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’m a straight woman in my 20s, and I’m not interested in dating right now but still have sexual needs, so I have a rotation of “friends-with-benefits”–type guys. It took a while to weed out the guys who claimed they were cool with “no strings” but then suddenly wanted me to be their girlfriend. I finally have a good team—everyone knows about one another, no one gets jealous or attached, and it’s just fun.
Here’s the thing: Sometimes I like guys to get a bit rough in bed. Nothing major, and nothing I would call a “scene,” but I’d consider it very light BDSM. About 30 percent of the time I do this (with any of them), I get the “drop” afterward and get weirdly sad. I don’t feel guilty or have any negative views toward sex, so I don’t think it’s from that. I know from friends who are more into “the lifestyle” that aftercare is important to avoid the drop, but I don’t want to hang around afterward and cuddle or whatever. I try to be walking out the door before they’ve even gotten up to clean off. Part of the reason for this is because I’ve noticed in the past that when I have stuck around to talk or cuddle, guys tend to get more attached to me and I’d really like that to not be the case here.
Is there a way to do aftercare by myself? I’ve tried stuff like taking a bath or reading a book after I’ve gotten home, which was relaxing, but I still felt icky and melancholy.
Dear Aftercare Woes,
Aftercare seems to serve a few functions—easing transition, returning to equality, and soothing any uncomfortable feelings that result from the interaction. Also increasing bonding, but that’s the opposite of what you want. I’m thinking the transition component is part of what’s missing here, and that soothing discomfort is also in order.
Your motivation to get up and go before your partner develops squooshy feelings makes sense—cuddling produces oxytocin, which has been shown to encourage pair bonding in prairie voles. Humans are not small, adorable rodents, but we are mammals and have some other similarities that scientists find relevant. Furthermore, my anecdotal experience matches with yours. And it isn’t just our partners who might begin to feel attached. You don’t say why you aren’t interested in dating right now, but I imagine that feelings of attachment on your end are as unwanted as feelings of attachment from theirs.
I’d feel remiss if I didn’t mention that some sex-friends can also be cuddle-friends and talking-friends without becoming date- or romance-friends. There’s definitely a risk of slide, but every relationship requires maintenance to keep it headed in the direction that everyone wants to participate in.
The two self-care tactics you mention are passive. Let’s start in the other direction. On your next trip home after sex, walk vigorously. If there’s any complex, heavy beat music you like, play some in your earphones. Bite a lemon or chew strong mint gum. Do some high-energy breathing. Try a brisk shower when you get home instead of lounging in the bath. Soothing isn’t always soft. Conversely, if there are soft actions that help you when you’re in emotional distress from nonsexual events, each of those is worth trying.
As you find maneuvers that are helpful, make note—literal note, on a piece of paper or in your phone—and refer to your list when you’re feeling out of sorts. Choreograph your own grounding ritual with the pieces that work for you. As these steps become routine, you’ll develop a familiarity with them that can be useful in its own right.
Dear How to Do It,
I recently established a really great and loving relationship with an older widow lady. I’m an 85-year-old male and haven’t engaged in sex in more than two years, and I’ve had some difficulty achieving a complete erection. However, I’m knowledgeable and experienced enough to know how to pleasure a sexual partner.
Here’s my “problem”: When my lady friend comes to orgasm, she begins a total-body quiver, and she becomes exquisitely sensitive all over her body. Very light touch—even blowing my breath on her skin anywhere—she begs me to stop (which I do). She says she’s not in pain, but any touch or cuddle is “just too much.” This passes after what feels like a very long moment and then we can resume normal sexual play and activity. In the past with other women, during the recovery time immediately after she has shown she’s finished or tells me she’s come, I’ve stroked, kissed, cuddled, etc. while my partner catches her breath. This is different. I’m not sure what to do. When I ask her what I should do, she’s says it’s not my fault, and she has no suggestion other than don’t touch her for a while. She tells me that her orgasms are the most powerful she’s ever had, and the hypersensitivity thing is a new and unique experience (and she says she wants more of). I’m left feeling like an observer when I have the very strong urge to participate in the “cool down” or help to maintain her sexual arousal for the next round. I feel like I’ve hit a home run and then have been sent to the locker room while she rounds all the bases. Any ideas or suggestions?
—Is This a Problem?
If your widow resumes normal sexual activity after that very long-feeling moment passes, your participation is probably not needed to help maintain her sexual arousal. In fact, it sounds like your participation is counterproductive in that moment. Which leaves us with your desire to feel included and to have some action to take.
How does the role of observer feel? To use your baseball analogy, could you enjoy being the cheering crowd? The audience of one for the fruits of your erotic labor? What about verbalization? Would she be open to receiving descriptions of how beautiful she looks in that moment, or your awe at the power of her experience? If none of that feels useful, your suggestion to reframe the situation as a nonproblem might be your way forward.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a queer autistic person (they/them) in my 20s. I have, up until this point, identified as asexual. But in questioning my gender, I’ve also reevaluated my sexuality and come to the conclusion that what I’ve been chalking up to lack of attraction is actually just my sensory issues. The attraction is there! I just am very, very particular about how I like to be touched.
I would like to explore my sexuality, but it feels unfair to do so without explaining my limits to people. But I cannot know the limits until I find said limits! Being honest about the actual problem will probably get me a lot of “autistic people can’t consent” types, which I’m super not here for and probably best to weed that out early anyhow. I’ve tried to Google this. Everything I’ve been able to find is geared at cis, straight, autistic women (which is great—they need resources too) and seems primarily about pushing through sensory issues to please a cis, straight, nonautistic male partner (less great—in fact, kind of bad!). Do you know of any resources, preferably something accessible at a public library or free online, about having sex while queer and autistic? (And preferably from an assigned-female-at-birth point of view, but I’ll take anything.) It’s a lot to navigate, and even being able to read something from someone who’s been there would be nice. This must exist—I know way more queer autistic people than straight autistic people.
