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 boyfriend (23) won’t have penetrative sex with me and tells me “you heterosexuals are too obsessed with it” and that “we think it is the only type of sex.” Despite this, he tells me he is very much attracted to me and assures me he is crazy about me sexually. My boyfriend is bisexual and has told me that he has been in plenty of relationships with other men that don’t include actual penetration, and that it is actually more common than you think in gay relationships (in my boyfriend’s words). I’m skeptical but only have his word to go on. My boyfriend doesn’t like “penetrating people” and tells me he prefers other forms of sex, although he doesn’t mind being occasionally penetrated himself (although that’s not something I’m into; I don’t want to wear a strap on and am not into anal stuff).
At first, I thought maybe he was just lying to me and was actually gay but stringing me along, but he gives the best oral sex ever—the best I have ever, ever had. Mind-blowing level. And he’s happy to fool about in the bedroom and is amazing with the stuff he can do. But I’m really feeling like I’m missing out on that one thing and like he’s shaming me by saying it is overrated and a hetro-obsession. He was with his ex-boyfriend of two years, and apparently it wasn’t an issue. The fact he doesn’t mind being penetrated (but it is not his “go to”), but just refuses to even think about penetrating me, or any other man or woman, makes me think it is a phobia or related to some repressed trauma.
I like this guy, but I think I need this. And it is going to be a barrier if we want children. He’s smart, funny, absolutely gorgeous to look at and what I would consider to be a perfect catch … and pretty damn good in bed. Am I wrong if this is a deal-breaker for me? Would it be awful and insensitive for me to broach the fact this may be trauma-related, and awful of me to suggest therapy? Or could my first hunch me right—that he is more “gay” on the bisexual spectrum, because having no problem “bottoming” yet having issues having sex with your girlfriend seems like a red flag to me. And lastly, is it really true that penetrative sex isn’t as “big of a deal” in the queer scene, or is my boyfriend gaslighting me? He’s making me feel insecure, but my ex-boyfriends always made me feel gorgeous and desired—and so does he in other ways, but I can’t help but feel this is a reflection on me. Another friend has suggested we try an open relationship so I can get what I feel I’m missing out on, but this is not for me. I’m a one man at a time kind of girl.
Dear No Entry,
For the sake of simplicity, let’s take your partner at his word: He doesn’t want penetrative sex. You think you need it. This is not the relationship for you. I am assuming you are around his age, which means you should have plenty of time to find a more suitable partner, probably with relative ease. This is what your 20s are about. It truly seems to me like staying with him would mean settling. I respect and endorse your right to a deal-breaker.
Let’s put a pin in your armchair psychologizing, though—that’s my job! It doesn’t seem like you have any evidence that his taste in nonpenetrative sex is rooted in phobia or related to “some repressed trauma.” I think that’s just you trying to figure out why someone is deviating from a script you’ve been fed. This is another thing you should use your 20s for: wrapping your head around the concept of variation. It is truly the only thing. There is no standard; there’s just the illusion of one. Things ebb and flow; people deviate and conform. To your boyfriend’s point, vaginal sex is normative, but I don’t think it’s exactly fair to describe the widespread interest in it as an obsession or to even characterize it as “overrated.” Someone as specific as he is should too understand the concept of variation and that in the context of consent, said variation is benign.
Regardless, avoiding vaginal/anal penetrative sex while engaging in other forms is totally a thing, and it even has a label—people who are into this are called “sides.” I’ve seen this most predominantly described in the context of men having sex with men, as an alternative to the top/bottom labels. Here’s a lengthy thread on the r/askgaybros Reddit regarding sides. Settling into my armchair, I think a few things are going on here. One is that anal sex is seen by many as intense, in terms of sensation, preparation requirements, and the potential for injury/STI transmission. (More broadly, anal sex’s role in the AIDS epidemic may have something to do with this, as well.) For some people, even those who have sex with people with vaginas, oral sex is simply less stressful and thus more attractive. Also, a lot of guys really like blow jobs and a lot guys really like giving them. Even for those who embrace a label on the top/bottom spectrum, hookups may go no further than oral. This is especially so if the guys’ identities involved aren’t compatible (in the case of two tops, for example). I knew a couple who only had penetrative sex when they hooked up with other guys together; otherwise they’d blow each other when it was just the two of them. They seemed to like this just fine. People figure out what they’re into and they go with it. There’s no reason to believe that your boyfriend is misrepresenting himself, and there’s no use in attempting to convert him to the joys of PIV sex. He knows what it is, and would do it if he wanted. Simply move on and find someone else to stick it in you.
