How to Do It

I Have an Extremely Strange Reaction Every Single Time I’m About to Have Sex

This is definitely not the kind of bang you want to start with.

A man sneezes against a neon spiral background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by YakobchukOlena/Getty Images Plus. 

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.

Have a question? Send it to Stoya and Rich here. It’s anonymous!

Dear How to Do It,

I’m a married man in my 30s. Back when I was in my teens and in college, when I’d engage in foreplay before hooking up, my body would do some strange stuff (leg shaking, teeth chattering, hands going cold). It was clearly nerves.

Advertisement

Well, now my body does something much stranger. For the past several years, when my wife and I start our foreplay, or we’re in bed and I’m just horny, I sneeze. It’s very loud, very unsexy, and happens about 3-to-4 times before my body calms down. Once the sneezing stops, I’m good to go.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

My wife is a good sport and finds it cute (or so she says), but this medical mystery leaves me baffled. Why do I sneeze when I’m horny?

—Achoo

Dear Achoo,

In a stunning coincidence I happen to be reading a non-sex-related book right now that may explain your pre-sex sneezing. In Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, James Nestor writes about a condition called “honeymoon rhinitis,” which is marked by sneezing as a result of the erection … inside of your nose. You read that right:

Advertisement
Advertisement

The interior of the nose … is blanketed with erectile tissue, the same flesh that covers the penis, clitoris, and nipples. Noses get erections. Within seconds, they too can engorge with blood and become large and stiff. This happens because the nose is more intimately connected to the genitals than any other organ; when one gets aroused, the other responds. The mere thought of sex for some people causes such severe bouts of nasal erections that they’ll have trouble breathing and will start to sneeze uncontrollably.

An alternate explanation in this paper is “indiscrete stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system,” which is involved in arousal. The author of that highly technical paper, Mahmood F. Bhutta, later explained his theory in layman’s terms: “Sometimes the signals in this system get crossed, and I think this may be why some people sneeze when they think about sex.”

Advertisement

Incidentally, the rest of Breath is as, if not more, fascinating than this brief passage, and I recommend it with my whole body.

Dear How to Do It,

About four years ago, my wife was in a serious automobile accident. She’s lucky to have survived. However, she was very badly hurt, and was unconscious when she was brought to the hospital. I was at work at the time when I found out, and rushed over there. There were quite a few issues, but the most serious was that her right arm was mangled badly. After listening to several options, I went with the one that the doctors assured me had the best chance of her surviving, and signed the paperwork authorizing them to amputate her right arm about halfway up the bicep.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

She’s recovered immensely well and uses a prosthetic, but she takes it off when she goes to bed or when we’re having sex. I can’t look at the stump without feeling horrendously guilty and wondering if I could have done something better. My wife, her doctors, and my therapists all agree with what I try to tell myself—that I made the best decision available in a nasty situation under tight time pressure—but it doesn’t really help.

Advertisement
Advertisement

This has made it difficult, in fact almost impossible, to have sex. At first it wasn’t really an issue because she was still recovering physically from the injuries and not interested. But especially over the past few months she’s been wanting to have more sex and generally, I’ve been unable to perform. I don’t know how to get out of my own head on this.

Advertisement

—Can’t Move Forward

Dear Can’t Move Forward,

Dealing with the loss of a limb (even the limb of one’s partner) may involve grieving, and it sounds to me like you’re still in that process. By phone, I asked Buckhead Sex Therapy’s Lisa Strube how likely it is that you’re indeed still in the grieving process and she told me, “There’s no time limit on grieving.” A licensed professional counselor, Strube lost her leg in a car accident and her areas of expertise include disability and sex therapy. You mention that you have therapists, but if they aren’t particularly suited to counsel on grief, sex, and disability, you might want to find someone who’s better versed in your immediate needs. The website for the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists can at least point you in the direction of a sex therapist.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

It doesn’t seem like there’s a simple answer to your question. The impact of amputation on a person’s sex life (let alone the amputee’s partner) is one of those topics in which papers on it tend to point out how it has received little attention by past researchers. Healing will be an ongoing process. Strube recommends considering the following questions: Why did you fall in love with your wife? Why did you connect? What did you laugh about together? What were your good times like? Why are you still with her?

You likely realize this, but forward momentum here is important—your wife has lost so much as it is that an absent sex life will compound the tragedy. “I wish I could hear about her and how she’s feeling,” said Strube. “Feeling unwanted and partly rejected are two really difficult things to deal with.” It’s true. If you haven’t talked about your current feelings about sex with your wife, Strube recommends preparing for that discussion with a therapist. This will help you maximize effectiveness and minimize harm. Good luck.

Advertisement

Help us keep giving the advice you crave every week. Sign up for Slate Plus now.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Dear How to Do It,

My husband (straight male) and I (bi female) have been considering an open relationship for a while, and while we haven’t really dived in all the way yet, he started going on some dates with “Kat,” which went as far as flirting and light touching but not kissing or sex. I also started looking for new partners, though I am much more of a slow-burner than him so I hadn’t found any yet.

After I had some ups and downs in my feelings about him seeing Kat, my husband decided to invite her over to hang out with both of us to help me get comfortable with the idea. That night she kissed me, cuddled with both of us for a bit, then went home. I’m not a mind-reader, but she seemed comfortable and like the one initiating.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

I decided that had been nice and that maybe I would like to go on some dates together or have threesomes, either with Kat or getting to know other women. Kat ghosted us shortly after that night, and when I told my friend about it, she said Kat probably ghosted us for being unicorn hunters. I hadn’t heard the term before, but I guess it’s a fair hit—we’re a straight-passing couple interested in dating and hooking up with bi women together while keeping the only serious romantic connection between the two of us.

