How to Do It

I’m Terrified of Everyone Knowing My Sexual Business

How do I live my life without becoming the talk of the town?

Man thinking next to neon open sign.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by taa22/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,

My partner and I have been in an open relationship since we first started seeing each other over 10 years ago. We are now married, and it’s been a few years since either of us has had a fling with someone new. We’re both still open to the idea, though—and for me anyway, the last year of isolation has made me really want to get back out there (after I’m vaccinated, of course, and things start getting back to normal). Recently, I made a career switch that may open up some new options for me, as I travel and meet new people, but I’m worried about exactly how to disclose to new acquaintances that my marriage is open. I don’t want to creep people out or make them feel like I’ve been dishonest with them about my relationship status up until that point, but I also don’t want to be the subject of gossip, and I’m uncomfortable putting my business fully “out there” for everyone to know—I just want the right people to know that I’m available, when the time is right. Do you have any tips for how to navigate this situation?

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— Open for Business

Dear Open,

The complicated thing about getting what you want is that it often involves having to run said desire by other people. When I think about the in-depth disclosure I’ve taken part in and received from total strangers on hook-up apps, I cringe. And then, inevitably, I share myself with strangers all over again. I don’t believe open communication is possible without the risk of its contents leaking. Nobody wants to be the subject of derisive gossip, but you know what really helped me? When Tyra Banks told America’s Next Top Model cycle three contestant Norelle, “Everybody talks about everybody.” Understanding that judgment for being who you are is, if not inevitable, highly probable at least at some point and then keeping on keeping on is its own sort of liberation. I also have an uncanny knack for compartmentalizing my attention to the point of dissociation, but that’s a story for another time.

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What I’m getting at should be clear: I think you should let go and do you. You don’t have to preface flirtation with your life story, but if you see a conversation pointing in the direction of the bedroom, your marital status is probably worth mentioning early on. Or you can just wait until after. I don’t really think you need to provide casual partners with a detailed biography. If the sex you’re having is recreational and basically anonymous, too much information starts to threaten the point of said configuration.

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Sex makes us vulnerable. Being open to receiving pleasure often means being open to judgment. Having sex with strangers means you will be seeing people you don’t know up very close and they’ll be seeing you, too. The price you pay for the fun is that people carry the experience with them and may talk about it. I think the best way to fortify yourself against that is to know that there’s nothing wrong with you or your way of life. And also, it’s 2021.
An open relationship is hardly as scandalizing to anyone with a good sense of the wide array of sexual variation. Depending on your partners, your revelation simply may not be novel or interesting enough to provide gossip fodder.

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Dear How to Do It,

My husband and I have been together for 15 years, and for the most part our sex life has been pretty good. Its actually gotten better in the last couple of years. But for the past year hes been taking antidepressants (SSRIs) for severe anxiety, and they have tanked his sex drive. I am truly happy that he’s on this drug. He is so much happier and less stressed, and I know it has a positive effect on his life and our relationship in general. I love him deeply and have no interest in leaving him or opening our marriage, and I’m perfectly capable of taking care of my own sexual needs alone when he’s not interested.

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But the thing is, I miss him. I miss being intimate with him. I miss feeling more connected. I miss feeling desired. We’ve talked about how the SSRIs are affecting our relationship a few times, and I know he’s not happy with it either, but coming off his meds doesn’t work. He tried and his anxiety spiked within four weeks. He has talked to his doctor and is switching to a new medicine, but the doctor was very clear that suppressed sexual desire is a common side effect of all SSRIs. I wish that understanding the reasons for the change in his sex drive alleviated my feelings of rejection, but I find myself feeling sadder and lonelier as time goes on. So I’m writing looking for advice or suggestions on how to increase intimacy in a relationship with dramatically less sex. There have to be other ways of spending intimate time together that are not inherently sexual, but I’ve really been coming up short when I try to think of ways we can connect that would fill the void left by his meds. Watching TV together, having family time, or just hanging out don’t seem to be enough.

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—Missing My Partner

Dear Missing,

Firstly, I would discuss bupropion with his doctor. There is some clinical evidence that augmenting SSRI use with bupropion can help alleviate sexual side effects. This may not be appropriate for your husband specifically, nor may it even work if it is, but in case your doctor hasn’t considered it, it’s at least worth a conversation.

But let’s say that medically, things remain as they are, as you seem resigned to believe they will. What does intimacy look like? I think you could start with the very basic cultural template of “romance” and do pretty well: dimly lit dinners, love letters, walks holding hands, thoughtful gifts. Philosophical conversations about life can be extremely rewarding. Something as simple as grocery shopping together (under nonstressful circumstances) can give you the feeling that you just built something together (your menu for the next week is not nothing). Read a book at the same time and discuss it periodically, your own two-person book club. Do something active like working out together, or something as inactive as possible that still counts as activity, like playing miniature golf. It really depends on your individual tastes and how they interact, as much of your leisure time likely has. Really, I think it’s a matter of making an actual effort, and if your version of intimacy is watching TV, family time, and just hanging out, you aren’t making a specific effort. I’m wondering if it’s a bad sign, in fact, that you haven’t been able to devise your own intimacy alternatives, but I’m willing to believe that familial and other obligations have prevented you from thinking much about it. Well, now is the time to do so.

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Will anything you come up with replace actual sex? Unlikely. You could up your nonsexual contact to include cuddling and hugging, if you are both interested, but you aren’t likely to find something that replaces sex so perfectly as to ameliorate your longing for it. If this were possible, we’d have gotten more done as a species by now. The objective is to make the time you spend together of high quality, and the way to start doing that is by being intentional.

