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 (30s, F) have been dating my boyfriend (30s, M) for a little over two years. The relationship is overall amazing; he’s funny, incredibly handsome, loving, and supportive. Like many others, our sex life has taken a pretty substantial hit over the last year. In addition to COVID, my boyfriend went through some periods of unemployment and general anger at the state of the world. He’s been doing much better recently, and I had hoped our sex life would pick up again. It hasn’t, and recently I found out why—I’ve gained weight, and he’s no longer attracted to me.
I’m devastated. He assures me he still loves me and doesn’t want to leave me, but he doesn’t have any ideas how to get back on track other than for me to lose the weight. And while I’ve gained substantial weight since we’ve been dating (about 35 pounds and two dress sizes), it’s been hard won. I started recovery for my eating disorders about three years ago, and I was finally starting to feel like I was gaining at least a sense of neutrality about my body. Yes, I’d put on weight, but I no longer wept for hours with hatred at my appearance, counted every calorie, exercised to the point of injury, or kept losing my hair. At the same time though, I know the weight gain is my fault, and it’s not his fault for losing his attraction to me.
I think he feels bad about this admission, as we’ve had sex more since then than in the previous three months combined. But I just … don’t want to any more. I want to cry and hide my body every time we get intimate. He suggests that I can blow him or get him off instead, but I don’t exactly feel in the mood to do that. It just makes me feel like his fat sex toy—and not in a hot way.
How do I get past this? Other than losing the weight (which I’m trying to do, but it’s just so triggering), how can I bring the spark back? I’m trying to work through this with my therapist, but I just don’t know how to go forward from here.
Dear Hot Potato,
In any context, pressure to lose weight sucks. Given your history with eating disorders, it is dangerous. And so, I enlisted the help of clinical social worker/sex therapist Sonalee Rashatwar, who is known on Instagram as the Fat Sex Therapist and does a lot of speaking and thinking about issues pertaining to body size. (Rashatwar’s YouTube video from 2019 “Fatphobia Is Not a Sexual Preference” is particularly pertinent to your case.) Rashatwar told me that it seems like what your boyfriend is offering is conditional attraction based on your weight. What worries me about your attempt to lose weight, especially while guided by the logic that the weight gain is your “fault” and that it is “not his fault” for not being attracted to your bigger body, is that you are effectively condemning yourself to a lifetime of upkeep where anything less than perfection is unacceptable. As Rashatwar points out, 35 pounds isn’t that much, and one could reasonably expect leeway from a long-term partner here given the human body’s tendency toward change throughout life. “It’s inhumane to have an expectation that your partner’s body should not change,” said Rashatwar.
It’s troubling to see you position this as your problem to solve. Rashatwar argues that the problem is your boyfriend’s. “It’s really helpful for the person who’s experiencing the loss of attraction—in this case the boyfriend—to be working on his own with a therapist, with some kind of professional, to help understand that his attraction is conditioned,” they explained. “What he’s attracted to is quite flexible and the way he’s approaching this relationship is really rigid.” While there is no science (yet) for determining precisely why people are attracted to whom they are, what Rashatwar says tracks. Certainly, we live in a world that is hostile to fat people and when someone’s sexual taste so aligns with the status quo, it is impossible to definitively divorce societal influence from what is perceived as innate attraction. At any rate, this is an opportunity for your boyfriend to interrogate his attraction, a logical prospect as many people find that what they’re into changes over time.
And though you describe your relationship as “overall amazing,” your mention of your boyfriend’s anger gave both Rashatwar and me pause. “Esther Perel talks about how we only will address [an issue] when it hits the sex area, but I would bet that she’s probably experiencing this emotional rupture in other areas, too,” they said. “Abuse might be a strong word, but there are layers of control—at least manipulation, and her body autonomy is not under her control here.” Rashatwar suggested that a term they coined, body-image abuse, might not be so far off in describing your situation. “Because it doesn’t look like physical violence, we don’t consider it abusive, but this is one person trying to have too much control over another person’s body,” they said. “That’s essentially what abuse is over time: the consistent need to have control over someone else’s body. Body-image abuse can look like a whole spectrum of things.”
