How to Do It

Our Sex Life Is Great … Except for the Horrible, Lingering Aftermath

Is there any way to stop this?

Lower half of man and woman embracing, with smell marks.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo 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,

My fiancé (41m) and I (33f) have an amazing relationship, and our sex drives are equally matched. It’s normally once during the workweek because I work long hours, and he has a physically demanding job. But weekends it’s two or three times, and it’s great! The issue is smell. Before sex neither of us have an odor or taste problem, but afterward it’s horrid! And never goes away! The only fix is for me to get up and shower right away. Inconvenient but manageable. EXCEPT! Our favorite thing to do on weekends is camping. Almost every weekend we go out. Either tent or our old, tiny motorhome. Either way I don’t have access to a shower or running water. And it’s terrible. Both our genitals will be nasty until we get home. We’ve tried baby wipes, flushable bathroom wipes—nothing works! We never use condoms because I had my tubes out years ago, and we really don’t want that to be the only option. I don’t even know if that would help. We both have clean bills of health as well. What would cause this and what can we do to eliminate the swamp crotch?

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—Sick of Stench

Dear S.S.,

Two common causes of genital odor are yeast infections (which either of you could have) and bacterial vaginosis—the latter in particular is known to cause a particularly noticeable odor after sex. UTIs and STIs also can cause odors. You say you both have a clean bill of health, but I wonder as of when and whether you’ve talked to a gynecologist about this specific issue. If you haven’t, I urge you to do so. Even if you both entered the relationship without any STIs and have been strictly monogamous, your condomless sex could result in infections (sometimes all it takes is differing pHs between partners).

Two things you could try before visiting a doctor are over-the-counter treatments: For yeast, there are creams like Monistat 7 and for bacterial vaginosis there are products like RepHresh. There is some debate as to whether or not probiotics can help treat both conditions—if you do try this route, make sure you get one that contains lactobacillus. That’s a bacteria that does feature in some types of yogurt. Since yeast feeds on sugar, you’re better off sticking to plain, which is kind of a bummer as I’d love to be able to recommend Go-Gurt for your camping trips, but that seems like a no-go. These are mild suggestions though—you should see a doctor if the smell persists, as you may need a proper diagnosis and prescription medication if your smell is what I think it might be.

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Dear How to Do It,

I have orgasmed with a partner maybe once or twice in my life. I know my sexual pleasure is my own responsibility, but I don’t know where to start given some serious sexual baggage. I am a 25-year-old cis female who recently started a relationship with a great guy a few months ago (one of the first genuinely great and caring partners I have had), and I would love to be able to share that experience with him. I am proactive about finding things that turn us on and can orgasm on my own no problem, and he is totally fine with me bringing vibrators and toys into our sex together, but I still cannot orgasm with him.

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At this point, I’m pretty certain it’s a mental block for me. While trying to unpack that, I realize that I have a lot of sexual baggage. Some of my earliest sexual experiences were nonconsensual, and my reaction to it at the time was “suck it up and move on.” It didn’t feel like it affected me other than being upset in the moment, but with age and distance from that period of my life, I’ve realized it affected me quite deeply. I have always been a “performative” partner, overly concerned with how I turn my partners on and less concerned for my own pleasure. Often the only way I get turned on is by thinking about how much I turn the other person on, which I chalked up to being a generous partner but now feels unhealthy. I slept with a lot of people I didn’t know very well when I was younger and felt objectified and dehumanized and was not treated well, and I subsequently internalized that. I was desperate for someone’s affection and hoped that if I blew their mind with awesome sex, they would come to love me (so misguided, I know; this is no longer something I do and I feel seen and understood as a person from my current partner).

