How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Have a question? Send it to Stoya and Rich here. It’s anonymous!
How to Do It,
I am a 29-year-old woman engaged to a wonderful man whom I have been happily, monogamously dating for nearly 10 years. But, with very, very infrequent exceptions, I only ever want to have sex when I’m drunk.
I do not think this is due to a lack of attraction to my fiancé. He’s intelligent, respectful, funny, fit, stylish, and handsome, and I love to touch and be close to him. Neither is it due to a lack of trust or security in our relationship. We support one another in our respective careers, share household responsibilities equally, know and like each other’s friends, and there is not—and never has been—any jealousy or suspicion of infidelity. I’m not excessively or abnormally insecure with my appearance. It’s just that I have absolutely no sex drive. At. All.
It’s not causing tension in our relationship. When he tries to initiate something in bed and I say no, he never pressures or shows frustration. He knows I’m like this, and asked to marry me anyway. I know that I am incredibly fortunate and privileged, which is probably why I worry that this will create resentment between us later in life. And I feel guilty that I’m committing my exceptional partner to a loving, but sexless marriage before the age of 30.
What is going on here? Is it normal for a young, healthy, purely social drinker to need a few glasses of wine to be in the mood? Is something wrong with me? And can I change it?
First, if it’s true that you have “absolutely no sex drive”—and if the alcohol is just sort of making sex tolerable—it is worth considering that you might be asexual. As I often recommend in this column in such cases, Angela Chen’s Ace would be worth checking out to see if that idea resonates.
Beyond that, the sense of “needing” to ingest substances in order to have sex is something that I’ve heard quite a bit about anecdotally, but there isn’t a ton of readily accessible mainstream information out there on the topic. So I reached out to Amanda Katherine Gilmore, an assistant professor at Georgia State University’s School of Public Health (and director of that school’s National Center for Sexual Violence Prevention) whose areas of inquiry are within the intersection of your sex/substance question. Gilmore has, in fact, co-authored a few papers on the very topic of alcohol use and sex in women. Via email, she sent me such a thorough, somewhat scholarly but wonderfully written response that I’m going to reprint it here in its entirety.
The TL;DR of it is: Your urge to drink for sex may have more to do with your relationship with alcohol than your sexuality. Results of one of Gilmore’s studies showed women who were drinking had less recorded genital arousal than those who were sober. In another study, “acute alcohol intoxication was associated with lower self-reported desire to engage in sex,” according to Gilmore. However, if that study’s participants “believed that alcohol lowered sexual inhibitions, they had higher self-reported desire to engage in sex.” This suggests alcohol’s lubricating effect may be squarely psychological. This and more in Gilmore’s letter:
A lot of women wonder “is there something wrong with me?” when it comes to sex. This may be because as a country we have put more energy into studying men’s sexual functioning, desire, and arousal than understanding the same constructs among women. Even with more research on men, men also struggle with low sexual desire and wonder if there is something wrong with them.
You are not alone! In a national sample of women in the U.S. aged 30 to 70 in 2008 by West and colleagues in JAMA, 26.7 percent of pre-menopausal and 52.4 percent of naturally menopausal women have low sexual desire, which sounds very similar to what you are experiencing. Female Sexual Interest/Arousal Disorder (previously called Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder [HSDD]) is also common among younger women, with a review in 2016 indicating that 8.9 percent of women aged 18-44 have HSDD (Parish & Hahn, 2016). There is a lot of variability from person to person and in different contexts. If low desire is interfering with your life, which it sounds like it may not be from your question, there are effective therapies like Dr. Lori Brotto’s mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapies. You can check out her book called Better Sex Through Mindfulness: How Women Can Cultivate Desire.
Only wanting to have sex while intoxicated may have to do more with alcohol expectancies than sexual desire or the pharmacologic effects of alcohol. My research has included experimental studies where we study the effects of acute alcohol intoxication on arousal and desire among women. In our article published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine (Gilmore et al., 2010), we found that sexual arousal among women who are drinking (acute alcohol intoxication at a level of .10 percent breath alcohol content), women have lower genital arousal than women who were sober. We measured sexual arousal using vaginal pulse amplitude while watching explicit videos that were selected by women as being arousing. Although alcohol may increase self-reported arousal, it decreases physiological arousal. That means it has more to do with thoughts, attitudes, and expectancies than biological effects of alcohol. In our article published in Archives of Sexual Behavior (Gilmore et al., 2013), acute alcohol intoxication was associated with lower self-reported desire to engage in sex. In that same study, if participants believed that alcohol lowered sexual inhibitions, they had higher self-reported desire to engage in sex. Sexual desire was assessed when women projected themselves into an eroticized scenario. These findings suggest that thoughts, attitudes, and expectancies about alcohol might influence your behavior when drinking more than the physiological effects of alcohol.
