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 bisexual woman and have been in a loving monogamous relationship with my girlfriend for almost two years. I feel very emotionally supported in our partnership and have never been happier in a relationship. There’s just one thing: The sex has been fizzling. It was hot, heavy, and bangin’ in our early days. We’d go at it constantly, and it was incredible. Lately, I’ve been feeling less satisfied. My partner and I have discussed that she is less sexually needy than me. She claims she is more interested in bonding either emotionally or through cuddling. Most days she feels too stressed from work and doesn’t have the energy. I told her that sex is high on my list of needs and that I want her to take it seriously. She agreed to work on it, but nothing much has changed. I’ve acted out a bit passively, mentioning I might want to try an open relationship just for the sex, which made her cry and made me feel guilty. I don’t really want to be having sex with other people. However, I don’t feel she’s putting much effort into our sessions as we “work” on getting steamy again. Having to “work” on sex also feels depressing and terrible. It’s starting to feel like homework we’re both dreading to do (specifically me dreading rejection and her disappointing me). A boiling point for me was when I went down on her and she zoned out, then apologized, saying she was thinking about a work problem. I’ve had several arguments with her now, even crying, feeling rejected and hurt that she doesn’t want to put effort into our sex life. She claims she can’t change overnight and I need to give her time. I know we’re very much in love and our partnership is strong otherwise, but damn, I just want to be having good sex. Thoughts?
—Horny and Hopeless
Dear Horny and Hopeless,
Your use of the word claims brings up the question of whether you believe your girlfriend when she shares her intimacy desires and boundaries with you. If you don’t, I see no reason to proceed. If you do, you might spend some time considering why you’re choosing that word twice when describing her feelings in this letter.
I think you’re being unfair by asking your girlfriend to be more sexual than she is. Rich, my co-columnist, always advocates deferring to the more sensitive partner in open-coupled relationships, and I think the same applies for sexual appetite. What’s good for you isn’t necessarily what’s good for her. If you want to make this work, you’ll need to meet in the middle at minimum—and certainly not require her to come to you.
How’s your solo sex life? Are you neglecting your own self-pleasure? Would a new stimulation device spice things up enough to keep you happy? To be blunt, can you take care of yourself rather than demand your girlfriend have sex when she isn’t interested? At the end of the day, you have to decide whether what your girlfriend offers is enough for you. If it isn’t, the kind thing to do is to move on.
Dear How to Do It,
My wife and I used to be swingers before marriage. Now, after marriage, she is not interested in continuing that lifestyle. I still am because I was a part of that lifestyle before meeting her, and the appeal of it is too strong to ignore. It is not just the physical sex that is of interest, but the wonderful people we met and places we traveled that I feel enriched our lives. I really love my wife, our family, and our business that we grew together. I told her that I still had an interest in pursuing the lifestyle again with her, but she is adamantly against doing that again. I am caught between my wife and our life together and living the lifestyle I have always wanted. It feels like I am not being true to myself if I forgo the lifestyle. What should I do to be at peace?
I have a tendency to look for the third way, but in your case, I’m not seeing one. You’ve got a choice to make: your wife, and her valid boundaries, or a return to your swinging lifestyle. In modern times, sexual practice—or absence thereof—is a large part of our identities. And in the United States we’re very into identity labels. Our concepts of self are supported by the lists of words demarcating who we are. And who we are is frequently discussed as static, when the reality is that we grow, shift, and develop over the course of our entire lifetimes. You were a swinger. You get to decide whether you want to be one now, and in the future, you’ll have that choice to make all over again.
You mention meeting wonderful people and traveling to enriching locations—both achievable through non-sexual interaction. I imagine that while swinging you developed interpersonal skills. They’re still yours. You can use them to interact with, become intimate with, and befriend people without touching genitals or even kissing. And you and your wife can travel to exotic locales for reasons other than sex—for trying new food, for time away to destress, for the sake of seeing what’s there.
Sometimes not having a thing makes it become more attractive in our minds—the lack of access improves its appeal. One tactic you might apply is to actively remember the uncomfortable situations, the times when sex got weird in an off-putting way. Undermine the nostalgia. A set of lists might also help. What do you value about swinging? What do you value about your monogamous marriage? What you can experience within the bounds of your current relationship? At the end of the day, the choice is yours.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m almost 28, and I’ve only had sex twice in my life: Once was a man going down on me, and the other was me going down on a woman. Neither experience was great. I suffer from OCD, and various issues stemming from that have made sex very overwhelming and anxiety-inducing each time. My sex drive is also, in general, low enough that I can usually satisfy it through masturbation. The people I’ve dated have usually been kind enough when I explain about my mental health issues, but the relationships never lasted long, and I worry that my hesitance around sex is why.