I Just Had the Sexual Experience Every Man Fears Most …
On the How to Do It podcast, a man writes: “I apologize in advance. This may make you wince.”
Dear How to Do It,
My husband and I are in our late 30s and have been together almost 15 years, i.e., most of our adult lives thus far. While we have a happy family life and are good partners in terms of parenting our two young kids, I wouldn’t describe our marriage as happy, exactly.
To be blunt, I really don’t ever want to have sex with him again. He thinks I just have a low sex drive and that I’m tired from taking care of our kids. I am tired, but the bigger issue is that I don’t feel that intimacy with him. I find him physically attractive just as I did earlier in our relationship. However, due to some conflicts in our past, I don’t feel confident about him touching me or seeing me naked or in any physically intimate context.
Right after we had our first child, he became another person overnight, behaving very coldly to me. We went to couples therapy, where he revealed that though he enjoyed my company, he’d never been in love with me and felt trapped in our marriage. I endured months of him repeating this and making negative comments about my weight and appearance. Through therapy, we realized he was going through a depression, and our therapist stressed that the fact that I understood the root of his coldness didn’t mean I had to accept or forgive it. But I was determined to make our relationship work. I loved him, and we had a new baby. We kept going to therapy, and even though I wasn’t feeling it, we had sex semi-regularly. I thought, let me fake it till I make it, and it sort of worked as I gradually became more comfortable having sex with him.
Eventually, my husband apologized. He said he was no longer depressed and took back all the mean things he said. I tried to forgive and forget, we had our second child—and then my husband reverted to the same hurtful behavior. We repeated the process again: couples therapy, his treatment for depression, mine for anxiety, attempts at better communication. However, this time around, I haven’t been able to restore any enthusiasm for sex. We have a lot of fun with our kids, and when we spend time together as a couple, we still have a good rapport. But through my own individual therapy, I’ve been working through some of the stuff he said and did in the past. It is still painful, and I don’t trust that he won’t say those things again. I believe that the hurtful comments he makes when he’s depressed are actually how he feels. I want to be physically intimate with someone who finds me sexy and beautiful, not someone who is settling for me or feels stuck with me. He says he does love me and doesn’t feel stuck, but I don’t believe him and I’m not sure what he can do to convince me otherwise. I told him he could have a “hall pass” until we figured this out, but he always says no. Am I ridiculous for thinking we can have a marriage without sex?
—How Not to Do It
Dear How Not to Do It,
Not ridiculous—in fact, there are numbers to back you up. Granted, these numbers vary, a likely result of sexless marriage being “a grossly underreported statistic,” according to a therapist quoted in a 2003 Newsweek story on the matter. That piece estimated 15 to 20 percent of marriages were “sexless” (using a metric of 10 instances of sex a year or less), while more recently, other experts have placed the figure in the 15 percent range. In any event, this is not unheard of—for many couples maintaining a sex life is an active process. Some people simply don’t have the time or motivation to do so, but stay together for other reasons. You’d hardly be the first.
Keep in mind, though, that depression can make for unreliable narrators. When people are depressed, they sometimes experience cognitive distortions that result in them thinking (and saying) things that simply aren’t true. I understand the temptation to take a partner’s most negative words as revelations and assume that he has been suppressing these feelings all along (believe me I’ve been there!), but that’s just not how this always works. In fact, buying into the things he said when he was depressed is its own kind of cognitive distortion—it actually could qualify as a few (personalization, mind reading, mental filtering, etc.). You worked directly with a professional who helped diagnose his depression, which means it’s at least plausible that he did not actually mean what he said during his depression. I agree with your therapist, though: You don’t have to forgive them. Words can leave lasting pain, even when you rationally understand they aren’t true, even when you understand the reasons they were said. It’s not something he can take back, and he is accountable for that.
