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 had a herpes outbreak one time as a teenager. I easily could have dismissed it as a couple of ingrown hairs and lived a life of blissful ignorance. However, I had just started seeing a new partner and I wanted to get checked out. Only knowing herpes as a sex-ed boogeyman, I initially felt ruined and ashamed when I found out. After that, I did a lot of reading about herpes. The more I learned about it, the more unreasonable it seemed that I’m supposed to forever slap a warning label on my pussy. I read that most people have it, and that most people who have it don’t know it, and can go their whole lives without knowing it. I read that the CDC does not recommend testing for herpes because it’s medically inconsequential and emotionally damaging. And I thought about how nobody I knew of ever got tested for herpes just to check and see if they had it. I thought about how ready people are to go raw without asking any questions or having any answers about their own status. I also noticed a huge double standard at play, which is that innocuous “cold sores” don’t really need to be discussed, but nasty herpes requires a revelation. As if the virus is different depending on how you contracted it. I came to believe that unless we as a society decide that routine testing for herpes is important, and that it’s important that everyone know and disclose their status to one another, then it’s not important for me to disclose mine (and I never have). Encouragements for herpes disclosures are always like, “Herpes is totally nothing, the CDC says it’s nothing, but you still have to tell people just because.” But I’m saying, because what? I am writing this so that someone can poke holes in my line of thinking if there are any, or so that someone can finally admit that herpes is literally cooties for adults.
The difference between cooties and herpes is that cooties is nothing—a fake designation flung by children—while herpes is not nothing. It may be just a smidge more than nothing, but still, it is something: a virus. Outbreaks can be painful, and rarely, there can be related complications. (There are also differences between the virus that generally causes “oral herpes” and the one that generally causes “genital herpes,” although one can also cause the other.) It is not unreasonable to want to avoid infection of any kind, but people do behave unreasonably about herpes for many of the reasons that you mention. It really does seem unfair that a person should have to face rejection and stigma as a result of disclosure, when so many other people get away with avoiding doing so, in some cases even after learning their status. To hook up frequently or participate in a culture of free-flowing sex is to tacitly accept the risk of infection, especially of something like herpes, which as you rightly point out, is rarely tested for or even spoken about.
Your logic is practically sound, and I’m happy to see it spelled out so clearly in this column. One thing to consider, however, is that truly ethical behavior often transcends the status quo. “Everyone else is doing it” just doesn’t cut it as ethical rationale, as practically true as it may be. Strictly speaking, giving someone a fair warning of even a minor threat is ethical behavior, but because the reward for the recipient of the warning is minor and the potential consequences for the giver are more severe, I understand where you’re coming from. I’m not condoning it, but I understand. I don’t think you’re alone.
Dear How to Do It,
I have a nearly invisible raised scar on my shoulder, about the size of a dime. It looks like nothing to the eye, but it feels rough to the touch. My dermatologist knows about it, and has no concerns.
I’ve never thought too much about it, since I knew it was benign and nearly unseen. This fall, I got out of a serious relationship and it seems like “things casual sex partners say” have changed drastically since last time I was single. I’ve been having on and off casual sex and literally every single man I’ve slept with (six people) has said something along the lines of “Wow what is that? You should get it checked out. What if it’s skin cancer?”
Has someone been aggressively miseducating East Coast men in their 30s about dermatology? I know it’s generally friendly concern, but it makes me feel super self-conscious about something that never worried me before. Is there a way to pre-warn guys that I have a scar without making it a big deal?
—It’s Just a Scar
This is a great example of the consequences of hooking up: After (quite literally) exposing yourself to another person, that person may have questions or feedback. Assuming these conversations end with your response—“It’s a scar. My dermatologist knows. I’m good”—I think this qualifies as an annoyance that is easily navigated. It might just be something you have to put up with. I know that’s not ideal, but few things in life are.
In intimate contexts, virtual strangers may say things that seem prying or judgmental, but when we get naked in front of them and do naked stuff with them, we put ourselves out there. Hopefully these things will be expressed politely if at all, but unfortunately it’s not always the case. At least this thing people keep mentioning is easily explained. Don’t let these questions make a mountain out of a dime-sized, nearly invisible scar. You know it’s no big deal, so hold onto your correctness. I think drawing people’s attention to it may prevent inevitable questions, but you’ll probably spend as much time explaining it in that scenario as you do when someone asks about it. Pointing out indeed threatens to make it a bigger deal than it is and it saves you no time or hassle, so I don’t see the purpose there.
