How to Do It

I Can’t Get Over How Many Women Say the Exact Wrong Thing Before We Have Sex

It’s an instant red flag.

Hand grabbing the wrist of another arm.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by somkku/iStock/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 short, fun, informative episodes. Subscribe to the podcast now wherever you listen.

This episode transcript is available exclusively to Slate Plus members. Join today—your first month is only $1.

Dear How to Do It,

I’m a 35-year-old heterosexual man who’s into BDSM. When looking at prospective play partners, there is one thing that so many of them say that just instantly rules them out.

Specifically, one of the things I ask about are hard and soft limits. I’ve long since lost track of the number of times a woman I’m talking to gets this almost exalted look on her face and says something like, “I don’t have limits. Do anything you want to me.” On one hand, it’s useful for screening them out. But on the other hand, it’s profoundly troubling that people like this exist and go to munches. Where do they come from? And how can I get better at spotting and avoiding them?

— Not Sorry I Asked

Rich: I mean, “it’s troubling that people like this exist”—what are you going to do, exterminate them? People like this exist. So what? It’s a little harsh.

Stoya: Well, I was thinking you might use the Socratic method to help people think through that, right? Rather than being like, “Oh my God! You get away from me,” you could be like, “Wow, that’s really brave. Can I ask why you’re so open to a stranger that you don’t have limits? Do you perhaps have boundaries rarely? Why do you have no boundaries or limits?” They could help a person think about, oh, is this actually how I want to be?

I think the writer and I differ in that, if this is actually how the person really wants to be, they’re an adult, that’s their choice. And while I’m not personally comfortable engaging in anything complicated or emotionally intense with a person who doesn’t have limits or boundaries, that’s a valid way of doing things.

Rich: Also, another way to look at somebody without limits or boundaries is that then you can create them. They’re putting it in your hands, which A) allows you to explore whatever you want to, apparently, because they seem game, and B) would not require you to go anywhere outside of your comfort zone if they’re giving that to you.

I would suspect that these people do have limits. I would suspect that actual violence enacted on their bodies in a way that might cause lasting injury probably isn’t something that these people want. I think if someone said “I have no limits” and you said, “Okay, can I cut off your arm?” They’d say “No.” I would assume, maybe not! But I would assume that “I don’t have limits,” it kind of comes with an agreement within certain limits.

Stoya: Only within some reason.

Rich: Exactly.

Stoya: I think that’s absolutely the case. And I think if he sticks around for a few minutes and talks to these people, he’ll realize it’s the case. I’m assuming that these people are new to BDSM, and I think there’s a chance that they’ll realize like, “Oh, I do have certain limits and I do need to state those, because sexuality is so diverse and vast that there’s no predicting what a person might fantasize about and want to enact.”

However, you get into the tyranny of words and the impossibility of predicting everything. Asking someone to provide an exhaustive list of things that will not be done to them and considering anything not explicitly on the list as free game is hugely problematic.

Rich: Totally. There has been this discourse in the past year, there’ve been multiple books about this, that have probed to the idea of consent as being the be-all, end-all of ethical sexuality. Obviously consent is very important, but what about people who don’t know what they want? Who can’t articulate themselves, or want to feel their way through sex as a way of exploring and attaining pleasure? That all seems okay with me, as long as they have a responsible partner who’s not going to take advantage of that, but instead honor it.

It is really important to communicate. You know, I am nothing if not verbose; I communicate to an annoying degree. So I understand this, but at the same time, you got to let people have their vibe and figure out how they want to communicate. I think what you said about maybe these people being new is really important to think about, because if they’re new, then they have to learn the language.

And the only way that you get to learn a language is by practicing it. So, what I don’t like is this impulse that I see a lot on social media, but just in general, someone says the wrong thing, whatever that is, and then they’re immediately shut down. That leaves no room for growth, for understanding, for them to even to be able to explain why.

Stoya: It’s up to the letter writer if they want to contribute to the good of the social group around the munches and help these people who are responding this way to grow into people that he does want as sexual partners, or if he’d rather just avoid them. And if that’s the case, don’t go to munches, man. Munches is where we send the people who are curious about BDSM. That is newbie territory.

Rich: Yeah. And I think he has the right idea in one respect, which is, if you’re going to be so judgmental, then you can take that which offends your sensibilities as data: “Okay, you said this; I don’t like that. You’re screened out.” That’s it.

More How to Do It

I am a cis woman who has been dating a cis man for several months. He is very sweet and respectful. We love each other and have great communication in general. When we started talking about what we like in bed, he revealed that he enjoys some consensual BDSM activities, like slapping his partner. I told him I don’t enjoy pain sexually. He said he really loves having sex with me without that element and that he doesn’t need it to be sexually fulfilled. So far, that all seems to be true. A problem arose when we had sex with me on top.