How to Do It

When My Wife and I Decided to “Awaken” Our Sex Life, This Isn’t Exactly What We Had in Mind

I’m worried she might want this to go back to sleep.

A man sits on his bed looking worried.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Tommaso79/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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 am a happily married man of 20 years. My wife and I have really gotten to a good place lately. We recently went through some marriage counseling to help us through some issues intensified by the COVID lockdowns. As a result, we have never been better. We are communicating well and have awakened our sex life. I have discovered that I am a true submissive, and she likes to dominate. We are really starting to have fun with that. My wife has also become more open to expressing herself and feels empowered in a more dominant role.

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The problem is, although I have no desire to be intimate with anyone else, I find myself fantasizing about having sex with men. It started with some curiosity, erotic stories, fantasies about local sports stars, and sometimes random men I see in public. It doesn’t monopolize my thoughts, but it is hard to ignore that I am attracted to other men. I did have a brief encounter with another man while in college where we exchanged oral sex. This was long before I met my wife. At the time, I felt a bit of shame and I wrote it off as an experiment. I really hadn’t thought much about it until recently. Ideally, I would like to tell my wife all about it and maybe incorporate some of it as fantasy into our sex lives. But I imagine it would be difficult to think of her husband as anything other than heterosexual or as someone who may be bisexual. How do I go about telling her without scaring or hurting her? Is it possible to incorporate those feelings into our intimacy?

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— Getting Her Bi-in

Dear Getting Her Bi-in,

I’m always a big believer in the straightforward route. In this case, that might require a bit of educating (Yes, wifey, there is bisexuality in men!). In a perfect world, your wife would accept your attraction to men as she does to other women (assuming that, in fact, you do have said attraction and she does accept it); but as we know, our world is teeming with rationale rooted in fallacy and assumption. Homophobia is so rampant and insidious that it’s reasonable to fear your wife’s reaction to such a revelation about your sexuality, though it is unclear in your letter whether she has said or done anything to warrant such suspicion or if you’re just being extra careful. I wouldn’t fault you for treading lightly, but if being extra careful is getting in the way of you living your life and sharing it in full with your spouse, it’s in your best interest to let go and hope for the best. You know this woman’s character—can she hang? In many relationships, it goes without saying that your attraction to others is not a reflection or a result of your partner, but depending on that person’s security and experience with nonmonogamy, this may be a point worth underlining. Do so hard if necessary.

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Another possible inroad: You could integrate your attraction more seamlessly (read: without a dramatic-seeming, come-to-Jesus sitdown) by perhaps making it part of your dom/sub play. Cuckholding fantasies (and realities) often feature the cuckold servicing the bull who has been invited into the relationship to have sex with the cuckoldress. Even if this kind of threeway isn’t for you, you could openly fantasize about it. You could mention wanting to be punished and dominated by a man outside of a cuckholding context. The idea here would be to fold in your desires to the sex life that you already have cooking. If you do this when she’s turned on, her disgust reflex will likely be lowered, so it may not hit like a shockwave. Don’t be surprised if she wants to discuss this further after. Welcome the conversation with patience and clarity.

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Dear How to Do It,

I’m a 30-year-old gay trans man coming out of a divorce (I was married to a cis man), and I’m excited to be able to have the sex I’ve always wanted, that is, gay sex with other queer men. However, I’m not sure if anyone will actually want to have sex with me. I’ve got maybe three experiences of topping, many years ago and all while wasted. Pretty much all the sex I’ve had up til now has been bottoming for straight men as a straight woman. Will other queer men actually want to be topped by a man who’s got no idea what he’s doing? I’m pretty certain I don’t want to bottom anymore, so that’s out. Additionally, I’m 5’2” and the testosterone has given me pretty bad acne that treatment doesn’t seem to be clearing. And I’ve never been able to come with a partner! Basically, I feel like I’m bringing nothing to the table. I’ve thought about just trying my luck on hookup apps, but honestly, I feel like I at least need a chat over coffee before I have sex. Most of the sex I had before I was married was drunk. I’m not sure I’m ready to jump straight into sober hookups, and I know I don’t want to go back to drunk sex either. I think I’d be comfortable in a sexual environment like a sex party or a bathhouse but again, I feel like I’ve got nothing to offer.

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Is there a place in the wonderful world of queer men having sex for me? Is there such a thing as a bottom who’s willing to spend a few sessions teaching me? Will anyone even take me seriously as a top even if I do get the skills, given my height and lack of a built-in cock?

