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 husband is very insecure about sex, and as a result, I’m no longer attracted to him. And the infrequent sex we have is incredibly dissatisfying to me. We started dating in college (I’m in my 40s now), and I was very inexperienced sexually. I foolishly thought that the longer we were together, the better sex would get. But now I have come to the realization that I was completely wrong.
My husband has never been very good at pleasing me. For example, sometimes he will not realize that he is nowhere near my clit. If he is miraculously in the right spot, he is too rough, or he stays in the same place for too long until it physically hurts me. I have tried to give him instruction, but it just makes him more insecure, and he gets upset if he’s still wrong. Sometimes I just tell him I’m ready for intercourse to make him stop and get it over with. He rarely initiates sex, but I used to fake it when he did, because if I didn’t, he would get so hurt that he wouldn’t initiate again for many months or even years. He gets frustrated with me if I’m not ready to go in less than five minutes. He told me he doesn’t enjoy foreplay and “trying to get me in the mood.” I’ve told him things that turn me on—back rubs, etc—but he doesn’t seem to remember. When we do have sex, it’s all about his pleasure, and as soon as he is done, it’s over. Sometimes he has trouble staying hard, but that just means sex is over for that night.
Sex has become so unpleasant for me that I don’t even like kissing him anymore, and I think this is partly because I’m afraid he’ll think it’s an invitation for sex. As an added complication, a few years ago I had an affair, and I realized that I am incredibly orgasmic. I can have dozens of orgasms in one encounter. In the 25 years I’ve been with my husband, I can probably count the orgasms he has given me on one hand. I had no idea what I was missing. I am not proud of the affair. It’s over, and my husband and I are in couples therapy, which is helping with our other issues, but so far we haven’t addressed our sexual problems. We haven’t had sex in over a year. Outside of our sex life, I think we are pretty good partners. I have suggested to my husband that maybe we should just have an asexual marriage (I get more pleasure by myself, but I didn’t tell him that). He said he didn’t want that. Is there a way to fix our sex life? Will it ever be satisfying to me, or are our problems too deeply rooted?
—Sexually Frustrated Wife
Dear Frustrated Wife,
From what you’ve written, your frustration sounds incredibly valid. You also sound motivated to work through this. I suspect that the couples counselor you’re seeing is helping to improve communication—at least I hope so—because I think that’s the core of your problem. And as part of that work, I think you should bring up your bedroom frustrations in an upcoming session.
There could be so many reasons that your husband is unable to hear your sexual desires and understand how you like to be touched. There’s probably a lot of pain and angst on both sides. If we put ourselves in his shoes—every time he touches you, he’s doing it wrong—we can empathize with his position. It’s worth spending some time imagining what his experience of your marriage has been like and maybe writing some notes to yourself about those feelings before you speak with the therapist.
Asexual is a word that describes an identity, and both you and your husband sound like allosexuals who are having a difficult time with their sexual interactions. I feel it’s important to mention that you can absolutely work on sex with your partner and enjoy your own body through self-love or masturbation. Even in couples who have fantastic sex multiple times per week, masturbation is a valuable practice—it’s a different experience, and it helps us connect with ourselves.
Once you’re able to communicate effectively about this—often touchy!—subject, you can do things like masturbate for each other while verbalizing why you’re doing different things and how they feel. You can play the “tell me what to do” game, where you take turns following precise instructions. You can also communicate your desires and what you like to experience through explicit notes, verbally while curled up together, or however else ends up working for the two of you. Keep going with the therapist, broach the subject even though it’s scary, and do your best. I think you’ve got this.
Dear How to Do It,
My boyfriend and I have been together three-plus years. The sex has been and still is amazing. What’s impressed me most is that there’s been zero fluctuation in the frequency of our having sex. He’s able to keep up with my insatiable drive. Recently, in the past six months or so, I’ve began to notice that while having sex, I feel as though I’m going to have a bowel movement. It’s never actually happened, but the sudden feeling makes me flinch or abruptly stop intercourse. He feels like he’s doing something wrong, the mood changes, and it’s difficult for either of us to continue. I’ve tried different positions, and me on top of him seems to be the only position that either immediately causes the feeling or after a short time will bring it on. It happens less frequently in any other position. The only thing I can possibly attribute it to is that we used to have anal sex much more frequently than we do now. It seems like once we stopped including it in our regular “rotation,” the feeling has developed.
We typically had anal two or three times out of the five or six times a week we’d have sex. That’s changed to once, if at all, each week. I would really like to figure out what’s causing this and if it’s something we’ll have to deal with forever. Was there some sort of damage or scarring done from frequent anal sex that’s permanent now?
Dear Butt No!,
It’s possible that you’ve done some damage. Your pre-anal routine might be the cause. “Many people overdouche—large volumes and/or doing it too many times—and use liquids that aren’t actually designed for anal douching,” says Dr. Evan Goldstein, an anal surgeon in New York City. “The anal and vaginal cavities are super thin, and they share a common wall. When you combine overdouching with anal and/or vaginal sex, there’s the possibility of making this shared wall even thinner.”
It’s also possible that the position where you most strongly experience this feeling allows your boyfriend’s penis to put pressure on your body in a way that signals a need to defecate. “Vaginal penetration can strike a nerve—literally—by stimulating and triggering the bowel movement sensations that you mentioned,” Goldstein says. “Switching up the positions can place more (or less) strain on the system that reflexively triggers that unpleasant response.” You and your boyfriend might have a data-gathering session, taking note of which positions are most enjoyable for both of you and relying on those moving forward.
