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,
My partner (36-year-old man) and I (34-year-old woman) have been together for more than 16 years and have a wonderful relationship and a beautiful 5-year-old daughter. He is the love of my life, and I feel as strongly about saying that now as I did when I first fell in love with him. I have never kept anything from him. Lies chew me up inside, and I really can’t keep secrets—except one. It’s an awful, crushing secret. Please allow me to unpack this complicated situation, and if you can offer any kind of direction to help me move forward, I would be incredibly grateful for your insight and advice.
A few years ago, when the #MeToo movement began, I had the horrific epiphany that I was sexually assaulted. This was a hard realization because I had always thought sexual assault was violent, and penetrative; I hadn’t even realized what happened was an assault. The definition was never clear to me. I was sexually assaulted by someone I thought was my friend, someone I trusted and never in my wildest dreams thought would try to hurt me. He assaulted me in my best friend’s home one-and-a-half years after my partner and I started dating. We were having a small get-together with friends and family; my partner wasn’t there with me that night. While I was getting ready for bed, this man came in and forced himself on me. I was alone in the room and pleaded with him to stop; I literally begged him. He wasn’t violent. He didn’t rip my clothes off or threaten me—he just ignored me and my attempts to push him off and get away. He had me pinned, groping and humping me through my clothes for some time. I was terrified he would continue and rape me. But I thought because he didn’t rape me, it wasn’t an assault. I don’t understand why I didn’t make more noise, why I was so worried someone other than him would hear me, why I didn’t put up a fight, why I couldn’t speak up; I had never felt so weak or so small. After he had grabbed my neck to force me to kiss him and I refused to participate, he finally stopped. I literally crawled to my bed on the pullout couch and curled into the cushions without a sound. I didn’t want him to hear me cry. He slept on the floor next to my bed the entire night and I wouldn’t allow myself to fall asleep.
This is my secret. You are the only person who knows other than me. (I’m sorry to put that on you, maybe the anonymity and your readers have given me a safe place. I’ve never spoken these words out loud. Somehow writing them seems easier.) Since this realization, I’m finding myself angry, and I’m finding myself reliving that hour whenever I see large men with dark hair. I check ahead on movies to see if there are rape scenes because I find them disturbing, and it takes days or weeks to stop thinking about them. Before #MeToo, I was blissfully ignorant; in fact, I had completely pushed the memory out of my mind altogether—it was just forgotten to me, with the exception of some rare occasions (and I feel gutted saying this) that my partner reminds me of him. Not in personality or demeanor, but in stature, in skin tone, in hair color. I’ve hid this from him for more than a decade, and it’s breaking my heart. I want to tell him, but honestly, I can’t bring myself to even begin, let alone tell him what happened. We live in a small town; he knows my assaulter, though they are not friends directly. My partner is fiercely protective of my well-being (like any partner would be) and I know this would rip open his heart. The night it happened, he was partying with his own friends while I was with mine, and I know him well enough to understand how much this would hurt him, how he may blame himself for not being there (though that is not his fault or responsibility), so I have chosen to say nothing to protect him.
It’s eating me up inside. Keeping this from him makes me feel dishonest. I’m afraid to hurt him. I’m afraid he would be angry at me for not coming forward to him as if I can’t trust him. I’m afraid to disrupt our peace and our love. Some part of me for some reason is afraid he won’t believe me, and I’m unsure why. Is it worth disrupting 16 years of a wonderful, loving relationship to tell him this one thing? I feel like if I say it out loud there is no going back. I know I DO NOT want to tell him the name of the man who assaulted me—he would most certainly ask, and I don’t want to tell him or live with another lie—we run in the same circle of friends occasionally. I can’t demand of him to not confront him. I can’t ask him to just forget about it the way I had once done. He would feel utterly betrayed by this person, and I don’t want to be the one to break his heart. I guess I’m not really sure what to do.
I admire not just your strength but your ability to convey in a relatively small amount of words the enormous burden abuse can produce on one’s life. You see, it has a radiating effect. There’s the actual cruelty of the moment, and then there are the years of trauma that result. Even more unfairly taxing are these ethical questions of how to share your story after the fact, as a sensitive, lionhearted partner’s reaction may create complications on top of the undue complications you’re already working through. It just isn’t fair, and I really wish I could “I’m sorry” the pain away, that somehow with my words alone alleviate the great weight you carry as a result of your assault. I know they won’t.