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I am now extremely turned on by feeling “used” and objectified and treated like a sex object. At first I thought it was a submissive kink, but the more I consider it the more I think becoming attracted to that was a coping mechanism for those feelings plus constantly linking the sexy hormones that come with sex to actually scary and deeply uncomfortable sexual experiences. I think that discomfort with being myself and focusing on MY experience and not depersonalizing is probably why I can’t “let go” and orgasm with a partner. Maybe I’m alienated from myself because it was easier to be mistreated as a “performer” than as myself. I used to accept my BDSM tendencies, but now that I am examining my link to those attractions, I’m not really comfortable exploring that right now. Even exploring that, I still could not orgasm with my partner. But I also do not know what I’m into otherwise. My mental fantasies involve that stuff in my solo sessions, too. Vanilla sex does nothing for me, but I want to try to become attracted to sex with more tenderness and care.

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I feel like I’m starting from square one, and I have no idea how to be responsible for my own pleasure, plus on top of that I am growing resentful of our compounding orgasm differential (he comes three times per session, I do not come at all, ever). I shouldn’t be mad at him for my own problem but I still am. How do I even start being a sexual person WITHOUT my sexual baggage? And how do I talk about all that sexual baggage with a new partner? I am not comfortable sharing everything with him, but I want him to understand why I might be fragile around sex right now. It makes me emotional when I try to discuss. (I want to add that I understand BDSM is not about being “used” and is based on a relationship of genuine care; I meant that I am uncomfortable with simulated violence right now even if it is within the bounds of a caring relationship.)

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—Abused and Confused

Dear A.C.,

You’re clearly thought a lot about your situation, and while I’m not sure that all of your conclusions are airtight, I’m confident that you’re at least pointed in the direction of healing. To answer your questions, you can’t start being a sexual person without your “baggage.” Your past is, unfortunately, not something you can just drop like a suitcase. Without adequate processing, it’s likely to remain an issue. If you haven’t sought out therapy in light of these new understandings of your history, consider it. When it comes to sharing with your partner, perhaps writing a letter would be the best way to start up the conversation. You could take your time drafting it, determining just how much you would like to reveal and taking breaks when the process becomes too intense. Writing it all out in advance would give you the desired control over the narrative.

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I understand your fraught relationship with your kink, and I wouldn’t recommend doing anything you aren’t comfortable with. However, keep in mind that some people have used BDSM as a way to explore taboo or otherwise difficult facets of their lives. It can be a way of processing things deliberately and consensually that previously seemed out of control. And regarding your orgasms, try not to get too anxious about them. They’re great, obviously, but they aren’t the be all, end all. There’s a lot to enjoy about sex besides orgasms, and anxiety can impede them anyway. You have a caring, compassionate partner. Cherish him.

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Dear How to Do It,

I am a 28-year-old bisexual man and have been in a committed relationship for six years. I didn’t realize I was bisexual until a couple years into my relationship with my girlfriend. What’s more, I am a very sexual person, which I thought my girlfriend was when we first started dating. We would have sex three times a week for the first year we were together. That gradually tapered off after that and now I’m lucky if we have sex once every two or three months. I know that over time, sex will naturally become less frequent in a relationship, but this seems like a very large decrease. We’ve talked about this many times, and she says she will try to be more conscious of it, but it feels like nothing changes. And every time I bring it up, it makes her feel guilty, and I don’t want her to feel that way. An open relationship is off the table for her, but I’d be open to it. Because we don’t have sex often and I need some release, I masterbate a couple times a day, which has affected my performance on our rare nights of intimacy. Considering the differences between our libido, is this relationship tenable? And am I denying a part of myself by not indulging in my bisexuality?

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—Hot and Unsatisfied

Dear H.U.,

You probably wouldn’t be asking whether you were denying yourself if you didn’t suspect that you were. I think this has less to do with your bisexuality than it does your nonmonogamous inclinations. A monogamous bisexual can feel 100 percent satisfied with their partner of whatever gender, just as any monogamous person of any sexuality can. All the fish in the sea cease to matter, regardless of their genitalia and/or identities. The potential palate of partners is not nearly as important as the way you relate to the tank you are in.

