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 been dating a guy for more than a year. At the beginning, we said that we would wait a year before we talked about him meeting my kids or any real talk about the future. We had an amazing sex life. Never tired of one another; he gets an instant erection by just being near me. The sex is hot to say the least, and both of us have said that it is the best sex of our lives. I’m five years older than he is, but we had some kinky sex talk where I called him daddy and he called me his good girl, etc.
Well, we broke up a few months ago after finally having the future talk, because our idea of the future just doesn’t mesh right now. We had a hell of a time leaving each other alone though. We ended up telling each other that we had fallen in love, but we’re too scared to say it when together. We are still sleeping with each other and talking more now, not only as often as when we were dating but even more. The last time we slept together, he said, “Tell daddy you love him” during sex. I said it, and then he said it back to me. Two weeks go by, and we haven’t said it again. I wondered if was this just pillow talk. It was never part of the verbiage before. Or was he saying he loved me? We slept together again last night, and he again said, “tell me you love me” and I said it, while he was coming. He did not say it back this time. I’m very confused because right now, I don’t want to do anything to rock the boat. I would like to work things out, but he has an anxiety disorder and I fear that starting again on him about the future is just going to put us back at square one. But I want to know if he is saying and feeling it for real. If it is “pillow talk,” then I feel like it is not appropriate, because I do in fact love him and it would be feeding me like false hope. I’m stuck between being OK with it just being a friend with benefits and still wanting the relationship aspect. How common is it to say “I love you” but in the context of the “daddy” thing during sex? And starting 16 months into a relationship?
—Too Old to Be This Confused
It’s unwise to invest much stock in an “I love you” that only comes during sex. Being swept up in the act and the dopamine that comes with it can make for unreliable narrators. It’s not that people don’t mean it, exactly, it’s that they may be describing something fleeting felt in that moment that doesn’t necessarily represent how they feel when they aren’t on a sex high. Few have summed up this phenomenon as bittersweetly (and politely) as Carole King and Gerry Goffin did in their composition made famous by the Shirelles, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”: For you, this guy has proven that he’ll still be Daddy tomorrow, depending on when and what you’re doing with him.
Your “I love you” situation, however, is a bit more nuanced than the garden-variety “someone said something surprising during sex” scenario. You and this guy have already discussed being in love with each other. To me, the difference between telling someone you’re in love with them versus saying “I love you” frequently seems like an idiosyncratic linguistic quandary. I’d argue that verbalizing the former is more momentous than reciting the latter, but different people have different relationships with this. It could very well be that while “I love you” has deep emotional meaning to you, there’s something about those words that your partner is eroticizing. Being that you’ve already discussed being in love and both have said “I love you” during sex, it’s completely reasonable to talk about this. The ice is broken. I can’t tell you if he was being “for real,” and he should be made aware if he isn’t already that those words are too emotionally intense for you to hear in a tossed off, unserious context. Whether he’s conscious of it or not, he’s verging on emotional-manipulation territory, and that deserves to be brought to his attention.
The bigger issue here is whether you’d be OK with him telling you, “Actually, I was just saying that because I was caught up in the moment,” or writing such talk off as role play. Something tells you wouldn’t be OK with that, and that by accepting that answer, you’d be keeping yourself in a state of emotional limbo. Bad idea. You should break this off if he’s not going to give you what you’re looking for.
Dear How to Do It,
My boyfriend and I both in our mid-20s. Over the past several months, I have developed an intense claustrophobia during sex. This is odd because I don’t normally have claustrophobia in my day-to-day life—I endured crowded train cars and elevators with ease before the pandemic, and I don’t really have any history of anxiety or depression. The way it usually goes is that we will start having sex, and at some point in the middle of our session, I will break into a cold sweat, get nauseous and tense, and the sensation of my boyfriend’s body touching mine becomes almost unbearable. This stops sex dead in its tracks. This has become confusing and distressing for both of us. I love my boyfriend and still want to have sex with him, but I dread the feeling of claustrophobia interrupting us. The frequency of our sex has dropped from multiple times a week to maybe once every two weeks. We have tried lots of different positions, lengthened the amount of foreplay, and attempted multiple relaxation techniques leading up to sex. Nothing seems to have worked to alleviate my reaction. While my boyfriend has been understanding and patient, I can tell he is feeling discouraged too. This problem is exacerbated because we both take a long time to get off, which makes staving off the claustrophobia more challenging. Have you heard about this happening to anyone else? Any advice for how to overcome this roadblock?