I also think you should pay a visit to your primary physician—the doctor you would see for a regular checkup—and go from there. They might send you to a specialist. At some point you’ll have a physical exam, and you’ll be more likely to get some answers about what’s going on with your body.
Dear How to Do It,
My boyfriend loves watching double penetration porn and has trouble reaching climax without talking about his fantasies in bed. We use sex toys from time to time, and the love-making is great and long. But he can’t stop talking about wanting to have a male-female-male threesome during intercourse.
I don’t mind his fantasies, but as much as they sound interesting, I don’t wish to make them a reality. I have talked to him about this many times, and it’s really frustrating. Using sex toys is where I draw the line. Do you have any advice?
—Three’s a Crowd
I’m unclear on whether you want your boyfriend to stop talking about his double penetration fantasies in an abstract way during sex, or if he’s pressuring you to make them a reality and you want to end that conversation (or both).
If you want his fantasy expression to cease, you’re looking at a sexual mismatch. MFM threesomes are his thing. Some people need very specific physical stimulation. Some people take a very long time. Some people need to speak about their fantasies at length during the act. If his way of enjoying sex is necessary to him yet irritating to you, it might be time to move on. If the situation isn’t that extreme—you’re fine or even happy to engage in his preferred manner half the time—then taking turns being catered to seems like a good solution. He can have days where the focus is on his MFM desires, and you can have days where there’s none of that and the focus is on your preferences.
If your boyfriend is pressuring you to escalate from toys to live humans, that’s a whole different story. Presuming you’ve stated your limits as clearly as you did here, there may be a large communication issue occurring between the two of you, or he may simply not care. The latter in particular is an enormous red flag, and I encourage you to move on if that’s the case.
Dear How to Do It,
My girlfriend and I are in our 30s and have been together just over two years. Due to COVID, we have been separated for the past year, as travel restrictions have not lifted for us to see each other in person. Recently, she had a routine Pap smear, and the results came up abnormal. Immediately she jumped to thoughts of cancer and called me crying, saying I gave her HPV. I told her that I don’t remember if I was vaccinated for HPV. She keeps circling back, at least once a week, reminding me that we shouldn’t have had sex or experimented with things like oral, and that I must not be properly taking care of myself if I gave her something. She hurt me with those words, and I asked her to hold off with the accusations until we can get more information. While she waits for her next test, she is constantly pressing me to be screened to confirm her suspicions.
This is the first relationship for both of us, and neither of us were sexually active previously, so I’m also curious what is the likelihood that the abnormal Pap result is HPV. I’ve been trying to find as much information about HPV in general. Is there screening for me to at least get a definitive answer that I was or was not the source of this abnormal test result? But I’ve wondered why my girlfriend has not been vaccinated for HPV either—would this have been something we could have avoided if only one side was vaccinated? I do not know how this will change our sex lives going forward either or if it should change anything, but I’m lost, I want to be supportive, and I don’t know if I should be blaming myself.
—Lost in HPV
There are well over 100 strains of human papillomavirus. When I had the Gardasil vaccine back in the late 2000s, it protected against four strains. Newer HPV vaccines protect against more—with a continued emphasis on the high-risk or cancer-causing ones—but nowhere near the triple-digit range. For me, protection against even four strains was worth the risk of taking a newly developed vaccine. You’ll have to make your own decision on that, and I encourage you to speak with a doctor. If you can recall which doctors you saw as an adolescent and young adult, they may still have your records and be in a position to clarify whether you’ve been vaccinated and with which vaccine.
Your girlfriend may have chosen to skip the HPV vaccine, and if that’s the case, that’s her valid choice. She also may have been vaccinated and acquired a strain that isn’t covered by the jab she had. Or she may not have any strains of HPV at all. Some strains of HPV are linked to cancer. Some abnormal Pap smears are due to cancer or precancerous cells. Pap smears can be abnormal for other reasons too, including the very mundane yet terrifying phenomenon of false positive results. And unlike other STDs, there isn’t a swab or blood test that can tell you whether you’ve got HPV, and there’s no approved test that can screen your penis. (There’s an anal Pap smear, but that’s about it.) Do your best to wait for the results of her second test—that should confirm or contradict her fears. In the meantime, it might be helpful for you to make a list of HPV questions you have for your doctor for your next visit.
As for how to cope, think of your sex life as less of a linear path and more of a chaotic ocean. Your girlfriend is going through a rough patch—the waters are turbulent, crashing at the shores—and that will probably ebb as time passes. So, yes, the sex the two of you have will probably change. And it will probably change again later.
Support can be difficult when the person who needs it is blaming you. Acknowledging and validating feelings first is something I’ve had success with. That might look something like: “I’m hearing a lot of strong emotions. Do you want to tell me about them?” followed by empathetic responses. There’s a knack to noticing when someone is ready to move into data gathering and problem solving, and it’s best to err on the side of patience. Make sure you’re supporting yourself, too—keep in contact with trusted friends, take time to speak about your feelings with people who aren’t your distressed girlfriend, and take care of your body. I think you’ve got this.
More How to Do It
It recently got out that someone at work did porn when he was younger. This porn does not line up with his apparent orientation (he’s married to a woman). We’re a relatively small workplace, so this got around quickly. Our boss probably knows at this point. I worry about how this is going to affect him at work. At one point, I caught a couple co-workers sharing an image from one of the videos and joking about it, and I told them to stop. The thing is I don’t think he has any idea that people know. Should I tell him? I don’t really care what he did when he was younger, and maybe he doesn’t care if people know, but I worry he will find out in an embarrassing way and it would be better if I told him privately.