How to Do It

A Central Pillar of Sex Is Suddenly Crumbling in My Hands

Things are getting hard as I get older—but not in a good way.

Frustrated woman next to a neon wilted flower.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Chris_Paris/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’m a woman in my late 30s who has spent the last 20 years casually dating, hooking up, or in relationships lasting six months to a year. Up until 35, I was blessed in the dick department—the guys were always hard, always average-sized or larger—but my lovers were not necessarily so skilled or attentive in how they touched me. Now it feels like the tables have turned. The men I’ve dated love to touch me and do it well, some go down on me and I love it—but their dicks just don’t get or stay hard. When this happened the first time with the first guy, I figured maybe it was nerves; but when it kept happening, I started to feel pretty insecure, and like every erection was something I had to figure out how to maintain.

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I just started dating a new guy, and I was really excited to get down with him because all the lead-up was so good and he’s super fit and healthy (so I figured his dick also had a good chance of being up for the job), then sure enough … deflated. He’d start to get hard, and he’d get harder when I made noises, touched him, etc., but it never got to full, hard, penetration-ready bone. It’d be fine sometimes—I enjoy other stuff and the connection and all that! But it’s hard for me not to be up in my own head about it. So for actual questions: Is there some magic trick I can do to A) get him up and failing that, B) figure out whether it’s a him problem or a me problem? I don’t want to keep seeing someone who feels ambivalent about me (e.g., brain yes, dick no). I know I’m being glib and this has to suck for him (and other guys over the past couple of years) too, but the pattern has got me feeling legitimately insecure and I’d like to either change something about what I’m doing, what I’m thinking, or who I’m seeing so I can get over that.

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—Hard to Keep ’Em Hard

Dear Hard,

Unfortunately, we don’t trade in magic in these parts, so I have no tricks to recommend. If the owner of a deflated dick is unable to do anything about his situation, what makes you think that you might have a chance? The best you can do is not make a big deal about it. Anything you can do to neutralize the anxiety inherent to woodlessness will bode well for his boner, either later during that session or the next time, should you be interested in trying again. Creating an issue, voicing your disappointment, or any kind of mockery is likely to make his dick (and interest in you) shrivel further.

I think your current diet of overcooked noodles comes down to two things: bad luck and age. You’re getting older and presumably getting with older guys. There are plenty whose dicks will work just fine into their twilight years, but the chances of erectile dysfunction increase with age. The more years that pass, the greater chance you’ll be in the company of an uncooperative dick. That’s just life.

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All of this is to say that you shouldn’t take this personally. In HTDI go-to Come as You Are, Emily Nagoski discusses the notion of arousal nonconcordance—that is the contrast between someone’s subjective arousal and their genital response. Studies have shown that there’s about a 50 percent overlap between what men say turns them on and what their body seems to be reporting in terms of their erections. (In women, it’s 10 percent.) This means that these guys you’re with may very well feel turned on with you, despite what their penises seem to be suggesting. It’s not you, it’s not even necessarily them, it’s just complicated. Make the best of it. Enjoy the parts of sex that don’t require a hard penis and know that a hard man won’t always be so hard to find.

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Dear How to Do It,

A few months ago I (26 and nonbinary, assigned male at birth) ended things with my partner (31 and nonbinary, assigned female at birth) of two years. Though they were very experienced, this was my first serious romantic relationship, including my first kiss and my first sexual experiences. I loved them and they are a good person, but in retrospect we were clearly not a good match; after a few months we were having major arguments several times weekly. In their best moments they were brilliantly supportive, helping me explore my newfound gender identity through feminine clothes and makeup. But due to depression and the constant arguing, we had sex very rarely—once a month at most. They were unable to have vaginal intercourse, but I would give them oral and they would give me hand jobs, blow jobs, and later intercrural sex. We also experimented with a number of kinks where they were exclusively the dominant partner, including bondage, watersports, feederism, and pegging. But due to the infrequency with which we had sex, despite our mutual enthusiasm, we barely scratched the surface of any of them.

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Furthermore, I always felt like I was doing something wrong when receiving. When they received oral, we both made it clear how much we were enjoying it and they would orgasm multiple times. However, I found their hand jobs painful, could barely feel their blow jobs, and intercrural sex would knock the wind out of me and hurt my jewels (my partner was significantly larger and taller). Despite finding them ridiculously attractive, it would take me an hour to orgasm (if at all), and their frustration with that was evident. Due to my inexperience, I was rarely sure how to give helpful feedback and often had difficulty being open about not enjoying it since I didn’t want to hurt their confidence. It left me feeling alone, broken, and bitter at myself for having built sex up to be this big, connecting, sappy thing when all it seemed to bring was pain and hurt feelings.

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Now I find myself at a crossroads. As soon as it is safe to do so COVID-wise, I think it might be a good idea to gain sexual experience and explore kinks more before my next serious relationship to make sure it won’t be lousy for my partner or painful for me. However, I’m shy and realized I don’t actually know how or where to initiate a safe hookup … let alone one where it’s clear to all parties that I’m very inexperienced and that everything would be exclusively sexual. Honestly, I’m still not even sure hookups are “right” for me. Do you have any words of wisdom for someone like me who’s feeling a bit lost?

