How to Do It

I Can’t Figure Out How to Tell My Boyfriend Why I Won’t Have Sex With Him

A man who clearly smells.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by ArthurHidden/iStock/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 am a 30-year-old man living with my boyfriend. Our sex life had been pretty nonexistent lately. Previously, I was taking an antidepressant that killed any sexual feelings I had. Before COVID, we agreed to open the relationship, he was hooking up with other people, and things were good. But when COVID came, that stopped, but I also switched antidepressants—and my libido has come back with gusto. Here is the problem: Since COVID, my boyfriend has stopped showering regularly. He takes a shower every three or so days, maybe. And most of the time that is really just him with a washcloth, kind of “spot cleaning” and calling it good. Normally, I am very into the way he smells, but this is on a whole different level. I want to have sex with him, and I love giving oral, but I gag when I get close due to the smell. I tried to get him to play IN the shower, but he doesn’t like showering together, and I don’t know what else to do. How do I say something without hurting his feelings? I am finally in a place where I feel ready to have sex again, and I know he is ready too, but I can’t get past the smell.

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—Bad Whiff

Dear Whiff,

It is kind that you don’t want to hurt your boyfriend’s feelings, but you’re extending your consideration at your own expense. Unless he is sensitive to the point of shutting down at the very suggestion of something that doesn’t affirm his every life choice, it’s worth talking to your boyfriend like the grown-up that he is. Surely he realizes that when you don’t wash, you start to stink, and when you start to stink, some people aren’t going to want to put their face near you, which is crucial for things like receiving blowjobs. His showering habits presumably changed during lockdown because he figured he wasn’t in the presence of many people thus didn’t have to smell fresh for them. Well, he was wrong, because he’s still in your presence, and as the primary sucker of his dick, no one else’s nose is more important in his life than yours (besides, of course, his own).

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Just have a straightforward, albeit gentle conversation with him that emphasizes the positive—you are normally very into the way he smells!—and helps trace a path toward manifesting it. It’s a short one—from wherever you have said convo to your shower. Frame it in terms of your taste and not his hygienic incompetence so that the resulting action can be viewed as, if nothing else, something that is “for you.” I have a boyfriend who is extremely sensitive about his smell, but whenever his breath gets out of control to the point of distracting me from the show that we’re watching together, I ask if he’s brushed his teeth lately and he inevitably says, “No,” before doing just that. No crying, no complaining, no taking offense to my offense at his offensive breath. Sometimes the straightforward route is the easiest for everyone.

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Dear How to Do It,

My boyfriend (age 51) and I (age 26) have been together for less than two years. I moved in with him after only a few months of dating. Despite our large age gap, we see eye-to-eye on almost everything. We are deeply in love. We’ve met one another’s family, who both approve of our relationship, and we share a mutual friend group. We never argue, but there is one significant issue in our relationship that I cannot seem to come to terms with.

My boyfriend has a long history of seeing sex workers. It started years before we ever met, but he was seeing women and paying for sex when we first began speaking in 2019. For much of the first year of our relationship, he was still calling and texting escorts for rates and locations. I know that in his past relationships, he has actually gone to see sex workers or had them over to his place when his girlfriends were not around to find out.

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I’ve since confronted him several times about this being an issue for me. He’s made efforts to stop in the past, but I have found evidence that he browses websites specifically for locating sex workers literally every day. If I leave the house, even for 20 minutes, or turn in to bed for the night before him, he will immediately open these websites and masturbate. He has archives dating back to 2010 of images he’s saved that add up to thousands of files that he refuses to delete. He won’t explain why.

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We have an incredible sex life. We actually have sex several times a week, three to four on average, and engage in mutual masturbation. I’ve tried so many ways to fulfill the fantasy he seems to only be able to get from these women—wearing lingerie, heavy eye makeup, buying sex toys, taking videos of myself masturbating for him, being especially submissive in the bedroom—but NOTHING detours him from looking at these websites. When I ask him to stop and explain why I feel so strongly about it, he will often tell me that without this type of porn habit, he wouldn’t be able to perform in bed with me. He claims that it’s important to him and something he really enjoys.

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I feel terrible about myself when I find evidence of his behavior. I spend so much of my energy being suspicious, snooping, and trying to “catch him in the act.” I constantly compare myself to these women and what they are able to offer him that I can’t. How do I come to terms with this if he is unwilling to stop?

—Not Working

Dear Working,

You could view his taste as operating like an orientation—insofar as it seems that he can’t change it and, per his own description, it’s part and parcel of his sexuality. It predated you and, should you break up, in all likelihood it will outlive your relationship. It certainly will if he doesn’t take active steps to avoid such material, and it doesn’t sound like he will or wants to. To properly evaluate your situation, you have to see it as it is: You’re in a relationship with a guy who likes to jerk off to sex worker listings and considers it integral to his sexual functioning. It’s understandable if that’s not the relationship you want to be in, but there you are. So what are you going to do about it?

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Details aside, your letter has echoes of many that we’ve received from people who can’t quite accept the vastness of their partner’s sexuality. People like novelty and one-is-not-enough-ness abounds. The desire for sex with multiple people does not negate the love a person has for (or, in your case, the sex they have with) their partner. It does not mean their partner is “not enough,” only that their partner isn’t multiple people. You could never be that. It’s my suspicion that your sex-worker roleplay isn’t satiating your partner’s desires because a) you are not a sex worker and b) you are not a listing on a website. It is reasonable to assume that the entire process is what’s attractive to him, and that process differs considerably from having sex with you.