I find this to be really encouraging because expectancies can be changed if needed. And the key piece there is if needed. There is a flip side of this, Dr. Anotonia Abbey’s research has found that men tend to misinterpret friendly cues as sexual when women are drinking. That means that it may be possible that after you have a few glasses of wine, your husband may view you as more sexually interested and may be more likely to try to initiate sex rather than vice versa. This dynamic can get really problematic for sexual assault, but it sounds like your experiences are consensual from your question. What happens when you are drinking is likely a combination of your expectancies about how you should think, feel, and behave while intoxicated combined with your husband’s expectancies about how you should think, feel, and behave while intoxicated.
There is an inherent belief in our culture that says that men want to have sex more than women, but that is not true. My advice would be to only get help if it is interfering with your life, and if it ever comes to that to find a sex therapist trained in mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapies for sexual desire.
Dear How to Do It,
I’ve reached a bit of a sexual stand-off with my spouse and would love some perspective. We’re a pretty typical straight married couple—been together over 10 years, mid-30s, two kids, the usual sexual ups and downs all that entails. Recently, things have actually been really great, sex-wise. Our frequency has gone up, we’re feeling really connected during sex and so on. The problem that rears (ha!) its ugly head every now and then is that my husband is really into anal and I am … not. I’ve tried it many times with him. We use lots of lube. We try putting in a butt plug first, we try different positions, I try to bear down or whatever and I still fucking hate it. It hurts. I have a bowel-related health condition that makes me especially nervous about doing any damage to that part of my body. If I was merely neutral on it, I would do it just to make him happy (I mean, I love the guy and all), but whenever anything bigger than a finger goes up there, it’s like my body is just screaming at me to get it out. It seems wrong to ignore that impulse.
We got into a big argument about this last night, which leads me to my question(s). First of all, is there some secret anal sex tip that will suddenly make this feel not terrible? Assuming not (we’ve done some Googling on the subject), what are some ways that my husband might scratch this itch without the actual act itself (opening up the relationship is not something either of us is interested in)? And finally, if we’ve just reached a point where this is just not on the sexual menu any more, any tips on helping him process that? Like, the desire for it doesn’t just go away because I say I’m not interested. So if that desire or fetish is always there, never being satisfied, how does a person come to terms with that without being a pouty jerk about it?
— My Butt, My Choice
Dear My Butt,
Unfortunately, my anal sex secret is about as tangible as smoke: The trick is to focus on relaxing. I know that makes little intellectual sense as both processes are at odds, but it helped me learn how to love bottoming. I think many people never get there, though, and we can just assume that you’re one of them. Anal sex isn’t for you. You don’t like it, and you have anatomical reasons to be wary of it. Even if your disinterest in anal sex were entirely irrational, you’d still be entitled to it—it’s your body! Scratching this itch of his is his problem—porn and fantasy may be as good as it gets for him. He could certainly try a sex toy designed to simulate an anus, but I suspect that nothing is really going to do it for him like the real thing. In terms of processing it, he’s a grown man who should understand by now that he can’t have everything he wants. It’s just not how life works. Focusing on what he does have (a loving wife with whom he’s having really great sex after 10 years) may help. Something that also may help: Reckoning with the fact that he continues to try to get you to do something that you “fucking hate.” Why does he want to put his partner through that? We all have our kinks and interests, but the entire point of a shared healthy sex life is common ground. This is entirely his vibe and if that makes him upset, it’s just too bad. You can tolerate this with compassion, but you’re absolutely not obligated to participate.
How to Do It,
For over a decade, I have lied to my wife about something stupid. Early on, she wanted to know my sexual history, including when I first had sex. I told her I was 17 the first time, but that isn’t remotely true. The truth is that I was 26. Until that point, I was too self-conscious and insecure to have a sex life, but I didn’t want her to know the truth. When is a good time to tell the truth … or does it matter enough to come clean all these years later?
