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,
For background, my wife’s sister is married to my youngest brother. My brother started dating my sister-in-law after our wedding when we were all out of the house, so it was never too weird. Even so, this has always been a source of jokes in my family, with the main one being that our other brothers and sisters should get together (except one of my brothers is gay, haha, funny right?). Over the years, I’ve heard details from my wife that I never wanted to know about my youngest brother, since the sisters are very close and talk about everything. For one, my brother and sister-in-law have apparently taken up sex outside the marriage, which is fine for them, but definitely not for me (and again, I don’t want to know).
Recently, my brother apparently suggested the idea of us swapping wives for a night as a joke, and my wife’s sister thought it was a funny enough idea to repeat it. My wife is wonderful, but clearly said this to me to make me squirm/rib me a little bit. My little brother can be inappropriate and surely had a similar motive. Now the “joke” has entered into the family vernacular, because again, these people are way too open with each other. I am trying not to show how uncomfortable I am with this, but COME ON. Should I ask my wife to stop this kind of talk with her sister, since I am sure that is what started all this? Stop talking to my brother for a while? I am the straight-laced older brother here, and they know they can get a rise out of me, but I also do not think I should regularly have to think of my brother wanting to have sex with my wife.
— Oh Brother
Dear Oh Brother,
You say that these people (your family) are too open with each other, but from their POV, it is likely that you are too something as well: tight-assed. In fact, as an outlier, you are the too-est, by virtue of your deviation from the status quo. I’m not saying either side is right or wrong, just that the judgement you cast on your family for joking around and being sexually open is a matter of perspective.
That said, I don’t think that you’re unreasonable for not wanting to discuss sexuality, particularly to this extent, with your family. Your comfort level is what it is. But: You might try showing less of it. You could attempt to neutralize the situation by modifying your reaction. If you loosened up, you might take some of their fun away, as you’ve noticed their enjoyment in making you squirm. I think the best thing for you to do is to be as nonreactive as possible, perhaps noting that you don’t find this kind of talk funny when someone brings it up, but trying to stay as calm as possible.
It’s not worth trying to direct your wife’s conversations with her sister—that bond dates back years before you had any involvement with either. They’re going to talk the way they’re going to talk, and your attempt at controlling that is probably only going to piss them off. You could attempt to stop talking to your brother to show how serious you are, but that’s ratcheting up the drama, when I think the best course of action is de-escalation. Nonreaction will be the least taxing for you, and it will stir the least amount of shit. You may have to endure moments of ribbing, but as long as they are sensible people who aren’t out and out sadists, they’ll drop the subject soon enough when they don’t get a rise out of you. As “the straight-laced older brother” (a label you identified yourself with), you’d probably have to endure this kind of joking in one way or another. It’s unfortunate that it puts uninvited images in your head, but at least by now you’re familiar with them. They may lose their power as time goes on.
Dear How to Do It,
OK, so, not to beat around the bush: For various boring reasons, I’m extremely a virgin (earlyish 20s and mostly straight female). I’m not looking for the advice you’d give an inexperienced teen I guess, but it’s almost certain whoever I do finally end up sleeping with will have some experience—a leg up on me, or however you want to view it. Not that sexual encounters are scripted, obviously, but I really want to know what one might expect? That is to say, the pieces of a sexual encounter that you wouldn’t get from just existing in the world/knowing how to masturbate/pornography/what have you. Beyond just “communicating,” generally speaking, how, mechanically, does one move from making out to more heavy stuff?
One more thing. Yes, I know I do not HAVE to shave down there, obviously, but will it be weird on any level if I haven’t done that? In other words, exactly how common is the shaved pubic area in the wild? Googling, you get a lot of “obviously do what you want to do, feminism, etc.” which I’m on board with, but want to be prepared if that’s a conversation I’m gonna have to have with a potential partner.
— Landing Strips
Dear Landing Strips,
During a recent recording of our podcast, my partner in HTDI Jessica Stoya and I discussed the amount of letters we see from people fretting over their lack of sexual experience. She made an excellent point: With each new partner, you’re starting from scratch. No matter how much experience either party has accrued, what the moment of them meeting comes down to is chemistry, or lack thereof. Having a lot of sex can give a person skills, but those skills aren’t worth much if they aren’t to the taste of the person in front of them. This is my way of telling you that you should go easy on yourself: Lacking experience does not preclude you from satisfying sex.
You do bring up an interesting logistical point, regarding progression. There are a few ways to approach this. The contemporary imperatives of enthusiastic consent demand verbal check-ins and cues as each new behavior/position is introduced. This may be ideal, and in fact necessary for some, but in my experience, it isn’t exactly realistic. When you get into that highly connected vibe and experience something of a flow state, it can feel like the sex is just happening. Someone makes a move—say via a grope—and the other person accepts and returns in kind. Figuring out how much verbal communication is necessary is probably best done ahead of time with your partner. In general, though, when I am in a hook-up situation, I understand that dicks are going to come out, and so when someone starts moving toward there, it is not only expected but encouraged. I suppose there is some guessing involved as to whether one’s partner is ready to do the thing you’re ready for—hopefully everyone feels empowered enough to say, “This is too fast,” or, “I’m not ready.” In the best-case scenario, you’re both ready, though.
