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,
A few nights ago my husband informed me that he had been recently propositioned by someone in his social circle (not someone I have ever met). He declined at the time, but came to me a week later to ask for my go-ahead to pursue a casual friends-with-benefits relationship with her. I cried. In the past I’ve said that I don’t have a problem with being occasionally nonmonogamous at some point in time, but that it was important to me that this could only happen if our relationship was secure and strong. I’m not sure this is the case right now. We’ve gone through some tough times in the past few years, exacerbated by multiple moves and job changes, my struggles with depression, and the birth of our child. Furthermore, I am still wrestling with a sexually repressive religious upbringing and just not into the same things he is in bed. He likes rough sex and to explore kinks, which I can’t enjoy at all.
As a result of his sexual frustration, he has often been short and irritable with me and hasn’t been a particularly good partner at times. Divorce has been brought up once or twice. Now he sees this as an opportunity for him to blow off steam in a safe, casual way. Our discussion lasted several hours and got very emotional. At the end of it I said, “Fine, but I don’t want to know anything about it, and you need to be discreet.” He agreed, and in the days since then has been more attentive, affectionate, and loving than I’ve seen him since we first got married. He said that his inability to “be himself,” as he puts it, has been detrimental to his mental health for some time now, and that my consent was the most loving gift I could have given him. Honestly, I’m struggling to figure out how I feel about this whole situation. I trust him completely to practice safe sex and to honor my request for discretion, so that’s not an issue. I don’t know if I truly have an issue with his exploration outside our marriage or if that’s just my traditional religious programming raising its ugly head once again, which wouldn’t be the first time. I’ve often felt guilty about being unable to meet his sexual needs, and this would alleviate that burden on me. I also don’t know whether I want to know more about what he’s up to. My initial instinct was “tell me nothing.” However, I now find that I don’t care for not knowing—wondering is even less fun. How should we establish boundaries for this situation? What should those boundaries be? Was I right to say yes? (I know your response is likely to include a recommendation for therapy, and I don’t disagree, but we live overseas in a place where options for therapy are very limited and it’s difficult to access.)
My co-columnist Rich advocates defaulting to the more monogamous partner’s needs and boundaries with open relationships, but it sounds like you want to push out of your comfort zone for yourself to some degree. I’m not thrilled that your husband brought this up when he did—during a rough patch—but you seem positive about his behavior now, so this may work out in the end.
Let’s start with the therapy option. There are multiple apps that allow consumers of mental health services to connect with therapists through telemedicine, from anywhere, and I think that might be a great solution for you. It sounds like you have a lot to sort through, and I do believe that a therapist can help immensely. In the meantime, if that doesn’t pan out, you can journal for a half-hour or more at a time. You can talk to trusted friends. You can go on long walks or take showers or whatever else helps you process difficult and complicated emotions.
Boundaries need to be specially made for the people involved, so you’ll have to figure that out yourself. It’s crucial to craft boundaries as malleable, as arrangements we’re trying out, and understand that they may change over and over again as our feelings and comfort levels shift. Your first impulse was “I don’t want to know!” and, now that you’ve tried that, it isn’t working for you. Go back to your husband and explain that not knowing is stressful in a way you didn’t anticipate, and that you’d like to try some knowing. Tell him what level of detail you think you’d like. Start with a little, and ask for more as you go. You might decide on a kind of safe word beforehand, like stop or red, to communicate that you want the sharing to stop if feelings come up suddenly or you’re having trouble communicating.
Try not to be too hard on yourself about your religious programming. We’ve all got some kind of baked-in beliefs from childhood, and that’s part of being human. If you feel up to it, it might help to think back on what you were told when you were growing up, and evaluate those things now. You might file them as “not useful,” “somewhat useful,” and “useful.” You might come up with another categorization. As with your relationship structure and your ways of approaching your issues, whatever works for you is best.
I’m not able to tell you whether you did the right thing by saying yes to opening up your marriage. I’m not sure there’s such a thing as the “right” thing, only paths we can live with and paths we can’t. I do think you can work through your emotions to figure out what works with you, and hope you can find a happy balance with your husband’s desires.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a woman in college. I just broke up with my boyfriend last week because he’s doing a semester abroad. We decided we’d revisit when he got back. I know that before we broke up, he was a bit unsatisfied with our sex life because I was so inexperienced. I dream of him coming back to a much more experienced and confident me, but I’m not sure where to start on getting the practice I need. Any advice?
I think of sexual growth as more of a journey than a checklist. You might not experience everything in the world. You might never get around to a lot of the sexual menu. And that’s OK.
The first exploration I recommend is of your own body. Spend some time with all of your parts. You might pick up a copy of Sheri Winston’s Women’s Anatomy of Arousal for a thorough tour of your anatomy and ideas for how to use that knowledge to give yourself pleasure. Generally, feel around at different levels of arousal. Try the crevices, try the parts you don’t usually touch, and try pressure and friction. Take your time, and engage your attention in your body as much as possible. If your mind wanders, gently return it to the present moment. You might try actively remembering something arousing to keep your mind focused on. Keep track of the spots that feel good, and when you find one, experiment with different kinds of pressure or touch. Really get to know your body.
