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 have been having really good sex ever since I was 15 years old, and that is something I have always felt lucky about. But I’m starting to realize I do something during sex that I really wish I didn’t do: I fantasize 100 percent of the time. Sometimes my boyfriend plays into the fantasy, sometimes it’s a totally different scenario. Quite literally, the second I decide I am ready to orgasm, I start trying to think about the dirtiest situation I can concoct, and it always has to be more taboo than the last thing. And the one thing that I still find taboo is incest. So I’m always fantasizing that my partner is my dad—not my actual dad, but the scenario is that I am my partner’s daughter. It’s gotten more disturbing to me lately, because it’s the only thing I think about when I climax with him, and he is significantly older than I am, about a 30-year age difference, so it does sort of naturally lend itself to the comparison.
It takes me a long time to orgasm, because I’m so busy making sure that the fantasy is as dirty and messed up in my head as it can possibly be, when I really wish I could just focus in on what my partner is doing and how we feel together, because he’s amazing and a great lover, and I’m very attracted to him. We’ve been together for about 10 months now, but just recently, every time after we have sex, I feel sick to my stomach or like I’m not myself afterward. I spent a whole day last weekend waiting to come back to myself because I felt so scared, or like something really bad was going to happen. This is not the first time this has happened in relationships for me. To add insult to injury, in the last week, I’ve been having really uncomfortable incest dreams that make me feel guilty and gross when I wake up. I spend a lot of time every day masturbating, and then lots of my sleeping time dreaming about sex, and it’s starting to feel less cool and more and more frustrating the older I get. I just want to find a way to be more present during sex. And I’m really sick of the incest dreams.
—In Her Head
I ran your question by social psychologist and Kinsey Institute research fellow Justin Lehmiller. The author of Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life, which was based on a survey of more than 4,000 Americans on their sexual fantasies, Lehmiller is an authority on what the mind conjures in and around sex. If I had to choose one word to describe Lehmiller’s vibe as we discussed you by phone, it would be “chill.” He said he gets asked questions about fantasizing during sex a lot—this column has also received its fair share of such queries—and the practice itself is common.
“It’s something that people often do to increase sexual arousal, to maintain sexual arousal, or to facilitate orgasm,” he explained. “It’s adaptive in that way, because it can enhance the sexual experience. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to fantasize during sex. Another way to think about it is to the extent that this facilitates sex and allows people to experience more pleasure, that’s a positive outcome.” Keep in mind that fantasizing can be a way of engaging with novelty, something that is inherently appealing to people in a long-term, monogamous setting. Lehmiller also pointed out that for those prone to distraction, fantasies are a way to maintain focus on the sex at hand.
Lehmiller said that in the aforementioned survey on which he based his book, only 12 percent of people said they fantasized to compensate for an unattractive or undesirable partner. Much more common was fantasizing to increase sexual arousal (80 percent), to escape reality (59 percent), to fulfill a taboo desire (58 percent), and to reduce anxiety (34 percent). You could very well be part of that 12 percent, but the point is that fantasizing doesn’t necessarily signal that there’s trouble afoot.
Incest fantasies, likewise, are common, as is disgust following orgasm (our disgust response tends to decrease when we’re turned on). Lehmiller and I have discussed conscious eradication of fantasies before, and it’s a dicey business with limited success, if any. More useful might be to cultivate new fantasies or to focus on other things that turn you on besides incest. However, Lehmiller said, “If your fantasy is creating a lot of distress, it might be worth speaking to a therapist to unpack that and explore ways for coping with that distress and finding some way to come to terms with the fantasy.”
I find that what I’m into often comes and goes with the wind (and/or what’s featured in hot porn that I happen to see). Our sexuality is prone to evolution, even if it’s in minor ways, so try to be patient with yourself and understand that this whole incest fixation might just be a passing fancy. You can also attempt mindfulness by keeping locked in the moment. Strengthen your focus muscle with meditation and see what happens if you don’t fantasize during sex, just as an experiment.
Dear How to Do It,
My wife and I have been married for decades, and I still love her very much. In the last year, she changed eating habits and started exercising because of a health scare and has lost more than 70 pounds. She’s very happy and excited about her new look. I feel like she’s gone too far, is too thin, and am actually less attracted to her physically. Not sure if I should talk to her about what I think or just focus on my feelings for her, shut up, and let her be happy. Suggestions?
—Weighing My Options
You should almost certainly focus on your feelings for her, shut up, and let her be happy. Unless she’s showing signs of disordered eating or otherwise has adopted unhealthy habits, your intervention could only serve to disrupt her joy. Men often tell women they are too something, and power structures being what they are, those words stick. You have a choice between being that guy or not intervening in the pride your wife has for her hard work on her body. That this is even a question makes me ill at ease.