Staying in this relationship without engaging in sex with your husband is a valid choice, and that you’ve already discussed ways to manage desire (like a “hall pass”) suggests you’re well equipped to do so. The question is, when it’s all spelled out that this is the way it’s going to be, how well equipped will your husband prove to be and will he be willing to proceed under these terms?
Dear How to Do It,
My husband and I recently opened our marriage. This is a good thing for us. We have talked about it for years, but the timing was never right, especially when the kids were younger. We are now seeing other people and exploring what it means to have multiple partners. We don’t know yet if we will fully embrace the idea of poly and multiple relationships, or if it’s just sex. Right now, we are just exploring and learning who we are in this new world.
With all of that said, my biggest worry is my children. At 7 and 9, they are able to see changes in the home. We don’t talk about it around them, but they are savvy. We are not negative or positive about sex. We generally just don’t talk about sex. We are positive about bodies and let them know that all bodies are beautiful. I want to be open with them, and I want them to think about sex and their bodies in a positive way. This is especially true for me, because I was raised in a rigid evangelical home and am just now exploring my sexuality at 40 years old. The problem is that I just have no idea how to start or approach this issue with my children. Do you have any advice or resources for those of us who are new to polyamory and are raising children?
—New at This
Dear New at This,
Two important things to keep in mind, according to a conversation I had with Dr. Elisabeth Sheff, are framing and tone. Sheff has written extensively about polyamory and families (she maintains a Psychology Today blog on the subject and her books include Stories From the Polycule: Real Life in Polyamorous Families and When Someone You Love Is Polyamorous: Understanding Poly People and Relationships). She advised not framing the conversation in terms of sex, because: “Kids don’t need to hear about their parents’ sexuality. They don’t want to hear about it, they’re not interested in it. Especially at 7 and 9, kids don’t even necessarily understand, really, what sexuality is.” Instead, the kids in the sample of the 15-year ethnographic study of polyamorous families with children that she reported in her 2013 book, The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple-Partner Relationships and Families, preferred hearing about their parents “hanging out” with other people. It’s important to convey that this is something both parents know about, and that deception/cheating is not what’s going on.
Also, Sheff suggests a certain matter-of-factness in your tone. “Present it as: ‘This is something we’re doing.’ It doesn’t have to be this big deal. It can be blended into conversation,” she suggests. She said that a similar low-key approach to introducing your partners to your kids, when the time comes, could also be useful. Have them over as friends for dinner or game night, and after a few times, check in on what your kids think about your new friend. Many poly parents are careful about this step, though—Sheff compared the process to the way divorced parents often take their time to introduce their new partner to their kids. “Make sure this person is an OK person before you invite them into your home,” Sheff advised. “And certainly don’t ever leave your children alone with someone you don’t know very well.”
Sheff said it’s important to be ask-able after introducing the topic. “Give some information. Less is more: ‘We’re hanging out with other people. If you have questions, please feel free to ask us.’ ”
She also thought it was important to note that you should be extremely careful with this information if there’s any chance custody could be challenged by a wealthy and judgmental grandparent (since you come from a religious background, you should definitely keep this in mind). Depending on where you are, family court isn’t always understanding of polyamory, and polyamorous parents have lost children to relatives on account of their relationship style. (Places in the U.S. like California, Massachusetts, New York, and the Seattle and Portland areas tend to have more understanding family court judges.) This may help you decide just how much responsibility you want to foist on your kids, if in fact, they are going to have to keep your secret from grandma and grandpa.
That’s a dark scenario, so I’ll send you out on some good news. In a 2020 New York Times article, Heath Schechinger, Ph.D., a co-chair of the American Psychological Association’s Consensual Non-monogamy Task Force, said that in the (admittedly limited) data on the subject, “there’s nothing to suggest that children in these situations are faring any better or any worse” than children with (ostensibly) monogamous parents. Of course, ensuing societal prejudice could affect stress and depression, but hopefully this finding gives you some peace of mind to go forward in your poly pursuits.
