How to Do It

My Husband Thinks I Don’t Have Sex With Him Because It’s “Typical” for Married Couples

That’s not why.

A man looks to the sky next to his wife.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Viacheslav Peretiatko/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,

My husband and I have been married for seven years. We’re in our 30s, with two small kids. Our relationship is in a good place. However, our sex life has been lukewarm for years, and despite some haphazard and short-lived efforts to either “talk about it” or even “spice it up” with toys or new positions, I know that my husband is unsatisfied insomuch as he makes frequent “jokes” about how my libido has significantly stagnated since the initial years of our relationship—lots of jokes about how we’re such a “typical couple” in that our sex life has diminished in heat since we’ve been married, and so on.

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Well, I know why my libido has really waned. But I have been unsuccessful in my attempts to explain it, or even to work through it myself. When we first started dating, I was in what I call my “sexual awakening” period—I began having sex at a relatively later age than most of my peers, so I racked up a number of sexual partners in a short period of time. And during this time, I came to associate sex almost exclusively with being desired and associating that with a kind of (ill-placed) validation and affirming of self-worth. Once I entered into my first real loving relationship with my now-husband, I didn’t need the sex anymore to validate his interest in me or my worth as a sexual being. In effect, I never translated my association with sex as a form of validation to sex as an expression of love.

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I love my husband so much and really want to fix this, but I have no idea where to start!

—Dazed and Very Confused

Dear Dazed and Very Confused,

A lot of people who come to us with issues related to reduced libido have no idea as to why, so you’re ahead of the pack, to a certain extent. It’s good to interrogate what’s going on with you, especially when whatever’s going on is creating angst or tension. But I’m not entirely sure that I follow your logic. You associated sex with being desired, but then determined after entering your relationship with your husband that you “didn’t need the sex anymore to validate his interest in me or my worth as a sexual being.” But by this logic—and again, I’m not on board with this logic—sex would still be useful in that way, wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t it heal this rift in your otherwise good relationship, and keep your mutual desire stronger?

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You also never qualify sex beyond its effects—for you, it’s been a means to an end, to some degree. And good sex is validating. But sex is more than a transaction, and how you feel about the actual act of it remains elusive. What about the crucial fun of sex? Where are you with that? Is sex fun for you? Is it worth having beyond what it can bring you later? Figuring that out is a good first step for you. Maybe the answer is that you aren’t actually interested in sex itself—many people are not, and some of those people identify as asexual and have completely fulfilling lives. That’s not a worse-case scenario, it’s just a scenario. Your husband is approaching this issue in a passive-aggressive way that’s not ideal, but I think it’s worth figuring this out for both of you. If talking to a sex-positive counselor for a casual session or two sounds like too much for you right now, you could start with a book like our oft-recommend Come As You Are to help you think about sexual desire and how yours might work. Let us know how it goes.

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Dear How to Do It,

Through many conversations, my boyfriend and I decided long ago that our sex drives and desire for multiple partners differ—I am the one with the extracurricular desires—and that it’s OK by both of us for me to have sex with other people. However, though he denies it, I’ve noticed he seems to get a little jealous or uncomfortable if I reference other sex partners. I do believe him when he says this is not a big issue for him, but I think he chooses to process some of his understandable emotional reactions privately. And so I’m not sure how to approach what I think might now be an issue: When this all first began, I had sex with maybe one other person every other month. It’s now sometimes become once a week, depending how horny I am. Do you think it’s essential that I share how frequent this habit has become? How much transparency is necessary for the other person to assess the full risk? I’m on preventative medication and get tested for STDs regularly, but I am worried I’m shielding us from some emotional fallout, too.

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—Busy

Dear B,

You should leave the amount of disclosure up to him. Some partners adopt a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy; others want to know every detail of the sex that happens outside of a relationship, sometimes for erotic purposes. The middle ground is a heads-up when you’re going to hook up or soon after having done so. I understand wanting to be transparent about risk, but I think by making it clear that you will be having sex outside the relationship regularly, you’ve done your due diligence there. More sex means more chances for exposure, sure, but it only takes once to contract whatever. Your boyfriend implicitly understands and accepts this, lest he be completely in the dark about how STDs work.

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Just have a conversation with him. You can tell him that you’ve been hornier and more active lately, and would he like to know more about that? It may be much easier for him to deal with as little information as possible; conversely, more disclosure may make him feel more secure. There’s no real universal standard here, but deferring to the most sensitive person in the relationship about the details of your specific arrangement is pretty much always the way to go.

