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’m a Christian woman in my late 20s who recently left fundamentalist Christianity. I’m also divorced: I married young, and my husband was seven years older than me. I saved myself for marriage, so I was a virgin (though he wasn’t), but unlike many other survivors of purity culture I found myself really enjoying sex! That said, during the course of our marriage, it became painfully clear that we weren’t a good sexual match. He wanted sex once a week or every other week. I wanted it every day. (Now, I’m single, but I masturbate every night—I think two to four orgasms/day is a reasonable amount.) My ex-husband couldn’t always get or maintain an erection, which made him insecure, and he took that out on me. This sexual mismatch definitely contributed to the end of the marriage. He cited it as one of many reasons I make him feel “inadequate.”
I’ve processed the divorce. I’m starting to date again. I find myself simply unwilling to practice sexual abstinence before marriage this time around—if I’d slept with my ex-husband when we were dating, I would have saved myself a lot of heartbreak, thousands of dollars, and years of wasted career opportunities.
So here’s my question: How do I communicate boundaries and expectations upfront? I want to get married again and have children. I’m afraid that men won’t respect me if I sleep with them before marriage—but I’m not buying a pig in a poke again! I know that I like penetration and giving oral sex. I’d like to try receiving oral and maybe rough sex. But while I don’t want to re-create the dynamic with my ex-husband, where I had to constantly make myself smaller (including downplaying sexual desire) to avoid threatening his ego, I also want men to respect me and treat me like a possible life partner. If I’m direct about sex, they might just use me for casual sex and move on, never taking me seriously as a person.
Some men might use you for casual sex. Some men, particularly very conservative men, absolutely won’t respect you if you have sex with them before marriage. And I’m certain you’ll encounter men who don’t take you seriously as a person, regardless of whether you have sex with them or not. Dating is a process, and you’re bound to have some negative experiences before you find someone who wants the same things you do. That’s part of relationships, especially searching for a romantic partnership—presumably monogamous—with a person who wants to have children together, seems like he’ll be a solid co-parent, and is up to meeting your sexual appetite.
At the same time, I don’t think you should worry that all men, even all religious men, will view sex before marriage or your sexual needs as a reason not to respect you. Some will have compatible morals and sex drives. You can help yourself find one if you communicate about what you want clearly.
You sound like your values are still pretty traditional, and if that’s the case, you should lead with that: “I want committed monogamy that’s headed toward marriage” or “I’m traditional and religious” are fine things to say early, or even in a dating profile. Sure, you’ll alienate some, but that’s efficient. Then, when you’ve found someone who respects your beliefs and boundaries, and have established a rapport, you can bring up sexual specifics: “I want to explore our sexual compatibility before marriage,” and when it’s appropriate, “I like to have multiple orgasms per day,” and “I’m curious about receiving oral sex.” When it comes to discussing your rougher interests, you’ll need to be more precise. Asking for generally “rough” sex can open up a whole range of possibilities from light spanking to choking and heavy impact play that leaves lasting marks. Spend some time thinking through what appeals to you and what you imagine “rough” to be, so you’re better positioned to communicate your desires to your partner when it’s time.
There are loads of men in the world who can respect their partners as humans and appreciate their libidos. Finding one where interest is mutual, who fits with all your other goals, might take some searching. Good luck.
Dear How to Do It,
I have just got into one of the happiest, most functional relationships I’ve ever been in. My new girlfriend is kind, reliable, clever, and drop-dead gorgeous. We were both explicitly looking for nonmonogamous lesbian relationships and have been discussing how this aspect of our lives might work after the pandemic.
I have slept with men in the past, but only ever incidentally, because there were no available women and I was bored. All of my future involvements would be with other women and nonbinary people, ideally centered on our city’s bountiful queer kink scene.
