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 gotten into a relationship with a charming, sweet, and considerate man who is fairly desperate to have sex —and I am too. Before me, he was a virgin, and we’re having a surprising problem given how much he seems to want to do the deed.
Basically, he can’t get hard and stay hard enough to actually penetrate me. We have tried extensive foreplay and oral sex, but he always goes soft within a few minutes. He swears he is ready for sex and trying his best, but his penis just won’t get with the program. I love him, but I also want an active and fulfilling sex life. What can we do to get and keep it up?
—Flying at Half-Staff
Your partner should tell his primary care physician what you’ve told me here—he wants to engage in penetration but struggles to get and stay hard. The doctor will likely check a few things to make sure there isn’t a physical issue. If there isn’t another cause, taking an erectile dysfunction medication to help his body follow through on his mind’s desire seems like the best course of action. This doesn’t necessarily mean pills before sex forever—it’s possible that he’s nervous and that’s interfering with his ability to be present in his body, and a few successful rounds of penetration can do a lot to build the needed confidence. Good luck.
Dear How to Do It,
I am a woman with two partners, both of whom have spouses. My boyfriend, “Tim,” and I have been going out since June 2021. We felt chemistry instantly and fell in love with each other very quickly. He and his wife “Connie” practice parallel poly, so unfortunately I never get to interact with her, and my time with him is limited to once or twice a week. I also have a girlfriend, “Julie,” who I have been seeing since September 2021. Our relationship grew much more gradually, but I love her equally. We practice kitchen-table poly with her husband “Tony,” and I get to see her very frequently—almost daily. Both of my relationships have been wonderful, except for a particular problem that I can’t solve.
Tim recently told me that Connie has been seeking out group sex as a kind of last “hurrah” before she goes into menopause. (Her doctors are inducing early menopause for medical reasons.) When Julie found out that Connie started seeking out group sex, she freaked out. She told me that she feels uncomfortable and unsafe and that she’d feel much better if I asked Tim to start using condoms with me. To be clear, Connie uses protection on her sexcapades, except for her husband and out-of-state boyfriend. Tim and I used condoms in the beginning, but not anymore. At Julie’s behest, I did ask him if he would be willing to use a condom, but he told me absolutely not. It’s not just that it’s difficult for him to finish using condoms—he thinks being fluid bonded is very deep, intimate, and meaningful. I honestly couldn’t care less if he uses a condom or not because I think protected sex can also be meaningful and intimate. He thinks Julie’s request is unreasonable because he thinks she should be the one using barriers during sex since she’s the one who’s worried about STIs. I tried to explain all of this to Julie as well as the low risk involved, but she isn’t budging on her position. She doesn’t trust Connie because she doesn’t know Connie. I think Connie is trustworthy because I trust Tim.
Now both partners are asking me to make a decision, and I’m at a complete loss. I think they both make good arguments. On the one hand, one partner’s safety and comfort should override another partner’s sexual satisfaction. But on the other hand, I agree with Tim that Julie’s fears are overblown because female-to-female transmission is rare, and Connie uses condoms with most of her partners. I’m afraid this issue might become a dealbreaker for both of them and that I might end up losing one or both of my partners. Like I said, I love them both equally. I don’t know how to decide. Neither partner will budge on their stance. Which partner is being unreasonable? What do I do?
—Stuck in the Middle
We’re all working out what poly is. We’re all finding the boundaries of what open can be for us. You’ve run into a complex situation and I see no easy answer.
I’m not sure either of your partners are being unreasonable. One prefers to have sex without barriers, and fears that they’re about to lose their ability to have the sex they’ve already negotiated. Another is afraid of STIs—something with a lot of stigma around it—and wary of interacting with people who take what they consider extreme risks. I do think Tim is being self-centered in a way that’s on the fuzzy edge of “reasonable.” I also think that his suggestion that you and Julie use barriers together might be useful. Have you brought this up with Julie as a serious compromise?
The reality is that you can’t make everyone happy, and you may indeed have to choose. You say you love them both equally. Since your heart isn’t helping, let’s look at other factors. Who is a bigger presence in your life? What do you value most in relationships, and who do you have more of that with? Whose situation are you happier being a part of? And whose boundaries would you prefer to continue navigating? Sometimes we have to choose between two wonderful paths. Think through which direction you want your life to take. You might talk with a trusted friend, too, and if you’ve got the budget for it I think a few targeted sessions with a poly-informed counselor would be usefully proactive.
