How to Do It

I Told My Sweet Boyfriend to Degrade Me. He’s, Uh, a Little Too Good at It.

Woman and a graphic of talk bubbles.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

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Dear How to Do It,

I’m a woman in a new relationship and it’s going well—he’s ridiculously hot, a feminist, all the good things. The sex is also fun and getting even better. I have more experience with kink and sex generally than he does, and we’ve ventured into some new territory for him. That has led us to a strange situation based on what he’s started saying to me during sex—and what happens after.

My boyfriend had a lot of unexplored desires and a lot of eagerness, so we’re having fun trying some things. One problem that’s coming up, however, is the balance between dirty talk and romantic talk. My partner is not particularly verbally demonstrative and has a reputation even among his friends of being a bit inscrutable. With me, he’s warm, physically affectionate and respectful, but he is not good at compliments or verbal affection. If we’re going out somewhere fancy and I spend an age making sure I look like an absolute smokeshow, he won’t even think to tell me I look good. In previous relationships, I’ve preferred a lot of verbal affection but I’m also trying to not overlook the other ways he shows his feelings.

The problem now is that he has very recently become very interested in dirty talk that has me in a sub role, and enjoys him/I/both of us referring to me as his slut, his whore, etc. I’m into this! It’s fun and hot! He got into this dirty talk very quickly and easily—yet despite repeated requests, he hasn’t put any effort to work on compliments or verbal affection, at all. He’s now called me a slut about a hundred times more than he’s told me I’m pretty. And that’s making everything feel a bit unbalanced in terms of the sexual and romantic, and also feels like he can make the effort to become comfortable with new things—but only when it benefits him and involves calling me a whore? I’m getting a bit uneasy but don’t know how fair it is to conflate these two things. Any advice?

—Just Tell Me I’m Pretty

Rich: I completely understand the rationale, this is a very logical concern. I think we’re somewhat outside of the realm of logic when we’re entering the sexual and romantic spaces. And I think one could very conceivably find himself interested in domination and the language that comes with it. While when it comes to love and one’s “love language,” maybe verbal isn’t on the list. If this guy weren’t affectionate and all of the other things that she says he is, I’d be more worried. But as it is, I don’t know that it’s that much of a contradiction in terms, even though it looks like it on paper.

Stoya: Just on this detail of not being told she’s pretty—it strikes me as obvious that that kind of positive feedback is something that she needs to feel valued.

Rich: Yes.

Stoya: Now let me, at the ripe age of 35, tell you that “pretty” does begin to fade.

Rich: Yes. But not for you. I’m just agreeing with the concept.

Stoya: Thank you, I was not fishing. But it’s not something that you want to base your identity around, so be cautious with that. Be aware that this is a thing within yourself that you need to keep an eye on and make sure that you’re building the things that will still be appealing about you and of value about you when you’re 65, and you’ve aged out of the demographic that’s like “hot.”

Rich: I mean, isn’t he, with his sexual interest, essentially telling her that she’s hot without saying those words? I don’t know. I feel like I can tell somebody thinks I’m hot and they don’t need to say it because of what they’re doing with my dick. So to me, if you need to hear that, then ask. Get dressed up and say, “how do I look?” Do the fishing.

Stoya: It sounds like she has pointed this out to him.

Rich: Yeah, but he’s not learning.

Stoya: And so it is worth being so utterly direct that there is no room for interpretation, even going so far as to say you’ve called me a whore a hundred times, but you’ve never told me I’m pretty. I need to be told I’m pretty. Let’s figure this out. Maybe it’s while they’re having sex, and he’s telling her that she is his pretty slut. Maybe it’s her saying, “I get dressed as a show for you.”

Also, because she says he’s a feminist, he may be doing something that I’ve told people to do countless times, which is compliment people on something they’ve put work into or earned somehow or created for themselves. But I’m just now realizing that for some people, pretty is actually something that they have achieved.

Rich: I think that’s a great point. I know Jane Fonda’s agent and I once met her at a premiere and I was like, “Oh hi, you look amazing.” And I have never experienced such a chilling shutout by anybody. I mean, she just literally turned her head and I didn’t exist to her anymore. And I mean, she is a movie star—I kind of thought that was part of the point. Sorry! I was able to win her back after the movie a little bit; we talked about the movie and she handles a chicken in it, and I asked her about bonding with a chicken and that worked better.

But to your point about feminism, it could be fair to assume that maybe he’s had experiences before that have turned him off from calling women pretty or from complimenting their appearance in that way. And that calling someone a slut or a whore in bed exists in a completely different realm of communication than that.

Stoya: Yes, and so you may need to negotiate: “I like having the word ‘pretty’ applied to me. Let’s dig in and figure out why I’m not currently getting this word that is important to me.” And I think it’s worth it for the writer to really consider if it’s possible to be happy without that. And if that’s not the case, communicate what the stakes are.

Rich: Exactly. It could be something like, “Look, for whatever reason, it’s tripping me up. If you’re going to call me a slut and whore, which we both enjoy, you’re going to have to, just for my sake of making sense of this relationship, call me pretty sometimes.” I don’t know if being so transactional is always the way to go, but it actually seems like it’s come down to that. So see what he thinks. He seems like a reasonable person, or capable of it.

Stoya: And also, aftercare is a thing and can be very useful and healthy for a relationship. We’ve talked before about transitions, moving between one kind of moment and another, and you don’t just like stop on a dime. Aftercare here can be where you make space where you hear the positive affirming words that you want.

Rich: For sure. So I think the biggest takeaway from this one is have another one of these conversations, and like Stoya said, name the stakes. Tell him exactly what’s up. Even if it sounds silly to say it, this is clearly something that’s bothering you. If he is a conscientious partner, he will at least try to work this in and to give you what you need. Honestly, it’s not asking that much, so ask away.

Stoya: No, it’s a very understandable thing to ask for.

More How to Do It

I’m a woman in my mid-30s, and I’ve identified as asexual and aromantic basically forever. A few months ago something changed, and I experienced sexual attraction for the first time, so I’m trying some dating apps to see what’s out there. I’m kind of touch-averse, however, so I’m having trouble lining up what I want with what I’m capable of doing. The problem is, while this was all happening, I befriended a man online.