—Getting Started Is the Hardest Part
Dear Getting Started,
You’re correct that resources for having sex while queer and autistic are not as plentiful as they should be. (The Arc of King County sent me this large PDF that may be somewhat useful, but it tends toward heteronormative. This piece offers research-based advice, and the podcast Stim4Stim features two autistic hosts who regularly discuss sex and relationships.) Naming the problem—that other available resources largely encourage autistic people to push through uncomfortable experiences—is the first step. In a TEDx talk, Jolene Stockman mentions people who “honor our sensitivities, even though they don’t feel them.” Those are the people you’re looking for to give your vulnerability to and to share intimacy with. There will be other people who don’t get it, won’t get it, or generally act like jerks. Move along when you encounter them, and hold on to the people who treat you as an individual human worthy of kindness, understanding, and respect.
Sensory processing can be a challenge for lots of people, including nonautistics. Disclosing that you’re autistic is completely up to you—you don’t owe anyone a full accounting of your neurodiversity—and if you do decide to disclose, an explanation of what that means for you or how you are affected is still crucial. No two autists are alike, so you’ll need to give details about the specific needs that you have. That said, especially if we’re talking about someone you want to be close with, sharing that you’re autistic can help them understand the reality and significance of your experiences and give them something to research on their own time.
To learn through experience, yes, you’ll want to try things eventually. You might find that something you’re curious about isn’t OK for you halfway through. You can always decide to disengage if that happens. You might start with “I’m curious about partnered sex and want to explore it,” or “I don’t know what I like sexually and am excited to find out.” Neurotypical people can sometimes struggle to understand the experiences of people different than them and frequently require reminders.
In your position, I’d be saying, “OK, but how?” Start slow, and make clear to potential partners you will want careful discussion before any touching happens. Think about what you want to try, then tell partners how you want to proceed. And when the time comes for feedback, be direct. I’ll give some examples from my own life that I’ve used to communicate what I need: “It’s really lovely that you want to take me out to dinner, but I’m not up to the stress of trying to parse your speech into meaningful words against the background noise of a restaurant, so can we order takeout instead?” “Remember how I told you what light touch feels like for me right now? I think you’re trying to express affection, but the way you’re touching me is uncomfortable. Please use firm touch.” Sometimes people take these statements and requests as a rejection. That’s an indication that we aren’t a good fit for each other. It’s crucial for me to remember that I can remove myself from the situation if my needs and boundaries are being ignored, because that does happen despite my best efforts to communicate them.
You didn’t mention shutdowns. If they’re a thing you experience, you’ll need to tell potential partners before you begin any activity that might lead to one. Like with sensory processing differences, you’ll need to be specific about what happens to you—saying, “I’m autistic” won’t communicate the important information, like what the beginning of a shutdown looks like for you, what to do, and what to definitely avoid doing. One example: “If I stop engaging physically, that’s a sign that I’m no longer fully present. You should stop and verbally check in, while making sure to give me plenty of physical space and a clear exit route. I may not be able to form words until I recover. Bringing me a slice of lemon to bite will help.”
Much of this advice is for dating neurotypical people. If you date someone else who is neuroatypical, you can follow the same steps and extend them the same understanding you’re requesting. No matter who you date, talk about both of your desires, boundaries, and limits. Good luck.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a late-20s virgin female. I am aromantic and thus never had interest in dating but always had strong sexual desires. I may not feel romantic attraction, but I still feel sexual attraction and am interested in sex. I don’t think I’ll ever want a relationship, but I very badly want to experience sex. At my old age I’m still curious about sex. Each year I have another birthday, the older I get and the worse I feel. I’ve been very depressed and up late worrying I’ll never get to experience sex. Is there any way I’ll ever get to have sex?
—Depressed, Sexually Frustrated ARO
Either you’ve made a typo, or we have very different definitions of old. Lots of people are your age or even older when they have partnered sex for the first time. People in their 80s can have active, fulfilling sex lives. I’m getting the sense that you’re going through something larger than sexual frustration and suspect that a sexual interaction at this stage wouldn’t help as much as you might hope. I think your late-night worrying about sex is more of a symptom than a cause.
Dejection, desperation, and depression can feel awful. I’m sorry you’re going through it. It’s cruel but true—when we want to be wanted, it turns people off. So I want you to work on your depression. For yourself, and also because your confidence and self-esteem will be attractive to others once you can display those qualities. If you’re seeing a therapist you feel comfortable with, discuss this with them. If you’re seeing a therapist you don’t feel comfortable with, it might be time to look for a new one. And if you’re not seeing any therapists at all, I think that should be your next step. Big hug. You can do this.
More How to Do It
I am a woman who didn’t lose my virginity until I was 30, to my first boyfriend. We broke up last fall, and I haven’t even considered sleeping with someone else. But I do miss the regular sex and have been masturbating much more regularly. My problem is the only way for me to really enjoy it is to imagine that I’m with him. Even when I watch porn, I tend to go for videos where the man resembles my ex: tall, dark hair, dark eyes. I find myself muttering his name just the way I used to when I was with him. I am 100 percent over the loss of our relationship, but for now I just feel like a loser who fantasizes about the guy who dumped her. Is it common to fantasize about an ex instead of the much hotter guy in the porn? Or is this not as pathetic as I’ve made it in my head?