—Two’s a Crowd
While discussing your letter with psychotherapist and writer Vanessa Marin, who specializes in sex therapy, there seemed to be a few possibilities. One is related to the past year we’ve all had: “I’m seeing a big disconnect between people recognizing, ‘Yeah, this is a very stressful year, a lot is going on,’ but also experiencing other mental health issues and not giving themselves the kindness, compassion, and grace to say, ‘Yeah, this is coming up for me, too,’” Marin said. Let’s not forget we’re still living though a pandemic and that “back to normal” has yet to arrive. That may manifest in your sex life in a surprising way.
You didn’t mention a history of sexual abuse, so this very well may not apply, but we also wondered if that might be a factor. Martin mentioned an important point: Some people who have experienced sexual abuse downplay it. As Marin explained: “A lot of people think, ‘Other people have had it way worse than I did,’ or, ‘This happened so long ago, I’m over it,’ or, ‘It wasn’t with this partner; I trust this partner.’” If you had a traumatic incident in your past and think it isn’t affecting you, you might want to think again, and possibly with the help of someone who has a background in treating trauma, like a sex therapist.
In any case, Marin said that sex can trigger anxiety for a number of reasons. Not all of them may be legible. “There might not be a crystal-clear reason that makes a lot of sense, but the task for you now is to really honor and acknowledge the reaction that’s coming up for you,” she said.
Marin said that by stopping sex instead of trying to push through discomfort, you’re doing the right thing. She suggested that to start working through this issue, you should attempt to determine the very first sign of the onset of the reaction you described. Is there a triggering pattern in terms of what’s happening sexually? And what does the earliest reaction look like? Are you holding your breath? Is your heart rate climbing? Do you feel uncomfortable when touched? Marin said you can take these markers as a signal to be gentle with yourself. “It makes sense to be judging yourself, to be super frustrated—that’s OK,” she explained. “But can she also get really gentle with herself and ask, ‘What is it that I need right now?’ And see what kind of response comes up in that moment.” It may require work to determine the source of your anxiety, if that’s even possible; be as kind to yourself as possible in the process.
Dear How to Do It,
I’ve been with my fiancé for four years. We’re spectacular partners. We came to the relationship with a similar amount of sexual experience, and we both had well-developed kinks and preferences that seemed to align perfectly. I’m a sub-leaning switch and a heavy masochist. He’s a dom-leaning switch and was amazing at loving, consensual sadism. The level of pain that I enjoy has scared off partners in the past, or has led me to stay in toxic sexual relationships because that S/M dynamic was so elusive. My fiancé immediately proved himself up to the task while still making me feel safe and empowered. It was a huge part of why I fell in love with him. Our sex was dynamic, playful, adventurous, and transcendent.
We moved in together after a year, and dealt with occasional stints of mismatched sex drives, but overall our sex life stayed playful and exciting. We held off on jumping back into our heavy S/M scenes because our new neighborhood was much quieter than our last. We still shared fantasies, watched porn, used toys, explored other taboo kinks, etc., but the pain part never came back. And then slowly the rest of the kink disappeared, too, until I looked up and realized that we’ve only been having vanilla sex for the past year. We’ve always had good vanilla sex, and frequency isn’t an issue, so it didn’t really register as a problem right away. I’ve become less interested in sex during this time, but chalked it up to normal fluctuations in drive. It’s harder for me to get wet during foreplay, but I chalked that up to normal aging and hormonal changes. But when I pull back and look at the whole, I realize that my vibrant, expansive sexual identity has been shrunk down to a fraction of what it used to be, and I’m not satisfied.
I brought it up with him and he acknowledges the change, but seems to have less of a problem with it than I do. He’s taking some time to interrogate his own sexuality and how it changed after we moved in together. It seems as though he just has a much harder time degrading me or causing me pain now that I’m a domestic partner and soon-to-be wife. But that’s the nexus of my sexual life. I consider masochism a part of my inherent sexual orientation, and was very clear about that from the rip. I know that I can’t ask him to be a sadist if he’s not 100 percent in it anymore, but I can’t shake this feeling of a bait-and-switch. There are complicating factors to our working on this actively right now (completely opposite work schedules and wedding planning), but I’m afraid that if we don’t find common footing again soon, then it’s going to be a death knell for my kink identity. We want to have kids soon, and I feel like his hesitation to hurt me will become insurmountable once he also sees me as a mother. Do you have any advice on how to bridge this gap?