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— Tentative Top

Dear Tentative Top,

You have to do whatever you can to shake the feeling that you’re bringing nothing to the table. You’re you! That’s something no one else can claim. I understand that becoming comfortable with oneself is a process—for some, a lifelong one—but as a result of your transition, you should have at least started to unpack the idea that standards and expectations of mainstream culture don’t have to apply to you. Your existence and your resolve to display it openly prove that. You might not fit the image of what some guys think of as a top, but with the right attitude, you can make that image fit you.

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Which is to say: Don’t wear your insecurities and inexperience on your sleeve. It can be endearing when someone is honest about their shortcomings, but if you’re really set on being a top, it would be wise to convey that you know what you’re doing—that you’re capable of taking the reins but also considering the pleasure and gratification of your partner. If this doesn’t come naturally to you after a few tries, reconsider your positioning choice. Are you a top or do you just want to be a top? What about topping is attractive to you? Is it because you’re not interested in bottoming, or is there something ineffable driving you to the role? I’m not suggesting that you’re truly a bottom at heart. You don’t have to pick a position—there are people who only do oral or other non-penetrative sex (so-called “sides”). If you’re not loving what you do during sex, what is the point?

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I think you’re right about exploring this with someone that you’re comfortable with. Plenty of people write in their hook-up app profiles that they’d prefer to meet in a public space or over coffee/booze before getting naked. You should feel comfortable doing so, as well, or just mentioning this in conversation, if you do actually decide to use apps. And I think, actually, viewing this as exploration would be best for you. If you think of what you’re doing as experimenting with topping—as opposed to adopting a fixed role that you must perform, and well—you give yourself leeway to make that role yours. You can show yourself and your partner what kind of top you are, as opposed to how well you conform to what you believe that entails. If you try to find partners via sex parties, you can look into ones that cater to guys, or try one that’s got a more diverse, pan-queer clientele. Several of both kinds exist in New York, for example.

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Also, if I can make this a skincare column for a second (a fleeting dream!), I’ve had such success with retinoids that I have to suggest you try with them for your acne, in case you haven’t. Tazarotene changed my life. Ask your dermatologist about it. You should receive very detailed instructions on how to integrate it into your routine slowly over time (too much too soon could leave you raw and irritated) and if your doctor does not provide such advice, find another doctor or email me directly for some guidelines.

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The answers to many of the questions you asked depend on your cultivation of confidence and presentation of it. Since confidence is often something accrued from experience, there may need to be an initial degree of faking it till you make it. But to your last question—“Will anyone even take me seriously as a top even if I do get the skills, given my height and lack of a built-in cock?”—my answer is a resounding yes. Trans guys top. As Alexander Cheeves, a bottom who has had sex with trans men tops, pointed out a few years ago in the Advocate: “There’s more to being a top than having a penis and putting it somewhere. A good top, in my opinion, knows how to listen, take charge, and deliver pleasure at the right speed and intensity. The sexual tools at his disposal are endless—he has his hands, mouth, fingers, strength, breath, and body weight, along with a myriad of sex toys, strap-ons, insertables, and more that exist.” Activist YouTuber Chase Ross talked at length about topping cis guys as a trans man in a 2017 video (he used toys). There are many ways to top, in terms of the mechanics; what’s essential is self-possession—so focus on cultivating that.

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One last thing if I haven’t talked (written) your ear (eyes) off by now. I reached out to the YouTuber mentioned above, Chase Ross, and he sent me an account of navigating gay sex as a queer trans masc person that I think is entirely valuable, so here it is in full:

Hi there! Welcome to queer sex, where everything is complicated, but you’ll have the time of your life! haha. Let’s be real, it can be super intimidating navigating the gay male community as a trans man. For years, I used apps to find people to just hook up with, and honestly, I never really felt much out of it. Until I actually met someone who was really nice and caring and willing to explore things with me. Thats probably the biggest piece of advice I can offer up. It’s hard no matter who you are and what you look like, but finding a “good one” that will be patient and is willing to either teach you or let you try new things, is tough, I won’t lie. I would recommend using those apps and stating that in your bio. Sometimes, there are people out there who are willing to be that person for you, even if it’s just for one encounter.

