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 boyfriend and I have a very satisfying sex life, but lately he has been doing something that really bothers me. I love playing scenarios, and with former partners spent a good amount of time talking about who we’d like to be and what we’d like to do. But my boyfriend prefers improv and just seeing where it takes us. It has taken us to some unexpected, yet interesting places, and I’ve done things I never would have agreed to had we discussed it ahead of time. I’ve discovered my threshold for pain is greater than I realized, and it has resulted in some of the best orgasms I’ve ever had.
My problem is not what he does to me but why. In the past couple of months, he has repeatedly crossed the line between fantasy and reality, using things that happen in our real lives in our scenarios. Things like “what’s the proper punishment for a girl who doesn’t clean her hair out of the drain cover after she showers” and “digging through the ice cream for the cookie dough chunks is a serious crime.” I told him I don’t like it when he does that, but he just laughs it off and says I must feel guilty if I take it so seriously. But I don’t think it’s funny, and I don’t think it’s fun. Punishing imaginary transgressions of a fictional person is a game; what he is doing feels like assault. Is he right and am I making a big deal out of nothing? Or is he wrong to use our sex play to get back at me for things I do that annoy him?
—I’m Not a Bad Girl
He’s wrong for not taking you seriously. He owes you more as a partner and as a negotiator. Despite your inclinations, you conceded to role-playing on the fly. Out of appreciation for that, along with the basic respect that healthy relationships require, he should honor your requests. A risk of freestyling is you may wander into uncomfortable territory, and it’s up to both of you to steer yourselves out of it. A common way of doing this is a safe word. If you don’t have one, develop one and use it—it signifies a hard no, and perhaps more importantly, the opportunity to reroute the play into something that is mutually comfortable. His conclusion that you “must feel guilty” if you don’t like his introducing reality into your fantasy is glib and shortsighted. There are any number of reasons why you may not enjoy this particular turn your play is taking. One obvious one is that you want to keep play playful and not be burdened by daytime living while in bed. I don’t think that him referencing real life necessarily constitutes assault in free-for-all improv, but now that he’s aware of your feelings and your lack of consent, he’s certainly pointed in that direction. He should change that. He’s making you feel bad, and the point is to feel good. If this is no big deal, something to laugh off, then why is he so insistent? His attitude is troubling. If he wants to keep in good standing with you—and, as your partner, he should want that—it’s up to him to change things up. Let him know this, and if he doesn’t, find a better, more considerate dom.
Dear How to Do It,
I am a 35-year-old male who has never had an adult relationship. I’ve only ever dated one person, and that relationship exploded 17 years ago, after I found out she was cheating on me while I was caring for my dying father. Obviously, it was a pretty big trauma for me, and I don’t think I ever recovered. I spent a few years being a misogynist, and then even more time pretending to be asexual so I wouldn’t have to explain my perpetual single-ness. (Mistake: Most people think asexuality isn’t real and that I was just a closeted homosexual). I even came up with some pretty convincing ethos to block off inevitable feelings of attraction. (Sexual desire/pleasure is an evolutionary leftover from a less densely populated planet, and being controlled by genetic imperative is a sign of weakness.)
I eventually smelled my own bullshit, and tried using dating apps, to absolutely no avail. After years of silence from “matches,” and continuously losing my IRL crushes to more attractive/confident men, I feel hopeless and bitter. I deleted all my dating profiles out of a feeling of pointlessness. (How many times can one stand being ignored by anonymous strangers before going apeshit?) I do not want to feel like an “incel,” but all of my romantic platitudes have been rejected by everyone other than my long-ago ex. I don’t feel like I deserve to be loved just for being alive, but something’s got to give. How do I forgive myself for being unattractive and unhappy with my lot in life without spending all my money on therapy?
Don’t forgive yourself for being unhappy; pursue happiness. More than anything, your attitude is the constant thread here, and while it would be impossible to sort out how much of your situation stems from self-defeat and how much has to do with outside rejection, you can certainly optimize your outlook. Confidence and kindness are attractive to people; bitterness is not. If your worldview is currently being shaped by events that happened when you were 18 (presumably as a result of transgressions from someone around your age), you’re effectively allowing teenagers to define your adulthood. I sympathize with you because I think you would rather that not be the case, but clearly you’re going to have to do something about it if you want things to change. It is my suspicion that you are wearing your trauma, and people are not digging the outfit. Trauma often isn’t something that just evaporates; you have to work on it. Therapy is one way. Self-help books are another. Fitness, meditation, volunteering, religion are still more ways. How many of these things are you actively engaging in? How much are you actually trying versus sitting around and assuming that your situation will improve itself by itself or, even worse, accepting what you perceive to be your fate?
