How to Do It

I Sensed Something Wrong, so I Read My Girlfriend’s Messages. It’s Much Worse Than I Thought.

A man looking at his phone.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Complexio/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’m a 41-year-old man who met my partner (35-year-old woman) just two months before the pandemic, and we immediately connected on all levels from the start. Everything from activities to life goals to our sex life just seemed to click in spectacular fashion. I had been a couple years out of a divorce, and she had been a few years out of an abusive, all-consuming relationship, and we were both ready for something steady again. So we resolved to make it exclusive mere days before everything shut down. It felt serendipitous, and also weirdly at odds with the outside world: As everything was crumbling, we were discovering new ways to be excited about each other every day. It felt lucky to find joy in the middle of so much sadness. Our communication remained open and honest throughout: We were comfortable talking about everything from why our past relationships dissolved to what we wanted in bed to handling stress or needs for space.

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Our sex life throughout was vigorous by my standards—several times a week, with both parties usually orgasming, sometimes multiple times per session. It was maybe a little vanilla by some folks’ standards, but that was mostly because we were too eager to rip each other’s clothes off to mess with extra layers. We leaned into the animal desire we had for each other, joking sometimes together that “our love language was fucking.” We moved in together midway through the pandemic and started talking about a future, maybe getting hitched, kids, the works.

Of course, in a story like this, there’s always a “but,” so here’s mine: She maintains relationships with many of her exes, including the ones who were abusive. One of them is a rich narcissist who still sends her expensive gifts; she can’t seem to cut him out, even though he let her take the fall for a mutual domestic altercation that sent her (wrongfully) to jail. Another ex-turned-friend pressured her for sex on a vacation they went on together as friends shortly after we got together, but before we became exclusive; I supported her from afar in fending him off with late-night texts encouraging her to stand her ground.

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She told me she cut that ex off, but after we became exclusive, she left her phone at home and open and I noticed that she hadn’t in fact cut him off, and that this ex was also encouraging her to get rid of me and get back with him (though she professed no interest at all to me). It’s important to note that I didn’t root around for these texts—I was in the process of returning the phone to her and they were staring me in the face. We had an argument about it, and eventually she confided in me that she has issues with attention from men when she’s in a relationship, and that she has very few girlfriends. She feels she needs to keep these exes around because they’re the only friends she has. Though she’s grown close to my friends and family, in some way they “don’t count” because if I leave her, they will cease to be her friends, or something. It’s been an on-and-off issue, and the only real point of friction in our relationship. But things have gone so well otherwise that I’ve been content to let it fade into the background, even though I know these former-lover friends are bouncing around in her phone, if not in real life, given the pandemic.

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Fast forward to now: For the last few weeks, something had felt off between us. So following our usual convention of open conversation, I tried on several occasions to figure out what was wrong, to no avail. She blamed it on flare-ups with anxiety and depression, which she struggles with and I do my best to support her with. I tried to mention that it felt like I was more into her than she was into me, but she pooh-poohed that notion.

With not much to go on and her not wanting to level, this time I did the no-no and snooped when she left her phone open. I don’t feel good about violating that boundary, and I know what your feelings are on this, but I felt like there was enough smoke that there must be fire, and sure enough I found a conversation with yet another ex where she said exactly “he’s definitely more into me than I am into him” and how she’s not as attracted to me as her exes. She mentioned that this relationship is “healthy” and “stable,” but without the thrill of attraction she’s used to. She expressed a desire to want settle down with me, because she was trying to be honest about how much time she had left, but remained “freaked out” about committing to a relationship when she wasn’t really into the sexual part of it.

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I know: I did it to myself. But that doesn’t make it any less devastating, or contrary to what I believed we both were sharing and building on. I suppose it’s possible she wasn’t telling him the whole truth—but then I feel the only explanation is that she was lying or embellishing to communicate sexual availability to this ex.

I am now utterly lost. I had planned on building a future with this incredible woman, but a huge part of that was what I believed was a shared passion that could endure the test of time. It’s how I feel inside. I don’t know if I should apologize for snooping but confront her to get at the truth of these feelings, blindside her by just breaking up, or hope that what I feel between us is the truth and just let this sink below the waves so I can focus on what we have in the physical world. Please help.