Bath houses can be a fun adventure, but also a little scary. If you’re willing to go to one, bring a prosthetic with you and before you have a sexual encounter, just let the person know you’re going to be using a prosthetic, gauge how they feel and if they don’t want it, they will walk away. This is obviously just from my personal experience as a 31-year-old queer trans masc individual, but gauging how the other person feels is super important. I’ve had situations where I told someone at a bathhouse I was trans, and they told me they needed to think about it, so I came back 15 minutes later and they said, “No thanks.” I didn’t take it to heart, I get it. Sometimes you go and you get lucky, and sometimes you strike out. The most important thing to remember is you are absolutely enough for someone and you will find someone who is willing to explore these new ventures with you. Not having a built-in cock is a turn off and an automatic no for some people, but hey, just let them know they can literally chose their size, and most people are very excited about that! Bottoms are overlooked when it comes to size, you get what you get. Well, when it comes to you, you’ll be able to change it up, and really listen to the person. Listening goes a long way! And when you find that person, ohhhhh boy, it’ll be exhilarating!

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Dear How to Do It,

My significant other and I have been dabbling our toes into “swing lifestyle.” We consider ourselves monogamish, where we would like to be involved in a few wild experiences together every so often as a couple. We don’t expect it to be weekly or to become a true lifestyle or poly and are really just looking for some occasional wild fun together. So far, we’ve soft-swapped and we’ll see where we go from here—and we may go no further. We’re taking it slow and seeing where the experience takes us, and this column has acted as inspiration at times to find our own path. So far, so good.

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The part where we’re stuck is on managing the risk of STIs from this increased sexual interaction. Of course, it’s impossible to mitigate the risk entirely by making a choice to participate in these activities—but like many other things in life, you try to mitigate where you can. It seems like you can mitigate HIV and other diseases by consistent condom use, and keep the likes of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis at bay with frequent testing (we do it every three months) and treatment if the unwelcome happens.

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However—and this is where we get stuck—for HSV-2 it seems like there’s little-to-no mitigation. The literature we’ve seen reads as though condom may help reduce risk, which we of course plan to do, but ultimately any skin-on-skin contact can transmit, and there is, of course, no cure, and at best one can hope for symptom relief. So, really, it seems like there’s precious little anyone can really do to lessen the risk. It feels a bit like Russian roulette and one could assume involvement in such a promiscuous community must mean an increased risk as opposed to the population at large, so it feels like an infection is inevitable.

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We’re not paranoid types and accept there’s always some risk with reward, but it just seems like a huge risk for such a choice. We’re interested in how promiscuous individuals manage this risk. Do people just put it out of their minds, accepting their fate should it arrive? Or are there any practical tips other than condoms? Any thoughts or ideas?

— Wannabe Monogamish

Dear Wannabe Monogamish,

I think you have a good handle on the situation—it comes down to weighing the risks versus the rewards. One thing that might help you consider this stuff is that herpes’ profile as a sexual boogeyman has been inflated by the media, and then perpetuated by the people on the ground who participate in this culture. Yes, some people get severe, regular outbreaks. Yes, HIV transmission and herpes infection exist in high correlation. Herpes is not nothing to worry about, but it is also not likely going to change your life in any major way. Perspective is crucial.

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It’s hard to accurately say what people think about anything—the best answer is: People think a lot of things about any one thing. Sometimes at the same time. I did a little bit of poking around, and found a decided ambivalence in studies about attitudes on STDs. Here’s a quote from such a survey of gay men in Sydney, Australia: “I guess I’m sort of resolved that it’s just part of the way of life. I mean, it’s not desirable but you have to manage it.” You can be aware of the reality, not particularly pleased with it, and yet willing to brave the risk because, hey, what are you gonna do? Not have sex? Some STDs, like chlamydia and even herpes, were seen as rites of passage and/or inevitable in this study of men who have sex with men in England. It’s notable that this study of MSM regarding their attitudes on PrEP (the drug regimen used to prevent HIV) suggested an engagement with the concept of risk that informed their behavior:

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Both PrEP users and non-users (n = 4) mentioned that fear of going wild on PrEP and engaging in more sexual risk behaviors kept them or people they knew from using PrEP. N13 (30s, closed relationship, $125 k) expressly stated, “I consciously decided that I did not want to continue with PrEP because I felt that was giving me a green light to continue to be reckless.”

To some, PrEP has the reputation of fostering a set-it-and-forget-it worldview, for helping people think that one daily pill will solve all problems. But this data set goes to show that it can make people think more, not less, about sex—even people who have experienced PrEP-related abandon. This is a good thing. You have to live your life the way you see fit, and in order to see fit, you need clarity that comes from ongoing interrogation. It’s a process, so stay engaged and have fun.

