How to Do It

My Girlfriend’s Friends Heard One Detail About Our Sex Life—and They’re Furious

A young woman and man holding hands.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by stephanie phillips/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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’m a 19-year-old male in college, and dating a girl from my campus of the same age, “Rebecca.” The other day, at a gathering of some of her friends, about 10 seconds after I walk in the door, one of her “besties” slapped me across the face before I even had a chance to speak. I was more surprised than hurt and asked what that was all about, and she went on this rant about how I disrespected Rebecca by giving her a facial, which was apparently akin to claiming her as property or something. That predictably led to a huge argument, and there was a lot of bad will all around when we scattered a few minutes later.

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On the way back to the dorms I asked Rebecca how her friend even found out, and she gave me one of these looks like I asked a particularly stupid question and said that of course she tells her (female) friends about how her sex life is going; everyone does it. I was quite miffed about this whole deal, and said I wasn’t comfortable telling her friends about what we do with our privacy without at least consulting me, and she just had this almost jeering laugh, said that I could have good luck ever keeping a girlfriend with that attitude.

Is she right? Is this an unreasonable thing to ask for? It certainly seems like a raw deal. But this is my first sexual relationship, and I’m not so sure as to the lay of the land.

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—Too Much

Dear Too Much,

It was out of line for your girlfriend’s friend to slap you, regardless of her opinion on facials. Your girlfriend’s response does not sound ideal. But I think there’s a bigger lesson for you here.

Everyone has their own vast, diverse sexuality, and their own valid boundaries. Dating is partially about sorting through mutually attracted people to find those whose specifics match up with yours. Usually this comes up with libido, and desired frequency of sex, but ability to share details about sex is also a place where mismatch can occur.

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You want a significant amount of privacy around sexuality. Sometimes we learn about a boundary of ours by it being crossed. It happens. Now that you know this is the case, you can communicate what you want to potential partners. Spend some time thinking about what specifically is and isn’t acceptable for you, so you can use examples on both sides of the line. Consider what might be behind your objection so you understand it better. If you’re still interested in continuing to date your girlfriend, go to her and ask if she’s interested in continuing to date you with consideration toward your boundaries. It sounds like she might prefer someone who is more relaxed about divulging details.

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Expecting total silence around sex without asking for it is unreasonable though. Your default isn’t everyone’s default. Without functional sex education, discussion of sex between friends is one of the few ways we can consider sex, think critically about it, and process our sexual experiences. Generally speaking, this should be encouraged. So speak up next time, and understand that potential partners may reject you for it. Good luck.

Dear How to Do It,

My husband and I have been together for 10 years, and we have a pretty so-so sex life, which is mostly my fault. My whole adult life I’ve been overweight, and not only did I not like the way I looked (although my partner always said I was sexy), I was limited in the activity I could do, so to speak, and I had little to no sex drive. Well, last year I had weight loss surgery and have lost 100 pounds. I love how I look, have tons of energy, and I’m raring to go. Except not with him. I am getting all of this male attention now, and I am craving the feeling of a new relationship to go along with all of this newfound confidence. This realization makes me feel like dirt, because my husband is a wonderful person and has stood by me during all of my body dysmorphia. I don’t want to leave him or blow up my family. I just want a “hall pass,” but I doubt he’d go for it. I don’t even know how to begin to talk to him about this or turn my attention back on him. What do I do?

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—New Me

Dear New You,

I think the first step is to figure out what you really want. Do you want to repair the sexual portion of your relationship with your husband? Do you want to start over with someone you’re feeling the attraction of novelty to? Make lists of pros and cons, talk to trusted friends, go for walks, take showers or baths. All the things that help you think. Take your time. This is a big decision, and it’s very unlikely that you can have both any time soon.

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I’m assuming that you haven’t been non-monogamous together in the past. There’s absolutely a world where you work on your relationship with your husband first, and, after a couple of years, broach the subject of opening up your marriage. But opening up when things aren’t going well is extremely risky. So, if you value the relationship you already have with your husband over who you might meet in the future, you’ll want to hold off on that conversation until things are stable. If you want new horizons and your marriage is less important, you might take riskier steps.

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As for turning your attentions back to your husband, think about how you fell in love with him. Think about the good sex you did have together, think about every part you find attractive, look for those small mannerisms that warm your heart. Spend time focused on each other, talking and existing. If it’s in the budget, you might consider individual therapy to help you sort through your emotions and have someone to check in with weekly. Even if you have friends with time and empathy to speak with, making dedicated, regular time to talk about your feelings with purpose has extra efficacy.

Dear How to Do It, 

I (early 20s) recently started a physical friends-with-benefits relationship with a very close friend of mine (late 20s). We’d had sexual conversations before, and traded photos and videos, but a weekend together was the first time that we’d been together in this way—we live a few hours away from one another.

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It was great. There was flirting, cuddling (new to me), kissing, sex. It was perfect because I’d recently overcome a long aversion to relationships and intimacy, and it allowed me a dive into this without feeling the pressure that can accompany a relationship.