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—Lost

Dear Lost,

I’m not going to ride you about looking at your girlfriend’s phone the second time. You shouldn’t have, you know you shouldn’t have, and you’re not defending yourself for doing it. You’re also doing a lot of justification of her behavior.

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I think the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic placed a lot of pressure on new—and existing—relationships. The stress, the restrictions on who we could share air with, and the fear and trauma all added up to us being not quite ourselves. Now that things are opening back up, we’re either reverting to form or coming out the other side different than we were when this started. I’m not sure which is happening for your girlfriend, but she certainly isn’t contributing to a healthy relationship.

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If you aren’t ready to give up, by all means, go ahead and let this sink below the waves. At the end of the day, it’s your choice whether to stay or go. The thing about choppy waters, though, is that objects we thought lost to the depths have a way of resurfacing later. You’ve tried to have conversations about your feelings and insecurity within the relationship, and they haven’t been satisfactory. It seems unlikely that her behavior will change, but your feelings are your feelings.

If you decide you want to end this, you can break it off with her gently—“this isn’t working out.” But she’s probably going to be surprised, upset, and possibly hurt. She may be using you for stability and comfort while she gets her desires for attention, expensive gifts, and whatever else she gets out of these interactions met. She may genuinely love you and be struggling with sex that isn’t what she’s used to—toxic relationships tend to make for great sexual energy.

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You would do well to articulate what you want out of a relationship somewhere—maybe to a trusted friend, maybe on paper—and compare it with your current situation to help you decide. Good luck, and let us know how it goes.

Dear How to Do It, 

I’m a dad and have a question about how to explain porn to my almost-teenager. He is obviously going to watch it himself someday, and he is a kid who loves to know how stuff works. Basically, I’d like to be able to tell him that these parts are real, but these other parts are not. I have this sense that a good analogy would be to say that watching porn to learn about sex is like watching a cop show to learn about being a police officer—almost the only parts that are real are the fact that it involves people and they are dressed a certain way. Outside of that, all of the situations people find themselves in are just highly unlikely. In the real world, sex is very different. True? What parts of porn are scripted? How much discussion is there beforehand about what can and cannot happen during a scene? Overall, I want him to come away from our conversations with the understanding that porn is certainly something that people watch and enjoy, but that real sex between two actual people involves a lot more (and less) than what you see on the screen. Any tips?

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—Like in the Movies

Dear In the Movies,

I love where you’re coming from. Thank you for this question. Firstly, your almost-teenager has probably already seen some kind of porn. So you might start by asking him what he’s encountered, and then go from there.

Before we dig in, I want to address “real world,” “real sex,” and “actual people.” I don’t think you meant to imply that I, or my colleagues, are not actual people. But you did, and that’s part of the problem. On a porn set, we’re really having sex. Performers in pornography are people, just like you. And the sex we have is varied, just like the rest of the world. You wouldn’t want to perpetuate slut shaming or dehumanization while you’re trying to educate your kid about human sexuality.

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That said, pornography is inherently performative. No matter how focused on our partners we are, we’re aware that there’s an audience. This is the same for group sex without payment or recording. The more people watching, the more expressive—communicative—we’re going to be. When questioned on consent in pornography, I like to deadpan the thing society mocks most about porn: “Yes. Oh, God. Please. More. Harder. It’s so good.” This is active, exuberant consent. Words aren’t everything, and it’s important to make space for people who don’t communicate verbally, but in broad strokes we lambast adult entertainment for doing the exact thing we’re trying to train nonprofessionals to do.

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Professional pornography has layers of consent. Depending on the company, performers are told who they’d be working with before they agree to the gig. They’re also usually told what specific acts are needed for the video (anal, feet, impact play) and asked about their boundaries. Some companies have checklists on the day of the shoot, where performers can mark off yeses and hard noes. On the day of the shoot, performers will get together on set for “the Talk.” We share our limits, desires, and preferences with each other. It’s expected that these will be adhered to, and there are eventual social and professional ramifications for people who regularly violate boundaries. Of course, there are companies that don’t care, and treat their performers like blow-up dolls. Increasingly, though, consent is key. And this is where your cop-show analogy really works—in both cases, there’s lots of procedure that doesn’t make the edit and maybe doesn’t even get filmed.

