How to Do It

After 15 Years of Marriage, I Can’t Deny the Truth About Sex With My Wife

A man with something intangible hanging over his head.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Pheelings Media/iStock/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,

I am a man in his mid-40s who has been with my wife for 15 years. I am struggling with a total lack of interest in sex. I’ve never been with anyone but my wife, and I didn’t meet her until I was almost 30. I have come to think that my general lack of attention to sex throughout my life is probably abnormal. Reading columns like yours, I see so many people who like and want to have sex, and then there’s me. I love women and think they’re beautiful, but nothing turns me on. I’ve had sex with my wife but honestly found it to be not so pleasurable that I’d miss it if I never had sex again. I’ve asked physicians about this and they’ve prescribed Viagra, but that does nothing to address the issue of sex not being interesting at all to me. No one has said my testosterone is low or anything like that. Everyone assumes, rightfully I think, that everyone wants to have sex. My wife has a high sex drive and is constantly frustrated. I feel terrible about this whole situation and I don’t know what to do, but I can’t pretend anymore. I have no idea what direction to go in to start toward being normal.

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—Not Feeling It

Dear NFI,

You’ve come to the wrong place if you want a pat verdict on how to be “normal.” I don’t believe that exists. And it would be tedious and most likely fruitless endeavor for you to try to conform to an imaginary standard.

The fact is, you aren’t alone! While this column indeed is teeming with people whose issues stem from their sexual attraction, we hear from plenty of people whose don’t or who are in long-term relationships that are sexless. In fact, we just heard from a guy who wanted to know if his lack of desire with his partner was something we hear about often, soliciting a “misery loves company” balm. Join the party! Few of us are so unique to be the first person with any given problem; if you can feel it, and feel bad about it, you can be fairly certain that someone else out there has or is.

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As to your particular issue: Have you considered the possibility that you are asexual? You may have some vague notion of what that means, but the range of individual identities within asexuality is vast. For example, there are some people who are interested in other people romantically but not sexually. The common trait among “aces,” according to Angela Chen’s 2020 book Ace, is a lack of sexual attraction to other people (but not necessarily the lack of a sex drive altogether.) I highly recommend reading Chen’s book—it may help you feel less alone. You should also seek out online communities of asexual people (here’s one on Reddit), as that may also help.

What I think your challenge will be is to dive deeper (a therapist could also be helpful here) and ultimately accept what you find. That may involve some direct, very difficult conversations with your wife. But try to let go of the idea that you need to be “normal” (no such thing!) and embrace the notion that you need to be you.

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Dear How to Do It,

I’m a 17-year-old boy confused about—you guessed it—my sexuality. I’ve always been attracted to girls, and never really had any doubts about it—that is, up until this past month. I work at a big department store part time, and there’s this guy who’s got me in a sort of identity crisis. He’s tall, lean, and overall attractive, about a year younger than me, but rather than me simply noticing that and moving on with my day (as per the usual protocol), I’ve come to really like him. At first, I just thought that he seemed cool, like a person I could easily hang out with, but at some point, I started admiring more than just his personality. I think I realized something was up when I began wondering if he, perchance, liked guys. Now I’m wondering that about myself.

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My question is this: What does it make me if I don’t quite find any other guys attractive—but I still like girls, and particularly this one guy?

—Embarrassed but Curious

Dear Curious,

It makes you a guy who likes girls … and this one guy. No one is going to be knocking at your door with official documents, demanding you sign off on an identity because a dude made your heart tingle for a sec. Life is a journey of self-discovery. For those who adopt them, labels can make identifying efficient (and they can allow outsiders to quickly comprehend complex ideas of our internal lives), but labels aren’t mandatory, especially so early on your route to understanding yourself. Do not let the notion of “What does this make me?” hold you back from exploring and experiencing what you want. If you should realize that you are queer, bi, gay, straight except for this one guy, potentially sexually attracted to men and women but only romantically inclined toward women, etc., you should not feel beholden to whatever cultural or behavioral markers are supposed to come with these identities—these labels have enough space for your unique life. Labels don’t define we who adopt them; we define the labels.

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So relax and be safe. And also, please look up the age of consent laws in your state, as you indicate this guy may be 16. In some states, 16 is a legal dividing line. Just in case you have any opportunity to move forward, you should be cognizant of that.

Dear How to Do It,

I was married for 20 years to a man I was deeply in love with and attracted to. He passed away eight years ago, leaving me to care for our four young children. I’ve spent the last eight years completely focused on completing my education and caring for our children. Now that my children are reaching independence and I have established a career, I’d like to find a partner for a loving, committed relationship.