My new girlfriend is also romantically uninterested in men but says she wants to sleep with them sometimes, as one-offs, and that this tends to improve her relationship with her partner. She once cheated in the past to do this, but confessed later. I am not usually a jealous person, but I feel distraught by this idea. Many times in the past, I have sat and had a convivial dinner with other women that my partner was sleeping with, and it just wasn’t a problem. When I try to imagine this scene with a man instead, truthfully, I feel like hurting him.
How do I get over this? I do have male friends, but there have been many times in my life where men have made me feel like what lesbians do together doesn’t count, or disrespected me by flirting with my date in front of me. I don’t want for this to be a deal-breaker. Please help.
Congratulations on finding a partner who is interested in the same relationship structures you are. I’m happy that you’re happy.
Jealousy happens in relationships—open or not—and while uncomfortable, it doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker. My friend Heart, who has been in open relationships since she started dating and sometimes contributes to the 18+ digital magazine I co-founded, sent me something she wrote a couple of years back. “Sometimes if I sit with the feeling long enough, I realize I’m not really jealous, I’m afraid. So I speak up.” That smart passage has me wondering if the man factor has something to do with that toxic messaging about lesbian sex being less than hetero sex, and fear of inadequacy caused by that messaging. If you have a therapist, this is worth bringing up with them. If not, journaling, taking a long walk, or thinking in the shower might help you sort through your reactions, feelings, and thoughts. Heart has a number of coping strategies listed at the bottom of the linked post.
Your partner says she wants to have sex with men as one-offs, and you’re imagining sitting together at a dinner table. Have you asked her if that level of participation in your lives by her male partners is something she wants? You’ll want to protect that happy, healthy relationship you’re in with open communication. This seems like a great opportunity to practice. Something like, “We’ve talked about your desire to have sex with men, and I’m having some feelings. Can you tell me more about what that ideally looks like for you?” Get a better picture of what she’d prefer, which may specifically not be inviting these guys to dinner. Can you trust your kind, reliable, and clever girlfriend to recognize disrespect and do her best to keep you from it? Can you ask for a boundary of not bringing male partners home or out to social events where you’ll be?
You may also be struggling because your girlfriend has engaged in infidelity in the past. Knowing our partner has stepped outside the boundaries of their relationship once can undermine our ability to believe they won’t do so with us. But here’s the thing—people change. People grow, regret certain actions, and do better moving forward. Like she’s doing right now with you, by letting you know that sex with men is something she wants, and leaving space in your shared agreements for her to do so.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a straight woman in my early 30s, and I’ve always struggled to orgasm, but I do have them very occasionally through direct clit stimulation. Recently I was at the doctor and for medical reasons, and she flushed my ears with water. I was startled by how deeply good it felt to have touch inside my ears, and I unexpectedly orgasmed. She thought I was in pain, and I went along with that explanation because I was so embarrassed. I never want to orgasm at the doctor again, obviously. Any tips on how to separate this out? I want to keep things clinical if I have to get it done medically again, but I’d love to have a safe and direct route to orgasm at home. I feel so torn realizing that actually I can come easily, but that the route there is … weird and potentially unsafe. Is something wrong with my body? That is not an erogenous zone!
Dear All Ears,
That definitely is an erogenous zone. In fact, ear eroticism is common enough that there are loads of articles about it. The vagus nerve, which passes through the ear, has been known to be associated with orgasm, particularly vaginal orgasm, since at least the ’90s. Studies largely focus on women with spinal cord injuries, but it’s a good data point. You are not alone.
That said, your ears are delicate, and while people do live whole lives with hearing loss, you’ll want to avoid damage to that area. That means no blowing canned air into your ears, and no digging around with Q-tips.
If it were me, I’d schedule another appointment with the doctor and explain what happened. They’ve probably heard of cases of pleasure during ear flushing, if not seen it themselves in clinical practice. They can give you medical level information about how to safely stimulate your ears, or at least reduce the risk of harm. If that’s too vulnerable for you, you might inquire about how to flush your ears at home safely. Good luck.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m 54, and happily and rather uneventfully came out as a lesbian 12 years ago. In that time, I’ve had one long-term partner (six years) who enjoyed receiving but not giving in bed, and another really great hyper-sexual nine-month relationship where it was solidly good for both of us.
