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 think I might be bisexual. I’m a woman who grew up in a very conservative Catholic family and married my high school boyfriend. Like, I honestly couldn’t have even conceived of a situation like this before a few years ago, when I started therapy and realized that there were many different ways to exist in the world, and that there were actually labels for the way I privately felt. I only recently really allowed myself to start watching porn and reading erotica of different varieties, and I was honestly very surprised at the diversity of my turn-ons. It’s been a happy discovery, but eye-opening.
I am in my late 30s now, and I am starting to realize that the feelings I had for my (female) college roommate were more than just platonically friendly. Because I am married, I would not cheat on my husband, and I honestly don’t know that I even want to disclose this to him right now, as we have a good sex life and a fulfilling relationship.
My question is this, though—I am still very close to my friend from college. I genuinely love her and care deeply about her. We talk frequently, and when we visit each other a few times a year, we typically share a bed or tent. Nothing has ever been sexual between us, and it won’t be since I am married to someone else, but I guess part of me is wondering—is it wrong, on my part, to be in these sorts of situations with her, with the knowledge I have now that there really is an element of sexual attraction there, too? I do not plan to tell her about these feelings. But I keep thinking—if I was her, or my husband, would this close friendship bother me or make me uncomfortable, knowing what I now know? I’ve worked hard to overcome shame around sex, and the whole idea of sins of the mind, but this situation feels stickier to me. My friend and I have a visit planned in March. I’d appreciate any insight you have on this.
—My Best Friend Has No Idea
Dear No Idea,
No, it is not wrong. You repeatedly express uncertainty in your letter: You think you might be bisexual, and you’re starting to realize that the feelings that you have for your college friend were more than just platonically friendly. You’re still figuring this out. Speaking prematurely could disrupt your friendship. Abandoning the friendship because of the great affection you have for her would be overly careful to the point of absurdity. I do not get the sense that by withholding information, you are out to exploit or manipulate. You’re just avoiding complication. Sometimes keeping things unsaid is exactly what you need to stay close to someone—this can be for negative reasons (your irritation at a quirk) or positive ones. Civilized life is a careful dance of repression and disclosure, and you are never obligated to divulge everything that’s going on in your head. If you did, you’d create a considerable burden for the recipient of that information, which would be its own moral transgression.
Your ethical yardstick is predicated on fantasy: “If I was her, or my husband, would this close friendship bother me or make me uncomfortable, knowing what I now know?” This would only be a practical concern if mind-reading were humanly possible. Empathy is not gained through omniscience; it’s fostered by legitimate emotional expression. Continue to treat your friend with love. If you have felt this way for a while, that love may well have been palpable all along. Perhaps even your friend has wondered if it’s beyond platonic. Nonetheless, she is responding to you just as you have presented yourself all along. You’re already doing it right.
Dear How to Do It,
I am a 31-year-old male. I have struggled with anxiety and depression since I was at least 15. But I only became aware of that after my father passed away seven years ago and I started seeing a therapist. I think it was too late though, because I think I missed the opportunity of finding a significant other, and now I’m stuck. My last “serious” relationship ended nine years ago, and after that, my sex and romantic life has been a complete mess. I had two horrible toxic relationships, with women I wasn’t even attracted to, but at the time I figured it was better than being alone. It wasn’t. In the meantime, I met someone that I was attracted to and fell in love. She went living abroad and our relationship ended, painfully, after she used me as her piggy bank and left with another guy (I’m not a wealthy person).
It’s been almost three years since that happened and I’m stuck. I know I’m not the most attractive guy around, but I don’t think I am that bad looking either. And my sex life has never been this bad: It’s been 14 months since the last time I got laid, and I’m starting to feel a little desperate. I’ve been using a popular dating app for the last year, where I’ve had exactly zero matches. Or sometimes someone matches and removes me before I even have a chance to say hello (so I guess they swiped right by mistake). I started a master’s degree almost two years ago, where I had the opportunity of meeting other people, only to find out that no one is interested in me. I also like going out dancing and drinking a few beers with friends, and I haven’t been able to meet a single lady.