So instead of only making you bend to him, and selfishly requesting oral sex, he’s going to have to come to you if the relationship has a future. Certainly, a relationship that requires you to live adjacent to the eating disorder you’re recovering from, if not fully relapse, is not a tenable one. Rashatwar was not convinced that couples counseling was appropriate here, as you’re already in individual counseling and, by your account, not doing anything to disturb the peace of your relationship. However, I did reach out to a psychologist who specializes in nutritional issues, and he suggested couples counseling as an option. Martin Binks, professor and director of the Nutrition & Metabolic Health Initiative at Texas Tech University, wrote in an email that he applauded your seeking of individual counseling as “your comfort and self-acceptance are most important.” He added: “I understand how difficult your partner’s comments are—I strongly suggest you seek a couples therapist to help you both accurately communicate your feelings to each other. Perhaps there are other reasons for the loss of attraction and weight is just the one that is most obvious to focus on for him. It goes without saying that physical attraction in relationships waxes and wanes over time, and couples struggle to balance this with the other things that are important to them. Communication is key.”
So there are some options for you. Please don’t put yourself in danger over 35 pounds and the acceptance of another. You’re worth way more, and it might take you removing yourself from this situation to honor and preserve said worth.
Dear How to Do It,
Ever since my mid-to-late teens, I’ve had a very high libido and I love sex. Despite being a woman in my 30s, I feel like a teenage boy. I’m happiest having sex two or three times a day. However, I have not met a lot of other women who seem to view it the way I do. Due to a number of things, I’m very wary of commitment and relationships. Most of my friends are married and starting families, and in a recent Zoom call a friend said something very hurtful. We were talking about the pandemic when one of my friends made a joke about how I must be having less casual sex and sarcastically said that must be so difficult for me. I asked why she would say something like that. She responded, “Oh come on, relax. We know you can’t change who you are!” and everyone on the call laughed. I felt shamed and hurt. I left the call and haven’t spoken to any of these “friends” since. This is not the first time they have implied that there is something wrong with the way that I comport myself. I’ve never had sex with anyone who is married or in a relationship (to my knowledge), I’ve never had sex with a sex worker, I’ve never had an STI, and my number of partners is still in the double digits. None of this sounds problematic to me. Are they just being cruel, or is there something wrong with me?
—Shamed Over Casual Sex
There isn’t anything wrong with you, but your reaction strikes me as overly sensitive, and that sensitivity may be distorting your perception. I don’t agree that your friends’ jokes were “cruel”—they were predicated on a truth that you do not hide nor (ostensibly) carry shame about. Getting on one another’s tits is how a lot of friends communicate. Think of how much mockery the indefatigably libidinous Blanche endured on The Golden Girls. Through the jokes, there was a certain amount of acceptance on both sides that that’s how she was and that’s how she was going to be. Humans, in all their variations and extremities, are innately funny because life is absurd. Your friends’ ribbing of you may come with malice attached, but most charitably, it can be interpreted as a sign that they know you well enough to observe something to make fun of, and are comfortable enough with you to think your relationship can endure it.
But, look, you have a right to be sensitive, and that reaction should be tended to. It’s also not always easy for people, women in particular, to be so shameless in their enjoyment of frequent sex, partly because it becomes pathologized when filtered through the shame of others who aren’t so liberated. It could very well be that your friends are judging you via their jokes because they’re jealous or they find you intimidating or they’ve been socialized to think that enjoying casual sex is wrong. You know different, and there is a certain burden that comes with wisdom in an unenlightened world. The absolute best course of diffusing the tension would be to tease them back, but if that’s not in your nature, just tell them to cool it. (You could even use their teasing to open up a conversation about their attitudes about sex and why they seemingly contrast so severely with yours.)