And then there was the relationship that set a potentially unbeatably high bar in terms of pleasing me—yes, mind-blowing sex really is a thing! Yay! Oh yeah, and kissing. OMG, I would have happily just kissed her! But she—I’ll call her M—never let me do much more for her than rub her back or play with her hair. I would have chewed off my right arm to do, well, pretty much anything with her, but it never happened. She claimed she didn’t want to feel like she was training somebody … ? I wasn’t completely inexperienced, but I was also not a lifelong lesbian, so, too bad for me, I guess. It was an incredibly tender relationship in many ways, and in other ways, the most challenging relationship I’ve ever been in. I look back at how I am stronger and, frankly, a better person as a result of that relationship, and it still makes me smile.
My question is not really, “Will I ever have mind-blowing sex again? Will I ever nearly faint from a kiss?” I suppose those are legitimate questions, but more than that, I want to know: “Am I ever actually going to want to have sex again or kiss someone? Or even want a relationship?” Since dating M, I’ve discovered that I’m kinda just not interested. I’m very independent and enjoy my single life. Not that I don’t hope somewhere in the dark recesses of my mind that maybe someday I’ll find someone I really want to have a relationship with, but as wonderful as the women I’ve dated since M have been (and I really have met some extraordinary women!), I’m just not excited about them. They’ve wanted to have relationships with me, and I’ve tried a couple of times, but there’s just no spark. I continue to have a high sex drive as well as a very active imagination but am strictly self-serve at this point.
In general, but especially since realizing I’m a lesbian, I’m not one to need to be in a relationship, so there’s that. But when I do think about having a relationship, I know that I want that spark. I want to feel all tingly inside (at least sometimes!). I want the connection. The intimacy. And even, maybe even especially, the challenges that caused me to become a better person. It’s been a couple of years since M, and sometimes I wonder if I’m just done. Have I experienced it all—though perhaps not exactly the way I might have chosen—and maybe I should just close up shop?
Some sparks are immediate, and some grow over time. Sometimes what feels like a spark is unrequited yearning, and dissipates once we’ve experienced what we’re yearning for. So you may be passing up intimate, fulfilling relationships because of your focus on replicating what you’ve lost.
I’ll add that “M never let me do much more for her than rub her back and play with her hair” plus “I would have chewed off my right arm to do, well, pretty much anything with her” sounds like this was actually less than the sex life you wanted. If that’s the case, you may be hung up on your ideas of how the sex would have been, which can easily be idealized and unrealistic. Mind-blowing kissing can indicate chemistry but doesn’t necessarily mean mind-blowing fingering, oral, or frottage.
You say you’re independent and enjoy your single life, and that you don’t need a relationship. It sounds like you do want one, though, and have some idea of how you want to feel and what you want out of it. That’s great. Any further introspection you can do in that area will help you clarify what you’re hoping for and may give you clues on what sort of partner can give that to you. If you decide to pursue potential partners, remember that dating is a process, and the more specific our requirements, the longer it tends to take to find someone who meets all of them.
If you are done with dating, that’s fine too. It is completely reasonable to choose to be single, solo-poly, or any other independence-first framework. You can also focus on friends while remaining open to potential sparks. And you might still be healing and find yourself feeling differently in another couple of years. Good luck.
More How to Do It
I grew up in a home open-minded about sex, as opposed to my husband, who grew up very Christian and conservative. I was his first and only sexual experience until recently. I gave him a “hall pass” so he could experience human sexuality without the cloud of shame he was brought up with. He’s had a few really good experiences and recently not so great ones. Basically, he’s experiencing the highs and lows everyone goes through in their teens and 20s, but in his mid-40s. Then I asked to venture out myself because … hey, it’s fun! He flipped out on me.