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 predicament with my boyfriend. We’ve been together for a few years, and from early in our relationship, he would often make sexual advances while asleep. As far as I can tell, he genuinely cannot remember anything the next morning, and while it’s always a little surprising on my end (I’m usually asleep beforehand, too), it’s never risen to anything near forcible. I can easily stop him, and he usually stops on his own anyway after just a minute or two, once he wakes himself up.
It was humorous and even felt like a compliment in the beginning. The longer we’ve been together, though, it’s bothering me more and more. He’s usually sleep-talking while he’s doing this, and I’m always frightened about what I’m going to hear: someone else’s name? Something even more out of character? Indeed, his advances are usually different while asleep than when we’re awake—both in tone (a little rougher) and in focus (first finger up my ass came while asleep, for example).
We’ve talked about it, and he feels embarrassed and uncomfortable. I do too, especially because this nighttime activity feels out of sync with our waking sex and life. I feel he may be more open or expressive of his desires in this state, and I am wondering if I should take this as indicative of what he wants sexually? How he feels about me in general? Or should we leave this as an exception and focus our attention on the times we’re both awake and able to make intentional/active decisions about what we want and do not want? How do I encourage this as a topic of conversation rather than shame?
The question of whether your boyfriend is presenting his true nature in his sleep would seem to open the door for some existential pondering about who we really are. As much as I love a good ponder on human essence, though, there’s a much simpler and decisive way to approach this question: through neuroscience.
To help make this easy for us, I once again spoke to neurologist Guy Leschziner, clinical lead for the Sleep Disorders Centre at Guy’s Hospital in London. “The way I would view the sexual behavior that this chap exhibits is probably not as an illustration of some deep-rooted desire to have sexual activity in that way, but as a function of the fact that his brain is not working normally,” Leschziner told me. What follows is his reasoning.
What your boyfriend seems to be presenting is sexsomnia, which is part of a larger group of sleep disorders known as non-REM parasomnia. These occur in deep sleep; sleepwalking is another example of one. Leschziner said that parts of a sleepwalker’s brain may remain in deep sleep, while others are active. “The human brain has the ability, at least in some people, to be awake and asleep at the same time, with different areas of the brain in different states simultaneously,” Leschziner put it in his wonderful 2019 book The Nocturnal Brain: Nightmares, Neuroscience, and the Secret World of Sleep. The parts that remain asleep, Leschziner explained, include the frontal lobes, which is the seat of rational thinking and decision-making, and the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory. Among the parts that remain active is the limbic system, “which is involved in motional processing and some of our basic behaviors, like eating, like sex, like fear,” Leschziner said.
Essentially, then, during parasomnias, you’re witnessing not the person’s essence but a distortion of it. The brain is simply not functioning in concert, as it does normally. The sum of our brain functions is what makes us our true selves, not the individual parts, which are often regulated by other parts. “We have areas of our brain that are primarily programmed to generate aggressive or primitive behaviors,” Leschziner said. “In normal life, we also have frontal lobes that appropriately inhibit our behavior, that socialize us.”
This distorted functioning can cause vegans to eat raw meat, or people to ingest toxic substances (in cases of sleep-related eating disorders). That hardly sounds like unconscious desires finally being allowed to flourish. There’s also the famous case of Phineas Gage, the 19th-century railroad construction foreman whose entire personality changed when his frontal lobe was pierced with a tamping iron. (Gage, in fact, may have been the first person to indicate to experts that certain areas of the brain were responsible for different aspects of personality.)
I hope this fascinates you as much as it did me. In terms of helping your boyfriend, though, perhaps it may be helpful to let him know that what he is presenting is actually a documented phenomenon, that it’s not his fault, and that treatment is possible (including medicine, stopping snoring, abstaining from drinking before bed, and creating an undisturbed environment). His first step should be to undergo a sleep study. Also, you should remind him that while you have been somewhat concerned by his behavior, it’s clearly not a deal-breaker (or at least, not yet). You’ve accepted and accommodated him; getting this looked at would accommodate you. And he should.
Dear How to Do It,
Is it wrong for me to have a fetish for my wife smoking cigarettes—and to ask for her to indulge it for me? She doesn’t smoke, but sometimes she will while we have sex.
—Up in Smoke
Dear Up in Smoke,
I’m going to give you an unequivocal yes (it’s wrong!), but I’m coming to you not from a sex advice columnist perspective but from that of an ex-smoker. For about seven years, I pretty much chain-smoked throughout the day. I smoked inside. I lit up upon waking up. I squirmed at the movie theater, no matter how good the film was, because I missed my fix. Quitting at age 26 was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I would never wish that upon anyone. I don’t care what it looks like; I don’t care the access to the private (and shrinking) club of smokers it affords—smoking is disgusting and dangerous. Not everyone who smokes will get addicted, and it could very well be that your wife goes through the motions of scratching your fetishistic itch unscathed, but I think it is unethical to risk hooking her. Beyond the potentially addictive component to your fetish, it’s simply bad for her health. You are asking her effectively, “Could you die a little bit for me?,” every time you’re asking her to light up. My prescription: stop.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a woman in my late 20s, and somehow I’ve become the gateway person to submissive sex for every partner I’ve had as an adult. I don’t enjoy it. For context, I’m very type A/ambitious/detail-oriented. I’ve always been told I’m fairly forceful as a personality, and I tend to know what I want. But despite exploration and lots of vanilla sex, dom/sub sex on the submissive side is the only thing that reliably gets me off. I’m apparently a competent domme, but it does very little for me sexually—the most it’s been fun has been occasional novelty of being a service top with an ex-girlfriend.