But I also don’t think that what they said constitutes a fireable offense, per se, and your sensitivity suggests maybe you aren’t quite as devoid of shame about your sex life as you’d like to be. If you were, this kind of mockery probably would not faze you. Your own relationship with shame might be worth interrogating, and if you discover there is something to work on there, your friends have ultimately done you a favor.
Help us keep giving the advice you crave every week. Sign up for Slate Plus now.
Dear How to Do It,
My wife and I have been married for 10 years. We’re best friends, and after a decade still have a great sex life. We married young, at 21, and as such haven’t had as many sexual partners as might be typical for people our age. We often discuss fantasies of threesomes, foursomes, or one of us watching the other with someone else during sex. Thus far it’s mostly just “dirty talk,” but I could see it eventually blossoming into a reality under the right conditions (mutual enthusiastic consent would be a given prerequisite for sure).
However, when I explore the thought process further in my mind, I can’t help but shake this strong notion of jealousy when thinking of my wife being with another man, whether I’m included or not. Am I being close minded and this is something to learn and grow through for the sake of a fun, new life experience for both of us? Or is it a red flag for a road ought not traveled?
—Hot but Maybe Bothered
Too early to call. Certainly, nonmonogamy is not for everybody, but as it exists now, the jealousy you feel is theoretical and a product of anxiety. That which is prompting said jealousy isn’t even real yet. Some experience great relief once they actually execute their group fantasies—“What was I so scared of?” Others run screaming in the other direction. The best course of action is to take things slow, to discuss what you’re feeling, and to be unafraid of setting boundaries. If you’re so hung up on the notion of inviting another guy to your bed, perhaps you’d want to start with a woman, if your wife is down. Maybe there are certain acts that you would rather not engage in, or at least put off until you can test the waters. Maybe the notion of opening things up continues to exist in the realm of fantasy for you, and there it does its trick, with no need to make anything a reality. You’re just going to have to feel your way around it.
You’d probably benefit from reading the nonmonogamist handbook The Ethical Slut. Its authors, Janet W. Hardy and Dossie Easton, write extensively on the subject of jealousy, of which they claim: “Jealousy is not an emotion. It can show up as grief or rage, hatred or self-loathing—jealousy is an umbrella word that covers the wide range of emotions we might feel when our partners make sexual connection with somebody else.” I’m not as sure that we can be so strictly categorical on something as ephemeral as internal processing as to say which of our feelings are and are not emotions, but the point that jealousy rarely shows up alone is salient. Typically some other feeling is accompanying it. Start by figuring out what it is, why you feel it, and whether you can let go of it.
Did you write this or another letter we answered? Tell us what happened at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear How to Do It,
I am writing you through tears. My husband and I are suffering from a mismatch in libido. Specifically my libido is lower than his. It didn’t used to be this way. But several issues have compounded my low libido and even though I have been trying to say no less and have been buying sexy lingerie and fancy lube and our frequency has increased, he is still dissatisfied. He threw away a bottle of lube the other day because I declined to have sex while I was decorating the house and making cupcakes the night before our child’s birthday. He said it was part of him getting used to the fact that we didn’t have sex anymore. I told him that wasn’t true and he said it still wasn’t enough and that me describing that move as petty and an attempt to punish me was not accurate. Currently, we are having sex about once per week, whereas before it was once per month or less.
Tonight, he brought it up, but I felt like I just wanted my body to myself after a day of caring for two young children, and a therapy session that left me physically trembling and emotionally drained. I expressed these feelings to him and he responded along the lines of “If you were feeling horny, I would happily accommodate you every time.” To which I replied that I had been trying to accommodate him more but still felt I should be able to set boundaries if I was not feeling up to the emotional and physical vulnerability of sex. No matter how calmly I tried to discuss things with him, he kept circling back to the idea that I should be accommodating because he has needs and I am not addressing them. And he’s right. I still can’t bring myself to say yes every time but I am trying to say yes more often and it’s not enough in his words.
