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 have a peculiar problem about 20 years in the making. I used to watch Friends a lot as a teen, so much that I remember most of the dialogue, especially the scene where Ross and Chandler discuss their size and girth, and then Chandler goes on to say how sometimes when having sex, he has flashes of imagery—of his mom in particular. That brings me to my problem. I see flashes of imagery, too, maybe like everyone else: the hot runner I see on my route, my husband eating me out, road trips … spaceships. And then boom—enter my parents and sibling! It’s nothing sexual about any of them, just random memories, but I am freaking out about this. I don’t know if this is some repressed sexual thoughts or what. I had an awesome childhood, and my parents are amazing (my relationship with my sibling could be better, but it will do for now). Then why this? It happens every single time we have sex. I am now scared to the point I want to avoid any possible sexual scenarios with my wonderful husband, who has mentioned I seem “away” sometimes during sex. I do not want to tell him this, lest he also is cursed with the Chandler Bing syndrome. Please do not suggest therapy—I am already surrounded by them (my entire family except me are working in mental health so if I seek therapy they would wonder why I didn’t even take their counsel instead). How do I get rid of my families’ faces and instead see, like, naked orgies in my mind?
—Chandler Is the Worst
“Chandler Bing syndrome” is getting pretty close to magical thinking. If you’re being a bit silly for effect, that’s one thing, but if you truly believe you’ve caught this from a TV show and could transmit it to your husband by telling him what’s going on with you, sex is a far lower priority than seeing a qualified psychiatrist, despite your protestations. Here, I’ll proceed as if it’s the former.
There are “intrusive” thoughts (which are a symptom of psychological distress, involving unwanted and distressing thoughts that usually repeat) and what we can call “passing” thoughts (which are not a symptom of psychological distress and are experienced by many people without neurodivergence). It sounds like you’re dealing with passing thoughts, and that’s pretty typical. Personally, everything from my grocery list to what nails go with which lingerie will pass through my mind randomly throughout the day, including during sexual activity.
So what do you do? Turn your thoughts purposefully back toward what you want to be focused on—your husband, or naked orgies. When the distractions return, turn your thoughts back to your husband again, calmly. That’s the hard part: simply returning your focus to where you want it without getting frustrated. Meditation practice, or even mindfully breathing, outside of sexual interaction can help bolster this skill. Good luck.
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,
I’m a married, late-30s woman, with an amazing kid and equally amazing husband. I’m writing because I think I need some sense talked into me. I’m very, very poly, and while I know the jury is out on whether or not it’s an official sexual orientation, I know I’m living my best life when I’m nonmonogamous. My husband and I started discussing the possibility of opening up about five or six years ago, and then four years ago, I met someone. My husband and I had officially opened up, but I don’t think either of us were sufficiently prepared for the emotional reality of it. I was ecstatic and happy, and really enjoying my time with this new person, while he was terrified, upset, and angry. What’s worse is I didn’t stop, even though I could see how hard it was on him. It wasn’t that I didn’t care, I just thought: It’s been a long time since I’ve felt this happy about sex, and I’m not going to stop. So I didn’t, and I got two things out of it: a very sexually satisfying, two-and-a-half-year relationship with this other person (we broke up at the beginning of 2020 and are still friends) and a marriage that is more authentic and honest, albeit scarred by a trauma that I helped cause.
We’re in couples therapy now, which has been extremely helpful. It’s helped both our communication and our sex life, which I am grateful for. My husband recognizes the way I am and doesn’t judge it anymore; at the same time, he understandably doesn’t want to relive those awful feelings. I would say our marriage is the best it’s ever been, and we like each other more. Our sex life is all right: I’ve come to accept that my style is different than his, and that’s OK. I do tell him what I want, but at the end of the day, his natural energy in bed is a little more vanilla than my taste. Again, growth mindset—I’m confident this dynamic will improve over time.