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Unfortunately, I’m faced with a few hurdles I don’t know how to overcome. Despite my 20-year commitment to my husband, he was bipolar, and I live with the consequences of his illness: fat shaming and genital herpes. I can’t seem to overcome the embarrassment and shame I feel around being overweight or having herpes. I can kind of wrap my head around my curvy, once-athletic figure and chalk up my late husband’s hurtful comments to his low self-esteem, but have no idea how to hit the dating scene knowing anyone I’m attracted to will eventually need to be told I have herpes. It doesn’t help that a year after my husband died, I connected deeply with an old friend and when we decided to consummate our relationship, he rejected me because of herpes.

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So here I am, a woman who cherishes a deep physical connection, enjoys sex, and is afraid to open up to the possibility of love again for fear of rejection. How do I put myself out there and protect myself from what I view as inevitable rejection?

—Lost in Longing

Dear Longing,

Think about your time living with herpes. Has the disease profoundly affected your life in any realm other than the psychological? In all likelihood, the answer is no: Most people with herpes have mild symptoms or none at all. Most never even learn they have it. (And there are a lot of people with herpes out there—the World Health Organization estimates nearly 4 billion with HSV-1, generally known as “oral herpes” but sometimes the cause of genital herpes, and almost half a billion with HSV-2, most often called “genital herpes.”) For the majority of herpes carriers, the worst symptom of herpes is stigma and, as you are aware, that can have a profound effect on emotional well-being.

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What can you do? Accept it. Be cool about it. Think about how great it would be if everyone could be chill about a virus whose negative association has been gravely inflated by the media, and be the herpes carrier you want to see in the world. You have a virus, one that doesn’t operate in human terms of morality—it is, in fact, the imperfect human mind that has turned such a virus into a catalyst for shame. You had a bad experience with a love interest, which compounded the shame you already felt for being infected in the first place. But not everyone is terrified of a mostly benign virus. Herpes is like any other quality about a person—some will accept it, others will reject you for it, and we’re really all at the mercy of other people’s opinions when it comes to attempting connections. It sucks and I’m sorry, but it doesn’t need to be a huge deal and certainly beating yourself up about it will not help whatsoever.

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If this doesn’t provide perspective to help you revise your attitude, consider talking to a therapist. That could help with body image issues, too—also just introducing some form of exercise into your life, if you haven’t already, can help you feel better, even if it doesn’t start instantly melting away the pounds. You can’t change your herpes diagnosis, but you can manage the way you perceive yourself.

Dear How to Do It,

I’m a queer, transmasculine nonbinary person who’s into other people who are queer and/or transmasc and/or nonbinary, and I am starting to date after taking a few years’ break to work through trauma in therapy. I haven’t hooked up with anyone yet, but I’ve realized that I feel a lot more comfortable with the idea of receiving than giving, with new people at least. (I think this is linked to trauma—I had a lot of unpleasant, borderline-coercive experiences involving me being the giving person.) I’m stressed about how to communicate this to new intimate partners during sex. I feel intensely guilty for not being into giving. I don’t like the idea of sharing my trauma history with new people—it feels too vulnerable to share—but just saying “I don’t like giving” feels like it could come off as selfish or lazy, and I don’t like that either. How can I communicate this in a way that doesn’t reveal more than I feel comfortable with, without seeming overly self-involved, either?

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—Unwilling Pillow Prince

Dear Pillow Prince,

I haven’t navigated your specific experience in terms of your gender identity or specific sexuality, but here’s how many gay men do this: They lean into their predilections. Someone with your boundaries and taste, then, could be called an “oral top.” Plenty of people only like to receive and plenty of people are happy to give without reciprocation. You know what you want, and you have some idea of the life experiences that may have contributed to your sexual taste. There is nothing wrong with that. Nonreciprocation can be a reasonable complaint if partners have different expectations and don’t communicate them well, but if you represent your boundaries and desires upfront, no miscommunication will occur. Empathetic people will perceive this as just how you are, and they will not have contempt for your comfort levels with sex acts. You don’t have to explain yourself—you like what you like! If someone has a problem with that, by presenting it upfront, you’re giving them ample opportunity to check out before the clothes hit the floor. Be kind to yourself—you aren’t selfish or lazy, you’re just you. Compassionate partners will get and honor that.

—Rich

More How to Do It

I live with my partner of 10 years in a happy, committed relationship. My partner is a fantastic person and very considerate and giving in bed. So what’s the problem? I desperately want to have sex with other people.

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