How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Have a question? Send it to Stoya and Rich here. It’s anonymous!
Every week, the crew responds to a bonus question in chat form.
Dear How to Do It,
My husband and I are interested in exploring role play. We’ve been married for four years, have young children, and think it’s time to mix things up in the bedroom a bit. The problem is that we can’t agree on how to start. He’s interested in roles and costumes involving power dynamics— cop/detainee, principal/student, supervillain/damsel in distress. I’m not so interested in those. I feel power dynamics even in role play would be hard for me as a younger Black woman married to an older white guy. Also, all of his role-playing scenarios would include light bondage. I’m not completely opposed, but not exactly turned on by it either. I think if we’re going to introduce him tying me up a bit it should be as ourselves and not some character role he’s created. I was thinking more along the lines of sexy cheerleader, sexy nurse type costumes, but he expresses no interest and feels like it’s just a different version of lingerie rather than a costume. It turns into an argument every time we talk about it. I think he isn’t respecting my boundaries, and he thinks I can’t set a boundary against something I haven’t tried before, and that I should trust him enough to know that his desires for power dynamics in the bedroom won’t spill elsewhere into our lives. Who’s right?
Stoya: Our writer is right. Her boundaries are valid.
Rich: One hundred percent.
Stoya: My hackles are up toward this dude.
Rich: I received a question last year about “race play,” and I consulted with an expert in the practice, actor and self-described “executive pervert” Mollena Williams-Haas.
Here is part of what she said:
One of the aspects of this type of play that I stress when lecturing is that it is absolutely vital that the person who is living in a body that leaves them vulnerable to racism and bigotry absolutely needs to take the lead on these scenes, ESPECIALLY if they are “bottoming” (receiving) the sensation or consensual “abuse.” The reality is, consent and trust are absolutely vital to BDSM scenes.
Now, our writer isn’t necessarily asking about race play, but clearly a similar power dynamic is in question. And this is the opposite of how Williams-Haas says it should go, with her taking the lead.
Stoya: Our writer’s husband is pressuring her toward play she doesn’t want, which, to be clear, impedes consent.
Rich: Fundamentally, there is a mismatch of kinks happening, but his insistence on pushing past her discomfort to conform to his is the bigger problem. I think his pickiness of what qualifies as sexually exciting in terms of costumes is typical of many who are into gear.
Rich: I’ve heard people talk about all fetishized garments as gear—though maybe mostly in an athletic context (i.e. jockstraps or tube socks as “gear”).
Stoya: Aaaaaah. I recognize the phenomenon, yes.
Rich: But what I mean is just because you’re into thongs doesn’t mean you like jockstraps, and vice versa.
Stoya: People are very specific sometimes about this sort of thing. Latex must be latex, PVC won’t do.
Stoya: Lingerie must be lacy to be nice, that kind of thing. So, like many people, our writer’s husband has some very strict ideas about what is sexually interesting, which would be fine if he wasn’t being manipulative about her boundaries.
Stoya: I really don’t like the sentiment that a person has to try something before they can say no to it. I’ve run into it in the wild plenty.
Rich: It doesn’t make sense. That would make every sex act and configuration mandatory before people can sort out what they like and who they are. That’s not how sexuality develops, and besides, who has the time?
Stoya: I’m vividly remembering saying no to something involving feet once, and a “sex-positive” third-party observer framed it as me yucking their yum.
Rich: They yucked your supposed yuck. Hypocritical to say the least.
Stoya: There’s this tyranny of words that can occur where sex-positive language is weaponized to pressure a person into something they don’t want. And that’s what I think the husband is doing. So I want to really underline this for our writer: Your no is valid as is.
Rich: I agree, and I think if he wants to explore this realm, he’s going to have to do so in a way that prioritizes her comfort. Practical aspects aside for a second, though, I do want to draw a distinction just philosophically. There is no reason to assume that the power dynamic of any sex play will spill elsewhere into your shared life with your partner. It could happen, but for many, sex and waking life are discrete realms.
This is ultimately neither here nor there in terms of moving forward with the husband’s desires in this case—they breach her boundaries, and also there’s the notion of triggering her in the moment.
Stoya: I do think that when you have one already domineering partner, power dynamics can spill out of the bedroom. Like, I’m too deep in the weeds of this specific case to look at it generally like you are.
Rich: And looking at it specifically is for sure the most useful way of looking at it.
Stoya: I think it’s worth reconsidering the future of the relationship if the husband keeps pushing on this. It’s unhealthy.
Rich: It really does seem like they’ve reached an impasse. Hopefully they can work something out that is mutually comfortable and exciting, but these kind of mismatches (and the insistence that may result) can ultimately spell trouble for a relationship, for sure.
Stoya: As a parting thought, maybe they could do more of a Villainess/Hero or Queen/Jester. Something where she’s in charge.
Rich: I was thinking like, if a sexy cheerleader/nurse is “too much like lingerie,” what about doing a less-than-sexy nurse/cheerleader? Just embody the character?
Stoya: Oooh, yes.
Rich: Really lean into the realness.
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