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Dear How to Do It,
I’m a straight man in my early 30s and happily married. My problem is that I come too quickly from penis-in-vagina sex. Like, really quickly—sometimes after a few thrusts. This isn’t a problem at all with oral sex, where I last so long that I usually don’t come (even though it’s great and it’s not at all less pleasurable). And it isn’t a problem with manual stimulation, either from my wife or during masturbation. It’s just during PIV sex, though it is a problem in all positions.
This isn’t a huge issue. My wife usually comes when I do, so everyone ends happy. And we make good use of foreplay. But it’s not ideal either, and it seems avoidable given that it’s not a problem with oral sex or masturbation. Also, I wanted to head off a few solutions that probably aren’t right for us. I don’t tend to be able to go a second round in a day, so that isn’t going to work. And the only time we used any sort of cream/gel-type product it really irritated my wife’s vagina, so she isn’t interested in trying various products to delay ejaculation.
Really, I’m mostly curious about why there would be such a gap between penetration and everything else. Is it physical? Psychological? What’s going on here?
Dear Minute Man,
In his recent book So Tell Me About the Last Time You Had Sex, psychotherapist/sexuality counselor Ian Kerner writes, “When a guy only has [premature ejaculation] during intercourse and has no problem with other types of stimulation to his penis, it usually tells me that the PE is situational rather than chronic because he is able to maintain ejaculatory control in contexts other than intercourse.” That sounded like you, so I reached out to Kerner for some more information on this particular kind of PE. “I’ve worked with a number of guys who have PE only during intercourse and experience this situational PE sporadically,” he wrote in an email. “In almost all cases, the cause is performance anxiety which is governed by our sympathetic nervous system that mediates fight or flight response.” He explained the potential evolutionary basis for this (anxiety prompting quick ejaculation would still allow for procreative potential in the face of potential danger). While it doesn’t sound like you’re experiencing performance anxiety, “if we dug deeper we might observe it,” Kerner wrote. “For example, he says it’s not an issue because his wife always orgasms when he does, but perhaps on a level just below consciousness he suspects this as being untrue. Or maybe he worries that he’s not as good at intercourse as other activities.”
For treatment, Kerner recommended mindfulness exercises that could help mitigate anxiety, as well as ensuring that your wife orgasms first to make sure you don’t feel pressure coming from that side. A low dose of an SSRI might help, as could some sort of disinhibiting substance like wine, CBD, or a type of weed that has a calming effect on you (for example, an indica strain). Also, not all numbing sprays are prone to irritating one’s partner—Kerner says that Promescent absorbs into the membrane of the penis, and there usually isn’t any transference to a woman’s genitals.
Both he and the urologist I contacted regarding your question, Charles Welliver (director of men’s health at Albany Medical College), suggested the stop/start technique to help you last longer during intercourse. (That is just as it sounds—stop when you approach the point of no return, wait a few seconds, and then continue until you near orgasm again. Repeat as many times as you can.) Welliver pointed out that stop/start has the most robust data behind it of any PE-mitigating technique. “He should examine what it is about intercourse that makes him have an orgasm so quickly,” the doctor wrote in an email. “The list here is potentially endless but if he can identify something about himself or in his history that insight is the first step to resolving things. Insight is pretty much always the key with sexual issue.”
Kerner and I agree that you’re already managing well. (In another book, the cunnilingus manual She Comes First, he describes how his own PE led him to boning up on his oral craft.) Your sex ends happily and you’re engaging in plenty of foreplay. “I mean on a certain level is it really PE if his partner orgasms with him?” wrote Kerner. “I suspect that intercourse is over-emphasized in his mind as a defining activity that he feels somewhat deficient in and that’s creating anxiety that’s leading to PE. But a penis in a vagina is not necessarily any better than a penis in a mouth, a hand on a penis, or a mouth or hand on a vulva. They’re all just behaviors that only take on meaning when we ascribe meaning, and male sexuality is socially constructed to emphasize intercourse as a defining activity.” Amen!
More 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?