How to Do It

My Grandma Just Made a Confession About Her Sex Life With My Grandpa

We’re not sure what to say now.

An older woman with a question mark next to her.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ashwin Vaswani on Unsplash.

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 grandmother is in her 80s and is the caregiver of my grandfather, in his late 80s. They have four adult sons. My grandfather has autism—he’s never been formally diagnosed but our whole family is doctors and that’s what they’ve concluded. A decade ago, he had a debilitating bout of depression, which was then followed by rapid physical and cognitive decline that doctors can’t quite pinpoint the reason for.

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He’s always been brilliant, if pretty self-centered. But whatever social graces he had before the depression have pretty much gone out the window. Now he’s uncommunicative and uncoordinated, but can still feed himself, walk, and do basic tasks. Basically, he parks himself in a recliner and reads mysteries, and yells at the little kids to keep down the noise. My grandmother dotes on him, and treats him like a preschooler, making him sandwiches he’s perfectly capable of making himself, doing up his tie, etc. She’s never worked, and I think she got a lot of joy out of being a wife and mother and taking care of all of her boys’ needs. Sort of a “likes to be needed” situation. They live in an apartment in an assisted living facility, and it has aides who are wonderful and perfectly able to sit with him while she goes out to dinner with her friends, but she doesn’t want to leave him.

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Recently, my grandmother confided separately in both an aunt and my mom—both of whom are her daughters-in-law—that she and my grandfather have sex every night, even though it hurts her, but she doesn’t feel like she can say “no.” My mom was caught completely off guard—we’re a pretty prudish family, my mom especially, and she told me she was really uncomfortable talking about sex with her mother-in-law. She stammered something about how she should be able to say “no” before a younger cousin came in and the conversation was over. But my grandma apparently brought it up before with my aunt and actually got in a conversation with her about it, although I don’t know what she said.

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He’s not physically strong enough to force her—he’s lost almost all of his muscle tone and he’d never threaten her—and my sense is that it’s more that my grandma doesn’t want to deal with him needling her or trying to convince her or sulking if she’s just not interested. But still, I do feel like she was turning both to my mom and to my aunt for help, and my mom at least let her down. My mom agrees and has said she’d like to bring it up again with her, but doesn’t know how. To me, a Gen Z girl, any situation in which she feels like she can’t say “no” (especially to something that hurts) is abusive. My mom agrees, but she’s struggling with how to approach this topic again with her mother-in-law. Any thoughts?

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—How to Say No

Dear No,

I would guess that for your grandmother, this goes beyond the bodily moment and to something more essential, like her perceived role in life. She might not even have the language or the ability to visualize what not acquiescing to your grandfather’s whims even looks like. That’s an insidious power disparity, whether or not he’s physically forcing her, and you’re right to be concerned.

No offense to the person who gave you life, but I agree your mom has dropped the ball here. She at least should consult with your aunt about how her conversation with your grandmother went to assess the next steps. Ideally, she’d also be putting her awkward feelings aside for the sake of another woman’s comfort and safety. But we all have our limitations. Not all heroes wear capes, and in fact most people who wear capes aren’t heroes. Since you’re concerned enough to write in about this, why don’t you take a chance and introduce your own Gen Z sensibility into the situation? I understand if you’re hesitant because you feel that your grandmother had the referenced conversations about the painful, unwanted sex with her husband presumably in confidence with your relatives, but if she brought it up to two people, she is indicating a willingness to engage. The conversation about consent looked very different when your grandmother was young than it does today. Marital rape, for example, wasn’t outlawed in any states until Nebraska took the initiative in 1975.

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How did you learn about the boundaries of consent? How would you teach them to someone? Apply the same principles. Take it slow and make it easy. No cape needed.

Dear How to Do It,

I recently caught my 11-year-old son watching domination and bondage videos on a laptop we let him use for school. Though content filters are on the machine and set to block sexual content, the videos were on YouTube and depict no sex or nudity, but the language is graphic. There was plenty of humiliation and demeaning of young (adult) women to a degree I and my spouse find uncomfortable. He says he started watching more and more graphic bondage and domination content after seeing a duct-tape challenge on YouTube, and found that the videos made him feel powerful and stimulated. I am very concerned that he has been more and more verbally abusive to his younger sibling and seems to try to mimic things he has seen on YouTube, and has been caught doing inappropriate things at school, though never reaching the level of disciplinary action.

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Looking back, we are realizing he has likely spent months if not years hiding in his room late at night watching these videos. He is a great kid who cares empathetically about other people and our pets but has few friends, and the pandemic has taken its toll on socializing. My spouse and I have never engaged in domination, and there is certainly no event he stumbled into at home of any type that would look similar. We are a moderate liberal home and believe in a healthy approach to sex education that is informed and safe, mainstream teen education books and school sex ed (he self-identifies as heterosexual). However, BDSM is not something we were prepared for at his age.

