How to Do It

I Have a Very Strange Problem That’s Ruining My Sex Life

It stinks.

Woman sitting cross-legged next to a neon illustration of odor or smell
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by 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,

I’m a cis woman in my 20s. For the past five years or so, my entire genital area has smelled strongly of urine. I’ve seen a dozen doctors about it and have had every test known to man, but no one knows why (my doctors also confirm they notice the odor). I bathe daily, sometimes twice a day, and change my underwear daily (sometimes multiple times per day).

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I’ve tried using soap, not using soap, it doesn’t matter. It even smells immediately after showering (although it’s a little less noticeable then). I don’t take any medications or have any health problems. My doctors said I just had to deal with it. It’s very noticeable during sex, and I am very turned off by it, and so are my sexual partners. Any ideas on what I can do besides find a partner with a piss kink?

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—Yuck

Dear Yuck,

You sound motivated, and your search for medical cause seems pretty thorough. I’m thinking mitigation tactics, specifically airflow and intentional use of aromas. It’s also worth talking with a registered dietician about whether your diet is a possible cause.

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In the winter, you might cover your body—and that of your partner—with a blanket. This will trap urine-scented air away from your noses. It will also have a concentrating effect under the blanket, so be careful with lifting the top edge. In the summer, open windows are your friend. Fans might also help. You’ll want to position it so the air flows over your groin and ideally out that window.

Saskia Wilson-Brown and Minetta Rogers of the Institute for Art and Olfaction, a nonprofit devoted to experimentation and access in the field of perfumery, point to olfactory fatigue as a potential help. “We can get used to smells very quickly. That may be in her favor: Any aroma she is emitting will be hard to notice after a bit for a lover,” they say.

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They also note that bodies smell like, well, bodies, and that for decades women have been marketed to by the deodorant industry. They describe fecal, urinous, and other whiffy notes—which have been used in fine fragrance throughout history—as “like a sprinkle of salt on the chocolate chip cookie.” Specific suggestions for what they term “complementary odor profile” include sandalwood, cedar, black currant or cassis, honey, leather, and grapefruit. They also highlight patchouli’s notoriously strong, earthy scent as another option, mentioning the virtues of an Aesop skin cream with that ingredient. Massage oils and massage candles are Wilson-Brown and Rogers’ main recommendation for how to incorporate smell into your sexual practice, as soaps tend to be fairly subtle, and it sounds like you need a stronger scent. How close the source of the scent is to your vulva and you and your lover’s faces seems likely to affect the success of this method. Do not, under any circumstances, apply perfume to your genitals. But do consider putting some of these scents on your upper thighs or lower stomach, or in a diffuser in the room.

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Dear How to Do It,

For most of my adult life, my sex drive has had predictable, drastic fluctuations over the course of each menstrual cycle. I spend about a third of the month in a state of near constant arousal, followed by general ambivalence, and then another third of the month absolutely disgusted by the thought of sex. It’s been hard on my relationships. I often end up feeling unsatisfied when I’m in the aroused part of the month and my partner can’t keep up. When I’m in the unaroused part of the month, I’ve often ended up having sex out of guilt or pressure and felt really awful and gross. It’s been just as hard for my partners as it is for me! Past partners and my current boyfriend have all told me they feel confused and rejected. I prefer to be monogamous; satisfying sexual needs outside a relationship is not something I’m interested in. Is there anything I can do to help even myself out? Are there other people out there that experience this too?

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—Hot and Cold

Dear Hot and Cold,

There are absolutely other people who experience fluctuations in their interest in sex, seemingly linked to the hormonal fluctuations of their menstrual cycle. This experience is widely discussed and something I’m deeply familiar with. It’s frustrating. Whether it’s an actual list or not, I assume there are several characteristics you look for in a partner. Add “able to differentiate between reactions to hormone changes and changes in interest in the relationship” and “comfortable with ebbs and flows in sexual interaction” to it.

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The sex that makes you feel awful and gross—don’t have it. Tell your partners beforehand about your rotating sexual interest level, let them know each time it starts to dip, and, if they forget and approach you for sex, remind them that it isn’t a good time for you. As for the periods when your appetite is larger than your partner’s, invest in sex toys. Get different types of vibrators with different mechanisms, nice lubricants, and high-quality dongs. You might get lingerie that makes you feel good or sheets made of pleasant material. Find porn—videos, text, or photographs—that you enjoy. Make a whole production out of your solo time, take a couple of hours, and fully satisfy yourself.