During quarantine I’ve managed to find a better medication and better therapy. I’ve also discovered a real interest in certain aspects of BDSM, which I would love to explore. Now that things are reopening, I would like to get more experience now that it feels more possible to do so, but I feel like a dweeb when it comes to sex. I feel too old to tell potential partners that I just don’t have enough experience to be “good” yet. I feel bad, too, asking anyone to essentially be my practice to get better. Is there a way to gain better confidence around sex or to communicate the issue in a more effective way?
—Have the Enthusiasm, but Not the Experience
In this column, I’ve heard from numerous people of more advanced ages who are beginning their interactions with sexuality in new ways, so you absolutely should not feel “too old” to explore. Plus, we all start from square one with every partner. Experience might give you a broader bag of tricks to try, but you’re always working to try to figure each other out. Sure, sometimes they’re deeply in touch with their sexual responses and can give clear verbal or physical directions, but mostly it’s a lot of experimentation together. And specific acts can be so good with one partner and very “meh” with another. Even between two great communicators, we have to find how we fit together. So when you’re with a new partner, it might help to redirect your focus to clear communication rather than your insecurities around experience.
If you want to inform potential partners about your mental health diagnoses, that’s definitely an option. At the same time, you’re under no obligation to do so. You might say, “I’ve been diagnosed with OCD and accept that diagnosis. It affects me by [relevant ways]. Here’s what I need from you if we’re going to get physical.” The portions about effects and needs are crucial, as people tend to think of OCD in terms of certain stereotypes without nuance and a full understanding of the condition. As uncomfortable as it might be to explain, specifics are what help our partners understand how to best approach us and care for us.
Worry can be a major feature of OCD, so I’m wondering if you’re being too hard on yourself here with your concern about asking someone else to be your practice partner. Meanwhile, the BDSM world is accustomed to novices, and most communities have resources like classes and munches—a social gathering in a bar or restaurant—where you can get the lay of the land. Exercise your listening skills, treat the people you encounter like whole humans, and I think you’ll be OK.
Dear How to Do It,
A year of isolation and anxiety squashed my sex drive. With the pandemic seemingly on the downhill slide, I’ve found my desire for sex returning, except for one thing: I don’t want to hook up with my old bed buddies! A few partners have reached out to invite me over for fun and games, but the idea of sex with somebody else feels just … exhausting. I just want to stay home, masturbate, and not engage. Part of me thinks I should just go for it and maybe get in the mood as we go along, but I don’t know. Is this normal? I’ve never felt so meh!
—Netflix and … Stay Home
Dear Stay Home,
Normal—a difficult concept at any time—is particularly slippery right now. It’s possible that what would have seemed like a gradual shift toward more solo time and less interaction feels abrupt because it occurred during the isolation of these past 18 months.
I think it’s worth taking a trip down memory lane. Try to remember what each bed buddy was like. Maybe their positive qualities will inspire you to accept an invitation. Maybe they weren’t as much of a match as you’d like at this stage in your life. Maybe you have fears or frustrations that need to be addressed. Do some introspection, and pay attention to your thoughts and feelings as you run through your list.
If you do decide to go the fake-it-till-you-feel-it route, let your partners know that you aren’t sure if you’ll reach any level of enjoyment and might want to end the interaction earlier than they’re accustomed to. You have the right to exit a sexual situation at any time without warning, and it’s easier on everyone if they’re prepared in advance. Humans tend to assume future interactions will be in the same range of previous ones, and interrupting that helps them to hear you in the moment if something deviates from your routine.
There’s no suggested timeline for returning to interactive life, much less interactive sex. If exchanging sexual energy with another person feels exhausting, you can wait—for as long as you want to, even if that’s forever.
More How to Do It
I’m marrying a wonderful man. We’re super excited and love each other, and everything is so happy and great. But we don’t really have sex very often, I’m not sure if I should be worried or not … or if I care. I have a fairly moderate sex drive, I think. I basically masturbate every day, and we have sex about once a month or less. I’m not really bothered by this, but it feels like I should be? We would rather watch a show or play a board game or make food.