As specific as the kink element is to your particular dynamic, what your question reads like to me is a classic case of familiarity breeding disinterest. It’s what Esther Perel’s Mating in Captivity (a book I cite frequently in this column) is all about. Intimacy and eroticism are often at odds, and Perel’s prescription involves attempting to look at your partner through strange eyes. Reclaim the mystery. Take your sex out of your shared bedroom and into a different environment, like a hotel room. She has many suggestions. Maybe with new intrigue, old desires will come back for him.
The bait and switch you suspect is certainly possible, but you have to view that scenario within the whole of your fiancé’s personality. Is he the kind of person who does whatever to get what he wants? Is he generally deceptive? Do you notice him saying one thing and doing another in other contexts? I’m going to assume no; otherwise, why would you be planning to marry this guy? If it’s appropriate to extend to him the benefit of the doubt, do so—moving in with people often changes how you relate to them, and this can manifest in your sex life.
I think you should also figure out whether you’re being too hung up on principle over practicality. Your own sexuality can change over time. You enjoyed vanilla sex with your fiancé to the extent that you didn’t even initially realize kink had gone missing. Are you holding on to a you that you used to be? Identity’s slipperiness makes this a hard question to answer, and I don’t mean to dismiss your concerns—it very well could be the S/M is a fundamental need. If you’re determined to continue to play out your masochistic side that your partner isn’t going to engage with, maybe that’s a dealbreaker, or maybe you can compromise with an open arrangement that would allow for such play with another person (or people). Few partners can give us everything we need. You can see this as a wall to hit, or a challenge to overcome.
Dear How to Do It,
My partner recently came out as nonbinary. For the first many years together, they presented as male, and that’s how I saw them as I fell and grew in love with them. I was glad to be beside them as they came out to friends and family, and am extremely intentional about using correct pronouns. I can’t imagine the struggle of trying to force themself to be a certain way for their entire life, and am happy to help them discover and express their true self.
The problem is that it has shifted things sexually for me. Since they came out, they’ve started experimenting with their physical gender expression, and I’ve had … an extremely hard time with sexual attraction. They’ve grown their hair long, started shaving religiously to avoid any beard stubble, and begun buying “women’s” tops (they are fairly unisex style, but I notice the change in fit and style). Though they’ve never been a super traditionally “masculine” person, I’m realizing there were several things about their more masculine identity—their beard/stubble that they frequently had, their more stereotypically male haircuts—that were more important physically to me than I realized when they first came out. It feels like for me our relationship shifted from a romantic/sexual one to a best friendship that I also can’t imagine living without almost overnight. I don’t feel averse or negative about sex, but lately I just don’t find myself feeling horny or turned on by them the way I used to.
I’ve always been more of the “instigator” in our relationship, which means in the past few months, our sex life has dropped radically since they came out (maybe once a week). I don’t want to hamper any of their gender expression exploration by communicating what I don’t find as attractive, but I also don’t know how to respect my own sexuality in this process. I’ve always identified as a cisgender straight woman, and I’m struggling squaring that identity with a relationship with a newly more “feminine” nonbinary person. I expressed these concerns once, and they said they felt rejected and that I was putting myself in a self-fulfilling prophecy by thinking I might be hung up on this. We’re getting married soon, and I feel a lot of pressure to rush through this processing. Do you have any advice?
This is a true test, and I’m not even sure what passing it even looks like. How does one honor their partner’s right to be who they are with one’s own desire when the two factors start to appear disjointed? At once I want to affirm your partner’s coming out, remind you that you are not obligated to have sex that you don’t want to have, and acknowledge how difficult this must be for you. Your partner is going through a major life change and needs all the support that you can give them, but so are you, and you need your own support. At the very least, please try extend the patience and compassion to yourself, in addition to your partner.
There’s limited data on the subject of couples that stay together after one comes out as trans or nonbinary, or otherwise transitions. A 2011 report released by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 55 percent of respondents who transitioned said that their romantic relationships ended, though this number varied with age. (People who transitioned between 18 and 24 were more likely to have remained with their partners than those who had transitioned between the ages of 45 and 54, for example.)
This finding is in line with the experience of Casey Weitzman, the founder and director of Gender Wellness of Los Angeles. Weitzman has been counseling people on gender identity and sexuality for nearly 30 years. She told me on the phone that it’s been “rare” for the couples she counsels to stay together after one transitions. “The younger generation has a far better chance,” she said. These couples may often still love each other, but simply find themselves no longer compatible.