I am struggling with many things. When my youngest child was born two years ago, I developed mild pelvic organ prolapse and it was a mind fuck. My anatomy is visibly altered. It took a while to become OK with the way my body was now and will always be unless I have surgery. It also meant I was limited in birth control options. I can’t have an IUD any longer due to the state of my anatomy. I now have an implant in my arm. Since getting the implant, I have gained weight and struggled with depression. Recently I mentioned that the implant sometimes has low sex drive as a side effect (not to mention my self-esteem is in the gutter due to weight gain) and said I wanted to get it taken out to see if things improved. To him, that is another excuse. I know he feels like I should just get him off when he wants to get off. I am also in treatment for alcohol use disorder, which has been going well! But the treatment and work I need to do have stirred up some feelings and trauma from my past. I was also a victim of sexual assault in the past and forcing myself to have sex when I’m not feeling it is difficult. He says he feels shameful when he is forced to masturbate … however the day after we had sex once, I went downstairs and found him masturbating. I have no qualms about that facet of sexuality but he feels like it is shameful and he shouldn’t have to resort to that because he is a married man.
I am a mess of feelings and trying to accommodate him. But I want to feel like I can say no if I am feeling a no. I feel like I am trying to fix so many facets of myself and still bring my A game as a mother and I am now falling short as a wife. I do find him very attractive and love him very much. But I am grappling with feeling very much less than. He mentions that he has brought this up to friends who have advised him this isn’t “normal.” What can I do? I can’t afford AUD treatment, regular therapy, medical bills for my family, AND sex therapy. What are some ways I can help myself regain my former libido?
Dear Send Help,
Helping you regain your libido would be tantamount to acting as accessory to your husband’s coercion. I won’t do it. The best I can tell you is that you’re right! Your assessment is on the mark every time, in my opinion. And not just that, you’re actively attempting to improve your situation, to work through your negative feelings toward a place that is mutually satisfying for you and your husband. You have a lot to work through that has been foisted on you unfairly, and nonetheless, you are considering him and his happiness. He is not extending you the same courtesy, which is plainly unfair. In order to foster a healthy, even relationship, he needs to work with you as you are with him. This means extending you the patience you require and taking no for an answer. It means respecting your boundaries and understanding what healing from sexual trauma looks like. It’s his job as a partner to relieve you of your undue burdens, not add to your pile.
His friends are wrong, by the way. While any survey of sexual habits based on self-reporting should be taken with a grain of salt, studies typically show that sex once a week for married couples is on the high side of average. His shame over masturbating is his problem, not yours, and like you, I question his sincerity there anyway. How is it that he feels such shame about making himself feel good but seemingly no shame about making you feel bad?
It doesn’t seem like he’s ever been made to question such things. In neglecting to do so, though, he’s inflicting harm on your relationship. Something has to give here, and I think you’ve already given plenty. It’s probably time for an honest talk about how unreasonable he’s being in the face of your effort. So many mismatched-libido letters we received are from people who haven’t had sex with their partner in months or years , not days. You deserve more than a coercive, unaccommodating partner. If he’s not going to provide that for you, you might consider finding someone who will.
More How to Do It
I am a fairly happily married 50-year-old man who’s been with my wife for 23 years. I have been obese for most of my life with the exception of the time I was in college, and I became morbidly obese over time, reaching more than 370 pounds. Sex between my wife and me had gone from two to three times per week early in our marriage, before we had children, to about twice per month. I decided something must be done about my weight. I became an active person who runs races, eats totally differently, etc. I am down to 230 pounds with plans to lose more. I thought this would change things in the bedroom. It has, in some ways: My stamina has improved dramatically, as has my libido. But I expected this would alter my wife’s perception of me and we would have sex more often—I thought my appearance was the problem. That hasn’t happened. I’m not sure what to do here.