Here’s my dilemma: It’s been a year since I’ve had sexual contact with anyone else. And I guess I’m writing to you both to remind me that healing takes time. I want to have sex with other people so badly, but that’s still too triggering for my husband at the moment. How do I stay present and focused on the good, and less antsy? I do open up and communicate when my feelings start turning toward resentment, and my husband assures me that this will be possible someday. But I’m getting impatient and would love your perspective, since I have a history of being kind of entitled.
I think “sexual orientation” isn’t quite the label, because the monogamy/polyamory spectrum has just as much to do with romance and dating as sexual interaction. However, mono/poly, along with sexual orientation, are valid and real frameworks for engaging—or not engaging—with sexuality. I believe nonmonogamy, like bisexuality and asexuality, comes down to how we’re wired.
So, in all seriousness, why are you fighting who you are? You’re sacrificing your full sexual expression for your husband’s monogamous needs. You say he’s amazing, and that your relationship is the best it’s ever been—that’s a lot, and the value might be worth your sacrifice. This is your choice. There will be downsides to both paths, and your situation is pretty binary. Take some time to check in with your own feelings. What does your ideal relationship structure look like? What does being poly in practice do for you? What is the role of primary partner in your life, and what responsibilities are you happy to have toward that person? What is “enough” for you, and specifically, what do you need to feel like you have it?
If you decide to continue with how things are now, do it with the understanding that your husband may never be as comfortable with your polyamory as he wants to be. And there’s a balance between expressing your feelings and pressuring him to be something that he isn’t. Can you be happy with your husband as he is? For how long? What if two years from now he says, “Sorry, I don’t think I’ll ever be up to opening up again”?
Either way, start working on developing a robust solo sex life. Whether you’re meeting your own desires in between sessions with your husband, or taking care of yourself between partners, it’ll serve you well.
Dear How to Do It,
How do I find a doctor who cares about my ability to feel sexual pleasure? My psychiatrist isn’t concerned with how my meds mess with my libido. My gynecologist doesn’t seem interested in anything more than making sure I don’t have cancer or STIs. My primary care doctor barely listens to my nonsexual concerns, let alone anything relating to my sexual well-being. I’ve written into this column before with some questions to which the response was “you should see a doctor,” but I’ve come to realize the doctors I’m seeing just don’t see my problems as being vital concerns. So long as my health isn’t bad, they’re satisfied, but I want it to be GOOD! It hasn’t been for a while.
I got my first period at 13. It was painful, sporadic, and heavy when I did have flow. Doctors said it would get better with time. Finally—in my early 30s—I was diagnosed with a clinical premenstrual syndrome. Yes, that’s two decades. No, things didn’t get better. It was a frustrating, grueling slog, and at the end of the day, the only things the medical system can do for me involve medication that I don’t tolerate well. You’re not alone in facing doctors who are dismissive and simply don’t help.
Still, I asked Mike Ripley, an OB-GYN and professor at Dalhousie University, to give his thoughts on what you can do. “Unfortunately, nothing in that email surprises me,” he told me. “Every doctor should care about a patient’s problems, including concerns about sexual function.”
He said to keep trying with different doctors, an instinct I share. Ripley said that during his extensive medical training, he wasn’t given proper education on sexuality, though that isn’t an excuse: “Even if that is the case, a doctor should be seeking out other doctors or health care providers who CAN help this patient.” More to the point, multiple medical professionals are likely what you’ll need: “Sexual dysfunction, whether we’re talking low libido, dyspareunia (painful intercourse), or other aspects of sexual health, is a complicated topic. I strongly believe that patients are best served by a multidisciplinary team. An OB-GYN should be part of that team, but it could involve pelvic floor physiotherapists, sex therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists.”