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Internet cruising as a “self-contained behavior”—one that does not result in meeting someone, but is its own erotic act-slash-masturbatory aid—is a documented phenomenon (consider this fascinating study from 2014). Now, your boyfriend’s past cheating complicates things. Tolerating his masturbation habits may amount to lubing up on an already slippery slope. He might not be deserving of the benefit of the doubt and in fact by extending it, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment. But if he’s not going to stop and you want to continue this relationship, well, it’s up to you to adjust. Can you accept him, as is? To stay with him, you just might have to. A couple’s counselor might also help you work through and/or provide needed clarity.

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Dear How to Do It,

I am a straight man currently dating two women. One of the women I find absolutely gorgeous, and our conversations crackle, but our sexual chemistry is lacking. The few times we’ve had sex it has been awkward and, I think, mutually unsatisfying. The other woman is maybe not as attractive (more my level, frankly), and our conversations are more ho-hum, but we have incredible sexual chemistry. We get each other off repeatedly and text erotic thoughts to each other. Obviously there are a million variables when deciding whom to date, and it’s likely that by the time you respond one or both of them will have ditched my non-committal ass, but any guidance you have on how heavily to weight good sex early in a relationship would be appreciated. Should I go with the good sex I know is there, or hope the other sex can progress? Thanks so much.

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—Fork in the Road

Dear Fork,

Unless something is absolutely compelling you to choose now, ride these out and see how things develop. I understand having the perspective that sexual chemistry either is or isn’t, with no in-between. This line of thinking contends that you either respond to someone on that level or you don’t—kind of like when someone’s natural smell is ineffably attractive to you, or not. While, certainly, a relationship can be much easier when everything falls into place and fits snugly, as it were, one can foster the intensity of a sexual relationship through exploration and communication. In fact, those two elements are often crucial for maintaining a satisfying sex life with a partner. Don’t forget that many couples experience waning desire as time goes on: The connection you had instantly with Woman No. 2 may reduce over time as you become accustomed to the sex you have and it isn’t as novel.

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Either way, there’s a good possibility that you have your work cut out for you, and so with that in mind, if I had to choose between the two options, I’d go with the person you can talk to. In a relationship, sex may come and go, but an overall sense of connectedness is special and worth holding onto.

Dear How to Do It,

I’m a 30-year-old gay man who has mostly explored my sexuality through porn. I’ve always had an interest in BDSM and kink play to some extent since college and have had healthy outlets for that. I have seriously done almost everything at least a little bit, and find it all mostly fun and exciting. Lately however, probably the last two years, I’ve been extremely turned on by more violent/dominant porn. The top using the word “faggot,” findom, raceplay, incest, and more extreme sexual roleplay of the non-consensual kind. I am mostly turned on by being submissive and these types of acts all represent various versions of the most extreme versions of submission. I am not white, and for the race-play aspect, I imagine myself as the submissive to a top of a “superior race” (which race that is changes quite a lot) if that matters.

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Is this problematic? I’m only turned on by the roleplay during sexual excitement, and when not in the mood, stuff like using the term “faggot” and the general performativity of it simply disgusts me. I’ve dabbled a bit in doing these acts with consensual partners, but I worry that since this is the only type of pornography I now watch it’s messing me up in the head somehow—like I’ll never be able to have more vanilla sex or even light kinky sex again. Even when just looking at pictures of attractive shirtless men, I have to create these extreme scenarios in my mind to actually reach orgasm. Which also makes it very difficult to get into more vanilla sex, because it’s hard to create those fantasies in the moment during actual intercourse, and I’m too embarrassed to ask a partner to do it spur of the moment if we haven’t discussed this level of kink beforehand. How do I prevent this from being the only type of sex that turns me on? Is it an issue that I get so much sexual excitement from it?

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—Daddy’s Little Problematic Submissive

Dear DLPS,

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What if you’re just … kinky? It’s as if you see vanilla sex as a base to which you will and should return, but what if it was never home to you in the first place? This may limit your options and make picking up strangers a challenge, at least without a discussion that outlines what gets you off. But the fact is that no one is for everyone, and communication about the sex that you’re about to have is extremely important. I think it’s unlikely that you will eradicate your sexual interests without causing stress and discomfort. However, if said interests are already causing you stress and discomfort, it might be a good time to talk to a professional. From what you’ve presented, I can’t tell if you are distressed by your kinks themselves or their breach from the supposed norm. The former calls for internal work; the latter requires coming to terms with external forces that actually have nothing to do with you,

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Our disgust response tends to diminish during sex, allowing things to appeal to us that may seem abhorrent in other contexts. Race play is, naturally, controversial, as for many it seems illogical to propagate something as corrosive and deadly as racism or its associated stereotypes in one’s bedroom. Sex, however, is illogical. In his wonderful book about gay men and the way they treat each other, Out of the Shadows: Reimagining Gay Men’s Lives, psychotherapist Walt Odets puts it this way: “For anyone who has observed human life, reasoned sex is a ridiculous standard. ‘Reasoned sex is like jumbo shrimp,’ a friend once said to me. Sex is not conducted out of good sense or reason, and it never will be. By its very nature it is irrational, and both the importance and the irrationality of sex are beyond negotiation.”

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This is not to suggest we all have carte blanche on sexual pursuits—a previous HTDI column featured the sage words of Mollena Williams-Haas on negotiating the power dynamic in consensual race play, which is to say that considerations are important even when consent has been made absolutely clear—but to underline the possibility of mutual pleasure from that which may seem abhorrent in the harsh light of day.

More How to Do It

I’m a straight, divorced woman in my late 50s. I’m not actively seeking a relationship or sex partner, but I would definitely not be opposed to either if the opportunity presented itself. My last sexual relationship was two years ago, when my ex-husband and I attempted to rekindle things after having been divorced for six years. It limped along for a while, but he broke it off. But when we got back in bed during that time period, I was surprised to find that he picked up a trendy new habit that I don’t understand at all.

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