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If you experience other inconvenient aspects of your cycle, it’s worth taking a look at the list of clinical PMS symptoms. If several fit, a doctor should be your next step.

Dear How to Do It,

I’m a cis lesbian lucky to have had some great sex with fellow lesbians over the years, but my one hang-up has started to cause some friction. I can’t get in the mood for anything that’s purely on the receiving end, even if it’s in the middle of reciprocal sex. I know that just sounds like I’m a top, but I love getting railed! My flag just doesn’t fly if a partner is doing anything for me that isn’t actively a source of pleasure, especially eating me out or using a strap.

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This is silly, because I personally get so much out of topping as its own sexual experience! I’ve always had trouble with feeling indebted to people, so maybe that’s wormed its way into my sex life? I don’t know. I’m just frustrated because I don’t want my partners to have to work around this for me anymore. At the same time, I can’t ignore how wretched the thought of a partner doing something sexual for me as a chore feels. Full-body shivers at that. At least if we’re both getting off, I don’t have to doubt that we’re having fun. Help!

—Touch You, Touch Me

Dear Touch,

The thought of a partner doing something sexual as a chore does feel pretty wretched. That’s a valid concern and a wonderful reaction to the possibility.

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You know that complete giving can be experienced in a number of different ways. You say that you yourself enjoy topping as its own sexual experience. I think some further understanding about other people’s experiences of complete giving, in a broad and very specific sense, might be useful. If you have friends who you feel comfortable discussing the details of sex with, or if there’s an appropriate community you’re a part of, start a discussion. Ideally you’re prepared to share your own experiences, respond to questions, listen, and ask questions. Do the same with your partners. Ask them how they feel when they’re utterly focused on you, whether they can articulate why they take that role when they do, and whether they feel uncomfortable being passive or entirely receptive themselves. My hope is that it’ll be easier for you to fight fears of obligation or lack of engagement on the part of your partner if you have fleshed-out examples of other ways they may be feeling. If verbal communication on their part during sex is feasible—one time it temporarily wouldn’t be is during oral—you can also ask your partner to give you headlines about what they’re feeling. Hearing their actual present state is the most concrete counterargument to those doubts that I can think of, and knowing precisely what you’re giving them through your surrender may help you see reciprocity even though there’s no direct equality.

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You may also think of receiving as giving their body a break from sensation, providing space for afterglow or avoiding overstimulation. And I suspect you’re familiar with the way a strap-on can stimulate the wearer’s pubic mound.

It’s possible that none of my suggestions affect your feelings or your level of enthusiasm for complete receptiveness. If that’s the case, your desires and comfort zone are OK. Your understanding that everyone’s enjoyment is important applies to yourself as well, and I get the sense you know that. Though you may not currently be involved with any, there are women out there who’d be happy to stay within the range of interactions you actively enjoy.

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Dear How to Do It,

I’m a 27-year-old woman, and I and my boyfriend of the same age can’t really get our sex life going. This is the first relationship for both, and neither has had sex before. We were in a long-distance relationship for the first eight months, after which I moved in with him three months ago. We have a good relationship—we get along great, we trust each other, we can discuss things, and there is a lot of affection (kissing, hugging, nonsexual intimacy).

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He has been in more contact with his own sexuality before our relationship and has been masturbating for almost 10 years. It feels like my sex drive has been completely dormant before this relationship—I’ve never masturbated, and before he came along, I never experienced anything even close to arousal. For years I assumed I had no sex drive at all.

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It doesn’t take me much to arouse him—passionate kisses get him pretty quickly into a state where he moans and trembles just at light touches on his back, chest, or sides with my fingertips. My own feelings are much milder. At best, I feel tiny, momentary waves of arousal (usually a dropping feeling in my stomach), and I get wet, but that’s about it. At first I thought that maybe things would fall into place if I just pushed forward, and in the beginning we tried intercourse a couple of times, but I quickly found that even with lube it only hurts. He has tried to slowly and calmly touch and kiss me, on different parts of the body, and has also tried to pleasure me with both tongue and fingers. At no point have I felt anything that I could in any way describe as pleasurable. I feel the touch, my senses do work, but nothing feels really good.

