How to Do It, Slate’s sex advice column, now has its very own podcast featuring Stoya and Rich. Twice a week, they’ll tackle their most eye-popping questions yet in your earphones. The second episode each week and this transcript are available exclusively to Slate Plus members. For a limited time, become a member now and get $25 off your first year.
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Dear How to Do It,
Is it ethical to have sex if I can’t consent enthusiastically? I realize that the gold standard for having sex is enthusiastic consent to each and every sexual activity proposed. But what am I supposed to do if I can’t quite manage the enthusiastic part? When a partner asks, “Is it OK if I …?” or says, “I would love to …” or “It would be so hot if you …” I usually say “OK,” but don’t actually feel any, well, enthusiasm about whatever is being proposed. Sex is fine, but I never have enjoyed it the way other people seem to. And, before you ask, yes, I’ve read lots of books, made myself watch different kinds of porn (even though I generally find it pretty unappealing), and tried lots of different partners, positions, and activities. Some things are a definite no, but nothing is a truly enthusiastic yes.
I feel sad about the idea of having to give up sex altogether, but I worry that my inability to consent enthusiastically means that it’s not appropriate for me to engage in sexual activity. If I do have to abstain from partnered sex, would it be ethically acceptable if I continued to masturbate, or does solo sexual activity also require enthusiastic consent? I pleasure myself pretty regularly before I go to sleep, but, while I easily achieve orgasm, I never achieve enthusiasm.
—Concerned About Consent
I think syntax is tripping you up, so allow me to clarify a concept. When we talk about enthusiastic consent, we’re usually talking about receiving it—“enthusiasm” in this context means intuiting an unambiguous go-ahead from your partner. “Simply put, enthusiastic consent means looking for the presence of a ‘yes’ rather than the absence of a ‘no,’ ” is how RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) explains it on its website. Make no mistake: It’s important for you to understand your own consent as unambiguous (if it isn’t, it could be a sign that you’re being coerced), but that doesn’t mean you need to have fireworks on hand to light off with each changing of position in order to have ethical sex.
“When I talk about enthusiastic consent, I make sure to say that enthusiasm does not mean you’re having some peak sexual experience—that’s a lot of pressure for any of us, even those of us who are sometimes very enthusiastic about sex,” Jaclyn Friedman explained to me by phone recently. Along with Jessica Valenti, Friedman co-wrote the 2008 book Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape, which helped popularize the term “enthusiastic consent.” Friedman continued: “We’re not all super enthusiastic about it every moment that it’s happening. … Sometimes sex is just OK. That doesn’t make it nonconsensual.” Friedman pointed out that in law “enthusiastic consent” is translated to “affirmative consent,” as enthusiasm is a hard thing to define. It’s subjective. Your 10 might be my 5, and yet we might both be consenting absolutely.
Instead of enthusiastic consent, it might be useful for you to think of this in terms of affirmative consent. That is, according to Friedman: “Are you actively positively wanting to have sex? That’s consent. Don’t get hung up on whether you feel like a cheerleader about it.” It is reasonable to assume that you are not under any pressure or coercion to masturbate before you go to sleep, which is to say that regardless of your level of enthusiasm, per se, you are actively wanting to masturbate. By virtue of your engagement, you have consented.
It might also be worth thinking about whether your attitude toward sex is part of a bigger identity picture. One can be pretty meh about sex and still qualify as allosexual, but a few things you wrote (“Sex is fine, but I never have enjoyed it the way other people seem to,” and your distaste for porn) suggest you might be somewhere on the asexuality spectrum. This isn’t a diagnosis, just a call to interrogate. Reading Angela Chen’s Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex may help you do just that.
Dear How to Do It,
My teenage son was just diagnosed with something called Peyronie’s disease. It is a curvature of the penis. He’s had it for a while and was too embarrassed to tell us until recently. The doctor says his case is pretty bad. He has some treatments he will do at home, but if they don’t work, he might need surgery, which will shorten his penis, and the curve will never completely go away. The possible effects on his sexual life and mental health are so upsetting. I know so much of a man’s self-esteem is bound up in his penis. Guys might tease him about it. And all you hear about are women wanting big dicks and making fun of dicks that look different. Are there women who will care about the person, not the penis? How can he navigate this lifelong challenge?
Serious cases of Peyronie’s (which it sounds like your son may have) can come with pain and function issues, so it’s great that he trusts you enough to ask for help and wonderful that you’re getting him the medical attention he needs—shame could easily have left him suffering in silence. Hopefully, these treatments will get his penis into good working order and perhaps make it more aesthetically pleasing (by arbitrary normative standards!) to boot. On the latter issue, regardless of the outcome, it’s important to remember that dicks come in all shapes and sizes, and mature adults realize this. There may be some people who reject your son for his dick, and there may be others who accept (and in fact) love all of him. Most people’s standards of perfection are hard to come by, and a strong investment in such standards almost always leads to settling—almost every time, you’re either settling for a dick that misses the mark or a personality that is decidedly less perfect than the dick. You deal with it!
Luckily, there is a person attached to your son’s dick. I hope you have raised him to respect his partners and to be a good person. He might not be able to fulfill whatever dreams he may have of porn stardom, but if he’s a good guy, he has a better chance of things working out for him, irrespective of what’s in his pants. People with bodies who fall short of societal ideals in ways more obvious than genitally find love and sex. Your son can too.