I have no idea what your approach is, or what your app profiles look like, or what apps you’re using. If you have a friend whose honesty you trust, ask them for a no-holds-barred assessment of what you’re putting out there in the world. Do you need a haircut? You might need a haircut. While certainly, some people luck out in the conventional-attractiveness lottery, you may have noticed that “average” abounds because, well, that’s how average works. You don’t have to look like something grown in a Petri dish in some Hollywood studio in order to attract a mate. Look at families in any major shopping center for proof.
You wouldn’t be writing if you didn’t feel deserving of love. You would have given up. Maybe bringing that thought to the forefront of your mind will suit you well. Say it right now: “I deserve to be loved.” And now act like it (though stay respectful, with your self-entitlement in check). As someone who spends a lot of time looking at men’s pictures on apps and then seeing them move in real time, I can tell you that the way a man carries himself can make or break his attractiveness. Carry yourself like someone who deserves to be loved and you may convince other people that this is, in fact, the case.
Dear How to Do It,
I have been with my husband about 10 years. Despite the beginning, when my ex that I was with five years came back around and I became confused about what and who I wanted, we were married eight months after our first date. At one point we thought we’d try a polyamory relationship. That was a flop, of course. This was just a couple months into the new relationship, but my now-husband didn’t give up on me. When we met, he had broken his back in a construction accident two months before. He seemed to be healing fine, was down for about anything I wanted to do, amusement parks, concerts, etc. He had a sex drive and performed well. I tended to be the one not interested. But again, the ex kept popping up and getting into my head. Needless to say, there was some overlap.
Over time the hubby became disinterested and had a difficult time performing in bed. It’s only gotten worse. He claims it’s the chronic back pain, and I understand that. I wasn’t the best partner for a long time. He wouldn’t show me attention, but then old guy friends would. It was like I was getting the attention I’ve craved and I wasn’t bothering him and making him feel like I was disappointed. I know it’s all convoluted, and I’m to blame for most everything. He feels cuckolded, and I get that. I have been trying to make everything up to him. And he seems receptive and understanding. But the sex is gone. I’ve tried just doing things for him and it works for a few minutes, he can even finish, but it’s fast. I’m OK as long as he gets some enjoyment. Then he’s bothered about not lasting longer. I usually don’t worry about my needs, but sometimes those needs are hard to overlook. He’s never been a sexually driven guy. No “locker room” talk at work, not a sign of even a tiny amount of perverted thoughts. Never pinches my butt or boobs in passing. I know he loves me. I love him so much and more and more every day. I used to be popular with guys so even after 10 years, I’m perplexed as to why he barely shows any affection. How can I get him to trust that I am only his and I’ve learned from my mistakes? And make initiating sex feel right and normal? It’s been super awkward for so long.
—Sad and Grateful
There’s way too much going on here for me to confidently give you a path forward, or even to be confident that the path forward that you envision—convincing him that you’re loyal, coercing him into initiating—is indeed the proper course. Things are what they are. Everything has led up to this point, which is something that your narrative rock-skipping actually gets at. Granted, I think your logic reads convoluted in places like: “He claims it’s the chronic back pain and I understand that. I wasn’t the best partner for a long time.” I’m tempted to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you’re just not one to break up paragraphs, but I also think the jumble is telling. Imperfect pictures are often the most accurate kinds.
I also think you have worried about your needs—maybe not sexual ones, but maybe your needs are primarily romantic/attention-based anyway. Certainly, someone who is keeping an ex on the line, trying out polyamory, soaking in the company of other admirers, and blaming everything on themselves is motivated by something that we might as well call needs. What are your sexual needs, anyway? Was there a reason beyond distraction that your ex’s presence in your life and mind made you less interested in sex with your husband? Could it be that you’re responding to the absence of his lack of initiation more than your own drive? What do you actually want? If neither of you has a high sex drive, it might be time to abandon the vision of what a relationship should look like and appreciate the fact that you’ve found someone who is as uninterested in sex as you are. Practice over principle.
You have a husband you’ve been with for 10 years and you love him more every day. That’s great; I hope he’s doing the same. It’s disconcerting that you’ve felt neglected by him, though. Affection is one thing—it’s possible to love someone deeply without being touchy feely. There’s a wide range in the way people express feelings. Attention is another matter. Are you actually being seen? I don’t think it’s wrong to receive attention from people outside of your primary relationship, but feeling like you need to because you aren’t receiving any at home makes the situation somewhat dire. If in fact that is the case, I have to wonder what the point of being in this relationship even is. Can you answer that for yourself … concisely? If not, reevaluate your life path. Try not to get dizzy.