Dear How to Do It,
I am a 30-year-old straight woman. For as long as I can remember (since prepubescent days), I have had a fetish since before I even knew what a fetish was. Think weight gain, feederism, belly etc. And while I watch porn of this type, I find I get mostly and more aroused seeing women’s bodies than I do men’s. I am honestly embarrassed of this fetish and don’t know how it could ever translate into my sex life. I do get turned on from other regular non-fetish stuff, so I don’t have a hard time getting aroused, but I can’t fully bring myself to orgasm when I’m having sex with a partner. Whenever guys ask me what turns me on or how they can get me to orgasm, I shy away. Is there a way to rewire my brain? Should I watch different types of porn!? Stop looking at my usual stuff forever? I want to orgasm from sex with a partner. What I find attractive in real life is so different and has nothing to do with what I fantasize about with the fetish.
On top of this, I started masturbating so young and laying on my stomach that I also find It hard to do so any other way. I just want a reset! I wish I had never discovered this so young so that my sexual experience would be different.
—Lookin’ at the Ladies
Your fetish started in your early years and has continued into your third decade. I think it’s pretty permanent, and you’re far from the only person with a fetish. I don’t think you should try to rewire your brain, and I also don’t think you should force yourself to incorporate this into your partnered sex. If there’s ever a time where you feel ready, that’s great, but if not, I think this can be something that stays in your mind. Sometimes partners try to get involved in ways that can send the fetish careening off course, so I won’t blame you for omitting the thing if you don’t want involvement in it.
The detail about laying on your stomach makes me wonder if you’ve ever been penetrated from behind while laying flat on the bed. If not, I think this is worth a try—having the same posture you have when you’re masturbating could help you orgasm. Think doggy but with your whole body pressed into the mattress. You might need to put a pillow under your pelvis to lift your hips and separate your buttcheeks a bit.
You can also work toward teaching your body to orgasm in different ways. Try vibrators, try dildos, try gently tapping your vulva with the flat of your fingers. Try touching parts of yourself you don’t usually touch. When you find something you like, spend some time there experimenting. Try different textures, different pressures, different strokes. Follow what feels good. If you want more of a guide, Urban Tantra (which I’ve been recommending a lot lately) can walk you through ideas for how to connect with your body. Good luck.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m 24-year-old woman who’s never had my first kiss or first sexual experience. I know that it’s not a big deal, but lately my libido has skyrocketed. I take care of myself by masturbating, but I really want to step into hooking up. The issue is I’m my own worst enemy. I’m very shy and nervous due to childhood trauma and ADHD (rejection sensitivity is huge). I also get ghosted on dating apps and most queer women do not believe I am one of them (I’m bisexual). Am I doing something wrong? What can I do to break down this wall so I can finally allow myself to be sexually free?
—Not Just Toys
Rejection sensitivity can be difficult. I have a diagnosis of ADHD myself, and fear of pitch rejections kept me from writing things I wanted to write for years even after I had written for respectable outlets. This is worth talking to your therapist or treatment provider about, if you have one. Depending on whether rejection triggers your trauma, exposure can be very useful (if this does relate to trauma, please find a way to talk with a therapist about this; they can help you work through putting yourself out there without doing too much). Most growth requires pain, and receiving a no really does get easier with time. The occasional yeses that work out well also help. You just have to get to them.
That said, apps are a gauntlet. Ghosting is normalized. And bisexuality in queer spaces is frequently judged. All these factors indicate you might have to slog through more nos than you would if you were searching for a heterosexual hook up. Eventually you will find people in the queer scene who you are attracted to and who are also interested in hooking up with you, but you’ll likely have to exercise more patience. And, at least for me, patience is one of the hardest things to have. Breathing and yoga help, but they’re the kind of thing that works best with regular practice and not as effective in a crisis moment without that regularity. When I’m frustrated by lack of movement in one area, especially one that doesn’t actually have to be resolved soon, it helps me to put that energy into another project or goal with more momentum. What I’m saying is put energy into showing up for the rest of your life while you wait to meet your first partner, along with engaging in the apps. And if you’re comfortable with the COVID rates and restrictions, you might attend events that attract the kind of people you’re attracted to. On an app, we lead with our labels, and when we meet organically, we lead with our thoughts and conversation.
More How to Do It
My wife and I have been married for 12 years. During the height of the pandemic, we were both working from home, teaching our kids “school” from home, and it felt like we never even breathed separate air. It was exhausting, and at the end of the day, the idea of sex with her seemed like just more of the same. I wanted privacy. So I made a sex suggestion that didn’t go over well with my wife—and now I’m trying to figure out how walk it back pronto.