Weitzman said she would encourage you to interrogate your own sexuality. “Ask yourself this question: Did you have fluidity in your sexuality before you met your partner? If you were bisexual or polyamorous or had some of that [fluidity], I feel like these couples have a much better chance,” she told me. She warned against making any major life decisions before sorting this out.
Your partner is as entitled to their feelings as you are to yours, but neither Weitzman nor I particularly liked the reaction your concerns received. It’s hard to assess from a pithy recap, but it seems like your own feelings might have been minimized. That’s never going to be an effective strategy. Your partner may require more of your collective energy at the moment, but you will also need tending to. That said, your partner wasn’t necessarily off base regarding a self-fulfilling prophecy, if only because staying positive is important. Weitzman told me that when she sees couples who are going through what you are, she recommends taking at least six weeks to put in work while doing their best not to say the words “divorce” or “breakup.” The initial emphasis is on staying together, and rightly so.
A successful relationship will leave room for both partners’ needs to be met. This is a learning process in many ways for you and your partner, which means it may take a while to address both parties’ experiences. Try to stay optimistic as you figure out whether you can do this. Sexuality can evolve over time, but forced evolution is generally doomed. Weitzman recommended seeing a therapist on your own, and perhaps finding a support group for people with trans/nonbinary partners—you can Google around for something local or find something online that serves a wider community. Good luck.
More How to Do It
An update from the writer of a letter last year about he might be falling in love with his best friend after his wife’s sudden death—except his best friend is also a man.
I wrote to you about my friend “Jack” under the name “A Little Gay” last year. After he helped me out after my wife’s sudden death, I worried I was falling in love with him. I want to thank you for the encouragement to go for it. You helped convince me I would regret never giving it a shot, and it turned out I wasn’t the only one who was having feelings. We still nearly managed to completely screw things up by not talking to each other as stuff got increasingly weird between us for a bit. But then we finally just had an honest conversation, and Jack told me he’s been legit in love with me for almost the past three years.
Jack had said nothing before because he thought I was straight, he never wanted to be “that asshole” taking advantage of me in my grief, and I hadn’t seemed ready to get into a new relationship until recently. Then, when I started acting weird toward him in the past year or so, he thought he was just imagining what he wanted to see. Even after he had been more sure he wasn’t making it up, he had wanted me to be the one to initiate anything. It was clear he was worried about me feeling taken advantage of, or pressured into something, then reacting badly.
I also found out Jack’s sexual experience with men was more extensive than he had previously ever let on to me. I was a little stunned to hear he has been messing around with far more guys than I realized since guys were “very easy” to connect with for no-strings sex compared to women. In the past, Jack described himself having this strict dividing line, with guys being for no-strings fun, women being for relationships as well as fun. That has changed with me, he made clear. He did want a full-on relationship with me. He was willing to be monogamous, as he assumed (correctly) I would want a traditional, exclusive relationship. He promised I could set the pace sex-wise, since he understood that physical intimacy with a guy might be intimidating.
We took a breather for a couple of days after talking everything over. That was about the only concession to going slow we ended up making. Now that we’re together, things have gotten pretty serious fast. We’ve been together about three months at this point, but already we are sharing a household, and talking long-term future plans. He is the most rock-solid guy I’ve known, my kids are good with the new status quo, and it’s not like he’s new to my life (we’ve been friends going on 14 years). It feels natural to be having these conversations.
Maybe we’re going unwisely fast, but the way I feel about him is so strong it’s hard to put into words, and he gives every indication of feeling similarly strongly about me. I don’t know if I could fall in love with some other guy or not. But I’m now very sure I’m in love with this one, and I feel like I wasted so much time already worrying about labels that don’t matter. He has been very patient about the physical side of things. I’ve appreciated that.
Most of the important people in my life (my in-laws, most of my friends) are happy for me. The folks whose opinions truly matter to him have also been great about me and my kids becoming a bigger part of his life, and completely welcoming. My parents did take it badly, which I was bracing myself for. We are not currently speaking. They want me and Jack’s relationship to fail, and have been consistently awful to him. I’m very done with my parent’s BS about Jack being some “predator” when he’s such a decent, wonderful guy. He was there for me when I needed someone most, honestly far more than they were. I do feel bad for my kids over everything going on with my parents. The older two are angry, sad, and hurt, because they’re old enough to understand my parents are being prejudiced. My youngest is just baffled. But I was in such a dark place right after my wife died. Sometimes I could not imagine being happy again, but I am now. I love my guy. There is no way I’m giving him up.
—A Little Gay, Definitely