marriage in the aftermath of the affair and decided he was not on board. He was still reeling from the news at the time, but I don’t think he would be any more open to it now. He struggles with anxiety, so I hesitate to bring this up with him out of fear it will trigger him to spiral and make both of us miserable. Neither of us are happy with our sex life as it is. I just don’t know what else to do about it.
—Someone Probably Wants to Have Sex With Him, Just Not Me
Dear Not Me,
Is there anything you find attractive about your husband? One quirk of his eyebrow when he’s in a certain mood? A fleck in his left iris? A gesture? A sigh? If the answer is no, is there anything you remember from the time when you were attracted to him that you might be able to revive your appreciation for? Whatever it is, meditate on it. Make it your focus. Turn your thoughts to it whenever you find your mind aimlessly wandering. Fetishize it if you have to. The hope is that you can build enough heat to reignite your desire.
That might not work, though, and your position is a difficult one. You might hurt your partner. Your expression of your sexual desires might cause feelings of abandonment, low value, and yes, misery. At a certain point—which I suspect you might be near—you have to weigh your own happiness against that of the other people involved. I appreciate that you want to cause as little harm as possible, but sometimes we do hurt each other. And you can’t ignore your own desires forever.
You might consider returning to the counselor the two of you used in the wake of your affair. A professional can help foster introspection and communication in a way that seems very useful for your situation. And if your husband’s anxiety is such that he can’t handle a conversation about the terms of your marriage, he would do well to work on that individually.
Dear How to Do It,
I came out as lesbian in middle school and only ever dated girls—until I met someone in my mid-20s. We’ve been together for five years now, and I still identify as a lesbian who happened to fall for a guy. The problem is that while now I find myself in love with him and romantically attracted, I am no longer sexually attracted to him. And I miss women. We tried a threesome once, and while I had an amazing time and loved it, he hated it and said that we could never do that again. I love him and love our life together, but I’m starting to worry that I’m just settling while knowing I’ll always be missing something. He’s incredibly understanding of this, but there really isn’t anything he can do to help, short of letting me have a girlfriend too. Plus, I feel bad that I have no sex drive when it comes to him because we used to have a lot of sex, and he understands my desires and kinks better than anyone I’ve ever met. Plus, as we were both into BDSM, I am his collared submissive. I hate feeling like he’s not enough for me. The problem is me, and I just don’t know what to do. But for all I know this is normal, since he’s my longest relationship. Any advice?
Let’s talk about the idea of “normal” first. Some people, regardless of identity, experience a drop in sexual attraction to their partner after a few years. Some people don’t. Some lesbians fall for guys—Erika Moen has cartooned about her own experience of this—and some straight women fall for other women. And, like sex and gender, orientation isn’t as binary as we may initially feel it is.
Can you elaborate on what you miss about women? Is it the tenderness with which they caress you? The queerness of being held for several minutes after you’ve dry humped yourself to orgasm on their thigh? Their pillowy breasts? Some of these qualities can be replicated with cis men, and some cannot. You don’t have to share that list with anyone, but I think it’ll be useful for you to get really specific about what you’re missing and think through what your partner might be capable of giving you.
Another thing I’d like more detail on is why your partner hated the threesome and won’t have one again. His reactions may provide clues about what he’s comfortable with and where his boundaries are. Essentially the more data y’all have, the better I think you’ll be able to think through possible solutions and compromises.
Remember that BDSM play is just that—play and a fantasy. You’re absolutely his collared submissive, but the power dynamic you consensually create with each other is something you can step back from or even sever at any time.
Give yourself plenty of time to have the big talks slowly. Sometimes a change needs time to have its intended effect. You name a number of compatibilities, and I think it’s worth trying to work things out. How does six months feel? Whatever period of time you feel makes sense, focus on the relationship, and then check back in with yourself when that time is up. I think you’ll have a better idea of what’s possible and what you need.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a 26-year-old woman who has known my partner, a 33-year-old man, on and off for 13 years. We’ve been together for three years and plan to get married in the summer. We have always had an amazing sex life, and we have been exploring our sexuality and fetishes with each other (toys, BDSM, threesome with other women). He is a loving, caring, and supportive partner and has always said we are soulmates. He has had a hot-wife fetish for about a year now and would always like to talk about my hookups with partners in the past while we have sex, which has really turned him on. I enjoy this too, and it has made me think about him hooking up with other women, which surprisingly turns me on too.
He encouraged me to use Snapchat to reach out to a hookup from about five years ago. He wanted us to hook up in front of him or even privately as long as I showed him a video. I was definitely interested in this idea but still skeptical, since it was almost too good to be true and I didn’t know if he was 100 percent serious. I added the hookup on Snapchat, and we have talked a few times. I told him what the situation was with my partner, and he seemed interested and wanted to sext over Snap, so I did. My partner and I talked about this during sex, and he seemed really turned on and encouraged me to send him a video or two.
Recently, my partner and I were having a conversation around trust—I was feeling uneasy about his female clients at the gym hitting on him. During the conversation, my partner brought up my old hookup and was hurt that I was talking to him about trust. I was very surprised, as I thought this was what he wanted and asked for, which I told him. He hasn’t said anything since. Now we are talking about opening our relationship (for sex only), which we are both on board with and want to try once it is safe. I explained to my old hookup that my partner might not be feeling super comfortable with the fact that we have been talking. My old hookup was understanding but continues to sext with me. I haven’t talked further with my partner about this. I love my partner so much, and nothing is worth risking our relationship, but now we are exploring new dimensions that now involve other people. I don’t feel like I can trust my friends with this type of information, and I’m not sure where to find information on opening your relationship for casual sex. Should I keep my old hookup on Snapchat and continue to talk to him? How do I bring this up with my partner?
