Every Thursday, Rich and Stoya answer a special question they could only tackle together, just for Slate Plus members. Join today to never miss a column.
Have a question? Send it to Stoya and Rich here. It’s anonymous!
Dear How to Do It,
I am a person with a vagina in a poly/open relationship. My partner and I both came into this relationship wanting to be poly and have been very intentional about it, making mistakes along the way and learning from them. But something that has been troubling me about my hookups with other people.
I’ve been struggling to get physically aroused. I only had sex with my partner for two years due to the pandemic and other circumstances, a “physical monogamy” I had never experienced in my sex life to date. I am extremely attracted to him and we have a lot of sex, and I often get wet with him, but not always.
The hookups I’ve had so far since we re-opened have been with people I knew and trusted, but I still couldn’t seem to get wet, even when I felt like I was mentally turned on. I know that it’s okay to use lube, and I have confidence in my ability to enjoy sex without being “naturally” wet (I definitely do with my partner when this occurs). But nonetheless, these “performance issues” are causing me anxiety and causing me to be even more in my head when I have other hookups. What can I do to make myself relax in these situations, whether that helps me get physically turned on or just enjoy the hookup without anxiety? Did I train myself to only like sex with one person?!
— Is My Pussy Monogamous?
Rich: So, I think the most important principle here is the idea of arousal non-concordance. This is kind of the linchpin of Emily Nagoski’s book Come as You Are. In it, she cites a study that I don’t remember the exact nuts and bolts of, but I’m pretty sure people were shown porn, and their general arousal was measured.
Stoya: They measured blood flow to the genitals, and they also had people self-report when they were aroused. This was binary, men and women. But then they compared the self-report of feeling aroused with the blood flow to the genitals. And it’s kind of tricky because there’s binary of male and female, but this blood flow does not necessarily equal arousal, right? An erection does not necessarily mean consent and willingness. Sometimes blood flows to our genitals, whether we’re aroused or not. Sometimes it just happens.
Stoya: Millions of teenage boys, embarrassed in school right now, can attest to this: Genitals just do things. But having said all that, I do think it’s a really valuable study and thinking tool.
Rich: Again, the gendered language here is not ideal, but that’s how it was presented. The results showed a 10 percent overlap in what the identified female subject’s genitals responded to as sexually relevant and what her brain responded to as sexually appealing. That means 90 percent of the time, there was this non-concordance. I present this up front to say, just because you’re not wet, doesn’t mean you aren’t actually turned on as well or can’t be there soon.
And, I think what’s happening here is what we see happening with a lot of men or people with penises who don’t have an erection immediately and then get into that cycle that’s described here, where the anxiety prevents an erection from happening, and then that creates more anxiety, which makes the next encounter that much more difficult. So, just because you’re not wet, doesn’t mean you’re not necessarily turned on or can’t be in the immediate future.
Stoya: I follow @froeticsexology on Instagram, it’s an account run by a woman named Portia, because she says smart things about sex. And just today she posted “Pussy doesn’t like to be rushed.”
Rich: It does not.
Stoya: It can take a lot of time. And there are ways that you can engage with your body and really inhabit it and be present in it that can kind of smooth the process along. Barbara Carrellas in Urban Tantra and Annie Sprinkle in The Explorer’s Guide to Planet Orgasm both talk about kind of a ritual preparation of the self, whether it’s for solo sex or for sex with a partner. That can be a way of getting into your body and also starting the arousal process to give yourself plenty of time before you’re trying to really do things that you need lubrication for and all of that.
Basically what you’re doing is directing your focus. And when you direct your focus to one thing, it’s easier to get out of the other thing that you don’t want to be in, like second guessing yourself or worrying about whether you should be self-lubricating.
Rich: Yes. It seems to me this is like our writer has just hit the nail on the head with this anxiety cycle that they mention. I think that you have to be easy on yourself, especially when you are exploring an open or poly relationship. For me, a person with a penis who is generally sexually responsive, but not immediately always, it still comes down to chemistry. You don’t know what that chemistry is going to be until you get in the room with that person. So somebody might be objectively in your head, a perfect partner. And just the way that they touch, the way that they kiss, the way that they smell, the way that they move, it just doesn’t do it for you. And you feel you’ve created this situation in which you should be turned on in every way and yet you’re not. There are so many factors that go into it and that anxiety is just going to make everything a lot more difficult.
In Nagoski’s verbiage, it seems like something’s hitting our writer’s brain, and I would guess the anxiety is a huge factor in that. I mean, it could also be nonmonogamy guilt (i.e., ‘Even though I’m allowed to do this, I still feel bad about it. I still feel like I’m cheating, or ‘I feel obligated because my partner is out there doing stuff, and I feel like now I have to it and I actually don’t really want to.’) There’s a lot of stuff that could be going on.
I think the wisest thing to do is to be compassionate with yourself, to not stress yourself. And to understand that your body may not be producing the reaction that you would like it to, but it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you or messed up with your sexuality.
Stoya: Yeah. And because they mentioned sometimes this happens with their partner as well, stress is a whole thing and it affects your vagina too sometimes. Also depending on where they’re at in their lifetime, sometimes bodies change, and our sexual responses change with that. For people with vaginas, this can sometimes be very stark. You’re one way and there’s a hormone shift and it’s different, and so that may be a factor. But regardless of age and all of that, the stress of the pandemic and all of the factors that are secondary like the economic uncertainty, and now with global tensions, it’s totally understandable if your body’s just, “No, we’re kind of confused and not on the same page.” I’m walking around getting random goosebumps sometimes. Maybe your vagina dried up.
Rich: Yes. Sleep is another thing. Is this person getting enough sleep? I mean, there are just so many things it could come down to, that it’s very difficult to just give an easy diagnosis. I think that it’s probably far-fetched that this person trained themself to only like sex with one person. That said, if all of this is pointing to the notion that you only want to have sex with your partner, then just try that. Don’t obligate yourself with an abstract idea of what your relationship should be, and ‘We should be poly and open.’ t’s not going to be for everybody. It’s about feeling it out and trying it out and seeing what’s right for you.
Stoya: Also maybe there’s some middle ground that isn’t closing the relationship. It would be worth experimenting with sexting and cam sex with people who aren’t their partner. Is there something there?
Stoya: Yeah, find out with threesomes. Find out what the edges are of this a bit and don’t be surprised if it shifts again. It may be that right now, they’re happy to hear about their partner’s hookups, but otherwise that’s not their comfort zone. Next year it could be different. They could be monogamous, they could be out there soaking pants everywhere.
Rich: Yeah, exactly. I find with myself, I get into cycles, and I just think that the more you can liberate yourself from what you think your relationship should be and enter something that actually really does work for you and how your body responds to, the happier you’re going to be.
Stoya: 100 percent agree.
More From How to Do It
I have been dating my boyfriend for a little over a year, and we were a bit late to hit the sack, but things have been going pretty well in that regard. He’s hot and willing, and we hit it about twice a week.
The one issue is that he is not very good at giving blow jobs. I don’t know if he’s excessively worried about teeth or what, but when he goes down on me, he sort of gums my dick and suppresses his tongue, giving little suction or sensation. I’ve certainly gently taken his head to guide him, and told him I don’t mind a little bit of teeth so not to worry about it, but I’m not sure what to do short of say, “Actually, your technique is garbage and you need to relearn it entirely.” I’m guessing you will say, “Sure, say that!” but I don’t want to hurt his feelings!