That said, if you were to stick with this relationship, you’d be committing to a life with an unsatisfactory amount of sex, and you’d never really get to explore the side of yourself that’s into dudes. I think at 28, you’re too young to confine yourself. You’re correct that sex wanes in many long-term relationships, but given how varied sexualities are, it’s tough to say whether your current decrease is a natural tapering off or one exacerbated by treatable issues. At the very least, your girlfriend may well be a “very sexual person,” just not with you at this point. That’s just how it goes sometimes.

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We receive a lot of letters about libido mismatches within long-term relationships; most of them are based on premises that make the disparity particularly painful or a far from clear-cut cause for separation—something to the effect of, “I love my partner, they’re the best person I’ve ever met, and they satisfy me in every way … except sexually.” Yours does not include such information, and I think the omission seems telling. Weigh your pros and cons, and don’t be surprised if your conclusion is: “This relationship isn’t for me.” Based on what you’ve told me, I doubt that it is at this point.

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Dear How to Do It,

I’ve been in a relationship for almost 17 years. My partner has had medical issues for over 15 years of it, partially as a result of a car accident when she was a teen. She’s been diagnosed with brain tumors, arthritis, fibromyalgia, breast and uterine cysts, shoulder bone spurs, endometriosis, among other things, and has had a knee replacement, gall bladder removed, and had all her teeth removed over the last few years. We used to have an active sex life, but it slowed down after her first diagnosis of the brain tumor. We‘d be active for a couple weeks and then nothing for five or six months.

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Currently, we haven’t had sex to completion in over four-and-a-half years. We have tried a few times, but it usually ends quicker than it starts. She’ll complain of vaginal pain, back pain, or knee pain, so intercourse is out of the question. Her false teeth cause mouth pain so oral sex will never happen again. I started sleeping in a different bedroom after her knee surgery because I didn’t want to cause her any pain by accidentally bumping her in the night. Since then, she’s had the queen size bed to herself because she has to have it set up a certain way so she can sleep painlessly. She likes to claim that our sex problems lie with me, because I don’t sleep in the same bed as her. The times that I do, nothing ever changes, and sex is never initiated by either of us. The times I do try to start something, my attempts are denied.

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To the best of my knowledge, she doesn’t masturbate, unless she does it while I’m out of the house, but even then, I doubt it. I do when I can, maybe every couple of weeks, but I don’t let on about it. I do it more to release pressure than for pleasure. Having a sexual relationship outside of our relationship is also a no-go. Any time I speak to her about a classmate or co-worker or even a female friend, I’m accused of sleeping with her. I’ve gone the entire time in our relationship without cheating on her, even though I’ve been told by her that I have. When I’m watching TV, it seems like she always walks into the room when there’s a sex scene on. I’m then accused of watching porn.

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I don’t know how much longer I can go like this. I’ve been beaten down to the point where I’m hardly interested in sex anymore, simply because it’s been withheld from me for so long. I’ve spoken with therapists about it, and they’ve asked me to invite her to a session, but she doesn’t believe in analysis for herself, only others. She says it stems from when she and her ex-husband went to marriage counseling and found out that their married counselor was sleeping with another married marriage counselor. Whether that’s true, I’ll never know. It was another state and over 20 years ago.

—At the End of My Rope and Wish I Could Swing

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Dear Rope,

I’m going to assume the question here is what you should do to improve your situation. The strictly selfless choice would be to continue to be of service to your wife while denying your own desires. Your specific case, though, illustrates the consequence of giving up so much of yourself: You barely have anything left. It would be one thing if, in exchange for your patience, you received warmth and affection, but it seems to have led to accusations, suspicion, and blame. It’s a shame that your wife isn’t interested in counseling, as her negative treatment of you could be a result of depression or another mental health issue: People with chronic conditions are at a higher risk for depression, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. When someone has as many physical ailments as your wife, the treatment of them may be a priority, letting mental upkeep fall to the wayside. It seems that a serious conversation is needed: You don’t know how much longer you can go on like this, and you should tell her that. It seems that no compromise has been attempted—request one. Ask to work with her. Otherwise, you’ve found yourself in a dead end, and you’ll be there until one of you dies. That’s no way to live.

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— Rich

More 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. 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?

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