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 (M27) have been with my current partner (F29) for five months, and I’m getting bored with sex. In general, I have always had a relatively high sex drive, and I have never experienced a loss of excitement/interest like this in previous relationships. My partner finds it extremely difficult to reach orgasm: In the five months we’ve been together, I think she has climaxed maybe three times. She has reassured me that I’m not doing anything wrong; apparently this has been a problem in all previous relationships. However, her frustration is obvious, and it often seems like we wind up having sex for far longer than either of us are having fun, because she is so intent on reaching an orgasm that never comes. I do sometimes enjoy long sex sessions, but now we’re having sex for at least an hour every time without fail. It’s tiring for me, and my partner is almost always frustrated at the end of it. Sex has become a chore, and it’s making me lose interest. I am extremely attracted to my partner, and I want to have lots of sex with her; I just don’t want to have sex like this with her.
One specific problem she has raised is that she finds condoms a turn-off and would prefer not to use them. We have both recently been tested, so I am OK with this in theory. However, she isn’t on any kind of birth control, and doesn’t want to go on birth control in case it affects her mental health. I don’t want to put her under pressure to go on birth control, but I’m not comfortable with the pull-out method. This has caused friction between us, because she claims pulling out is just as effective as using a condom. If we can’t agree on an alternative method of contraception, then I think the solution is for us to try to have sex in a way which is less goal-orientated. I suspect my partner would find it much easier to reach orgasm if she just allowed herself to “be in the moment” and enjoy sex for what it is, rather than treating it as a race to finish.
So I have two questions: 1) How can I suggest this without coming across like a “typical man” who doesn’t care whether or not his partner has an orgasm? 2) What can I do to help her get into a less goal-orientated mindset?
—Tired and Frustrated
If you’re having these long, unfortunately fruitless sessions for her sake, it’s reasonable to suggest working in short ones for your sake. There’s a difference between not caring whether she experiences pleasure and wanting to ensure she feels no pressure to orgasm. You could try explaining a concept that we repeat a lot in this column: An orgasm does not determine the worth of sex. There is far more to it than that. There’s the connectedness before, during, and after, not to mention the pleasure of sex that can exist regardless of whether it is moving things toward orgasm. You can only do so much to influence your partner’s psychology: Here, that means reminding her that you’re attracted to her, you enjoy having sex with her, and you don’t need her to orgasm for you, though you’re happy to do what you can to bring her there.
I have to wonder exactly what is happening during your marathon sessions—if it’s PIV sex, well, a minority of women report orgasms from that kind of contact. (In Come as You Are, Emily Nagoski reports that “30 percent of women orgasm reliably with intercourse.”) Are you trying oral or using toys? Is there clitoral stimulation? If not, maybe suggest one or all of these options and stay proactive. If she’s amenable to working a vibrator into the sex you have together, buy her one that she’s interested in trying.
You’re right about pulling out by the way—Planned Parenthood places its efficacy around 78 percent. Definitely don’t have sex that you’re not comfortable with, regardless.
Dear How to Do It,
My girlfriend and I are in our mid-to-late 30s and we’ve been dating for about a year. Recently, she told me that, around six or seven years ago, she was raped by a person she went on a date with. She said it during a conversation about a television show that featured a date rape scenario—essentially, that the same thing that had happened in that show had happened to her. A long, tearful conversation followed. She hadn’t told anyone before and mentioned that she had pretty much tried to forget the whole thing but, after watching the show two years ago, she would sometimes randomly flash on the guy’s face. She hasn’t seen a therapist about this yet, but has considered it. And she also mentioned that she was very worried that I would see her differently now and might blame some of her behavior on it. I don’t seriously think that will happen and told her that. I said that it wasn’t her fault, that I loved her very much, and that I still see her as a strong, smart woman. But the conversation got me thinking—sexual violence is shockingly common for women in the United States (1 out of 6 women, if I remember correctly from psychology class). What’s the best way for romantic partners to be supportive of survivors of sexual assault? Do you have any resources that you recommend highly for people wondering about this?
On my initial read of your letter, it seemed to me that you did a lot right. And then I spoke about it with psychotherapist and writer specializing in sex therapy Vanessa Marin and the first thing that she said was that you had done a lot right. You’re two for two when it comes to validation. Keep up the good work. “Ultimately the way she sees herself is the most important but for her partner to give her that external validation is super important,” she said.
Marin encourages you to keep encouraging your girlfriend. “It’s unfortunately all too common that most survivors don’t get any support to deal with that trauma and it’s really frustrating,” she said. (By the way, Marin cited even higher statistics—“One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old.”) “Something awful and traumatizing has happened to you and now you also have to carry the burden of doing the work to process that experience. The time, the emotion, the money—it’s this huge investment in something that was not your fault. Her partner can’t force her to do therapy, she has to really want it for herself, but they can be a supportive partner and keep looping back.” Don’t force the conversation or put pressure on her, but putting the importance of getting therapy in your girlfriend’s ear could be useful.
This help, by the way, could include sex therapy. “Unfortunately, there’s a pretty big gap in support,” she said. “Some survivors will go and get psychotherapy, but unfortunately a lot of psychotherapists don’t address the sexual aspect of the trauma. They’ll talk about processing the trauma emotionally and psychologically but don’t often go into logistics about how to handle feeling safe having sex with another person and the fact that sex might not feel safe.”