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—Late Bloomer

Dear Late Bloomer,

It’s very easy to get wrapped up in depictions of idealized sex and determine that there must be something wrong with yourself when your own desires don’t align with what culture says they should. But the thing is that there is so much variation within sexuality that it’s only logical that not everyone will enjoy everything, even things as supposedly objectively enjoyable as getting head. You’re still figuring out your body. It could be that your former partner’s stroke did not provide stimulation you enjoy, or maybe you just don’t enjoy that kind of stimulation at all. All is fine—experiment and if you find yourself uninterested in a particular act, move on. Maybe you’re a giver! Maybe hookups aren’t right for you! These questions that you have are best answered through experience precisely because of that variation I mentioned. Your adventurous and experimental spirit can take you far, but as you’re dabbling, take note of what comes easiest to you. That’s a good indication of how you are specifically oriented. Sex shouldn’t feel like a chore

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As far as your other logistical issues of coordinating hookups, a lot can be solved via apps. You may have noticed communicating behind a screen emboldens people. You can say exactly what you’re thinking and what you’re hoping for upfront and the person you’re talking to has the option of expressing interest in taking things further or deciding that you’re not for them. (Try to take the latter scenario in stride—rejection is a key component of success.) You can accomplish very much the same sort of communication via a flirtatious conversation at a bar. Some will accept your inexperience as a potentially fun challenge, some will decide that they don’t have the bandwidth to be your teacher. You’ll get your groove with enough sampling—but you have to put yourself out there if you want to get anywhere.

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Dear How to Do It,

Prior to the pandemic, I was a very happy ethical slut with plenty of enthusiastic friends to tumble into bed with. A year of lockdowns, weight gain, seasonal depression, and political nightmares have cratered my sex drive.

The plumbing works, but the desire isn’t there. Now as vaccines roll out and there’s hope for a semi-normal summer on the horizon, I’m wondering if you could talk about post-pandemic passion … does it come back?

—Please Tell Me It Comes Back!

Dear Comeback,

It will come back, but it may take some action on your part. Weight gain, depression, and anxiety can all affect libido. To kick-start your desire, start by targeting the outstanding issues that you pointed to as potential mood killers. Are you exercising? How’s your diet? Are you talking to a professional about your depression and anxiety? How are you dealing with them otherwise? Are you meditating? The issues that you mention are all worth attempting to improve for the sake of your quality of life in general—waning libido can be a sign of bigger issues. Start now and you’ll be in optimal condition when things go “back to normal” (or as close as they’re going to get).

Did you write this or another letter we answered? Tell us what happened at howtodoit@slate.com.

Dear How to Do It,

I am a 45-year-old woman almost six years into a monogamous relationship with a 36-year-old man. I love him dearly and have allowed our sexual relationship to follow his guide, because he is the more vanilla, less experienced one, but I’m at the point where I don’t care if we have sex (although I want it). I don’t get what I need in the form of talking dirty, hair-pulling, spankings, whippings, and being tied up. I’m a bit of a masochist, so pain and restraints turn me on but are not his thing.

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I’ve thought about bringing up play with someone else that doesn’t lead to intercourse, because just the action of being restrained or whipped relaxes me when done right. I know he doesn’t want to sexually share me with anyone else and the fact of the matter is I don’t want a relationship with anyone else. In any other relationship I would be involved in a friend with benefits or one night stand by now. I am not sure if his reluctance is rightly due to lack of experience and know-how or if it turns him off. How can I broach this without sending him for the hills? It doesn’t help that we are in a small town in the Deep South with closed minds and small, if nonexistent, play communities so I’m not even sure how to find someone who can do what I want without it ending in sex. Any suggestions?

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—Masochist, but Not a Sub

Dear Masochist,

In discussions about such matters, I think leading with the most important information is crucial. If it came down to it—and it might—what would you choose? This guy or your freedom? It seems like the answer is this guy, so tell him that. Something like, “I want to talk to you about our sex life, but I want to state up front that breaking up is not something I want to do. I want to hold onto you while exploring for myself. Do you think that might be possible?” If you approach this as just another conversation—perhaps one of many—as opposed to an ultimatum or your last conversation with him, I think you’ll be able to assuage potential anxiety as it comes. This will require you to be honest, perhaps brutally so, about what you aren’t getting. At the same time, try to avoid highlighting your lack of enthusiasm about the sex you do have with him. I’m not telling you to lie, but I think a satisfying resolution is more likely if you frame this conversation to be about your desire, and not his shortcomings.

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As to where to find a potential partner, your likely best bet will be a fetish app. Such a platform will allow for ample pre-hookup discussion to ensure that you’ll get what you want. I can’t recommend any fetish apps in good faith because I haven’t used any, but Google around—there are plenty out there.

— Rich

More How to Do It

I hate the sounds my boyfriend makes during sex. He just kind of whimpers as things start to get hot, particularly if I kiss him on the neck or elsewhere on his body, and he legitimately sounds like a small animal in pain. The strange thing is, he seems to realize these noises are unusual and off-putting—he constantly apologizes for making them, even midsex, but says he can’t help it; that’s just how he sounds when he feels good. I’m really turned on by him otherwise, but I can’t go on forever hearing the cries of injured wildlife when we’re getting it on. Is it possible to manually adjust the sounds one makes during sex? Should I ask him to?

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