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There’s an awful lot at play here—the inexperience, the long period of physical distance, plus I have a large pile of external stress factors right now, as well as a bad relationship with my own body. However, I would really like to have sex with my boyfriend, and this stalemate frustrates both of us. What to do? I am aware that my own sexual awakening has happened quite late and is still at a very early stage. Time is certainly needed, but is there anything we could try to help get started?

—Stuck

Dear Stuck,

Vaginal lubrication and erotic arousal aren’t as linked as we might assume. Arousal nonconcordance describes the lack of overlap between blood flow in the genitals and how aroused a person feels. Working with cis-normative, binary definitions of man and woman, men experience about 50 percent overlap between what their bodies and brains respond to with arousal. Women have a 10 percent overlap. Ten.

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Chapter 6 of Emily Nagoski’s Come as You Are can give you a thorough explanation. The book also discusses sexual response using a brakes-and-accelerator model, like a car. Your accelerator may respond more intensely to different stimulation. You and your boyfriend have tried various ways of him stimulating you, but you might be a self-starter or need nonphysical input.

I encourage you to look at a range of erotic material—explicit romance novels, erotic and pornographic stories, nude art, pin-up photos, hardcore porn, and anything else that seems interesting—and take note of details that you respond positively to. Movement and breath are another route: You can move your hips, gyrate, and grind. Also pant and moan. Sometimes performing the behaviors of orgasm is arousing. I suspect that breathing deeply and engaging our pelvises also draws attention and energy to our genitals.

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You’ve engaged in physical exploration with your boyfriend, but it doesn’t sound like you’ve done so on your own. I think private connection to your body is worth trying. You can use your hands, or feathers, or other materials. Try light strokes on the soft or sensitive parts of your body. Also try firm touch, pressure, impact, and even scratching. When you’re ready to touch your vulva, squeeze your labia together, touch in between the inner and outer, move the hood of your clitoris across the glans, and, just like with the media consumption, anything else that seems interesting. Looking at a diagram of your organs first may be useful.

Annie Sprinkle’s The Explorer’s Guide to Planet Orgasm is another useful book. It’s a guide to using sexual energy to experience a variety of kinds of orgasms, with a lot of sage advice for connecting to our physical selves in erotic ways. Do things simply to find out how they feel. There are some potentially fun parts inside your vaginal canal, too. There’s a bit of an ulterior motive for that last one—exploring penetration on your own will give you some useful data on the pain you’re experiencing. If you’re able to comfortably penetrate yourself, that’s great! Taking note of any sensations that are positive is next. If you’re experiencing pain, you’ll want to see a doctor to be evaluated for possible physical causes. Be as patient as you can with yourself, and good luck.

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—Stoya

More How to Do It

In the past six months, I’ve recently reconnected with a guy I knew in college. We’re not dating per se because we live a few states apart, but we talk every night and we’ve met up twice now for long weekends to spend time together. Intellectually and emotionally, it’s all great. But sexually? Not great. It’s hard to get me wet unless my partner goes down on me. But he doesn’t like my taste! Which is a him-problem—I’ve had plenty of partners who have enthusiastically eaten me out, so I know it’s not me. But I can’t help but feel terrible about it? Because when he doesn’t go down on me I don’t get turned on, so then I’m dry, and penetrative sex is uncomfortable. Eventually it gets good and I get turned on, but because of how it all starts, I’m seriously sore the next time we try to have another round.

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The last time we were together we tried again in the shower, he couldn’t do it, and I started bawling. It just made me feel so frustrated and unwanted. Which is not how I like my sex to go! I don’t know what to do. We’re very open and talk to each other about it all, and I really like this guy in every other way, so this isn’t a deal-breaker for me. But I want to have great sex with him, not work-up-to-decent sex. Should I be straight eating pineapples in the weeks leading up to his visits? Why is my body chemistry not matching up with his? I don’t want him to force himself to go down on me, but I also don’t want to be too dry for sex when we both really want to have it and only have a limited amount of time.

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