I think more than someone miseducating men about dermatology, there is absolutely no education about it, so people ask dumb questions. Having to teach them is a bit more work than you have signed up for upon turning down the sheets, but at least you’re getting laid. File it in the realm of necessary evils and keep it moving. You’re fine and you know it.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a college freshman who used to live in a very religious and controlled household, and who still continues to be involved the religious community over here, across the country. My religious identity is visible because of the way I dress, and so I avoid dating apps because I don’t feel comfortable knowing that someone might fetishize that aspect of my identity. In my religion, it’s also considered a sin to date, so being on dating apps is even more of a no. There would also be pretty significant social consequences if any hint of my sex life became known to anyone else in my religious community. I also can’t be seen in bars, clubs, etc. because of religious reputation reasons. I am genuinely devout and practicing in every other way, but also would like to sate that specific need for casual sex without there being any real-life consequences. I have tried an online site, but the options are fairly limited. Are there any steps forward? I wanted to try hitting on strangers in grocery stores and other places, but it makes me uncomfortable when strangers do the same to me, so I’m not sure what the etiquette there is, or what I would even say, given that I do look very religious.
—Lost and Confused
Dear Lost and Confused,
The tension you describe between what your body wants and what your religion compels has prompted many a sheep to wander from the flock. Could it be that with maturity you are realizing the strictures of your religion are not tenable, at least not for the life you envision for yourself? I’m not trying to talk you out of your devotion, because it seems sincere and I’m sure it’s rewarding—I’m just wondering aloud if your letter suggests that you’re at (or nearing) a crossroads. In any case, as you are well aware, it’s not really easy to break the rules without breaking the rules—or at least without getting caught. Assuming that your garb also takes sex-specific environments like sex parties off the table, I think the best you can do is investigate on-campus social options in the hopes of meeting potential partners (hopefully ones that you can trust). Your process is going to have to be more involved and methodical than coordinating play via an app, which can have the ease of putting through a Seamless order. If you’re unsure of etiquette when it comes to hitting on people, scale back a bit and just be super friendly to people who see in public that interest you. Not everyone will get it, but some may interpret the overtures of a young and socially engaged woman as signaling sexual interest. From what I understand, a lot of people in fact leap to such a conclusion when it isn’t the case. That can be a drag, but you can exploit this tendency to your advantage.
Dear How to Do It,
I got married to my husband at 19 and have been married for about five and a half years. It’s a monogamous relationship. My husband was my first consensual sexual relationship, although I was not his. Things were good for a while, several years. Because of the nature of our jobs, we did not spend a ton of time living in our house together (think military deployments) and we could treasure any time we got together. He has finished his contract and not worked in about six months. While my pay supports us, and my spouse manages our household (dogs), my sex drive has completely tanked.
I go through this sometimes, but this time it seems to be really sticking. I don’t even feel aroused when I’m by myself or any form of self-stimulation. It makes him sad that I literally never want any form of sex or even really intimacy. We’ve talked plenty, I’m cleared by an OB-GYN, but when I participate in sex, it causes a weird pain I can only assume/equate to “blue balls” and makes me feel stressed. My job is very high-stress and I deal with people who are trying to hurt themselves regularly. I think this issue could relate to depression, but I have major concerns about losing my security clearance for mental health issues. I have no idea how to make my relationship make sense physically anymore. Any non-medical advice you can give me?
If you are in the U.S. military, I am sure you know the official story is that the Department of Defense “wants you to know that getting help for a psychological issue is a sign of strength.” I also understand that stigma or some kind of indirect consequence might underline your concern. But I wanted to point out at least one veteran I found, Tyler Murphy, has written that the notion that seeking mental health care will come at the cost of one’s security clearance is a “myth,” and pointed to the Questionnaire for National Security Positions’ section on mental health, which reads in part: “Nothing in this questionnaire is intended to discourage those who might benefit from such treatment from seeking it. Mental health treatment and counseling, in and of itself, is not a reason to revoke or deny eligibility for access to classified information or for holding a sensitive position, suitability or fitness to obtain or retain Federal or contract employment, or eligibility for physical or logical access to federally controlled facilities or information systems. Seeking or receiving mental health care for personal wellness and recovery may contribute favorably to decisions about your eligibility.”
I hope this is the case, because a policy discouraging workers from tending to their mental health is hazardous to those beyond the immediate actors. I fear that trying to work around your potential depression is just going to amount to putting a Band-Aid on a laceration. Bare minimum: Sex therapy might be useful. There are a lot of things that could be going on. The pain you’re experiencing during sex could indicate a physiological condition. You could be experiencing the kind of waning interest that a lot of long-term couples do, or you could have hypoactive sexual desire disorder. If you truly want to stay out of the realm of medicine, read Esther Perel’s Mating in Captivity and see if her ideas for rebooting your sex life (which can involve cultivating mystery and fostering a sense of intrigue for your partner) are useful. But something tells me you need more, and I know that you deserve it.
More How to Do It
I am a straight man in his 30s in a live-in relationship with a woman. She just found me in a very compromising position and I am unsure how to possibly proceed. Let me explain.