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My questions are about how to keep him safe. I worry he will continue to search for content even if the computers are all locked up at home, and who knows what risks he could be exposed to in person or online as we go through adolescence? I have no idea what growing up with this interest means—is it an issue for a child? Do we try to teach him how to live with it without acting out? Do we try to get it out of his head? Will any of this or the response be damaging to his ego and psyche as an adult? And is there something about our parenting we need to address? Is a therapist necessary, or not the best idea? At the least, clearly our device policy needs to be even more strict than I was expecting, but that would be unfair compared to his sibling. If you have any recommended reading, I’d be greatly appreciative.

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—Unprepared

Dear Unprepared,

A few years ago, I did a deep-ish dive into early kink development following the receipt of a similar question. It’s too early to “diagnose” your son with a fetish—that usually doesn’t happen till around age 16, according to an expert I spoke to. Were this merely a sex thing, it would be worth monitoring and discussing, lest your son form ideas of what “real” sex is like based on the distorted depictions of it in mainstream porn, but not necessarily a cause for grave concern. It’s the violence in the YouTube videos, and his subsequent acting out, that seems most indicative of a potential problem here. In that aforementioned column, J. Dennis Fortenberry, a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University, told me that “most research suggests that exposure to generic erotic media has few long-term effects on young men, despite the many adverse effects attributed to such exposures. When the content of the erotic media is evaluated, graphic violence—rather than graphic sex—seems most influential on attitudes about sexuality and towards potential partners.” I don’t know if the videos your son has been watching qualify as “graphic violence,” per se, but it sounds like they’re closer to that end of the spectrum than that of generic erotic media.

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Sandy Wurtele, a psychologist who worked in the University of Colorado—Colorado Springs’ department of psychology before retiring and has written about sexual development, suggested in an email that you use your son’s inappropriate behavior at home and school as an opportunity for further discussion. “These acts might be used as openers to discuss how watching bondage is affecting his attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors,” she said. She did recommend counseling, and said that the discussions you’ve already had suggest you’re pointed in the right direction. “Warm, open, and communicative parent-child relationship is the most important way that parents can challenge sexualized (and violent) media,” she said.

Wurtele pointed to an Atlantic article from 2018 about talking to one’s kids about porn. (I understand that your son wasn’t watching porn, per se, but for the same of simplicity, I’m going to assume that he was using this material for stimulation as if it were porn.) The problem with a lot of writing on the potentially hazardous effects of porn is that it often comes from organizations with their own conservative agendas that seem less interested in sexual health than obliterating from culture that which they find distasteful, but this piece seems above board. It’s a tough needle to thread, because I think anything that feels good can be over-used and abused, but the reality is that porn is a huge part of our culture and not necessarily unhealthy when used properly. It really depends on the user—beware monolithic decrees.

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As I think you know, your son could continue to develop BDSM fantasies as he gets older and act them out in a healthy, ethical way. Your plan should be focused on his behavior and treatment of others, not on his normal sexual development, which research suggests you can’t control anyway. Best of luck.

Dear How to Do It,

I’m a straight happily married man. I’ve never been attracted to men at all. Lately I’ve been masturbating to gay porn. I would like to have oral sex from a guy. I would also like to give oral sex to a guy. I don’t know where this desire comes from but I think about it a lot. Is it unusual to feel this way without being attracted to guys? I’m confused about what I’ve been fantasizing about lately.

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—Confused Hetero

Dear Confused Hetero,

Is it unusual to be a self-identified straight man who wants to suck a dick? Probably. It’s also unusual for dogs to walk on their hind legs, but damn it, that won’t stop a select few of them from doing it. Some even do the cha-cha while they’re at it. Looks like they’re having a great time, too. More to the point, we’ve gotten quite a few of questions like yours from likeminded men, so at the very least you’re not alone. You guys should all get together and start a support group over brunch.

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The way I see it, there’s nothing to be confused about. You’ve learned something about yourself. While some have argued (poorly, in my opinion) that men who routinely seek out and engage in sex with men are nonetheless straight by virtue of their self-identification, I don’t think this is so easy to call, especially when you take into consideration the history of men refusing to identify with queerness to preserve whatever idea of themselves they had before they were ready to admit that they had a hankering for penis. In much of that theorizing, and your account in particular, I can’t get over the notion that attraction does not apply—what is it to want a specifically male mouth on your penis, and your male mouth on a specifically male penis, for the sake of having man-on-man sexual contact, if not attraction? I don’t believe that you have to like everything about a person to be attracted to them. Attraction is often piecemeal. But even if we want to believe that an interest in specific body parts does not bespeak attraction to the whole, it seems like there’s a little bit more than that going on with you. I’ve seen academics twist themselves into pretzels to explain this, and I’ve never been tempted to bite. A potentially useful thought exercise might be to further explain to yourself what you mean: How can you be interested in this behavior “without being attracted to guys”? Are you fooling yourself by not digging deep enough, or can you rationally describe how these two things can be true at the same time?