I suppose what’s truly relevant here is your waning attraction to your wife. I have a few thoughts on that. The first is if you are less attracted to your wife but still attracted nonetheless, just hang in there. You may just need to adjust to her new appearance. Accepting changes in our partner’s appearance can require some working through. A few months ago, I answered the inverse of this question from someone whose boyfriend was having a hard time accepting her recent weight gain (the inverse a few times over, in fact), and a sex therapist named Sonalee Rashatwar helped walk us through the process of accepting the aesthetic changes of your partner. Therapy and an open mind guided by the principle that taste is quite malleable and prone to changing over time could be useful. Again, absent any unhealthy habits on her part, I think you’re much better off trying to work on yourself than your wife—for one thing, she’s put in enough work as it is.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a 19-year-old girl who just finished my freshman year of college, and I’m currently living with my mom and her new husband, who has two kids, a boy (13) and a girl (11). My stepsiblings and I aren’t super close, but we get along well. However, my room in our new house shares a closet with my stepbrother’s room, so I can sometimes overhear him if one of us has our closet door open. I’m a night owl, and regularly stay up until 3 a.m., and lately, so has my stepbrother. But unlike me, he’s not working—he’s, well, discovering Pornhub. And while our rooms are on the second floor and it can’t be heard by his parents or sister, I can hear it uncomfortably clearly through both doors, even when they’re closed. To make this even more complicated, I think he watches a lot of gay porn, based on what I’ve heard, and I don’t want to make him feel pressured to explain it to me or come out or anything if I bring it up. My stepbrother is a shy, quiet kid who spends most of his time playing Minecraft and he has no idea I can hear him. I tried headphones while I work, but he continues his online activities after I’m done, making it very hard to sleep. How do I bring this up without embarrassing or possibly outing my stepbrother? Do I talk to my mom or his dad, or go directly to him?
—Stepbro, Please Don’t
Speaking to him directly would be the best way to avoid outing him. You don’t even have to get specific. You can tell him to cut the volume without telling him exactly what you’ve been hearing. If his video games are ever audible from your room, just tell him that the game noises are distracting you and ask if he could use headphones while using his computer. Otherwise, keep things vague while still asking him to use headphones—“Noise coming from your computer is keeping me up at night. Would you mind turning it down or using headphones?” This, I think, is the clearest path to getting what you want without embarrassing him.
There is a chance that even stating things outright wouldn’t embarrass him—whereas many teens might sneak around to obscure their porn use, this one is brazen. He doesn’t seem to be too worried about getting caught. Granted, people, young people especially, sometimes don’t have much sense of the world outside of themselves, so there’s a good chance he doesn’t realize the cocking cacophony pouring out of his speakers is affecting you. In that case, letting him know that it is—even by implication—could help cultivate a sense of self-awareness. You’d be providing a much-needed service, in fact.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a gay man who never envisioned myself to be able to have an open relationship—it’s always been a non-starter. I always pictured myself getting jealous, feeling self-conscious, and just all-around not being a fan. Well, COVID waning, I’ve extended my dating reach a bit further and feel like I may have found someone special. I saw he was open to open relationships in his profile before we met, but I figured I might as well take the chance—maybe we’d just have a great one-night stand and leave it at that.
Well, it turns out we’ve had great sex multiple times and have gone on a few romantic dates. I think we’re just about at that point to start talking about getting a little more serious, and honestly, I’ve opened myself up to trying an open relationship. Why not?
My question is: I’ve often seen guys on the apps say they “play together” or “play separate,” and I’m wondering what are the pros and cons? As someone who thinks he’ll naturally get jealous and self-conscious, I assume I’d want to play together so I can be there for everything and won’t allow my mind to travel to a million different places when I think about him screwing someone else? If a guy states upfront he wants to be open, do I even have a say in if I’d like it to be together or separate?
—Open to It
You absolutely have a say in the terms of your open arrangement, and anyone who thinks that you shouldn’t is not nearly as invested in your feelings as he should be. While some guys find that experiencing outside sex alongside their partners is too intense, I think the “play together” phase of open relationships tends to come earlier. It’s the training wheels period, in which, ideally, the very idea that your partner’s sexuality can be and is beyond you is demystified. It can be comforting to experience an entire session of your partner playing with someone else and then realize that he isn’t going anywhere. It can also be a bonding experience to “share” someone, as it were. You can explore new facets of your sex life together with another person involved that were previously impossible. (It takes three to spitroast!)
It can also be massively awkward when there is a disparity of attraction—maybe the third likes you more than him, maybe you’re more into the three-way than your boyfriend is and thus have to do the heavy lifting, maybe the novelty of a new body is so spellbinding that you end up paying way more attention to the new guy than your boyfriend and he gets figuratively butthurt as a direct result of his ignored butt literally not hurting at all. Somehow adding a third body can unlock infinite new possibilities—and some of these exist in the emotional realm and prove uncomfortable when uncovered.
Playing separately is a way of circumventing said disparity and embracing the reality that not everyone is going to be into everyone and that some things are only meant for two. It’s a way of cutting out the aforementioned awkwardness and asserting individuality. Also, some people just aren’t into threesomes but nonetheless crave sex outside their relationships. But if individuality comes at the expense of the unit of two, however, you’re going to run into problems. Jealousy is corrosive, and spending too much time away from the relationship in pursuit of dick can also be detrimental. My advice is for you to take things slowly. If this guy cares about you, he’ll adapt to your pace. I don’t think you should go about trying to change him, but I also don’t think you should change yourself, either. Have a threesome because you want to, not because you think that it’s the only way you can keep this guy. Let your thoughts on the matter inform discussions. It’s early enough in your association with this guy that you should be focused on determining whether or not a prospective relationship is a good fit for both of you, not so much how you can conform to maintain what you think you have. You do no one any favors by agreeing to a structure that you can’t actually function in; more often than not, that ends up being a curse.
More How to Do It
I’m a 27-year-old straight woman. I recently dated a man for several months who was odd about sex—he frequently mentioned that he had a small penis (which he did) and that oral sex was what made him a good lover. I don’t particularly care for oral sex, but I cared for him very much. There were a lot of problems in the relationship outside of sex—he had a bit of a cruel streak, and then there would be an apology spiral—and we eventually broke up. I have moved on and am dating a lovely man. But yesterday my ex sent me an email that made my jaw drop.