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 met my husband when I was very young and inexperienced. So inexperienced, in fact, that I had never had an orgasm. So I did what you’re not supposed to do … I faked it. When I did finally figure out how to get myself off, I was still unable to orgasm during sex, which I know is very common. So I kept faking it. We’ve now been together for 17 years, and I have no idea how to bring it up without devastating him. I’ve tried to introduce new ways to spice things up in order to kick-start orgasms, but we just seem to backslide into what he thinks gets me off. Why would he change something he thinks is working? Please help, I don’t know how to move forward.
— Sad Faker
Dear Sad Faker,
This letter is such a picture-perfect example of the pitfalls of faking orgasms that I want to carve it into a big rock and petition to make it a national landmark.
Your words illustrate clearly that there can be consequences to our little lies and they point right back at us! Bam!
That said, you were young when you started, and it seems highly unfair to hold decisions born of inexperience against you. You could definitely risk blowing things up with sheer honesty, but I would like to believe that there’s a way that you can slide into the kind of sex you want to be having with your husband without causing a cataclysm over spasms that never actually were. I think you just have to be assertive here, maybe even something close to (or explicitly) dominant. The goal is to not allow things to backslide into him doing what he thinks gets you off. You do what you think you need to do to get off. If that involves introducing toys, or whatever else you do alone, do it. Frame it as an adventure, a way of expanding your experience, and not as an introduction of what was missing. Many people’s sexuality evolves over time, and given humanity’s affinity for newness, it is often important to push along the evolution of the sex you’re having with a long-term monogamous partner. So say you’re doing that—“Let’s try it this way.” If he isn’t so malleable and these changes require a conversation, I think you can have the same one that you would be having regarding your lack of orgasms during sex but omitting that detail. Basically: This is what we’re doing, and as for why, it’s because I want to. That’s really enough of a reason to propose anything in bed and an open-minded partner (who isn’t immediately triggered or otherwise turned off by the request) should be down. If he’s so devoted to getting you off, it seems like he’s primed for such a lesson.
Dear How to Do It,
How terrible is it for a lesbian to go on the dating market when she doesn’t like giving or receiving oral sex? I can’t even imagine how one would bring this up! There would be no other issues regarding things two open-minded people might enjoy, just that one admittedly big thing. Is it an extremely unusual discomfort to have?
— Rainbow Missing a Strip
Dear Rainbow Missing a Strip,
It’s not terrible at all, especially if it’s the way it has to be. It might be more difficult to find a partner when a widely practiced sexual act is off the table, but it’s certainly not impossible. In a 2012 study of lesbian sexual practices, lesbian relationship coach and clinical sexologist Michele O’Mara, LCSW, PhD, found that 14 percent of her lesbian sample of 498 respondents reported in engaging in oral sex rarely or never (versus 58 percent who said they did so regularly). So, you’re not alone. O’Mara offered these words of encouragement (via email): “You deserve a partner who cares as much about your sexual satisfaction (which includes honoring your dislikes) as much as you care about meeting her needs (which includes incorporating activities that please her that you do not find aversive).” I wholeheartedly concur.
Regarding how to bring it up: It’s generally wise to have some discussion about sex that covers expectations and interests upfront, so you could mention it then. Some people may lose interest when they realize that oral is off the table, but I think getting it out there so those who can’t hang can get on with their lives is the most efficient and ethical way to go about things. Yes, that means you’re opening yourself up for rejection, but that rejection will be much harder felt if you settle into a rapport keeping the oral question ambiguous (or worse, misrepresenting yourself by indicating potential interest in such activity). Highly specific essential interest and disinterest that bucks normative behavior necessitates early disclosure, or you face complications and mess as you untangle your life from the one that you briefly braided into yours. Besides, an appropriate partner is someone who will be willing to work with you. “If oral sex is a strong want [from a partner], but not a deal-breaker, then it is likely there will be other ways to provide her pleasure, make her feel desired, communicate your care and love for her, and otherwise satisfy her needs for pleasure,” wrote O’Mara.