The way I see this is that you have no obligation to do anything beyond your comfort level here. This situation was foisted upon you; you get to control the rest to the best of your ability. I believe you can share a version of this story with your partner that is vague enough to convey your trauma without risking the further complications of identifying information. If he is as compassionate as you believe him to be, he will respect your right to only tell him as much as you’re comfortable with. You don’t have to name a time or place or your assaulter. It might make for an unsatisfying narrative, but that is not the point; it’s to get things off your chest and let your partner in.
I realize this still may seem too daunting. In that case, you may want to consider some sort of counseling that could help you come to terms with your trauma. That may make sharing it with your partner easier. If in the telling of this story you find him asking for details that you aren’t willing to give, just tell him that you’re not ready to talk about certain things. This process may not seem intuitive to someone who hasn’t been through it, but he’ll need to trust that you’re doing the best you can and that this is what your healing process looks like.
By the way, please don’t be angry with yourself over your response to your assault. When faced with danger, people often shift into a sort of autopilot in which one of three natural responses occurs: fight, flight, or freeze. You froze. It was an automatic response that transcends rational thinking. The notion of “should have” is irrelevant regarding such a response—it is all “was.” Your body did the best it could do in reaction to a threat. Keep that in mind moving forward, and continue to just do your best.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a woman in my mid-20s. I am generally attracted to older men but have been trying to move away from that. Last year (pre-pandemic), I was at a bar and met a cute guy who looked to be about my age. Both of us wanted a purely no-strings situation and ended up going back to my place and sleeping together. The sex was decent so we kept occasionally hooking up at my place when he had time. I eventually discovered, however, that he is a student in high school. He was actually 17 years old. Thankfully our “relationship” was legal so I’m not in any sort of trouble, but I was so grossed out. I didn’t even think I needed to worry about the age thing since I was in a very clearly 21+ bar. Well: Recently, I met another guy on a dating app who suggested we meet at a different bar. He looked younger than I expected in person. He was 17. I only noticed because I saw his school ID and real license when he pulled out his wallet to get the fake one. How can I make sure the people I’m sleeping with are over 18? I thought for sure a bar would be safe. These guys made up fake jobs and fake roommate troubles and I was seriously swindled both times. It was so, so awkward asking to see the second guy’s real license. I don’t want to have to do that every time, but I feel like some sort of creepy predator!
Dear Mrs. Robinson,
Good for you: You’ve spotted an issue and already have also solved it. The way that you determine whether young-looking guys are of age is by looking at officially issued identification. It’s awkward, but the guilt you felt when you didn’t do that was worse. And in fact, the awkwardness in the second instance paid off because it prevented you from having sex that you would have felt weird about.
You are not a creepy predator, but while I hate to tell you this, you will have to perform some sort of reconnaissance along these lines to keep your conscience clear. The unfortunate fact of the matter is that in casual settings, some people lie in order to get laid. A degree of suspicion and willingness to investigate in order to confirm or deny your intuition is healthy, no matter how much it sucks to put it into action.
Dear How to Do It,
My wife and I have been married for almost two decades. In that time, we spent a great portion of our marriage in a loveless/intimacy-less dry spell. During that period, I had an affair, which ultimately came to light and nearly separated us, but we reconciled. For almost two years now, things have been much better between the two of us, except our sex life. It’s still MIA. I’ve broached the subject many times, but my wife now thinks I’m a “horndog” just for trying to talk about it, or for thinking we could have a normal life. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t even try to initiate anymore because I know I’ll get rejected. What should I do?
Dear Cold Shoulder,
I believe that by holding on to the standard absolute monogamy, we as a culture are setting ourselves up to fail. But whether by social conditioning or internal forces that are more mysterious, people feel how they feel, and your affair may have indelibly colored your entire relationship with your wife. You had troubles before, yes, but you could start here by accepting that behavior has consequences. Your wife now may not be able to unsee your betrayal, and is turned off for good.