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Dear How to Do It,

I am a 25-year-old man going out with my 25-year-old girlfriend for almost two years now. We are very much in love, and I can’t see myself marrying anyone but her. The only problem is the sex; I am terrible. We had an open chat about it, and she opened up and told me she has always thought the sex was terrible and now doesn’t want to have unfulfilled sex and would rather not have sex in the first place. I’ve been very self-conscious about my body as I have a bigger frame and don’t know what to do. We’ve tried different locations, positions, etc. I am not experienced at all and my girlfriend told me I am like an awkward disjointed overthinking robot. I think Im not comfortable but I don’t know. I really need help. I think she will leave me if this continues.

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— Inexperienced

Dear Inexperienced,

Your girlfriend does not seem to be speaking to you in a compassionate manner, which is, no offense, something a robot would do. I can’t tell if she’s entirely insensitive or you’re just painting her in that light, but either way, this warrants more discussion. What exactly does she consider good sex, and how are you falling short? Is pleasing her theoretically possible for you if you were to do more of this or last longer doing that? Or is this a case of basic incompatibility, because you somehow fall short of what she considers sexy? More clarity is needed to assess your situation. One problem might be that you haven’t been open to this kind of feedback—have you been paying attention thus far? Another reason she might be insensitive is from sheer frustration at your inability to listen. I wonder if that’s the case, or if, through no fault of your own, sex with this person is necessarily the mystery that the vague phrasing of your letter suggests.

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You are better off with a partner who understands your self-consciousness and doesn’t contribute to it. Anxiety only gets worse when met with impatience and a lack of understanding. If you feel that a breakup is imminent, you can lay all of this out. Ask her if she’ll teach you what she considers to be good sex. Show her that you’re willing to improve by her standard. Also understand that what a lot of people deem “bad” is merely not for them. You aren’t doomed; you just might be mismatched. Communication can overcome a lot of hurdles in bed. Make sure you’re holding up your end of that and you’re halfway there.

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Dear How to Do It,

For a little over a year I have been seeing a close friend of mine. We connected at a wedding pre-pandemic and continued dating and seeing each other as his group house and our group house decided to pod together in July (to keep all of the poly family sane). When we made out at the wedding, we were both high on MDMA and ended up connecting in this really wonderful way. Afterward we decided to try dating. I am admittedly a little bit of a slut, and I have a number of other partners of many years. He was coming off of a long depression and a large weight gain which made him decide to become celibate for a few years. He wasn’t particularly experienced sexually or relationship-wise prior to the decision to be celibate. I have occasionally wondered if he was a virgin and just didn’t want to admit it (he’s told me he had dated people prior for very short periods of time).

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The making out was extremely passionate on both sides and that has generally continued—but we’ve never had intercourse. We’ve occasionally done some hand stuff and oral, sensation play, and toys—and when we do it’s really great. We’ve had a few discussions about libido differences and our desires. Prior to starting to date me he thought he might be asexual and aromantic. Over the last year, he’s reconsidered and he doesn’t think he is aromantic. We’ve said I love you to each other and on occasion expressed some intense feelings of love and mutual attraction. He doesn’t believe he is asexual either, and he says he greatly enjoys what we do together sexually and wants to have intercourse and even sometimes asks to do so. We’ve gotten close to intercourse a few times, but right at the moment of penetration he loses his erection. Sometimes there’s not enough lube, or a noise startles him or … I know he’s nervous but he seems too embarrassed to tell me why.

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Honestly as long as we’re enjoying ourselves, I don’t care if I come from this or that. I also don’t care if he comes inside me, on my face or my hand, or his own hand. I do care about his pleasure, and I enjoy giving him pleasure or even just watching him come. I don’t want to completely take intercourse off the table. (He’s quite anatomically blessed.) I want to help make him feel more comfortable, and I’ve expressed all this to him clearly. Recently we started doing hotel dates once a month because living in two group houses makes getting alone time together a bit difficult these days. The hotel dates are going marvelously, and he seems to get more and more confident each time (and closer to fucking me). But even in that environment, something about the exact moment before penetration just ends it all. What do you think is going on? Is there anything more I can say or do to help him feel more comfortable/confident?

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—Big Beautiful Nervous Cock

Dear B.B.N.C.,

I think he’s lacking proof of concept. There’s something about getting over the hump and down to humping that he’s finding very difficult. It might just take completing the act to show him that he can do it and, presto! Anxiety assuaged. I think you should just keep going at the pace that you are. Things are going “marvelously” and it seems like you’re working up to intercourse. Let him ease into it, as it were. Have fun where you are, and if you find yourself impatient after a period of time in which things haven’t progressed to ace-in-hole status, suggest a cock ring and/or E.D. meds. No pressure, just see what he says. He may still be discovering himself and you should give him space to do so. If he realizes he is aromantic/asexual, can you hang with that? Envisioning it ahead of time may allow you to get in front of any awkwardness upon revelation. But it sounds like you’re doing great, so keep at it.

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— Rich

More How to Do It

My girlfriend no longer wants to shave her armpits (hetero couple). I admitted this wasn’t my preference but recognized it was likely for bullshit reasons and she went ahead. We still screw with abandon. However, I also took this as an opportunity to stop trimming myself downstairs, because honestly it gets itchy and I was only doing it for her. She was fine at first, but now seems reluctant to give blow jobs because of the unintended floss. I want to leave it! Do you think this goes both ways, or is it totally different?

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