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 recently asked my girlfriend how our sex life is compared with her ex, hoping to get validation for one of my biggest insecurities. Instead of getting validation, she told me she didn’t enjoy sex with me as much because she loves me and that has made our sex more high stakes than the casual sex she was having before. She also said her ex had more experience, so I should not beat myself up over the fact that they had better sex than we do. I know she was being honest, but since then, I’ve not wanted to have sex with her. I feel very inadequate sexually and my confidence in bed with her has dropped significantly. I fear it may affect the rest of our relationship, which was really good up to this point. What do I do? I want to get better in bed, but how do I do that if I’m too insecure to have sex with my girlfriend?
This question contains a catalog of missteps. I’ll start with yours. You have breached some common wisdom including “Don’t ask questions you don’t want to know the answer to,” and, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” When you fish for compliments, be prepared to reel in a rubber tire in the shape of a zero. Your girlfriend could have handled the question with far more sensitivity. People do tend to develop hierarchies in their heads, but “better” is often far too simplistic of an evaluation of sex with one person over another. Surely you have your positive attributes, and surely she could have highlighted them. If your girlfriend did you a disservice with her harsh evaluation, though, it was at your behest. Really, you kind of deserve each other.
I think what you can do is focus on the implications of this brutal data: Your girlfriend felt this way before you asked, and yet the relationship persevered. Additionally, you already felt insecure, as you cite that as the reason you asked about her ex’s prowess in the first place. To what degree did your girlfriend’s answer make you more insecure? I bet not that big of one—yours was so bold a question as to suggest desperation. What is new is your understanding that your partner is extremely honest, so navigate that accordingly. I think that’s mostly an asset, but you’ll want to refrain from inviting future critiques that you actually would rather not hear.
There is writing to back up her assertion about the high-stakes nature of your sex inhibiting excitement. In Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel writes about how eroticism and intimacy can be at odds. This is a common issue in relationships. If you need to spice things up, peruse that book. Or just talk to your girlfriend. What is “good” to her? Is there anything you aren’t providing? Anything you could give her more of? Take your time to pout, but keep in mind that your girlfriend loves you and if you love her back, this is worth getting over. You’re not going to be the best at everything, but you can still have fun.
Dear How to Do It,
My husband and I are in our late 20s, and have been together for seven years. I’m the only person he has had sex with. He grew up in a very religious household, and although he long ago left the church, he still has some emotional scars from “purity culture.” Although he doesn’t believe in hell anymore, and knows that sex isn’t “sinful,” he still has a problem battling unwanted shame related to his sexual impulses. That being said, we have an excellent sex life—as long as I always take the lead. He says he loves having sex with me (and I believe him), but sometimes I feel like a tour guide. I don’t mind being treated like the queen in our bedroom and getting to call the shots. But I would like for him to initiate sometimes! It’s always me asking if he wants to have sex. He never asks me, so I never get any of that fun spontaneity. I’ve even tried giving him explicit instructions on how to initiate, but he says it’s too hard for him to approach that. How can I coax him out of his comfort zone while still being supportive? Am I asking for too much? Should just accept our dynamic, which is mostly very good?
—The Tour Guide
Dear Tour Guide,
Practically speaking, it seems that you have reached a decent compromise. Your sex life isn’t perfect, but what is? For many, life is an endless journey toward absolute comfort, which turns out to be a moving goalpost. People tend to perpetually want more or different or better, and wanting can get in the way of enjoying the mostly very good that is in front of us. If, for a moment, we put aside the purity culture that your husband was raised in and look at his sexuality as something that just is, he’s just a guy who doesn’t initiate sex. How lucky, then, that he has a partner who does. What a fit.
I say this not to diminish your valid concerns, but to suggest that even if nothing changes and you live out the worst-case scenario of the life that you’ve sketched here, you’ll still be doing great. An excellent sex life is something most people who write in to this column can only wish for. But your question does touch on the interesting (and in my mind, unfortunate) topic of purity culture, and so I reached out to someone well acquainted with the subject. Karen Richter is the director of spiritual formation at the Shadow Rock United Church of Christ in Phoenix. Shadow Rock is home to Our Whole Lives, “a comprehensive, lifespan sexuality education curricula for use in both secular settings and faith communities.”
Richter told me by phone that OWL is “certainly in opposition to the values of purity culture.” Richter regularly sees the specter of purity culture in the parents of the kids she educates. “I hear in their questions some hope for something better and just a whole lot of fear: ‘I want my kid to have the education about sex that I didn’t get. I had to learn it all myself and make all these mistakes and I want something better for them,’ ” she explained. She also grew up religious in the South, “so I absorbed a whole lot of those messages myself.”
Richter said she recognizes aspects of what your husband is going through in others who have come out on the other side of purity culture. “They think they’ve moved on, but it goes so deep that I think it requires a lot more intention than our culture and our families tend to support and encourage,” she said.
Her advice involves interrogating the caustic foundation of purity culture. “I think it’s worth talking about purity culture as part of patriarchy,” she said. “It’s part of white supremacy, it’s part of colonialism, it’s part of capitalism, it’s part of body terrorism. If you can say, ‘Gosh, I didn’t realize how much the control of women’s bodies is bound up in shame-based purity culture.’ What does that mean for reproductive freedom? Doing some social-justice work or advocacy or letter writing, that can be really life-affirming and reverberate in other ways.” You don’t mention whether your husband has retained any of his religiousness, but if so, she wants to remind him that, “There are ways of understanding faith that are not shame-based. You can dive deep into faith in ways that affirm sexuality. Sexuality is a gift from God.”