For further reading, you can check out a Times piece Marin wrote in 2019, “How to Support a Friend or Loved One Who Has Been Sexually Abused,” which covers the basics of your question rather extensively and is what led me to reach out to Marin in the first place. Additionally, to the survivors she treats, she recommends Staci Haines’ Healing Sex: A Mind-Body Approach to Healing Sexual Trauma. You might also find the book useful. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network is a reliable resource for survivors in general, and there are a few brief guides (this one and this one) on its website for partners of survivors of sexual abuse. RAINN also offers confidential support for survivors via its hotline (800.656.HOPE). You can also call that number yourself for support as a partner of a survivor—it’s important for you to be informed, as well.
Ultimately, this will require compassion and patient listening on your part. They’re hallmarks of being a good partner in any situation that are particularly crucial when the stakes are so high. Keep up the good work.
Dear How to Do It,
In the past, I have not been a fan of giving head. Mostly because the guys I had been with weren’t willing to going down on me or they got uncomfortably pushy/forceful and I’d stop. I’ve been sleeping with the same guy for a couple years and he’s very good in bed and I really trust him. As a result, I have been more than willing to give head and have gotten quite good at it. What are some tips on getting better in general, but also things like deep throating and face-fucking? It seems like a simple thing, but I don’t know where to start.
“Better” is far too subjective a quality for me to weigh in definitively. A discussion with your sex friend would likely be more fruitful. Ask him if there’s anything you can do for him that you aren’t already doing. Do you have reason to suspect that your throat game is lacking, anyway? There’s no use fixing wasn’t isn’t broken, so if he’s enjoying himself, you’re doing great, sweetie. (One good indication is if you’re making him come—that’s not the be all end all, but generally speaking, people aren’t complaining about head that brings them to orgasm.) In this case, improving might just be a matter of exuding more confidence, though you don’t really seem lacking in that department either.
As far as deep throating goes, ridding yourself of your gag reflex requires practice and a paradoxical concentration on relaxing. Additionally, Heathline recommends training with a toothbrush. It might be easier to get used to taking a lot of dick into your throat by lying on your back with your head over the edge of the bed and allowing him to enter you from a standing/squatting position. Let him know that you need him to take it slow, and communicate verbally (to the best of your esophagus-occupied ability) and with your body when it gets to be too much and/or your breathing is impaired. (Let him know ahead of time that you’ll give him a signal—two taps on his thigh, for example—when you feel like it’s too much.) It could be a fun experiment, but don’t overburden yourself. You report that you’re good at giving head, and really, that’s as much as anyone can ask for and more than many can deliver. You’re already winning here.
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Dear How to Do It,
My spouse is assigned male at birth and recently came out to me as trans (in a somewhat uncertain, genderfluid context, at least for now). That has had an almost snowball effect of changes in our marriage, some quite rapid. I’ve known ~vaguely~ that I was queer for quite a while, but with their coming out, I was able to look at my sexuality a little more openly and I’m wanting to identify more closely as a lesbian! (This is a really exciting revelation for me and helps me understand my past relationships with a LOT more clarity.)
Another one of the changes that’s happened is that our sex life has had a much-needed injection of excitement, but one that seems to come and go. We will have a really affirming and fun session, where we both get off multiple times and play with outfits and toys, and then it takes them a good few days to recharge and even to feel comfortable talking about it again. I’m trying to be gentle and patient and affirming, but I do find that it spins me out a little. Right after, I’m so happy and they are a little distant. I also get amped for a couple days and want to talk, probably too much, about myself. By the time they’re ready to pick back up, I’ve gotten out of sync and then I’m distant, worrying about the present AND the future (what it might hold for us/how their transition could become difficult/what my own identity is and what it all means … etc.) I guess … I’m not sure what my question is? Maybe: Is it normal to be a little out of sync with each other through all this change or is this a communication issue that I need to pin down and solve? Also, I know they are dealing with and sorting out more than I am; should I back down in how I talk about my own sexuality to them until they have a little more clarity of self?
—Anxious Gay Wife
You’re a little out of sync at times, but it doesn’t sound like it’s taking too long to get your beats matching again. This is how it is in many relationships, even those that aren’t affected by major identity revelations. Given the enormity of your situation, “a little out of sync” should probably be expected. I can relate to your role as a thorough communicator—I do not like to stop talking until everything is resolved and my position and motivation are crystal clear. For whatever reason, I tend to find myself with partners who withdraw, which can be extremely frustrating. But no amount of huffing and puffing will blow their house down—nothing but time, it seems, will allow them to open up. Because of where you end your letter, I think you know that your spouse needs space, and you have no choice to give them that. This is not to downplay the importance of your own identity and your need to talk about it, it just seems like right now your spouse isn’t going to be very good at receiving information. Ideally, your exchange here would be 50/50, but if life were ideal, there wouldn’t be advice columns and here we are. You have the good sense and compassion to understand that your spouse is going through more mentally than you are, so give them some leeway. When you sense that the ebb and flow of them connecting and withdrawing is less severe, you’ll have some indication that you can start to talk about your own experience and what this all means for your identity. Don’t set a precedent where your relationship only has room for their internal life, but for now, honor that internal life and foster a more free-flowing future with some patience.
More How to Do It
I am a single, straight woman in her mid-40s. I have never been able to have an orgasm through penetration, and I’m fine with that. I also am only able to have one orgasm via clitoral stimulation, and after that, my clit is too sensitive to be touched for several hours. I’m not shy about telling my sexual partners about all of this, but all the guys I’ve met seem to take this as a personal challenge. They want to be “the one” to make me have a G-spot orgasm or have multiple clitoral orgasms, and then proceed to try to do just that, and it’s always super uncomfortable and not at all enjoyable for me. I am perfectly satisfied with a single, intense orgasm, but other than bluntly telling my partners this (which I already do), what more can be done?