How to Do It

I Saw My Husband’s Compromising Emails About Sex. I Investigated—and It’s Both Better and Way Worse Than I Thought.

A woman holds her hand under her chin as if in thought. A do not enter sign flashes in neon behind her.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by 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 recently found out my husband was looking at escorts. He emailed one to ask how it all works, and I saw since we share a computer and he was still logged into his account when I went to open mine up. I was concerned enough that I had us both tested for STDs, asked for couples counseling, and asked to see his bank records. It was both worse and better than I thought: While he claims it was just curiosity and I can’t find any bank charges for escorts, I did see he spent well more than $4,000 on strippers in the past four years, going monthly, essentially any time I was out of town or out to dinner with friends. Most times he was spending $100 to $200, but a few times he dropped $500, and none of this was ever disclosed with me. It’s been six months and even with counseling, I am having a hard time squaring who I thought he was with what the records show. We’ve only been married for three years! I didn’t think marriage would be this hard, this early on, without kids. When do you know the trust is gone, and it’s time to move on?

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—Stripped

Dear Stripped,

Is it expected that the two of you will have approval over how the other spends money? Do you think of him visiting a strip club as infidelity? How about pornography use? Should he have spoken with you about his curiosity about escorts? How does your spouse feel about these questions? How well do the two of you overlap in values? Ask directly, and have real conversations about these subjects.

It might help to think through the “why” behind your answer to each question. Have you ever really decided your feelings about these things, and how you define the boundaries of “monogamy”? Or did your idea of how things should be get absorbed from the culture around you? Things that weren’t conscious choices are worth thinking through.

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It’s possible to rebuild trust. Trust requires respect. If you don’t respect each other’s values, you probably can’t build that trust again. If you do align, or can even understand where the other is coming from, you’ve got something to work with. Figure this out now before you’ve got children to consider.

Dear How to Do It,

My husband and I have been married for five years. He is a kind, patient man whom I love very much. I’m the problem in this relationship, not him. When we were dating, I was going through a period of “ignore and compartmentalize feelings/trauma/anything bad” and was very good at shoving things in a small box in my mind and never touch it. I was dealing with some hefty depression and PTSD, but wasn’t medicated and wasn’t in therapy. Our sex life was actually pretty great during that time, and we were having sex at least three or four times a week.

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Something inside me changed after we moved in together and got married. I was having a harder time compartmentalizing my trauma, and it started leaking through and interfering with my life. Sex became difficult for me, and I was feeling extreme guilt and shame, and then sex started to become painful because of those feelings (therapy made me realize this is normal after trauma—yay, therapy). My husband encouraged me to get counseling and to take medication; he has always told me sex isn’t what makes a relationship, and while he wishes we were more physical, he understands. Because it has taken so much time and tinkering to get the right medication, right combination, right dosing, we have really only had sex a few times in the last few years. I’m finally in a healthy(ish) place and want to become more physically intimate. I’m so scared that I’m just going to be a disappointment to him and want to have a conversation with him about it. I don’t know where to start.

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—Back at It

Dear Back,

If you’re still in therapy, your therapist is in a great position to be a sounding board for your emotions and worries. If you aren’t, and a few sessions to work on this isn’t an option, I’m sure you can draw on what you’ve learned about yourself over the past few years. What helps you through fear? Is it breaking things down into individual concerns to be addressed? Figuring out mitigation strategies? Imagining the absolute worst-case scenario past the point of absurdity so you can laugh at it? Apply what helps in other areas of your life to this situation.

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Your instinct to have a conversation is sound. I think you’ll be more at ease when you know what his expectations really are. You can take the opportunity to set them as low as you need them to be.

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Think through some sexual scenarios. What feels like a limit for you? If something you imagine makes you uncomfortable, take note. Get an idea of what you think you’d like to try, and be able to communicate that. You say your husband has expressed that sex isn’t required for a relationship, and understands. Trust that he means that, and that he can continue to be patient as you feel out what works for you now. Go to him with your feelings, let him be there for you, and tell him clearly what your boundaries for the first interaction are.

If you’re nervous or feeling unbearably exposed, it might help to turn the lights low, or sit side by side—maybe holding hands. As you’re sharing, it’s also a good time to check in with your husband on what his desires are. Areas of overlap with your interests and comforts are where you’ll want to start. Sex can be whatever you’re comfortable with, and stop any time you want.

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Dear How to Do It,

My wife is really into extremely gentle clitoral vibration and the unique “buildy” orgasms they provide. Her favorite was a cheap, battery-powered vibe that she preferred just as the batteries were dying, but it would REALLY ruin the moment when it finally gave up. We do enjoy hourslong back-and-forth edging using fingers, mouths, etc. but would really like to add a toy that starts very low with adjustable rather than preprogrammed settings. We’ve bought the ones with indirect sonic and air pulses from the premium brands, the palm shaped models. and plenty more. Every toy we’ve tried is just TOO strong, so it gets her off in a really rushed, almost unsatisfying way. After spending hundreds, I’d love to deliver on this, for her and for us. Any ideas?