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So now let’s talk about variety. I actually encourage letter writers here who are presumably adults to watch certain kinds of pornography. There are feminist porn companies, queer porn companies, “mainstream” (or catering to what we traditionally think of as the male gaze) companies, and plenty of in between. One director of lesbian fantasy for the male gaze choreographed every move. Another, whom I performed for regularly, would give us scripts for the “intro” or dialogue portion, and then show us where our light was and turn us loose to do whatever we wanted—within reason—for the sexually interactive portion. Every director is different, every production company is different, and every performer is different.

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Which brings us to porn literacy—like media literacy, but specifically for porn. The first question to answer is “Who made this?” followed by “What message are they trying to convey?” and maybe “And why?,” if you’re feeling frisky. These are great questions to ask about any piece of media.

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From the perspective of preventing your son from traumatizing someone during his first hookup, it’s important to really emphasize the unseen consent procedures that happen in most professional pornography. And much like “use a condom” is our first and main focus when it comes to sexually transmittable infections, “ask for verbal consent” is a great starting point. As your child gets older, you can add in the complexity of nonverbal consent, the fact that gonorrhea and chlamydia can be transmitted from genitals to oral cavities, and, if it becomes relevant, discussion of kink. Your goal is to be able to have multiple conversations over a span of years, adding more layers of understanding. When your child is legally allowed to access pornography, I’m sure there will still be great companies making sex-positive work.

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Dear How to Do it,

My girlfriend and I have been dating for almost two years, we care deeply for one another, and yes, we are in love. We don’t live together; she has her own place and she has a roommate, “Nicole.” My girlfriend and her roommate have known each other since they were 7 years old. They were next door neighbors.

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Since my girlfriend and I started dating, about four months into our relationship, sometimes “Nicole” would go out with us or have dinner with us, at my girlfriend’s request. She is a very nice person, and I have to admit, she’s fun to be around. After a while it was apparent that Nicole was very comfortable around me. When I would come to visit, she gave us our space, but sometimes she would watch movies with us, and when she did, she would sit on the sofa right next to me, very close or sometimes next to my girlfriend. A few times she even sat right in the middle, between my girlfriend and I.

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Also a number of times when I would visit, Nicole would have on short shorts, or slinky clothing, even a lingerie outfit. She’d walk through the house in her panties and a T-shirt, and my girlfriend never said anything. One Friday after work I went over to my girlfriend’s place to stay for the weekend. Nicole was home as well; the three of us were in the den drinking wine and listening to music and talking. As we were talking, Nicole said that since I was staying over for the weekend she would get in a good masturbation session listening to us “getting nasty.” I was speechless and kind of shocked, because I didn’t know what kind of reaction my girlfriend was going to have, but I was relieved to see my girlfriend bust out in laughter. She looked directly at Nicole and said, “OMG, you are so crazy.” We continued to talk and drink for a few more hours, and finally we called it a night and headed to the bedroom, and Nicole went to her room.

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To be honest, Nicole was on my mind, and that night, my sexual performance was immaculate, if I do say so myself, and I know my girlfriend was super pleased and satisfied. The next day, my girlfriend and I went out running errands and did some grocery shopping, and came back to the house. Maybe an hour or so later Nicole came home and started telling us about how good of an orgasm she had last night. I really thought my girlfriend was going to say something to Nicole, but she just joined in with her and said, “Yes, it was so good last night.” Finally, later, I asked her if we would ever have a threesome with Nicole and she said, “Anything’s possible.”

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Now at this point we haven’t had the threesome yet, and I don’t bug her about it or bring it up in conversation; we’ve been together for almost two years and I have gotten used to Nicole walking around the house wearing little to nothing and her sexual comments. The thing is, I am starting to notice that my girlfriend is starting to give me the “eye” sometimes when she sees me looking at Nicole, but when I tell her maybe it’s best that she speaks to Nicole if she feels that maybe her and I are getting to close, she says nothing is wrong and there is no problem. Because of the pandemic, we both work from home, and most of the time I tell her to come to my place when we do spend time together, but then she wants me to come to her place and when I do, if Nicole is home, I just get this weird vibe from my girlfriend, but she says everything is cool. Nothing has changed between us, and Nicole still does the things that she does, but from time to time when Nicole is around us, my girlfriend gives me that “look” that makes me feel a little uneasy, but she says everything is good. So why do I feel some type of way about the way she looks at me when Nicole is around?

