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 have a complex issue that’s hard to even express, but I feel like I need to confess/figure it out, and I hope you can help! I am in my early 30s, and I am in a really happy and stable relationship with the love of my life (let’s call him George). I moved countries to live with George, and I am sure I am in the right place with the right person, and we are hoping to have a family. But two years ago, I was in a very different situation …
To give some context, I had been in a crappy relationship since I was 18, which ended when I was 27. I then started seeing George long-distance, and I thought he was lovely, strong, dependable, and incredibly sexy. I’m into BDSM, and he was both caring and dominant, which is what I needed. I also was dating another guy (let’s call him Harry!) who was poly. Harry was somebody who I would describe as sexually magnetic, exciting, but also somewhat dangerous because he had a lot of different commitments and wasn’t always emotionally present—somebody I had fun with but didn’t feel was super healthy in terms of my emotional needs.
George wasn’t really comfortable with being poly and particularly disliked Harry (they are quite opposite in character and have different approaches to BDSM), so after some negotiations and conversations, we agreed to be monogamous, and I stopped dating Harry. After a couple of years when things started to get serious with George (aka when it seemed like somebody should move countries), I started to freak out. I felt like I was about to take a big risk, and that somehow I would make the same mistakes I made in my first relationship by getting swept along and feeling trapped in a relationship. I started to question whether being poly was actually very important in my life, and whether I had enough experience with other partners to know what I really want, because I had always pretty much been in committed monogamous relationships. To cut a long story short, me and George split up.
For two months, I basically went a little crazy, having a bunch of one-night stands—and yes, I also went back to Harry. We had an incredible weekend, another woman joined us, I felt like I had three golden days of excitement, and it massively scratched a lot of the itches I’d been feeling. However, nothing was a substitute for the deep love and care that I had with George, and after this period I recognized that I really did need and want a committed relationship, and that I didn’t want to sabotage myself in this way. Luckily, George understood, we talked it out, and we got back together, and the rest is kind of history!
EXCEPT!!! Recently I had a smear test and was diagnosed with HPV. I know that you can get HPV from anybody, even when using protection, but I couldn’t help but think about Harry, and how we didn’t use a condom. (He persuaded me, and with hindsight it was super stupid and yet another reason why Harry is a risky individual—I used a condom with the other people I slept with that month, but as I felt like I knew and trusted Harry I got caught up in the situation and made that choice.) A complicating factor is that when George and I got back together, he said, “I understand why you had to figure this out and I can handle that you slept with a few people but just as long as it wasn’t Harry”—so, for the sake of getting back together with George (because I felt if I told the truth he wouldn’t consider it) I lied … I said I hadn’t seen Harry, and I said I always used protection. We both got sexual health screenings and carried on with our lives.
But now I am quite consumed with guilt. I feel certain, privately, that Harry gave me HPV and that it’s kind of a miracle he didn’t give me anything else. I feel sad that I inevitably will have given George HPV too. I don’t know what kind of HPV I have (the health care provider didn’t have that information!), so I’m scared that I could get cancer (since it’s been about two years since I slept with Harry and I know that your body should clear the infection in about two years, and mine obviously hasn’t), and if so, it feels like a huge punishment for one risky choice in a lifetime of using protection. I also feel guilty that I lied to George. I don’t exactly regret that time in my life, but I wish I hadn’t needed to do that to get to where I am now.
I guess there are two issues here. One is the HPV and the worries I have over that. The other is the lie I told two years ago. I don’t know if there is any purpose to telling the truth now. Do you have advice on dealing with a fling coming back to haunt me and disturbing the tranquility of my current life with George?
—Haunted by Harry
Even though you are certain that Harry gave you HPV, there’s a nagging voice throughout your narrative that is reminding you that you don’t actually know this to be the truth. Blaming Harry might be a way of exiling him for good, the rationale being something like: He is bad and did a bad thing and thus deserves not one more minute of your time. Of course, the morality imposed on infectious disease is a human-spun fairy tale. Because it’s rare for men to be screened for HPV, it’s quite possible that Harry wasn’t aware that he had it, if he did, and so wasn’t being negligent. I don’t know your screening schedule, but it’s possible you had it before you reunited with Harry. Maybe even George gave it to you. Who knows? The guilt that you’re ascribing and adopting is constructed, for the risk you take by being sexually active at all is contracting HPV. Figuring out a flow chart of blame is contriving chaos into organization.
Even though you already have HPV, consider getting vaccinated—it will at least protect you from the strains you haven’t contracted.