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The only “issue” with this is that the comfort I feel with him is one that I, naïvely, expected to feel with someone I’m in love with. He’s emotional, caring, and most importantly, wonderful at making sure that I’m comfortable with what’s occurring, sexual or otherwise. But I’m finding it difficult to get used to how the relationship is. We don’t want a relationship with one another, and I definitely hold true to that, but it’s strange for me that some of the emotional and sexual aspects I expected with my “perfect person” is in him.

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I am aware of how kiddish this sounds, which is why I’m wondering where this may have come from. Any advice on how to get over it, or ways to understand it?

—Not in Love

Dear Not in Love,

You’re young, you’re self-aware, and you’re motivated to understand yourself. That’s great. We tend to talk about sexual relationships as though they fall into one of two categories: a casual hookup or a committed, emotional relationship. The reality is much more complicated. You might find yourself in an emotional hookup, or with someone you see intermittently for years and engage in real mutual support with but have no intention of cohabiting or procreating with.

I’m glad to see you acknowledge that you’re in a relationship. You’re spending time together, you’re in each others lives, and you’re having sex. There’s definitely a different category of relationships that tends to escalate towards a long-term, committed bond. But you’re significant to each other. It’s natural to feel emotions towards people you’re having sex with. And when there’s real friendship along with the “friends with benefits” status, there are all sorts of emotions like respect, regard, and even love that can be overwhelming and confusing. Loving someone while having sex with someone might look a lot like the romance train, but it doesn’t have to go in that direction.

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You should have some open discussion of sexual boundaries (are you also having sex with other people? Is he? How are you each managing risk of sexually transmittable infections?) and agree to update each other if your desires for the shape of the relationship shift. Otherwise, enjoy it!

Dear How to Do It,

I am now in a lovely, healthy relationship after years in an abusive one. I took plenty of time after the terrible breakup and aftermath, and am getting lots of therapy. When I was finally ready to date again, I was super excited and lucky to quickly to meet my current partner. In the beginning, the utter bliss of being emotionally and sexually safe again fueled a lot of hot kinky sex, which was healing and fantastic.

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Fast forward to us having moved in together, and the day-to-day is a lot less novel and exciting, and a lot more full of small things that set off my PTSD. My partner and I are both physical and sexual people, so when I can actually relax and be present, the sex is really connecting and healing. My problem is that, after starting out in this relationship with a lot of hot fast sex, I am now in a place where I need foreplay—a lot of it—to relax and be able to enjoy myself. My partner is incredibly sweet and understanding, but I am learning they don’t really have a lot of talent for going slowly. We’re either going about our day to day, or they’re sticking their hand down my pants and telling me what kinky things they’d like to do to me.

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We’ve tried some of the standard foreplay techniques, like a lot of oral, but honestly, I am a penetration girl and if I’m not already super in the mood, I get distracted when receiving oral. We have found only one thing that works for both of us, which is giving me a massage before we get into it, but I don’t want to be dependent on that, and honestly, I feel bad always asking for it. I’ve tried many anxiety management methods on my own, like meditation, but while it can calm my anxiety, it doesn’t get me to that intimate and safe feeling I need to really enjoy myself.

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Do you have any suggestions for other methods of relaxation or foreplay that might help us get intimate and ready to go to town?

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—Stressed and Distracted

Dear SD,

The Dual Control Model of Sexual Response, developed by John Bancroft and Erick Johnson in the 1990s, feels useful here. The short version is that when it comes to sexual desire, we have an excitation system (like a gas pedal) and an inhibition system (like a brake) and each can be more or less sensitive. Emily Nagoski’s Come As You Are is a great explanation of this concept, and has several suggestions for how to work with various combinations of brake and gas. It sounds like your brakes are more sensitive than they were at the start of your relationship, and they’re taking longer to depress. Like they’re stiff.

I’m wondering if you can do a lot of foreplay on yourself. If baths or other sorts of pampering relax you and focus you on your body, I’d start there. The meditation is great. Focus on your breathing for a bit and then focus on different parts of your body. Fantasize, or if there’s erotica or porn that turns you on, engage with some of it. Masturbation, whether with fingers or toys, could be part of this. If you can get yourself turned on enough to enjoy receiving oral and being penetrated, your partner’s vigor won’t feel so abrupt.

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Be careful that this doesn’t become the only context you have sex in, though. On other occasions, slow down together on purpose. You might set a timer—no genital touching for the first 20 minutes. Maybe start with either the talking or the physical contact, but not both at first. Have a talk and decide what the details of this look like. However you do it, though, find a way to keep gently reminding them to slow down when they speed up. Eventually, practice should lead to progress. You might also slow down when you’re the giver—if they can enjoy a slower pace as the recipient that might help them maintain one when they’re leading the interaction.

More How to Do It

My wife is bisexual, and I’ve always been cool with her playing with other women, and sometimes other guys—we have plenty of sex, so I know it’s not about me. I’m usually a one-woman kind of guy myself, but recently we had a couple over socially and things got a little heated. My wife and the woman had fooled around before, but never with her boyfriend. I sort of figured we’d just watch, but then things took a very unexpected turn.

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