—Have My Cake and Eat It Too
This is not the time to open up your relationship. Not the time! COVID aside, the two of you don’t seem to be on the same page. Jealousy around our partners engaging in flirting with other people is an uncomfortable but common and frequently surmountable feeling. Unfortunately your partner seems to have difficulty communicating around that feeling. The two of you would do well to slow down and sort out the boundaries of your relationship before you take the step of marriage. A quick read through the archives here turns up plenty of people who married someone they aren’t a sexual match with, and that causes issues down the line.
Take some time to think about what you want your relationships to look like. Put your partner’s needs aside for a bit and fantasize about what your ideal scenario might be. Try on a few scenarios. Figure out what you want, and you’ll be better positioned to evaluate whether this partner is the one you want to marry.
I’d let your Snapchat buddy know that you’ll be needing an indefinite period of time to sort out what your partner is actually OK with, then tell your partner that you need to have a talk about jealousy and conflicting messages. While it’s understandable that your partner would experience jealousy, and that he might lash out, this is a negative pattern that you want to avoid repeating. As for how to have the talk, be direct. Something along the lines of “I need clarity regarding your feelings about me having sex with other people. Sometimes you seem very into it, and others you seem like you’re having a difficult time. Can we talk about what you’re experiencing?” Good luck.
Dear How to Do It,
My partner and I are both gay trans men in our late 20s, and we’ve had a wonderful relationship for the past 2.5 years. I’ve always had a very high libido and have been very kinky and active in online kink spaces. Before I met my partner I was beginning to meet up with people for kinky play for the first time and was loving feeling affirmed in my kink and my gender identity. I think my partner wouldn’t call himself vanilla, but compared to me, his interests are more mainstream. It’s been fun to introduce him to new things, and we’ve had a lot of fun, nonsexual experiences at parties and bars that we’ve both enjoyed. But whenever I bring up sex, he brushes me off. I just want to feel close and intimate, like I have more in a relationship than a super close friend who I can change with and be naked near. I know that he has a lot of body shame and dysphoria (he does see a therapist, but I don’t know if he’s talked about this with her). I’ve tried a ton of different ways to make him comfortable and ask how I can help, but he just doesn’t seem interested in sex with me. I’m not asking for several times a week (I’m fine masturbating regularly, especially since I can indulge my kinks more), but we’re going six to eight months without having sex at this point, and it’s making me frustrated (in more ways than one).
Before the pandemic we talked about opening up our relationship, but we both agree that we should wait for things to settle down before doing that. But even if we’re (I’m) having my libido needs met, I still want to have a sexual relationship with my partner. Whenever I try to have a conversation, he goes on this guilty spiral, and it usually shifts the topic to how much he feels like a bad partner. Over the summer we plan to relocate for a new opportunity for me, and I feel like we need to have a real conversation about this before we move and move in together, but I don’t know how to do that without making him feel guilty, inadequate, or self-conscious. I know that I’m more comfortable talking about sex than most people, but what does a conversation like this even look like?
—Let’s Have Coffee and Talk About Sex?
Emily Nagoski wrote a wonderful book called Come as You Are about sexual response. It’s geared toward cis women, so I definitely wouldn’t recommend that your partner read it at this time, but Emily’s dual brakes-and-accelerator model seems useful here. Basically, we all have sexual accelerators and sexual brakes. If the brake is stuck on—body shame and dysphoria, added pressure because he knows you aren’t getting the intimacy you crave—the accelerator can be pushed to full power, and you still aren’t going anywhere. Your partner’s brakes seem pretty intensely depressed.
You’re right on waiting to possibly open up the relationship due to COVID—it isn’t safe to start having sex with strangers right now. And, like you said, that doesn’t fix your desire mismatch with your partner. You’re also right to want to see improvement before the two of you relocate, and you’ve got about half a year before this happens. Do you think your partner would be open to seeing a couples counselor together to work through your communication around sexuality? Your partner’s current therapist might be able to recommend an LGBTQIA+ friendly professional who could see the two of you together. You’ll want to be direct about the issue you’re hoping to untangle. If he’s still unwilling to discuss this, either with you or a therapist, then I think it’s time to consider whether you want to continue this relationship or part ways.
More How to Do It
I’m a single woman in my 40s coming up on a year of Tinder. I had a lot of great experiences—it was a lot of sex and a lot of good sex. But it was basically all unprotected sex. I take oral contraceptives. I found almost all of my partners didn’t want to use condoms and I didn’t either, so we didn’t. It was a lot of partners. At the end of the year, I met someone who freaked out when I suggested not using them, and it got me thinking. I went to my gynecologist and got myself tested, and everything is OK. I shut down the account because I’m just done. I figured I’d be single and lonely—but safe.
Now I’ve met someone offline and I really like him. We had sex. We used condoms. Here’s the thing: I just hate them. Maybe once or twice in a night I can tolerate them and have a modest orgasm. But this is a guy who can go all night, and I love that. But I can’t with protection because it hurts me after a while, maybe 30 minutes. I used a sensitivity gel and ultra-thin ultra-sensitive condoms, but it’s all no good. It’s just terrible. In the morning, I could not have sex because it hurt too much. What to do? I want to be responsible but I really, really hate condoms.
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary, and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.