If you’re actively continuing this charade, which means lying to your wife regularly, coming clean matters somewhat. Why keep the negativity of deception as a recurring feature of your communication? However, if you’re worried about a lie that you told previously that hasn’t since come up much, I would say you’re probably better off not correcting it. If this isn’t something that’s affecting your relationship on a continuing basis, bringing it back up may invite more drama than it’s worth, and with that may come its own negativity. You may be ultimately burdening your wife with an argument over something inconsequential, anyway. The import of virginity (which is culturally instilled) tends to evaporate once it ceases—what matters far more than when you started having sex is your current sex life.
However, if this is something that you just feel like you must get off your chest, just approach her with humility. Shame is why you lied in the first place, and that feeling often makes people act out of character and do things they normally wouldn’t and otherwise know are not right. However, if your lying about this particular fact is indicative of an overall sense of comfort that you have in misleading your partner, rethink, revise, and knock it off.
Did you write this or another letter we answered? Tell us what happened at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear How to Do It,
My husband and I are trying to have a child. But, as you can imagine, the monthly “timed” sex based on ovulation patterns is starting to feel less romantic and more like a chore with lots of pressure as the unsuccessful months (months without a successful pregnancy) wear on. Any tips to help us keep this part fun?
— On the Job
Dear On the Job,
This may come down to framing and perspective. Psychologist and AASECT-certified sex therapist Stephanie Buehler has presented on and written about this topic in her book Counseling Couples Before, During, and After Pregnancy: Sexuality and Intimacy Issues, so I reached out to her to borrow a cup of tips. During our phone conversation, she advocated a Zen-like approach to your procreative sex (which she repeatedly referred to as “baby-making sex,” which I loved because it reminded me of R&B slow jams, which are sometimes referred to as “baby-making music”). “Sex issues are common because our stress levels have a lot to do with how we’re experiencing sex,” she explained. “If you’re stressing out about having a baby, then it’s going to show up in the bedroom when you are having sex.” The goal is to mitigate the stress to enjoy the sex, irrespective of its child-producing goal.
“When you show up in the bedroom, you don’t want to act like you’re bringing in your thermos and your lunch pail and act like you’re going to clock in,” Buehler said. “You want to show up and have a mindset of, ‘I’m going to have a relaxed and pleasurable, intimate experience with my partner.’ ”
She said that sometimes the stress comes externally in the form of pressure from well-intentioned relatives and friends who may be invested in your journey. In this event, boundaries are helpful. That might mean being tight-lipped about wanting to get pregnant until it happens, or if people are already aware, setting them straight. Buehler recommends telling such family members and friends: “The pressure that you’re putting on us is really not helpful. I appreciate your concern and I know how much you love us, but we need a different kind of support from you.”
Buehler also recommended keeping connected when you aren’t having baby-making sex—both in the intercourse that you’re having that isn’t timed and in your general life. “Take some of the pressure off having intercourse,” she advised. Find other ways to pleasure each other, and do kind things for each other. She said couples that she’s seen sometimes make their timed intercourse very special with, say, candles and … baby-making music, lots of foreplay, etc. Others have a very let’s-get-down-to-business approach. Either will work; so will trying both approaches in different sessions.
Personally, when I’m made to do something taxing or uncomfortably obligating, I try to focus on the fact that it’s temporary. “This isn’t my life; this is my life now,” I tell myself, knowing that one day soon it won’t be. You could try focusing on that, as well. Good luck! Have a good baby!
More How to Do It
I recently started dating again and have just recently been confronted by a situation that’s left me scratching my head. I have met two men who would like to date me, and they both are great! And, they both sound completely gay—like, out-of-the-closet, effeminate-speech gay. This is kind of a libido killer for me, and it makes my brain spin. I am not proud of my response, which is to not want to go out with them again. I can’t even tell if I sound homophobic here, but is it homophobic to be a straight woman and not want to date a gay man? See? My brain is a mess. Here are my specific fears—that one or both of these men are in denial about their gender preferences OR that I’m passing up on some fantastic men because they are indeed straight. I know it’s up to me to decide if I find them attractive and move ahead, but I guess I want someone to tell me that it’s possible that I’m a nincompoop here and that straight men can “sound gay.”