It’s not just that I want to have sex, I feel like there is something deeply wrong with me, like I don’t deserve to be desired or loved. I feel like I missed the chances I had and now I’m damned to solitude and celibacy. I’ve even thought I might have been targeted by some kind of curse of something. I think my attitude has something to do with it, as my self-confidence has plunged, obviously. I think my fear of rejection is keeping me from acting, but I don’t even know how to act. My attitude is so poor that one of my gay friends asked me if I was sure I’m really into women. (I also have asked myself that question and I’m sure I am.) I think I just completely lack the looks and social skills to find someone. Have you ever heard of cases such as mine? Is there something I am not seeing that I could improve to feel less pathetic and get another chance?
Dear Losing Hope,
I think your attitude has a lot more than “something” to do with your situation. In terms of what you have power over, in fact, it’s everything. And I think working on changing it could be really useful. Not only could a better outlook help you interpret things in a more realistic way (potentially mitigating what appear to be cognitive distortions like catastrophizing and labeling, for example), it could directly help your cause and make you more appealing to potential mates. Confidence sells. However, I understand that it is a tough thing to conjure, especially when you feel that you have been receiving information that reinforces your negative thinking. If you aren’t working on cognitive behavior therapy with your therapist, it might be worth pursuing (if CBT isn’t part of their practice, there are plenty of other providers out there).
Everyone deserves love, but no one is entitled to any particular person’s love. You’re trapped in a gutter between those two truths. I know it’s tough, and I know there are a lot of guys that feel the way you do. Don’t give up, and don’t start blaming the world for your issues. You’ve had love and relationships in the past, there’s no reason that you can’t have both again unless you obstruct yourself from doing so. When it comes to finding love, there is no “too late”; there is only “didn’t try.”
I Just Read About a “Horrible New Dating Trend” and Thought: Oh, I Do That
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Dear How to Do It,
About a year and a half ago, my husband and I had our first child. Before we had children, we liked to engage in various forms of breast play during sex. I got a lot of pleasure out of my breasts being touched and kissed. He got a lot of pleasure out of playing with them, even using them as a means to come. I have a large chest and used to feel that my breasts were one of my “sexiest” features. Since giving birth and breastfeeding, though, my view of my breasts has changed completely. I see them as motherly, as wonderful, as a powerful and awesome means of bonding with my son. I don’t view them as “sexy” anymore. My husband and I resumed our sex life a while ago, but I can’t seem to get back to a place where the involvement of my breasts in foreplay or sex does anything for me. Do you have any advice for how I can start to enjoy my breasts sexually again?
—Play or Nay
Dear Play or Nay,
This summer, an extremely minor controversy erupted over model/personality Coco Austin’s extended breastfeeding of her daughter Chanel, who is now 5. Around that time, Austin’s husband, actor/rapper Ice-T, tweeted: “News Flash! We feed Chanel FOOD… She just likes to suck moms boob every now and then… Me Too!!!” This made me think of how complicated simultaneity can be, especially as it applies to women’s roles and their bodies.
In light of this, the best thing you can do is go easy on yourself—your breast is being pulled in two different directions. Ouch. For some insight, I reached out to Sarah Hunter Murray, a therapist who has written a lot about desire (her most recent book is Not Always in the Mood: The New Science of Men, Sex, and Relationships), including sexuality during and after pregnancy. In an email, Murray said that if you are still breastfeeding, you should give yourself some more time to see how your relationship with your breasts changes when you stop. This will be particularly helpful if any of your current feelings about your breasts derive from tenderness or the frequency of touch that breastfeeding involves.
However, if you want to address this issue before you stop breastfeeding, Murray recommends paying close attention to sensation, a sort of breast-oriented mindfulness. Are there times when having your breasts touched feels better or is more arousing? Murray continues: “For example, is nipple play uncomfortable but light touching of your breasts is nicer? Is it the feeling of your husband’s mouth on your breast reminding you too much of breastfeeding, but using his hands is more pleasing? Does it make a difference depending on whether you nurse your son before or after sexy time with your husband? Your answers to any of these questions may give you glimpses into whether some types of touching are better for you in your new motherhood role and whether there are times when your breasts are touched that feel more sensual for you.”