As to your dilemma about George, lying to him wasn’t ideal, but he didn’t have any right to impose a retroactive rule on your time apart. That wasn’t fair and, two years later, you are both happy and together. He was wrong for thinking that whatever went down during your split would have bearing on your future. All that divulging could do now is cause a rift, and that would be ridiculous—disruption for disruption’s sake. Think of it this way: He asked if you had slept with Harry out of insecurity. At this point, protecting him from his own insecurity means keeping this information to yourself. You’re not honoring the reasonable expectation of being truthful with your partner, but you are honoring another imperative: protecting George’s ego. Besides, by not telling him about your one-off with Harry, it’s not like you’re withholding crucial information about yourself. You are not keeping from him something he doesn’t know—indeed, he is well-aware that you are the kind of person who would have sex with Harry, as he is aware of your sexual history with Harry. Be honest and ethical moving forward, but don’t disrupt the good thing you have going with needless information. That said, if you haven’t told George that you have HPV, it’s high time you do so. That information, unfortunately for you, is in fact needed.
Dear How to Do It,
OK, I’m a HUGE fan of your column. I subscribed to Slate for you two—though Dahlia Lithwick is awesome as well.
Anyway, oh happy day, I’ve met a mature cis man who is generously endowed, sex positive, and we’ve fallen in love. I am a cis woman who is quite a fan of anal, and he loves it too. In this match, we really are ideal for one another going from vaginal to anal—but never the reverse. Neither of us like condoms, and he’s happy to jump in the shower after our anal exploits. Here’s the problem: Even though he washes thoroughly, I sometimes get a bit of BV. I am post hysterectomy and menopause, so I am a very dry inside. The days of natural fluid flushing out bacteria is rather dimmed, to say the least.
Is there something specific he can wash with or do to reduce any ick from his dick? Or, though chemical douching is a no-no, perhaps there is something I can internally rinse with that will rebalance my flora?
—Hold the BV Please
Firstly, congrats on finding love with a big dick attached. Secondly, I so appreciate your kind words that instead of giving you the pat “go see a doctor” answer that your question solicits, I’m going to give you a “go see a doctor” answer with expertise (and hopefully interesting information) guiding it.
I shared your question with Jack Sobel, a doctor and professor of medicine in obstetrics and gynecology at Wayne State University. His professor bio credits him as “one of the world’s foremost authorities on bacterial vaginosis,” so it seemed like he would be an ideal source. Dear writer, it turns out that he indeed is, for our phone conversation illuminated some qualities of BV that remain in the dark and thus might be otherwise difficult to Google.
The first is that anal sex’s contributing role to BV is unknown because it has not been studied in depth. It seems logical that it would be a factor, but the data just isn’t there to say for sure, according to Sobel. “I would not doubt that you could be introducing a lot of bacteria from the anus into the vagina, but that occurs normally anyway. A significant source of the vaginal microbiota (or flora) is gastrointestinal,” explained Sobel.
Secondly, the doctor told me that BV during menopause is extremely rare, as during menopause, estrogen decreases and the bacteria responsible for BV, anaerobes, like estrogen. Sobel further explained, “All the tests for BV were all done on premenopausal women, so the diagnostic tests were never validated in postmenopausal women.” Vaginal dryness cannot be trusted as an indicator of how far along you are in menopause, as it starts early in the menopausal process, typically during perimenopause.
Sobel wondered how it was that you determined that you have BV—he said there is a tremendous amount of self-diagnosis of BV (and a lot of overdiagnosis by doctors). So rare is BV during menopause, in fact, he suggested that if one is experiencing BV, it’s a good indicator that she isn’t actually in menopause.
Regardless, Sobel suggested an evaluation by a competent clinician (preferably a gynecology specialist who specializes in vaginal infections) to check your estrogen levels and determine that what you’re experiencing is indeed BV. He warns against taking antibiotics in the absence of a reliable diagnosis. I wish I could provide a quick-fix prescription, but it seems, at the very least, that your situation is too complicated for that. I hope you understand and continue your much-appreciated patronage of our column.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a woman and I’m struggling with my sexuality and just sex in general. I started liking girls when I was a teen but because of a lot of bullying I tried to “force” myself to be straight. I lost my virginity to a man old enough to be my father in a really bad way with hazy consent.