Unfortunately, I seem to explicitly attract mostly people (especially men) who want to submit, and have gotten good at bringing it up early so I can find that incompatibility and politely decline. But I still have lots of issues with people who say they want to top me or want to explore dominance who end up under me every time. Two serious ex-boyfriends who considered themselves dominant in bed now are pretty much only into submission, the aforementioned ex-girlfriend went from switch-y to not, and several one-time hookups who talked a big game about fucking me the way I want to be fucked ended up begging me to sit on their faces.
This seems like a hot problem maybe, but it’s very frustrating. I’ve tried rolling back my intensity and waiting patiently for the other person to make most of the moves, but usually I have to focus so hard on holding back that I can’t come or enjoy myself when it does happen. I’m seeing a new woman now that I really like but I’ve been avoiding sleeping with her because I’m not sure how to handle this. Advice?
—Topping From the Bottom
Dear Topping From the Bottom,
This is something a lot of men who have sex with men go through—there are guys who prefer to bottom who fit the superficial template of tops in terms of their presentation, but you know what? They end up getting dick anyway. If you’re not down to take requests and can’t really deal with having to turn people down in the moment, I think you should get in front of it by being very explicit about what you’re into on apps or in sex spaces. There are plenty of kink-leaning apps that will allow you to spell out what you’re looking for in no uncertain terms. I think if you’re going to keep facilitating this sex via in-person interactions—a choice that I generally agree with, though it’s obviously complicated in your case—then you should in fact top from the bottom. Be exacting and don’t take less than what you’re asking for. Having to explain what you’re into, despite appearances, may be your destiny. Negotiating who we are with who people think we are can be a lifelong process, and while it’s frustrating, it’s worth sticking with if only because we have no other option in order to share our true selves with the world. Make yourself heard, and you will be by someone who matters.
Dear How to Do It,
I hooked up with an ex-boyfriend after five years, and we started to get to it until we realized neither he nor I had condoms. After he left, I was kind of stumped, as his dick seemed much smaller than it had when we were dating. He had lost about 30 pounds and everything I could find said most guys’ penises seem larger because of the loss of fat at the base of the pubis, not the opposite. And it didn’t just seem shorter, but less thick. Does aging do anything to shrink it or was it just psychological trick me remembering it as bigger? Since we never did anything more, I could never judge if it might have felt the same and the opportunity has never arisen to try to get together again. Since then, he met someone else, so I probably won’t have the opportunity to ever find out either. Do you know if this is possible, or am I cray-cray?
Shrinkage is, indeed, a thing—and it can be way longer lasting than the situational kind described on Seinfeld. Usually the change isn’t too drastic, but it may be observable to the eagle-eyed connoisseur. There are a few known causes for this, which include Peyronie’s disease, weight gain, and prostate surgery. Another culprit: erectile dysfunction. In these cases, “the thought is that the shrinkage occurs due to the loss of spontaneous and nocturnal erections,” explained Dr. Charles Welliver, director of men’s health at Albany Medical College. “This more frequent nourishing blood keeps the penis healthy. The every-so-often erections guys get for intercourse (on average most people have sex once a week) wouldn’t be enough to support good penile health and would lead to the shrinkage. The length maintenance is more about the erections and semi-elections (chubs if you will) that happen when not having sex.” Welliver actually discussed this topic in more detail, including ways of treating such shrinkage, on an upcoming episode of the How to Do It podcast on the specific topic of “COVID dick.” So be on the lookout for that one.
So, it’s possible that your ex has lost some girth. It’s also possible that you’re misremembering. I’ve done that—every once in a while I’ll catch a FWB on the long lap and I’ll be slapped in the face with the realization that my memory was extremely generous with the inches. Again, it could be that your ex experienced one of the aforementioned conditions in the intervening time, but it could also be the rose-colored funhouse mirror of nostalgia coming from inside of you.
More How to Do It
I’m a man in his early 30s at home for the holidays from Thanksgiving to New Years. (I haven’t seen my family the whole pandemic, so I’m staying for a while.) I’m staying at my dad’s house, where my younger brother also lives right now after his engagement ended this year. He is an attractive kid and already has a new girlfriend who seems to come around often. She’s nice. The problem is that they are having sex constantly, and loudly, when she comes over at night. And the problem-problem is what my brother just revealed when I told him I could hear them.