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Did you write this or another letter we answered? Tell us what happened at howtodoit@slate.com.

Dear How to Do It,

Today I learned that our beloved sex advisor Rich is also responsible for 40 Washington Post Date Lab columns. Rich, all of these curated couplings must have given you insight into one of the central mysteries of sex: What accounts for “chemistry”? While books like Jack Morin’s The Erotic Mind try to tease out an answer from surveys, you’ve seen (and set up) lots of real first dates. How many of those setups resulted in at least a hot kiss? What have you learned about sexual chemistry through running Date Lab?

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— Curious Chemist

Dear Curious Chemist,

Thank you for this question. I love writing Date Lab and I looooove talking about Date Lab, an endlessly fascinating series of induced coincidences, conversations with civilians, and mildly satisfying marathon encounters in restaurants (at least, that’s how the lion’s share of the ones I’ve written have played out). On these totally blind dates set (and then written) up by the Washington Post Magazine, kisses are rare, but they do happen. Low expectations can create wonderful setups for success, at least in the tonguing-each-other-down department.

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There are some running threads I’ve noticed in my years co-writing the column. One is a tendency in some women to wrestle with appreciating chivalry but feeling beholden to feminist standards. I’ve had several tell me what it means to live with this tension … but still enjoy when a man pays. I don’t see this as hypocritical, I see it as containing multitudes. I believe that people who are willing to risk seemingly contradicting themselves are trustworthy because no one is just one thing. Of course, shared interests are huge predictors of chemistry, but it’s usually not enough to, say, both enjoy traveling. Who doesn’t? The more niche these shared interests are, the more likely they are to be kindling for sparks. Also I think there is some truth to the maxim that what matters more than having things in common that you like is having things in common that you hate (see this pair’s aversion to social media).

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Unfortunately, though, my biggest takeaway is obvious: The success of these dates almost always comes down to physical attraction. It’s way easier to banter with and be interested in the words of someone that you find attractive. No matter how hard we try to match people’s interests, including what they list on their profile as their physical types, I think the trajectory of these dates is generally determined within the first moments. Are they hot for each other or not? But also, keep in mind that there is a sort of Hawthorne Effect that many subjects discuss openly. The idea that what they’re doing and saying may make it into the weekly magazine of one of the most widely read newspapers in the U.S., is not lost on the daters, which means they are accordingly self-conscious on their dates and in their ensuing interviews. Modulation is part of the experience.

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So while writing this column is gratifying, enlightening, and so much fun, Date Lab is not precisely microcosmic in its portrait of modern dating. Date Lab dates are dates, yes, but above all else they are Date Lab dates—completely blind, unique in their objectives, and almost always once-in-a-lifetime experiences. People do participate as a way of pursuing romance—and in the COVID era, I’ve noticed more people buying into Date Lab as a legit vehicle for finding a partner, as opposed to the majority in pre-COVID times who were just doing it for a free meal-slash-shits and giggles. But more than that, people do Date Lab for the story: the one they’ll carry through life, as well as the copy that makes the Washington Post Magazine. Within these constraints, we’re nonetheless offered heaps of humanity, and to me, the challenge of the gig is to take the mundanity of two people sitting across from each other while intermittently saying words, and spin it into a readable account. It’s not always easy, especially given the conflicting imperatives of turning in something that is juicy along the lines of reality TV while being fair and respectful to the subjects, who are not public figures and whose lives moving forward should not be complicated by participating in a fun, breezy column. Date Lab portrays but one night, but Google results are forever. I try to keep that in mind.

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My editor will kill me if I don’t mention that anyone in the D.C. area interested in being setup by the Post (and getting a free dinner out of the deal) should sign up for the column using this form. Come be my next … subject.

— Rich

More How to Do It

I recently caught my wife reading stories about father-daughter incest, allegedly by women who had enjoyed this. I had gotten odd vibes regarding my wife and her father, but I figured that I didn’t really understand father-daughter relationships in general. Now I’m not so sure. It may have just been a fantasy for her, but there are young relatives who could be at risk if her father really is that kind of person. If we have children ourselves, that will always be in the back of my mind—there is perhaps even the risk that my wife will be inappropriate with her offspring if she regards such relationships as positive. Frankly, this makes me never want to have children. Is there any good way to ask my wife about this?

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