I finally decided I was bi, but I only had vastly unhealthy one-night stands with strange men. (Dumb I know, I now use protection and get tested between every partner. I only have sex every couple of months.) But all of my attitudes and sexual appetites with men are very unhealthy both physically and emotionally. I got into BDSM and found a great and supportive local group. When I’m doing scenes with other women, I have a great time and it’s healthy and consensual and fun. The stuff I do with guys is dangerous and really bad and really screws with me afterward. I’m only attracted to men when I’m in depressive cycles (I have severe depression). I always feel like shit after sleeping with men, but it’s the only sex I get because women terrify me.
I have had sex with women (sort of), but the two times I’ve tried I didn’t even take my pants off because I’m extremely nervous and self-conscious, and I keep the focus on the other woman and don’t even let them touch me. The only person I’ve ever had an orgasm with is a man who is quite frankly nuts and I don’t like, but I can have sex with him because he has erectile dysfunction and basically has sex like a lesbian. I’m 26 and I’ve never been on a real date because women and the concept of emotional vulnerability with women terrifies me. Help! I feel like I’m going crazy.
—Maybe a Lesbian
Your letter is essentially a thesis about why you shouldn’t be having sex with men, so put that on ice. Don’t put yourself in situations that you know will be dangerous and make you feel bad. Get in front of yourself here, arms out, yelling, “STOP!!!” in your own face.
If the trauma of being bullied is what’s making you afraid of women, you’re going to have to work on overcoming that trauma. Being so affected by mistreatment deriving from your identity doesn’t make you a failure; it makes you an extremely sensitive person and there’s nothing wrong with that. A therapist or counselor, particularly one specializing in LGBTQ issues/clients could be of great use.
However, I can’t help but wonder, given your extremely strong fear of women, if there’s something more than the bullying—bigots are scary, yes, but community can be found precisely in the solidarity that arises from subjugation. The queer women that you are afraid of are not your enemies, they’re your allies, your sisters, your protection from the larger homophobic world. Are you friends with women? Would it be possible for you to dip your toe into the queer scene via your local LGBTQ community? Obviously, the pandemic has complicated such socializing, but there are online and virtual spaces in which you could get to know women in a platonic manner, taking the first of many steps, which you can then continue to take one at time.
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Dear How to Do It,
This is a forward column, so I have a forward question: How do you … get out there? I’m in college and haven’t dated since freshman year of high school. I’ve never even kissed anyone. I’m young, I’m bisexual, I’m polyam, I’m trans, but I am just totally lost on how the dating scene works. All of my friends are either high school sweethearts or aren’t looking, so I have no one to glean this information off the hard way. How do dating apps work? I feel like I’m a million years old. Please help me.
—Young, Dumb, and Full of [REDACTED]
“How do people date?” is just nominally less broad of a question than, “How do people live?” The answer to both is: in varied and complicated ways! I understand how overwhelming it may seem staring out into the abyss, but I think that seeing dating as an abstract, mysterious, and frightening realm is a consequence of inexperience. When actively dating, dramas petty and major will occur, but the enormity of the practice of sharing your life with others doesn’t tend to weigh on you existentially. Taken one date/relationship at a time, the entire process can feel doable, and even enjoyable.
Functionally speaking, dating apps are easy to get the hang of—many have been formulated to hook people in and thus user-friendliness is an imperative. Culturally speaking, dating apps are a bit tougher to nail down. There’s a lot of idle chatter, quite a bit of rejection, and a more than healthy serving of flakiness. You could go for something like OkCupid, which allows for a rather broad sampling of identities via its profile form, or you could find something more queer-specific. (Besides the apps that cater predominantly to men seeking men, I don’t have personal experience with these specialized apps so I encourage you to Google around if you’re, for example, looking for something made specially for trans people. There are many apps like this and a lot of recommendations/listicles regarding them online.)
Two things to keep in mind: Try not to take what goes down on apps personally. It may feel personal, but until a person truly gets to know you, you’re just a vague abstraction in their head and that image is informed by their own suppositions, prejudices, and projections. In the absence of other flesh, our minds tend to fill in its space. Also, dating apps don’t work on their own—you have to work them. So get out there, try, and go easy on yourself.
More How to Do It
How do I learn to look good on camera? I’d like to have video hookups while we’re all in quarantine, but it’s been a while since my last long-distance relationship, and I’ve forgotten everything about long-distance sex. I filmed a recent masturbation session and found myself deeply wanting! The angle makes my face look puffy, and it was boring to watch. I don’t want to disappoint the hot, sexy friends I’ve made—how can I improve? (I’m confident in my verbal skills, but I can’t be too chatty, with my roommates also in lockdown, and typing while masturbating looks even more awkward.) Please help!