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—Magic Stick

Dear Stick,

The best I’ve found for gentle vibrations is Minna’s Limon. It goes as softly as you can push. Rather than rest on my low-rumbling laurels, I reached out to Epiphora of sex toy review site Hey Epiphora:

I sympathize with your dilemma! So many vibrators these days are focused solely on power, offering only a handful of set modes. Air flow toys in particular can be wildly intense for sensitive people, and they certainly don’t provide the build up of arousal some people want (including me!). You’re wise to be looking for a vibe with incremental speed controls. The ones from LELO come to mind first—like the Siri 2 or Mona 2—because they are highly adjustable and begin extremely low, barely wiggling at all. The much more affordable BMS Pillow Talk Racy and Flirty start a bit higher and feature a single button that you hold to increase intensity. If you think she might want something squishy to cushion the sensation, the Tenga Iroha Zen and Rin may fit the bill. They offer gentle vibrations, but they don’t have incremental intensity adjustment.

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Speaking of cushioning the sensation, you might try inserting a washcloth between your partner’s clitoris and the vibrator. Might work wonders.

Dear How to Do It,

I’ve been dating a guy who was very honest from the get-go about his ADHD. He’s delightful in person and over text, and often makes me laugh. When the relationship started, he was also very direct about sex, in writing and in speaking, which while unusual in my particular experience, this was a turn-on. The sexting was hot! The sex talk was fun! It gave me something to look forward to when I couldn’t see him! It made me get a little more comfortable with being direct about sex—all good things!

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So what’s the problem? After the last time we were together, which was good for me and I think good for him, though he didn’t always come (which apparently is a thing with ADHD distraction?), he’s been shying away from sexting and more uneven in his communication. In most men, I’d see this pattern change and presume he’d lost interest. But I’ve also been reading a lot about ADHD in relationships, and that reading suggests that the shift from hyperfocus to distraction is not unusual with ADHD folks and may not mean … much? It’s rather confusing for me since he’ll alternate between making plans and an occasional sext to totally ignoring any sexts/overt flirting and being noncommittal about plans. My neurotypical instinct is to acknowledge what I’ve observed and ask what it means (or, in some cases, acknowledge that it appears the guy is uninterested and end things), but my reading about ADHD also taught me that it commonly comes with rejection sensitivity further augmented by lifelong experiences of getting yelled at a lot for various issues stemming from how ADHD brains work.

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I don’t want to hurt him or contribute to bad mental health; I do want to know what’s going on and I don’t think it’s too much to ask, and yet I feel uncertain about asking. Any suggestions? To be clear, I’m mostly trying to figure out if he’s still interested but, also, if the issue is related to him not always coming, I’m OK with that—I’m a woman, it’s not like I’ve orgasmed every single time I’ve had sex, and a lot of that sex was still good. Likewise, if I know he’s still interested and isn’t sexting for X or Y reason or needs me to do ABC to move things along, I can work with that. I just need to know! I realize this is at base a communication question, and I’d love any advice about kind communication that is respectful to both of our needs. Thanks!

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—Tongue-Tied

Dear TT,

I reached out to New York City sex therapist Stephen Snyder to get a gut check on this question. His first instinct: “I think you’re using the ADHD label to rationalize behavior that’s simply disappointing or frustrating.” In other words, he could have ADHD and be noncommittal.

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You’re correct that at its core, this is a communication issue. Your partner’s neurodiversity shouldn’t preclude you from addressing your needs directly, and you need to know where you stand. His off-and-on communication style puts you in doubt of his intentions, and that’s uncomfortable. Snyder, author of the book Love Worth Making, suggested that you keep the emotional volume low, exercise brevity, and focus on your own needs—“for instance, your need for reassurance.” Keep in mind your happiness here. How much of “moving things along” are you willing to sign up for long term? Realistically, how much hot and cold can you handle? Regardless of your partner’s brain chemistry, this is a part of who he is. Can you be OK with periods where you’re doing all the pursuing?

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All the kindness you show in your letter is great. You’re still at risk of upsetting your partner or hurting his feelings—that’s a possibility in these conversations. When you go to talk to him about this, emphasize that you care about him, and call for a break if things start feeling unmanageably heated. It might help to think about how you’ll do that beforehand.

More How to Do It

My partner (36-year-old man) and I (34-year-old woman) have been together for more than 16 years and have a wonderful relationship and a beautiful 5-year-old daughter. He is the love of my life, and I feel as strongly about saying that now as I did when I first fell in love with him. I have never kept anything from him. Lies chew me up inside, and I really can’t keep secrets—except one. It’s an awful, crushing secret.

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