A final word: I know anxiety is a brutal overlord, but I hope you will find a way to keep your worries to yourself, at least around your son. He is almost certainly beyond anxious about this, for all the reasons you mention; he doesn’t need anyone else handwringing about locker room hazing or his sexual future. What he does need is what it sounds like you are already providing: sex-positive parental support and access to medical intervention. Keep up the good work!
Dear How to Do It,
OK, so I’m a 25-year-old man in a major city, considered myself straight until recently, and have never had sex with a penis owner. But I want to! Recently I’ve been penetrating my anus with my fingers when I masturbate, and I am LOVING it. It feels awesome (unreal orgasms) and messing with my patriarchal socialization is fun. What’s more, my anal exploration has opened chasms in my already cracked heterosexuality, and I more and more want to have sex with a dude. I’m not looking for new romantic partners, and I’m pretty uninterested in hookup apps (but I can be convinced!), I mostly just want to make out with hot masculine people, try sucking dick (and getting my dick sucked by someone who also has one), and get a dick in my ass.
It’s all exciting and pretty hot to think about. I don’t feel much urgency, but how to go about it?
Dear Dick Curious,
Apps will be the most efficient way to put yourself in situations where you can at least attempt to experience all that your heart and butthole desires. You can state your interests in your profile, as well as reaffirm them in ensuing chats. (You can also advertise your inexperience/heretofore straightness upfront, if you are interested in exploiting that aspect of your identity. It might be useful from a marketing perspective, but it’s not at all necessary.) The downside is this sort of highly transactional interaction leaves a lot of people cold.
Additionally, a lot of people practice false advertising (with overly flattering or flat-out fake pics, and by misstating their interests for the sake of getting laid). Even when they’re totally honest, there is no guarantee that you’ll actually connect once in the same room—apps cannot telegraph chemistry or how someone moves through space (a key element in attractiveness).
A person’s reality is often no match for the fantasy that you build up in your head based on little more than some pics and pithy sexts. So many variables that lead to disappointments and hassles can, in fact, undermine the efficiency of apps.
Queer spaces will give you a much better sense of your potential partners, as you’ll be interacting with them before their dick is up your butt. (Of course, you can coordinate via app to meet someone in public before heading back to one of your places, but in my experience, this extra step is the exception not the rule). If you’re really just going for sex, try a sex party or bathhouse. There are no shortage of queer spaces teeming with ready dick. I have a feeling that you realize this and maybe feel a sense of apprehension toward entering one. It’s probably a minor hump that you just have to get over. A buddy may make this easier, but your sex drive is probably enough to do the trick. Showing up is often the hardest part. So get to it.
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Dear How to Do It,
Every guy I’ve been with has been really concerned about birth control and really good with condoms—except for the guy I’m currently dating. He is a hardcore monogamist and has only long, serious relationships. From how he talks about his sex life and from my experience, he has only had sex in committed relationships where the girl has been on the pill and he has used condoms very little. We’ve both been tested so I’m not concerned about STDs, but we’ve definitely had a lot of trouble with condoms. Because of some health issues, I don’t want to use any hormonal or implanted birth control. I’d also like the rhythm method, but just before we started dating, my cycle went from 100 percent regular to really erratic. I’m just feeling so weird. I’ve always dated under the premise that the guy knew what he was doing with condoms, but this guy just doesn’t seem to know how to use them. He absolutely doesn’t want kids and I’m on the fence, especially right now. He wants a vasectomy but claims he doesn’t have the money, which isn’t true because he’s been winning a ton of money sports betting, but he says that he wants to put that money back into betting. I really, really, want him to get a vasectomy, but I don’t want to pressure him. Do you have any advice at what I can do?
Dear Condom Conundrum,
If someone says they want something that they could obtain and yet avoid doing so, they don’t actually want it—at least not enough to matter. In this case, I think your guy’s reluctance is fair. You are dating—not engaged, not married, not even apparently living together. Dating.
That’s just not serious enough to warrant surgical obligation. Given the low level of commitment at hand, you might ask yourself if you want to be in a relationship with a (more or less) professional gambler whose objective is to put all of his money back into gambling at the moment. I’m not knocking his hustle; I’m just saying the potential for chaos here is high.
I have a feeling he is as inept with condoms as he is scaring up the money for a vasectomy, which is to say: not at all, he just doesn’t feel like it, and he’s essentially blowing you off. If the guy understands the intricacies of sports betting enough to be successful at it, he’s capable of rolling on a condom. You could also put the condom on for him (there are tricks out there for doing so with your mouth, if you’re so inclined) or try an internal condom (inserted into your vagina). If all else fails, you can get an abortion, but for the least amount of hassle, you can just abort the relationship and find a guy who doesn’t play dumb with rubbers.
More How to Do It
My girlfriend no longer wants to shave her armpits (hetero couple). I admitted this wasn’t my preference but recognized it was likely for bullshit reasons and she went ahead. We still screw with abandon. However, I also took this as an opportunity to stop trimming myself downstairs, because honestly it gets itchy and I was only doing it for her. She was fine at first, but now seems reluctant to give blow jobs because of the unintended floss. I want to leave it! Do you think this goes both ways, or is it totally different?