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—Nicole 4 Eva

Dear 4 Eva,

This sounds like a modern Penthouse letter, but I’ll take you at your word. When you describe Nicole announcing her plans to masturbate to the sounds of the two of you having sex, you mention your worry about your girlfriend’s reaction, but you don’t say anything about your own feelings. That’s telling.

So how do you feel? Are you comfortable with the way Nicole behaves around you? Are you OK with her flirtations? Would you like to have a threesome, and if so, do you think it’s a good idea for the third person to be your girlfriend’s roommate and near-lifelong friend? Spend some time thinking about yourself in this situation. What are you OK with, what do you want, and what needs to stop?

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Once you’ve centered your own experience, it’s worth having a private, significant conversation with your girlfriend. She is probably navigating some complex feelings, which neither you nor I can guess. Share what’s happening for you, and ask her what’s happening for her. Choose your moment—when there’s plenty of time, both of your biological needs are taken care of, and you’re each in as calm of a state as possible. Be prepared to answer questions, and to do active listening and ask questions of your own. Good luck.

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Dear How to Do It, 

My husband and I got married this year after living together as roommates for six years and dating officially for about two. I love him, and our sex is great. Recently, though, a friend I used to sleep with has expressed interest in having group sex with us (an exciting first for my husband), and I’ve been having difficulty feeling comfortable with the thought. First, this friend is someone my husband was previously very infatuated with, and I’ll be honest and admit I’m worried he might be more interested in this because of that. Second, I’m a trans woman, and though this other friend is also trans, I’ve always had a strict list of people I will and won’t let touch me (and specifically my genitals) during sex, and I’m concerned this may come up and be difficult to diffuse without ruining the mood. I’ve talked to my husband about this, and his initial reaction was asking how we could fix my issue because it “bothers me and he wants me to be comfortable and happy.” It doesn’t bother me, actually. I’m fine with my genitals and have always enjoyed having sex, I just don’t enjoy letting certain people touch me. I have had sex with people who I have never let touch my genitals or even see me fully undressed, this friend included. He has pushed back saying I’m obviously bothered by it and that he wants to help me find a solution, but short of calling up our other friends and asking them to handle my junk, I don’t see a method. And I just plain don’t want to! I’m worried he’s so fixated on finally getting to have group sex with this friend that he isn’t paying any attention to how uncomfortable his insistence on “fixing me” is making me. What do I do here?

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—Not Broken

Dear N.B.,

You’re totally OK as you are, your boundaries are wonderful, and they should be respected. Your ways of having sex are valid—people frequently express ideas about sex that are quite narrow, and that’s their own lack of imagination, not you having a problem that needs to be fixed. It’s your body. You get to decide who touches you, where they touch you, and how they touch you.

I’m sure your husband has a lot of good qualities that simply weren’t relevant to the issue, but from what you’ve said here I’m concerned he might not be an appropriate partner. I don’t like that he’s telling you how you feel about your body. I don’t like that he pushes back on this particular issue. And I don’t like that he’s almost certainly prioritizing his own fantasy over your comfort. If he is great in other areas, and you’re willing to tolerate these flaws, that’s your choice, and that’s OK too.

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You should have a blunt, firm talk with your husband about the worry you’ve expressed here. “You’re literally saying I need to be fixed, and that’s awful for me” seems like a good place to start. Phrase it in your own words, and with an eye toward what he’s likely to be able to hear. This conversation might hurt. It might be upsetting. How much energy and effort you’re willing to put in to helping him understand is, again, your choice.

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If you decide to go through with a threesome, this specific individual might not be the right person. If you decide to proceed with them, I think you should have a conversation directly between the two of you about your boundaries—and theirs!—long before any plans to meet all together are made. And once you do meet, it should be for a group conversation about how a threesome might go down, including a short, obvious safe word that each of you can use if needed. There’s no need for shame in calling for a pause or even a stop to the action, for anything from a boundary being crossed to wanting to blow your nose.

More How to Do it

I am a 43-year-old man, and my wife is 41. She never had sex before we got together, not even masturbation, because of her conservative upbringing. On my part, I started masturbation in seventh grade, and I first had sex when I was 16. We enjoyed ourselves the first few years. After that, she seemed to lose interest. I think she had a few real orgasms, but mainly faked them. Now, I always suspected this was because I am not very big—I’m about 3.5 inches erect. I told her about bigger men, since she really had no idea, and said she could try sex with one. Now she’s met one, and I’m really losing my nerve.

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