Certainly, it didn’t help whatever issues were existent at the time it happened. Many long-term couples find themselves in sexless (or something damn near close to that) relationships, and there are a variety of reasons for this that Esther Perel explores in Mating in Captivity. Unfortunately, sex doesn’t always come natural to even the most connected long-term couples (in fact, that connection may ultimately obstruct the ability to eroticize one’s partner). Work is necessary. What kind were you putting in prior to your cheating? Is seeing a counselor something you and your wife would be open to? If we imagine that things stay as sexless as they are, can you handle it? Is the relationship giving you enough in other areas that you can sacrifice sex for the sake of preserving the whole? Or is it time to think about separation so that you can pursue sexual fulfillment? There are no easy answers, so it’s time for you to start figuring them out.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a 40-year-old divorced straight man. I have been dating since the divorce and have had a few sexual partners, but nothing serious. Once the pandemic set in, my sexual activity declined significantly since I didn’t really have anyone in my bubble, but I did reconnect with a female friend in a similar situation, and we have had sex maybe once a month in the past year. This isn’t really enough for me, so I have turned to online outlets including porn and sexting with online friends. I’ve learned one of the biggest parts of sexting is sending sexy pics or videos or doing video chat. I have had challenges with this because I find myself unable to achieve a full erection that would create a photo or video I’d be proud to send. I am above average in size and can easily get a full hard erection when physically present with a woman, but I can’t seem to do so when by myself or interacting with a partner online, so I end up losing partners because I look small and not aroused. I have tried to research this issue but what I have found is that in general porn and online activities can cause erectile dysfunction with a partner, and I seem to have the opposite problem. Would appreciate any advice here.
I don’t mean to alarm you, but your situation is unusual. In fact, it’s “very unusual,” according to Tobias Kohler, professor of urology and the head of Mayo Clinic Men’s Health in Rochester, Minnesota. As you acknowledge, situational—or episodic, as it’s also called—E.D. usually flows in the other direction. It’s far more common for people to have difficulty achieving or maintaining an erection in the presence of a partner than when they’re alone. Kohler told me via phone this often has to do with performance anxiety or idiosyncratic masturbatory technique, when someone becomes so conditioned to their way of masturbating that partnered sex just can’t push the same buttons.
Kohler said that he’d refer someone in your situation to a sex therapist. “What is it about sex by him that’s different from sex with a partner?” he wondered. “Maybe it’s some guilt or shame affiliated with masturbation because of a religious background or something. There’s almost always something to that when there’s a true difference.” I have to wonder what you relationship to masturbation is like and why. Plenty of guys with situational E.D. that is inverse to what you experience would love to trade with you, but still, you’d probably benefit from an assisted investigation into your self-sex life—or lack thereof.
Kohler said you also have the option of a nighttime testing, in which the frequency and durations of nocturnal erections would be measured (to compare against an average), though he said when he performs these tests on guys reporting situational E.D., the results are almost always normal physiologically. Interestingly, though, Kohler told me that labeling erection issues as only “psychological” or “physiological” amounts to splitting hairs. Psychological underpinnings to E.D. still result in less blood flow to the penis, so ultimately, it’s the same result. Except for a few extreme cases, you don’t have physiology without psychology, and both are interconnected. This is why E.D. drugs can actually work as anti-anxiety medications: Just knowing that the drug is in one’s system can alleviate the performance anxiety that made the drug seemingly necessary in the first place.
So talk to someone. You also could snap a pic of your boner next time you’re in the presence of someone who has you aroused. Call a timeout and asks if she minds if you take a picture of yourself because you are proud of how hard your dick is. You risk judgment, of course, as this would be unorthodox (though not unheard of), and it might be awkward enough to kill the mood, but at least you’d get your shot.
More How to Do It
I’m having a wonderful affair with a man. We’re both married, but we’re careful and responsible—it’s what we both need to survive in our marriages, and it’s what’s best for both of us. The problem is COVID. Our spouses and kids are both home full time, and getting away to see each other has been impossible. I’m miserable without the sex and companionship, and so is the man I’m seeing. At one point, he suggested meeting in our cars by the grocery store. Then today, he called me and said to go to my window and waved to me from his car.