Moving on, pubic hair removal is, apparently, extremely common in women: A 2019 New York Times piece by Dr. Jen Gunter, whose Vagina Bible is frequently cited in this column, reported that “approximately 80 percent of women ages 18 to 65 report they remove some or all of their pubic hair.” This strikes me as yet another area in which expectations on women are far stricter than those on men, many of whom in this very twenty-first century are running around with bushes straight out of the ‘70s. My personal rule is: When in doubt, trim. I don’t think you need to do anything you don’t want to do, but if not doing so is going to make you feel self-conscious, some snipping might be useful. Your partners will have different taste, so if you’re really that concerned, you can ask and hack the hedges accordingly. But don’t do that for just any partner—only do it for those you actually care about.
Dear How to Do It,
I grew up in a country that is sexually oppressed and came to the U.S. at age 24 to live more freely. Three years after I arrived, I got married to someone 12 years older than me. Even while we were friends, she was sexually active, and she used to talk to friends about her partners and even share sexual details. After some years together, I wanted to kinda spice our sex life up and so I started asking more about her past relationships and sex partners. As she shared, I felt more connected, more aroused, but a little jealous about her past experiences, which I had never had a chance to experience. I was not jealous about her having sex with someone else, but I didn’t have a chance to experience things she told me she had experienced. This has me a little bit in pieces right now, but I love her no doubt. While I feel even closer to her than before, I feel like I came to this world to experience sex with other people. What should I do? Is this better dealt with in therapy, or should I ask for a hall pass?
— Missing Out
Dear Missing Out,
Start by sharing the same feelings you shared with me: You love her, but you find the idea of sex with others exciting. There is no doubt that some people will take offense to this, but those who do are prioritizing principle over the practical. People who think their partner’s interest in sex with others invalidates the love said partner expresses are overlooking a legion of ethical nonmonogamists. They aren’t actually dealing with reality, just some fairy tale notion of how relationships “should be.” Because you’ve already discussed your wife’s sex life with her, you have already established an openness on the subject, which leads me to suspect that she’ll at least be amenable to talking about it. Whether she is comfortable with you doing anything about it is another matter. I would avoid any kind of extreme language like, “I feel like I came to this world to experience sex with other people,” at least at first.
Note the mixed feelings you experienced when she discussed her sexual history with you. Understand that she may have similarly mixed feelings about your interest in sex with others. Honor those feelings, and do not overwhelm her—the idea is to preserve your relationship, and you do that by making her feel safe and secure. Be open to handling this in ways that work for her: These could include experiencing sex with others together, playing separately, visiting sex or swingers clubs, or keeping this all in the realm of fantasy. I’ve said it a million times and I’ll say it a million more: If you want to keep your open relationship healthy and intact, you must defer to the most sensitive party. If you don’t, you’re signing on for hardship—you may go through hell and then see your relationship end anyway.
You could definitely deal with this in couples therapy—it may be useful to have an impartial third party helping you strategize and organize. Ideally, you’d be able to handle this peacefully and satisfyingly on your own together, but help is there if you need it. Good luck. Be open, be honest, be sensitive, and be willing to work with the person you love.
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Dear How to Do It,
My wife is one of the best people I’ve ever known. She’s smart, funny, caring and wonderfully dorky. We’ve been married for six years, and we love each other very much.
In the beginning of our relationship through the first couple years of marriage, we had a great sex life. It was fun and adventurous. In the past few years, my wife has been gradually needing to increase her dosage of antidepressants, which has completely shut down her sex drive, while mine is still on full-steam. Her family has a history of fighting depression, and I really don’t see her ever being able to get back off them. She and her doctor have tried many combinations in an attempt to find something that doesn’t have the side effects. She is doing better emotionally, and I am incredibly grateful for that, but I do miss the great sex.
She is aware that the sex drive is gone and feels guilty about it. I’ve completely stopped trying to engage because I know the answer and the subsequent guilt she will feel. Is there something I can do to help bring back that part of our life together?
— Concerned Husband
Dear Concerned Husband,
I don’t think you’re any match for brain chemistry. In the event that Wellbutrin has not yet been integrated into her drug cocktail, it’s worth a shot, as it can boost the sex drive of someone on SSRIs. Otherwise, I think acceptance is going to be the most prudent path for you. You could attempt couples therapy (though clearly the source of your dry spell is chemical). You could discuss opening your relationship, if that appeals. Or you could find intimacy in nonsexual contact (like cuddling, hugging, holding each other). Forcing the issue will only cause negative feelings and could lead to conflict. Avoid that at all costs.
More How to Do It
I’m a woman in my early 30s. I sometimes enjoy not wearing a bra in public (never in work settings, and nothing completely see-through, and my breasts are relatively small). I like both the possibility of somebody seeing my nipples through my shirt and the constant but minimal stimulation whatever shirt I’m wearing provides. Recently, on a solo road trip, I had the desire to pull my shirt up and expose my breasts while driving on the highway. I liked that somebody might see me, but realized that the chances of that happening were pretty minimal. Even though it was thrilling, I feel conflicted because I know if someone saw it could make them feel uncomfortable or violated. I’ve only done it the one time, but is this something I need to retire?