Advertisement

This may be deeply un-self-aware, but I don’t really get what’s wrong with that! It seems like all the online poly communities I’m finding agree that just wanting to hook up with bi women makes us the worst. As a bi woman myself, I get that we shouldn’t be running any kind of dating app bait-and-switch, and that threesomes wouldn’t make us part of the poly community, but … who would we hook up with together if not bi women? Doesn’t that just make the most sense as the category where all of us could experience mutual attraction? Or is the point that threesomes are a much more advanced “level” of open relationships than dating separately?

Advertisement

—Open and Shut

Dear Open and Shut,

It absolutely makes sense for you to hook up with a bi- (or pan-) woman, and MFF triads are certainly common in the poly community. You should not feel bad about wanting to experience sex or dating with a woman together. It does not make you the worst. It just makes you horny and into what you’re into. However, there is indeed a great sensitivity (bordering on resentment) for “unicorn hunters,” and the issue, as I understand it, is not in the mechanics of the arrangement but in the approach. Here is how Elisabeth Sheff, whom I recently spoke to for another question this column received, defines unicorn hunters in her excellent book The Polyamorists Next Door:

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

A heterosexual man and bisexual or heteroflexible woman looking for a bisexual woman who will (the cliché implies) fit in to the couple’s life at their convenience, bringing no additional partners of her own, disappear or pass as a friend when being openly poly might embarrass or inconvenience the couple, and hopefully wants to take care of the children and do the laundry.

It could be that Kat is particularly attuned to any hunterlike behavior so that all it took was the suggestion of it to send her running like Bambi from a hunter’s rifle. She could have been overcorrecting, or even if she had initiated things, you or your husband could have made her feel like a sexual accessory to your foundation, and she didn’t like that. I’m basing my response, though, on your friend’s assessment—people ghost for any number of reasons, and by definition these reasons remain obscure. It may seem cruel or cowardly, but some leave casual sex encounters knowing that they do not want a repeat, and that’s well within their rights. Sometimes having to explain how they arrived to that conclusion creates hurt feelings and brings its own drama. In a perfect world, people would feel empowered to operate with transparency, but our world is not perfect. Ghosting sometimes feels like the least messy option for people who aren’t interested anyway.

Advertisement
Advertisement

For you and your husband moving forward on your poly/threesome pursuits, the key is to strike a balance. Really try to connect with your third equally, and show her that she is just as important and has just as much agency as your unit as a couple (as well as your individual selves). Even in the context of a hookup, I think this is a good guideline to follow to help foster ethical casual sex. The pitfalls of unicorn hunting are so pronounced that there are several online resources outlining how to avoid them. Read this, this, and/or that and bone up before you next attempt to bone.

Advertisement

Did you write this or another letter we answered? Tell us what happened at howtodoit@slate.com.

Advertisement

Dear How to Do It,

A little while ago, I (30s woman) hooked up with a guy I hadn’t slept with before. As he’s getting undressed, I see his penis, and it is horrifying. This thing is bent. There’s almost a joint or an elbow like a third of the way up from the base, and it was at least a 45-degree angle difference on each side of the joint. I don’t understand how he had an erection without being in pain, and just looking at it made me throw up.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Needless to say, I kicked him out of the apartment post-haste and blocked his calls and texts. But I can’t seem to get back to hooking up. I get unwanted visions of this penis from hell when I get into sexual situations and it makes me nauseous, although I’ve only managed to lose my meal once. I can’t go on like this. What sort of therapist do I need to get to be able to have sexy times again? And do I have a case for making this man pay for the therapy bills? I have a very clear event that is causing this.

Advertisement

—Back on the Hog

Dear Back on the Hog,

Oh, please. During this tizzy of yours, did you ever once consider how this guy feels? You experienced his erection only briefly; he has to live with it. This is probably not the first time he has experienced rejection on sight, and through no fault of his own. It’s not like he intentionally bent his dick to freak you out, like that Beetlejuice scene where Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin rearrange their faces to scare the new inhabitants of their house. It sounds like this guy has a pronounced case of Peyronie’s disease, and just a few columns ago, a mother wrote in expressing concern for the rejection her son would face as a result of his unconventional-looking penis. My job was to reassure her; people like you make my job harder. If I seek therapy as a result of occupational stress, can I send the bill to you?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Of course not. It would be just as ridiculous for me to do that as it would be for you to bother this guy you rejected to his face with your issues over his body. You could certainly talk to a therapist about your obsessive thoughts, but you could also just take it upon yourself to grow up, no professional needed.

—Rich

More How to Do It

My boyfriend and I have been together for over two years. Around 10 months ago we moved in together. Things have been pretty normal except one thing. Let me tell you first that I grew up in a house where we did not speak of bathroom behavior. As a result of that, I am quite uncomfortable talking about going number two. I am as secretive as I can be when I have to do my duty. Now that “Ron” and I are living together, I have to divulge certain information on a need-to-know basis. More specifically, if I have diarrhea. These times I have had to explain, “You may not want to go in there for a while.” The weird thing is, 15 minutes or so after telling him such, Ron initiates sex. I find it gross and confusing. He knows how uncomfortable I feel as it is. This has happened four times so far. He denies a pattern or that it’s unusual. Am I the one being weird about this?

Advertisement