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 am a 25-year-old woman who got engaged last year to a wonderful man, Patrick. For the safety of everyone involved, we do not plan to marry until the pandemic is over; however, we have started saving up for our wedding. The downside is that to do so, Patrick has taken on more responsibility and hours at work. On many weeks he is working 50-to-55 hours and sometimes more. We still spend time with each other every night, so emotionally and mentally, our relationship has endured, but our sex life has taken an obvious hit. That is, until recently at least.
Within the past week, my fiancé has woken me up on six separate nights for sex. After the first night, we had a long conversation about it after my fiancé mentioned he didn’t remember initiating the encounter and compared it to waking up from a sleepwalking episode. We agreed that while there were technically some issues of consent if he was “sleepwalking” when this encounter began that we both enjoyed it, would have consented anyway, and deeply missed this part of our relationship. When it happened again the second night, we had another conversation to gauge each other’s comfort level with the act and agreed to assume future consent unless we stated otherwise before going to bed. Since then, neither of us has chosen to withdraw our consent and in many ways, we’ve come to look forward to these encounters.
We realize that we cannot count on this to happen every night and have accepted this will likely end when my fiancé’s schedule becomes more normal (this has generally been his experience with sleepwalking episodes at least). However, in the meantime, it has added some much-needed spice to our previously stalled sex life. We have also looked on the internet, but can’t find much useful information except anecdotal evidence that this has happened to other people before. As other people note online, my fiancé does tend to be more aggressive during these encounters, but it has not yet made me feel unsafe. If anything, it has actually made me more turned on by these encounters. For his part, my fiancé states that he regularly wakes up mid–blow job or midthrust and both waking up in pleasure and waking up to me in pleasure has been a huge turn-on for him.
Is there anything we’re not thinking of? Does the old adage that suggests to not wake a sleepwalker, apply to a sleepsexer as well? If your recommendation is to go to a doctor and seek treatment for this condition, we will. But as we’ve both been enjoying it immensely, we’re really hoping to continue doing this safely while it lasts.
Dear Up Late,
In his 2019 book The Nocturnal Brain: Tales of Nightmares and Neuroscience, neurologist Guy Leschziner devotes an entire chapter to the phenomenon you’re describing, sexsomnia. Like sleepwalking, sleep talking, and night terrors, sexsomnia is what’s called a non-REM parasomnia. It’s not uncommon for someone with one kind of non-REM parasomnia to have others, so it’s hardly a surprise that your fiancé has experienced both sleepwalking and sleep sex. Parasomnia events can be triggered by a variety of factors and/or a combination of them, including alcohol, anxiety, sleep deprivation, and the use of prescription drugs. I’m not going to diagnose Patrick, but it seems likely that he is a sexsomniac.
“For most people, sexsomnia is not necessarily a major problem, if it happens with their long-term partner,” writes Leschziner. If you both are enjoying this and don’t foresee consent issues arising, you’re likely fine. People have acted outrageously and blamed it on non-REM parasomnia (which, as Leschziner points out, is impossible to prove definitively unless they were hooked up to EEG electrodes at the time of the transgression), so keep in mind that you’re leaving the door open for the unexpected if you and Patrick decide not to have this treated. Benzodiazepines, antidepressants, and even melatonin have been used to successfully treat non-REM parasomnias. Cognitive behavioral therapy is also an option, as is avoiding potential triggers. For now, check out The Nocturnal Brain and enjoy the unexpected night action that has fallen in your laps.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a 43-year-old gay male who is in a new relationship. I really enjoy my new partner, but I’m having trouble with sex with him. I’m very attracted to him and we make out very passionately. Also, when we perform certain acts of foreplay, I’m turned on. However, I’ve noticed when I try to initiate sex, I sometimes lose my erection or am unable to orgasm. I have made him orgasm by certain sexual activities. Part of the issue is I suffer from ADD, and I have noticed in previous relationships and encounters that imagining others I’ve been with has helped me continue performing sexual acts. I’ve also had previous boyfriends cheat on me as they believe monogamy was not for them or in retrospect believed they were not attracted to me. Since then I’ve had several FWB situations that never went to a serious relationship, but they were very inclined to me sexually. So why am I struggling with someone I’m attracted to? Is it my insecurities, my ADD, a combination of both or just something physical? Please advise.
Let’s assume the answer is e) all of the above. Sometimes it’s very easy to connect an issue to one specific cause, but it’s not always the case: Our bodies have countless processes occurring simultaneously. For better and worse, we contain multitudes. Getting your ADHD under control and working out your insecurity about infidelity could help here. You’re also in your 40s—after age 40, the chances of experiencing erectile dysfunction begins to rise. You could also be buckling under the stress of aspiration. You want this relationship to work out so much so that it’s creating a sense of performance anxiety.