In my experience, once you find one doctor who is a fit, they’re usually able to refer you to others who are similarly minded. You might be thinking, “All of that, and they still casually tell me to see a doctor?!” Despite the frequently disheartening interactions we might have with the medical system, it’s important to make sure there isn’t something serious going on. It seems like you’ve covered that area of concern, though. You might have better luck with doctors listed in the Kink Aware Professionals database. And you might have better luck with recommendations from friends or a local support group. When this gets tough, know that there are plenty of us fighting the same fight.
Dear How to Do It,
My husband and I have been together for 20-plus years. We met when I was 19 and he was 32. Our “fun” time when we first got together was great and plentiful, sometimes happening multiple times a day. And now while we still hold hands, hug, kiss, and cuddle from time to time, fun is virtually nonexistent. I’ve always been the one to initiate, even offering at times to just give him some fun, expecting nothing in return. But even with that, I always get turned down.
I understand part of this is time—the rush of a new relationship and getting to know your partner phase has long since passed. And part of it’s medical issues (severe back problems and recently diagnosed respiratory issues). But that doesn’t take the sting out of being turned down. I asked if it’s because he doesn’t desire me or find me attractive anymore, and he assured me it wasn’t that. When I asked what it was, all he said was he wasn’t into it.
I tried to suggest different things to get his interests piqued, but nothing worked. He tried medication to get his libido going and that didn’t work. He’s not open to an open marriage (he will not share me), but we could try for a threesome, except he says it has to be with another woman in case he might like to join in. Online sexting/chatting is a no-go cause he thinks it’s cheating. He does make sure I have a wide variety of toys to use and pays for a membership to a porn site I like. And while all that is good, it doesn’t make up for the severe lack of physical contact. I love my husband very much, but something has gotta give, and I’m tired of feeling like my hands are tied. What can I do to get him to understand that taking care of myself for the next 20 years isn’t something I can do.
—Not a Nun
One thing that you can control is your own reaction to your husband’s disinterest in sexual interaction. Believe him when he says it isn’t about you. You mention health problems, specifically the back and lungs, which are pretty crucial to most sexual activity. Difficulty breathing can make sexual excitement uncomfortable. You’re reacting by feeling rejected, and it’s worth examining why.
Do you think people are meant to end up in a mutually desirous monogamous relationship where both parties meet the other’s needs? Where does that come from? How much of your estimation of your own value in your relationship is tied to sex? What else do you bring to the table that you can put effort into? Get square with your responses to your husband’s uninterested status before you broach the subject with him again.
The other issue—how you’re going to access the sexual interaction you crave—is trickier. You love him. You’ve been together for longer than I’ve been searching for PMS treatment. You’d be giving up a lot if you left, with no guarantee of finding a partner that fits well in your life and orifices. Would you be happier if your orgasms remained solely your responsibility, but you had more snuggle contact? Is he open to holding you while you masturbate? Or to scheduled skin contact times, like a nonsexual snuggle hour once a week?
I think your husband is a bit oblivious when he says any third partners would have to be female in case he wants to join in. If he was up to joining, you wouldn’t be in this situation. And I suspect he’s seeing women as less of a threat because they don’t have the same parts. Beyond which, are women people you want to have sex with in the first place?
To get him to understand, your last paragraph is a great starting point. Think out what you want to say: “I want more sexual interaction than I’m getting, I feel like my hands are tied, and I’m at my wits’ end. Let’s think about some potential solutions.” Here you can use a management technique, which is to have one portion of the meeting where ideas are generated together without critique before a second portion where logic, possibility, and reason are applied to the ideas you’ve come up with for the sake of deciding what course will actually be taken.
If your husband won’t budge, that tells you something. If he says he’s open but continues to set boundaries that leave you feeling penned in, that tells you something too. If you find yourself needing to decide whether to stay or go, you might start with a pros and cons list and a conversation with a trusted friend.
More How to Do It
Recently I had sex with a man who said he had a 10-inch penis. It was, indeed, huge. But when I told my gay friend about this guy’s endowment, he laughed and told me something that kind of blew my mind.