Thus far, I have answered while taking you at your word about the fixed nature of your disinterest in oral sex. It is in everyone’s best interest to do this because conscious efforts to alter one’s sexuality are generally disastrous (see: conversion therapy). With that said, it might be helpful for you to interrogate your taste here, in case you haven’t already. At the very least, it’s probably better to not just take this for granted. “If you find a sexual activity uncomfortable, it is natural, instinctive, and appropriate to avoid participating in that activity. Sometimes, however, an aversion comes from thoughts, beliefs, and judgments that are not accurate,” O’Mara explained. So, if you’d like to achieve better understanding of your aversion, O’Mara suggests these prompts as thought exercises (or perhaps even discussion points with a potential partner): “I associate going down on a woman with…”; “I imagine it would be…”; “I fear that I would…” “I fear that she would…”; “How I feel when I think about oral sex is…” Again, this suggestion is not to convert you, but to foster greater understanding if in fact there is work to be done there. If you feel the way you do about oral sex, you might as well know why.
And just one more little message of hope, this time from Lauren Goldstein, LCSW, a sex therapist with a particular focus on LGBTQ people. In an email response to your question, Goldstein wrote: “What would be helpful is for her to explore what she does enjoy sexually and focus on leaning into those areas rather than presenting it as a deficit to a possible partner. Having great sex is about presence, connection, and attunement. It’s not about whether or not you give head. So, if she can be connected to her body, attuned to her partner, and stay pleasure focused, she can be an amazing lover regardless of whether or not she chooses to go down on her partner.”
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a woman in my mid-30s. My husband and I have been married for 10 years. I’ve always been an early bird, so we’ve typically had sex late in the afternoon or early in the evening. My husband is a night owl, but he’s happy to do it pretty much whenever I’m horny. Now I’m a stay-at-home mom to our three kids, a 6-year-old and 2-year-old twins. By the time we get our oldest to bed, it’s after 8:30, and I’m absolutely exhausted. Sometimes I’ll spend all day fantasizing about what we’re going to do together when the kids are in bed, but by the time we get there, I have no desire anymore. I used to be able to get in the mood even if we didn’t have a chance to do it until 10:00 or 11:00, but now I’m just so tired.
On the rare occasion that a family member takes all of the kids out of the house for us, I’m ready to tear my husband’s clothes off the minute they leave. But we hardly ever have that kind of free time. In a year or two, we’ll be able to leave them unattended in front of the TV and sneak away for a quickie, but the twins are still too young for that. First thing in the morning isn’t really an option either, since our kids are up at the crack of dawn and my husband is useless before coffee. Is there anything we can do now, or do I just need to wait until the kids are a little older?
— Afternoon Delight
Dear Afternoon Delight,
If your financial situation allows, consider regular (weekly/monthly) “dates” in which you and your husband can smash (say, at a hotel). Get a babysitter, leave the house, and have that be your outlet as you wait out your kids’ maturation. Try scheduling nap times for your kids that could provide a window of alone time, or even experiment with pushing up their bedtimes so that you’re not ready to collapse by the time they’re in bed. I know exhaustion is real, and it can be absolutely detrimental to your functioning, but try waking up super early one day, before even your early-rising kids are up. If this works, try to make it a regular routine.
The good news is, there is an end in sight. You know that one day soon, your kids will be mature enough so that they can be left alone for a window long enough for sex. In some ways, even, your case is enviable. We hear from so many people who have plenty of opportunity to have sex with a partner, but no seeming desire to do so. If I had to pick one, a temporary lull brought on by circumstance is highly preferable. I know this is cold comfort, but know that you can and will get your sex life back. Conjuring patience until then might be your biggest task.
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Dear How to Do It,
I am a straight guy in my mid-30s who is facing something of a midlife … moment? I am an extremely shy person. Always have been. I have been a loner for most of my life and have not dated anyone in over a decade. Building that sort of connection and allowing oneself to be vulnerable like that is frankly terrifying to me. I’m left an anxious mess just thinking about it. When I was a (much) younger man, I had a few shitty, toxic relationships go south.