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Regardless, call it or yourself what you want. Sometimes a penis is just a penis, but when you put it in your mouth because you want it there, I think the situation takes on a distinct meaning. Call me crazy.

Dear How to Do It,

My wife and I are both in our late 50s and have been married for 20 years. We have great love and affection for each other. We are each other’s best friends. For the first 10 years or more, our sex life was the best either of us has ever had. After that, it was still pretty danged great. However, in the last three to four years, it has really tapered off to almost non-existent.

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Part of this is due to medications I am on that really lower my libido. I can still get in the mood and orgasm, it just takes more planning and more time. Still, I have always wanted more (even now with low libido). We used to talk during sex of encounters with other people or couples, and it was very exciting. When we incorporate porn, it is almost always about threesomes or group sex. She is timidly bicurious and once had a short relationship with a woman before I met her. We had an impromptu threesome once that I loved, but she very much didn’t. I gave her virtually no attention and focused on the new woman, and it made her feel unwanted. I want to at least have another go, with more open communication and full inclusion (and pleasure!) for all. She has been adamant about never trying it again. So, I want two things: to live with and love my wife until one of us dies, and to roll around naked with women of different shapes, sizes, colors, orientations—the women to whom I am attracted. And I’m pretty sure I want my wife to have the same freedoms. However, I will never do anything that will jeopardize our love and friendship. So, my question is this: How successful are open marriages? I understand it depends on the couple, motivation, etc. Is there data on this? Also, how does one attempt this lifestyle? What are the best practices that will ensure the longevity of our relationship whether or not a foray into an open marriage is successful or not?

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—An Itch to Scratch

Dear Itch,

Data on the “success” of marriages is notoriously hard to nail down. To further complicate the matter, I’d also argue that leaving a relationship in which one or more people are unhappy qualifies as success in the grand scheme of one’s life fulfillment. Staying in an unhappy relationship for too long is its own distinct failure. You can see then how data on open marriage, which stigma makes people less likely to report and which doesn’t require official paperwork at any rate, would be more difficult to obtain. Keep in mind, too, that there’s more going on in an open relationship than outside sex—pointing to any single factor as a reason for the “success” or “failure” of a life shared by two people can greatly simplify to the point of distortion. For what it’s worth, a pretty small, yet oft-cited study from 1983 found “no statistically significant difference in marital stability” between monogamous and nonmonogamous couples. Way too much has changed in the years since regarding the conversation about nonmonogamy to place much stock in such a study, but we have the data that we have.

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As opposed to broad, nationally representative figures, some studies have looked at satisfaction in monogamous couples versus those who practice consensual nonmongamy. This one found the nonmongamous couples “reported more satisfaction, commitment, intimacy, passion, and love.” The results of this one from 2019 suggest that the highest functioning couple relationships are those in which both participants are on the same page, whether they’re monogamous or not, as opposed to “partially open” relationships (defined as having “more mixed attitudes and less clear arrangements regarding monogamy”) and one-sided arrangements (in which one partner engages in sex outside the relationship). The authors identified a Triple-C model of commitment important to the health of consensually nonmonogamous relationships: mutual consent, communication, and comfort.

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So! You have work ahead of you. If your wife is adamant about never trying a threesome again, she may be indicating a larger refusal for nonmongamy. If she’s not into it, you can’t do it. Also, you need not to be “pretty sure” that your wife should be allowed the same freedoms as you desire; you need to be 100 percent sure. Proposing an all-for-me-some-for-you deal isn’t going to fly, nor should it. You should come to the table not as a dictator but as a negotiator. If she is the most sensitive about this, defer to her otherwise you will clash. “You play to the level of the least comfortable person, if you want to keep everybody happy,” says a source in Tristan Taormino’s Opening Up, a book I highly recommend to guide you on this potential journey. Its words to live by include but are not limited to those just quoted.

More How to Do It

My girlfriend and I had our first threesome a few nights ago, and it was great. We talked about it, and she felt most comfortable trying it out with a guy first (with a woman possibly in the future), and I was fine with that. We found a guy on an app designed for couples looking. I’ve never been naked with another guy outside a locker room, much less seen one hard in person, so I was nervous, but it was actually just comfortable and fun from the get-go. Then things … took a turn about halfway through.

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