Did you write this or another letter we answered? Tell us what happened at email@example.com.
Dear How to Do It,
I don’t have a sex question per se, but a question relating to sex. How can I feel sexy while overweight? To give you some background, I’m a straight cis woman in my early 30s, and spent my 20s as a skinny and pretty party girl, in which I spent most of my time dating and having sex with the hottest guys around (literally, guys would fight over me). Flash forward years later, and a relationship that lasted five years (which I ended, and have no regrets about), and I’ve gained a lot of weight. Probably 40 pounds in the past year due to heartbreak, COVID, anti-depressants, among other reasons. I’m single now, and the old me would be ready to get back in the game and date (and have sex) with new people. However, I’m so disgusted by my new body. I don’t believe anyone would want to be with me anymore (certainly not the type of attractive guys I used to go out with), and need advice on how to accept and maybe even love my new self. I suffer from a bit of an eating disorder/food addiction, so I’m over the dieting advice, and other than masturbating advice, I’m really looking for how I can have partnered intimate relations again, without feeling like my body is absolute garbage.
—I Wish I Could Be Thin Again
Dear I Wish,
The name of the game is deprogramming, according to Cheryl Fuller, a Jungian psychotherapist with whom I discussed your question. I reached out to Fuller because she treats weight issues from a fat-positive approach and published a book about the cultural hatred of fatness and the therapeutic attitude toward it (as well as her own experiences with it) in 2018, The Fat Lady Sings: A Psychological Exploration of the Cultural Fat Complex and its Effects. I knew she’d have a lot to say about your question, and I was right.
“It’s kind of facile to say, ‘You need to practice body positivity,’ ” Fuller told me by phone. “To get there is very difficult.” Unsurprisingly, she recommended finding a weight-neutral therapist. She suggested searching by asking prospective clinicians about their attitudes toward weight. “An alarming number of therapists believe that a measure of success in therapy is when a patient with weight issues loses weight, which doesn’t deal with the reality that you’re not seeing them when they gain the weight back,” Fuller told me. Healthy at Every Size’s registry of people who have signed the organization’s size-inclusive pledge contains therapists and psychiatrists, and may be a good place to start.
Fuller told me that if she were to encounter a patient with your question, she’d begin by attempting to have them excavate their humanity from the larger fat-hostile culture. “A big part of it is learning to view the world from inside yourself, rather than looking at yourself from the outside,” she said. “Some of it is desensitizing yourself. You get out of the shower and you look in the mirror at your whole body and appreciate the fact that this is the body with which you move through the world. It’s there for everything you have to experience because you are not separate from your body.” She suggested touching your fat and appreciating its softness and squishiness, as opposed to rejecting it as disgusting.
In general, I think, you could use a bit more grounding in reality. It’s been a tough year for so many of us, and quarantine weight gain has been common. You “don’t believe” anyone would want to be with you, and so you’re making yourself unavailable, thus fulfilling your own prophecy that isn’t even a prophecy but a projection. You haven’t actually been rejected yet. You were a “pretty party girl” in your 20s, and now you’re in your 30s. Generally speaking, the older we get, the more inclined our bodies are to gain weight, which means the hot guys you were doing in your 20s are also 10 years older and more likely to have gained weight. You’re not going to be bagging the dick you did when you were younger—you have to modify your expectations with age or you’ll be terribly disappointed.
Also, Fuller pointed out something particularly astute: Those relationships that you’re rhapsodizing didn’t last. Perhaps their superficial nature is precisely why. “If the men she was interested in are only attracted to her because she had this hot body, [the relationship was] not going anywhere. When it comes right down to it, attractiveness is a small part of successful relationships. You have to like each other,” she said.
Given what you’ve written, you may want to attempt to invert the golden rule: Treat yourself as you would want others to treat you. This means not calling yourself “disgusting.” “We say things to our bodies that we would not say to another person,” observed Fuller. “If you said those things to your friend, they probably wouldn’t stay your friend for very long.” In a therapeutic seeing, Fuller told me, she’d want to explore what your self-loathing is at its root. What is it about for you to hate yourself this way? What is it doing to you and for you that you’re maintaining it? Answering those questions may put you on your path to acceptance. A good therapist could help guide you.
More How to Do It
I’ve noticed that you tend to admonish people for snooping no matter what. Is the answer that simple? I understand that in a perfect world you confront your partner if you suspected something was amiss, but in the real world, it’s not that simple. What if they lie? What if the accusation ruins things, even if there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation? What if you’re right? I dunno—could you talk through why the “don’t snoop” answer seems so natural to you and, frankly, all advice columnists?