I’m at a point in my life where I’m almost desperate to change all this. I am deeply unhappy having been alone for so long. I’ve never had sex or even gone beyond basic kissing. I do have a handful of close friends, but haven’t confided in any of them about this; it’s rather embarrassing. I’m not sure I even know how to flirt anymore, if I ever did. I’m obese (but am looking to get in better shape), not a snappy dresser, have a ton of unhealthy eating habits, the list goes on.
Frankly, I’m at a loss on where to go from here. I’d like to think I’m not a total loss—I make a decent living, own a house, generous to a fault sometimes—and I know there are dating sites and apps and such, but I have so little confidence in myself that I’m certain I’ll crash and burn immediately. I apologize for the sob story, I just … don’t know what to do. I don’t want to be alone any longer, and am scared I will be anyway because the thought of putting myself out there just freezes me in my tracks.
Let’s start chipping away at your predicament by honoring the agency that you have here. Nothing is moving the relationship meter for you because you aren’t moving it. If and when you start, you may be rejected after putting yourself out there. That sucks, but it’s part of the process. But I’m not convinced that your inaction comes from forecasting even as specific as, “If I do this I may be rejected”—what does crashing and burning immediately after logging onto an app actually mean? The good news is, it won’t involve actual death—if the burns are metaphorical, well, they’ll help you develop a proverbial thicker skin at any rate.
Ask yourself what the worst thing is that can happen by putting yourself out there. I think it’s something along the lines of confirming what you think you already know. But even if you get nowhere, you’d likely be no worse off than you seem to be now. One could argue that you would have wasted your time, but time wasted in effort is less expensive than time wasted in fear and regret. You may learn new, unexpected things from the process of trying (even if you never reach your initially intended goal); doing absolutely nothing gives you absolutely no potential for growth.
Stop denigrating yourself. You are no less deserving of love than anyone else on this planet. You may be unhappy with your appearance, but that you also share with quite a few members of your species. If you feel that putting more effort into weight management would make you happier, pursue that. Right now, you’re “looking to get in better shape,” which puts you further along there than you are on your romance journey but … by like a quarter of a step. Make it a full step and then take another one. Start going on walks. (A tip: Getting into audiobooks has been a really great motivator for my daily walks.) Years ago, I felt like you did: I was interested in fitness but actually achieving it seemed entirely too difficult to even seriously consider. I quit smoking and I started running. And then I joined a gym. Now exercise means so much to me that it’s crucial to my mental health. I started today in such a shitty mood but after working out, I felt decidedly better. Just moving my body gave me the ability to see my day in a much more positive perspective. I recommend seeking the same in exercise—if you go in thinking you’re going to have a 6-pack in a few months, you’re probably going to get really frustrated. If you go in thinking, “This could actually help me in a variety of ways,” well, it probably will if you stick with it.
Getting moving—literally and in terms of finding love—is the hardest thing. That transitional period from inertia to motion may be taxing. You may want to give up along the way. But I promise you that once you really get going, you’ll be able to stay going (and realize that stopping would, in fact, create way more problems for yourself). I give you this as a tough-love pep talk. You may try and fail, but if you don’t try you will certainly fail. You may want to seek a therapist regarding your anxiety, and you may also want to think about what you really want in a relationship. Plenty of non-partnered people are happy and get a lot of the same nutrients from other sources that they would in a spouse/life partner. Do you want a relationship because you crave that connection, or do you want it because you’ve been socialized to believe that’s what healthily functioning individuals have? I’m taking you at your word that it’s the former, but it might be closer to the latter, in which case you can fine tune your goals. Principle alone tends to make a perilous foundation for a relationship.
All of this is doable—you just have to actually do it.
More How to Do It
I’ve recently started dating a guy and have come across a problem I’ve encountered before—his intercourse (humping, to put it plainly) rhythm is hard, fast, and strong. This isn’t always bad, but I like variety, plus my vagina needs to warm up first before moving to a proper pounding. Getting on top gives me more control, but I feel like it’s hard for him to keep an erection on my rhythm. (My ex was actually really good at this—he changed up his speed and moved between fast and slow and medium and back again—but maybe he is an outlier.) Besides talking about this, are there some things we can try to see if he can slow down and stay hard? Is it possible for a guy to change his rhythm during sex?