If nothing else works, Murray suggests going exploring for new erogenous zones, as many transitions in life can result in changing sexual interests: “This may be a good chance to consider whether there are other parts of your body that feel sexy now or feel nice to be touched that were underexplored when your breasts were getting more of the attention during sex.”
I have some additional advice from Dr. Sheryl A. Ross, an OB-GYN and co-founder of Urja Intimates skin care, in the event of physical changes that may have occurred as a result of breastfeeding and pregnancy. “Our mental perception has to reset a bit in the bedroom after having babies,” she explained in an email. “It’s important to discuss your feelings and insecurities with your husband so he can be supportive and reassuring.” To help minimize any sagging that may occur, Ross suggests the following: exercise (including pushups, dumbbell pull-over, and chest press), creams to soften the skin of the breast, good bra support, wean gradually, breast strengthening support, and avoid slouching. Good luck!
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Dear How to Do It,
I am curious about one aspect of my sexuality. Google isn’t being helpful so I’m throwing it to you. I’m in my late 70s, and haven’t had intercourse since my husband died several years ago. I have a couple of nice vibrators and plenty of time and privacy so I don’t feel deprived at all. I masturbate once or twice a week.
In spite of that, every few months I have an orgasm in my sleep. I usually remember the dream that triggered it for a few minutes, but they are not particularly memorable. What’s odd is that these orgasms are not particularly pleasant. They seem more like uncomfortable muscle cramps than welcomed release. But they are orgasms, guaranteed. I can’t seem to find much information about nocturnal orgasms beyond teen boy wet dreams. So I wonder how normal or abnormal my experience is. I also wonder why it’s so hard to find information about old folks and sex. We do get itchy, you know, and could use some specific information and acknowledgment.
—Not So Sweet Dreams
Dear Not So Sweet Dreams,
Consider yourself seen: Your experience isn’t universal but nor is it rare. In a 1986 study, 37 percent of the 245 women college students who answered a survey said they had experienced nocturnal orgasm and 30 percent said they’d had it in the past year. Predictors included “positive attitudes toward and knowledge of nocturnal orgasms, sexual liberalism, and waking sexually excited from sleep.” Meanwhile, here’s a case study, published in 2018, of a 57-year-old woman who experienced nocturnal orgasms at varying rates (weekly to every six months, depending) that she qualified as “systemic kind of orgasm[s], feeling like the whole uterus is involved.” These caused her remorse (compounded by guilt after being chastised for intentionally masturbating by her gynecologist) and a prescription of clonazepam greatly reduced the frequency of the nocturnal orgasms. There’s also a brief description in this study of a woman who experienced such orgasms nightly, resulting in “wet genital areas and a disagreeable (not pleasurable) feeling.” Perhaps yours are similar to hers?
The referenced case study classifies the occurrence of nocturnal orgasms as a parasomnia. You could discuss your nocturnal orgasms with a sleep specialist (and undergo a sleep study) if you’re interested in treatment—clonazepam would be off-label for this issue, but the right doctor should be able to make that happen.
And I agree—it is a shame that the sexual health of older people is largely ignored and unsung. In the U.S., sex education is woefully scant, sex itself is still too taboo, and little cultural space is reserved for senior citizens. Here is an intersection of nonchalance. While the onus for change is not in your hands, if you are so motivated you can keep asking questions and demanding to be seen. I encourage you to be open and unashamed regarding your sexuality, when appropriate. Chipping away at the silence that underscores stigma is a good starting point, should you feel civically minded.
More How to Do It
My current partner has a penis that could be a ruler. No curve, just sticks out at 90 degrees. And he’s great! But a lot of the positions I’d enjoyed with previous partners (like spooning or doggy style) don’t seem to be working out for us, angle-wise. He didn’t have a lot of experience before we got together, so he’s not sure what works other than variations on missionary or girl on top. Any suggestions?