Finally, keep expectations reasonable. “Moving from purity culture to sex positive is like going from a tricycle to a Lamborghini,” is how Richter put it. If your husband’s comfort zone falls short of that which is associated with sex positivity, that’s OK—there’s a big spectrum between purity culture and sex positivity. “It might be somewhere in the middle,” she said. “I’m hoping the letter writer and the husband can show themselves some grace in that.”
Dear How to Do It,
My husband and I are both totally attracted to each other. I think he’s hot as hell, and he thinks the same about me. He often tells me how sexy I am, and is very open about wanting sex and wanting to try new things in our sex life. The problem is me. I love having sex with him, but I’m scared to try new things. When we were first married, I had a problem with pornography. I was willing to try whatever because sex, and porn more specifically, was really all I was thinking about. In the past year I’ve been working very hard to get over this addiction, and I’m almost eight months free from it. I’m so much happier, but I’m scared to try new things in my sex life because I don’t want to fall back into the addiction. I’ve been open about this with my husband, and he’s been supportive, but I know he’s disappointed. I want to be able to enjoy different types of sex with my husband again, but I’m scared and don’t know how. Please help!
—Scared of Sex
If you’re loving sex without feeling triggered eight months after abandoning a habit that you found to be destructive, you’re doing great and you shouldn’t push yourself to do better. Focus on your husband’s support, not his disappointment (he should be happy that you’ve come this far and that he’s having sex at all, even if it’s not quite as adventurous as he’d prefer).
Reputable researchers and experts in sex tend to deny the existence of porn addition, per se. Past research has been dismissed as biased, and it has certainly been weaponized by religious organizations as part of a bigger sex-negative agenda that tends to pathologize recreational sexual pleasure. However, it is certain that sexual compulsion is real, and porn use can be a problem when it gets in the way of your obligations and relationships. As to whether it creates sexual dysfunction is another matter altogether—the science is scant and those who claim it tend to do so through anecdote. Nonetheless, porn consumption is not an obligation and if it didn’t work for you, it didn’t work for you. If you feel better, healthier, and more focused after kicking it, it seems like you did something right.
You know what you need better than I do, but keep in mind that falling back into your habit upon experimenting sexually is hardly a foregone conclusion. That would signify a change in direction of the influence that you previously detected—from your telling, porn led to sexual experimentation. Now you fear that sexual experimentation would lead to porn. It certainly could—not everything flows with such rigid determination and feedback loops are real—but not necessarily. If you want to spice up your sex life, you could take it slowly, trying one thing at a time. Start with something that doesn’t feel particularly major and see how it feels. If it’s all terrifying and has you convinced that it will lead you on a path to hell, take solace in the sexuality you were able to salvage and understand that everything isn’t for everyone. No need to complicate your compromise.
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Dear How to Do It,
I’m currently five months pregnant with my boyfriend of three years. This is his first child, and my third. For the past month he has been pretty much disinterested in sex, and we only do about once a week now. He got testosterone pills two weeks ago (his meds lower his libido), and I was excited that our sex life would amp up again. Well, it hasn’t. I expressed to him that I felt unwanted, and unattractive. He replied, “There isn’t a point in having sex anymore, sex is mainly for procreation” Which made me feel even worse, like I’m just some animal only meant for breeding. As if the body changes in pregnancy weren’t enough, this has just killed any confidence I had. I don’t know what to do, but am seriously considering ending the relationship because I feel so terrible.
—Pregnant and Unwanted
Firstly, sex once a week is probably about average for couples. I know that’s not ideal for some people, but it is hardly catastrophic. That the sexual connection is being maintained at all is more important than its frequency. You should also keep in mind that there is some data suggesting first-time fathers may see a dip in their testosterone, which could also be affecting the situation. It can also take months to see the effects of testosterone replacement therapy—two weeks is still early. So, a little patience is in order.
The most troubling aspect of your letter, I think, is how his assertion that sex is “mainly for procreation” made you feel. Unless you really can’t go on after that, I don’t think it’s worth severing the relationship without a follow-up conversation. Does he really think that, and if so, what made him come to that conclusion? Did he just say it impulsively? If the latter scenario applies, it’s probably better to clear that up than to elect to go through the rest of your pregnancy and then the tough early months of infancy without him around. You have every right to feel bad and to talk to him about it, but braving this alone would likely make you feel worse and for longer. At the very least, you need more information before you can make such a drastic life decision.
More How to Do It
I’m a 60-year-old heterosexual male. As I get older, my dick doesn’t always work. Its hardness has nothing to do with how aroused I am—I can be as excited as I’ve ever been, but still sometimes can’t stay hard. That doesn’t bother me; I don’t need a hard-on to have fun, and sometimes I’ll turn to Viagra or an equivalent. But one girlfriend gets particularly disturbed with EITHER of those options: If I can’t get hard, she thinks it means I’m not attracted to her. And she thinks if I take a pill, it’s cheating. But: Sometimes I “cheat” and take a tablet before I know we’re going to make love, or sneak into the bathroom to take one. If she knew, she’d be upset. But it works for me, and unbeknownst to her, it’s working for her also. Am I cheating by going against her wishes and taking a viagra without her knowing it?