It also may be worth asking yourself if you’re as attracted to him as you think you are. You very well could be (you’d know better than I), but sometimes when we really want something to work out, we try to convince ourselves that we’re more into our partner than we actually are. If you determine that you are, in fact, attracted to him and indeed aroused during foreplay, what Emily Nagoski refers to in Come as You Are as your “accelerator” isn’t the issue; instead, something is hitting your “brake.” (For more on the dual control model of sexual response, it’s explained in this chat my HTDI partner Stoya and I recently did.) I point this out to convey that you aren’t broken, you’re just braking for some reason. It’s up to you to figure out what that is—go down your list of possible causes and treat them as best you can. Talk to your partner and try to relax—meta-anxiety will only make a fraught situation more fraught.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m in a committed long-distance relationship with someone (we’re both in our early 20s). They enjoy drinking, and do so a healthy amount, usually stopping on the strong side of tipsy, while I, for medical reasons, don’t drink and never have. They are also, although this is not a huge departure from their sober personality, a horny drunk. I would never initiate anything with them like this, but more than a few times they’ve tried to start things. They’ve been super respectful of my not currently feeling comfortable with it, and our sex life is also fabulous when there’s not alcohol involved. But is sex OK with a partner who’s enthusiastic about it while inebriated? We’ve briefly talked about it while they were sober, but I’d love some outside opinions, and possibly advice if it’s not a truly terrible idea.
—A Potential Overthinker
With caveats that I’ll get to shortly, I think sex is OK with a partner who’s enthusiastic about it while inebriated as long as they’re also enthusiastic about said inebriated sex when they’re sober. Clearly, getting drunk and screwing is a pastime for many, and plenty of people have drunken sex that they enjoy and don’t regret thereafter. Sometimes people find it necessary to be tipsy in order to relax enough to enjoy sex. Might not be the best way to do it, but it certainly is a way, and to forbid people in full mastery of their agency from doing so just seems condescending to me.
A crucial distinction is just how inebriated they’re getting. Strong side of tipsy is one thing, five-minutes-from-puking drunk is another, blackout wasted is another, and incapacitated is another. I don’t think it’s wise to go beyond tipsy.
I think you should talk about this more than briefly. Why exactly are you uncomfortable? Have you been made to feel so by the notion that consent is impossible when drinking is involved (true for some people, I suppose, but certainly not all—I, for one, have had drunken sex and never have felt taken advantage of)? Or, as someone who doesn’t drink, are you just generally uncomfortable with engaging in a threeway with your partner and the bottle? If it’s only a matter of your partner’s ability to consent, have a totally sober conversation and allow them to try to convince you that this is what they want. If they fail to do so, they fail—I do not think you should be having sex that makes you uncomfortable.
However, if your discomfort originates internally and you just aren’t into the idea of having sex with someone who’s been drinking (a completely fair notion, not in the least because it could put you and your partner on two different experiential planes as you attempt to share a moment), express that. If they’re horny sober anyway, alcohol isn’t doing much heavy lifting.
And just a heads-up: Keep an eye out for dependency issues. You say your partner is drinking in “a healthy way,” but after reading a mere paragraph description of your relationship, I’m not entirely convinced. Just something to be aware of, as it may cause issues down the line—ones that you might not otherwise have in your life as a nondrinker.
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Dear How to Do It,
I’ve been married for 30 years to a wonderful woman who I believed to be my soul mate. We’re in our 60s, and are both in reasonably good health, and are financially secure. We share many of the same interests, and by any measure, are pretty well matched. After a very satisfying sex life during a long (10-year) courtship, it began to diminish about 10 years into the marriage, and over the last 10 years, we’ve had sex exactly once … and that was nearly six years ago. We’ve talked about it, but she tells me that she no longer has any interest in being intimate with me. In addition, she’s become somewhat of a germaphobe over the last several years, which I’m sure factors into the equation. Throughout our marriage, I have been faithful, and I have to presume that she has been, too, although I admit to now having some doubts. I’m not really sure what’s behind her decision, and at this point, I almost don’t even care. But it saddens me to know that I’ll probably spend my remaining years devoid of any physical intimacy. My question is, do you run into similar situations with any frequency? I guess I’m looking for a “misery loves company” balm.
—With a Shrug of Resignation
Yes. Libido mismatch/waning sex among long-term couples is among this column’s most-asked-about issues. See iterations here and here and here and here and here and here (among the many columns in which I in particular have handled this question)—do you love the company?
I somehow doubt it. Cold comfort, at best. I think at the very least, you could try to get some clarity so that you can be sure what’s behind her decision—a conversation about something that affects you and your sex life directly is hardly expecting too much from your wife of 30 years. And then you have a choice: Accept the situation as is and commit to a life of celibacy, or attempt to do something about it. Among your options for having sex again are opening your marriage or divorce. I don’t get the sense that complacency will suit you, and it’s not wrong to decide to actually pursue sex ethically outside your relationship. In fact, I think it may be worse to effectively bury your sex life probably decades before your actual body.
More How to Do It
How can I tactfully ask a new partner or casual hook-up to wash up if they taste a bit funky while I’m in the middle of performing oral? I usually like the taste of penises and vulvas. But some recent partners just tasted outright unpleasant—what should I say?