Another thing you can do is look at sexual material, whether that’s educational or pornographic, for ideas. You can read or watch, whichever you prefer. When you find something that sparks desire in you, follow that thread. Seek out further content around the same theme, or by the same creator, and see if you can get an idea of what you like.
Once you’re armed with this knowledge, you can actively seek out sexual interactions with people who are interested in what you’re interested in, and you’ll be able to tell them how to give you pleasure. Maybe that’s your recently former partner, or maybe that’s multiple people you haven’t met yet. It’s up to you.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m writing to ask for advice about how to convince people sex work is simply work and not something to be ashamed of. My sister is a sex worker, and she seems much healthier and safer at this time in her life than at previous times in her when she struggled with addiction and abusive partners. She seems happier than she has been when working more “normal” jobs. The issue is my parents—we’re both close to them, though in different ways. I’m older, and more independent and established in my life, but my sister relies on them a lot financially and emotionally. They’re really upset by her work. I’ve tried to talk to them about it calmly—tell them it’s not really their issue, that she’s being safe, and it’s not a big deal. I’ve suggested books for them to read by sex workers. But none of it sticks, and we’ve had some big fights over it. I want to stand up for my sister (and be a safe, nonjudgmental family member in her life if she ever needs help!). I’d love advice or a script to talk to them about this when it comes up.
—This Is Fine
Some people, including parents, aren’t going to change their minds. And given how sex work is discussed, even now, by the people who are against it, it’s difficult to blame parents for worrying. This can sometimes come out as judgment—a desire to put a stop to the whole endeavor and avoid danger. You might encourage your parents to talk with your sister about her individual work and get an idea of what worries are unfounded.
Independently, you can be a safe, nonjudgmental family member no matter how much the rest of your family judges. Tell your sister how you feel—that it’s her choice to make, that you support her safety protocols, and that you don’t think sex work is different from other forms of work. That you want to support her in her interactions with your parents but aren’t sure how to.
I took part in a Free Speech Coalition panel last month on coming out as a sex worker to family, run by delightful moderator Lotus Lain. Each of us had our own ways of handling our family interactions, and most of us mentioned handling different family members differently, as well. You’re going to have to figure out your own exact approach based on what you know of the specific person, and on what your sister’s preferences are.
If your sister wants to tackle the subject, follow her lead on framing. And if she’d prefer to leave the issue alone as much as possible, prepare some safe yet engaging topics to switch to when it comes up.
Dear How to Do It,
I have vaginismus, but it’s far better than it used to be thanks to a patient lover and a wonderful pelvic floor physical therapist. So much better that I decided to use a dildo during a masturbation session recently, which went well until … it got kind of stuck. I got it out by slowly pulling it out while pushing with my vagina, but it scared me. It didn’t get lost inside because it has a flared base (it’s small, silicone, and meant for anal), but it was like either my vagina had created a perfect seal around it or my vaginal muscles had clamped down on it so tightly it was hard to move it. I’m really not sure which. Is a perfect seal possible? And if so, wouldn’t that be kind of dangerous? Have you ever heard of this happening? As someone who’s used a dildo exactly once, I have little to compare the experience to. Should I try a different toy material? More lube? I was pretty wet.
—Scared of My Vagina
A seal that feels perfect is possible. Jennifer Lincoln, an OB-GYN and the author of Let’s Talk About Down There, told me that “the sensation of a seal could have happened from lube/vaginal lubrication combined with the pelvic floor muscles contracting.” She emphasized that this isn’t dangerous, and questioned whether the flared base could actually be the culprit. Lincoln suggests you try a different base next time to see if that helps, “but it’s personal preference.”
The flared base is unnecessary for vaginal penetration, because your vaginal canal is much more like a cul de sac than a highway. “The good news is that things that get stuck in the vagina can’t get ‘lost’—while you may not be able to get them out and need help, we are happy to assist and can often easily get them out quickly in the office,” adding that “the same CANNOT be said for the rectum, so please only use things there that are designed for butt play.”
Speaking of calling the office, it’s reasonable to reach out to your pelvic floor therapist, or to the doctor who referred you, if you’re concerned or otherwise need assistance. You’re unlikely to be the first patient whose vaginal canal they’ve removed an object from. They’re medical professionals, they’ve got experience, and they’re here to help. Regardless, Lincoln applauded your solution. “How she handled it was perfect—staying calm, deep breaths, and getting into a position that helps those pelvic floor muscles to relax can help in getting it out.”
As for what happened, Lincoln had some ideas: “With the vaginismus history, I wonder if there was some pelvic muscle hypercontraction going on. This isn’t something done consciously, but could be a result from after orgasm or at baseline if her pelvic floor is hypertonic (AKA always a bit over contracted which happens often in people with vaginismus or pelvic floor dysfunction). This can lead to the sensation of the dildo feeling caught or stuck, like a game of tug of war.”
I would try a dildo without a flared base, and let your pelvic floor therapist know what happened. Best of luck to you.
More How to Do It
My husband (we’re straight) and a few of his circle of friends seem to have this flirtatious homoerotic thing going on where they pretend to—or actually do, in the guise of a joke—flirt, rub each other’s shoulders or thighs, and make breathy jokes about each other. My husband seems to be on the receiving end of it, mostly, because he knows that I am not a fan. He would hate it if it were me and my friends acting like we were about to make out, too. And I have said as much. Now I wonder what’s really going on.