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Dear How to Do It,

Gay man in my mid-30s here, and I have been having an issue. I am athletic, well-spoken, courteous, and generally mild-mannered in my day-to-day life. My friends and family usually refer to me as sweet, kind, goofy, dependable and an overall “good guy.” I feel like I am as well.

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I enjoy being sexual, and at the same time, I want to have a romantic partner as well and have been out on many a date. One thing I am noticing though is when I express my sexual desires and the reactions I get from dates or when speaking with friends. When I tell my friends about being interested in a kink or going out to a club, their brows furrow and they express confusion over wanting to do something like that because they say I’m a “good boy” and that it seems I am not being myself. They also mention that men want a “good boy” to date, someone they can take home to their parents, not someone who sleeps around. It gets even stranger when some dates I have gone on have been surprised that I wanted to get sexual with them after a few dates and even exclaimed how they were surprised that I even initiated because I came across as a “good boy.”

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I find this to be often frustrating and makes it seem as if somehow my wanting sex is going against who I am as a person. I have heard about the Madonna/whore complex in straight relationships and had often brushed it off as an outdated, sexist thought process. But as these comments have been coming up more not only from the men I date, but also from friends and family (well, the gay family members), I am wondering is this standard found in the gay community as well? Honestly, I want to be just a good guy who also like adventurous sex without having to be put in a box. Am I doing something wrong here, or am I just running up against narrow mindedness?

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—The Madonna and the Whore

Dear Whore,

Seems like narrow-mindedness to me. Coming from people who aren’t sexual prospects to you, this wrongheaded line of advisement seems to be: We don’t see you as sexual, so we’re just upholding that notion of you by shoving you into the “good boy” box. They can’t handle the truth, so ignore them. This isn’t about you behaving out of character; it’s about them not being able to grasp the complexity of your character. That you’d receive any pushback on this is pretty absurd to me. People contain multitudes. How do your adult friends not know this?

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Guys who you date are a different story. I’m going to have to guess you’ve just met a bunch of the wrong people. The kind of innocence that the “good boy” designation suggests is, in fact, often eroticized—it’s a big part of why people are so into twinks: “defiling” that goodness with dick is exciting to some. But even outside of that kind of objectification, peeling off someone’s layers is one of the exciting things about sex. I have to assume that the guys you’ve been connecting with just aren’t into that. I wonder how you’re meeting these people—you might do well browsing in a more sexually charged space, like an app generally associated with hook-ups. In my subjective experience, Feeld is great for finding people who are horny and sex-positive, but are more interested in connecting in an ongoing way. (A recent question to this column prompted me to re-download it, and I’ve been having fun with it ever since. I’ve never come across so many straight-leaning guys who want a dick in their butt. Talk about layers!)

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You could also just hang out with more sluts. They’ll have sex with you! Consider a sex party or other venue where your mere presence says way more than any superficial qualities might.

Dear How to Do It,

One of my favorite things in the world is oral sex, but I was conditioned pretty early on that it’s not OK to ask for. Of my early partners: the first three didn’t “go down” at all (none had a problem with me taking care of them, but two were outright offended when I asked if they’d return the favor). The fourth would talk openly about guys she’d gone down on before, but didn’t like being asked for it anymore, and only initiated it once in the nine months we were together–which was my first time receiving oral sex, and almost a year and a half after I lost my virginity. At some point after that, another girl I briefly dated told me in no uncertain terms that a guy should NEVER ask for head, it’s something that should only ever be offered, and that while it was something she loved to do, because I’d asked, it wouldn’t be “freely given,” which meant it was off the table entirely.

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After a while, I got married for several years. My ex only ever saw them as a way to get me primed for PIV sex so she could get off, never an act into themselves. She also flat-out told me (apropos of nothing, I might add) she wouldn’t actually be mad if she found out I’d cheated, but it was only a blowjob, because “it’s not called a ‘job’ for nothing.” When I eventually, after talking about it in therapy for almost two years, got up the nerve to tell her I would like if she went down on me more often, she literally started crying because she couldn’t believe I thought she didn’t do it enough.

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From my first sexual experience at 17 to the end of that marriage when I was 30, I could count the number of blowjobs I’d gotten (on their own, not as foreplay) on my fingers.

My partner today is amazing! She is very open and communicative and encouraging, and honest with me about where she’s at on any given day. She’s never gotten upset with me for asking for something, has never made me feel like my wants are a burden, and has told me repeatedly that she actually really likes giving head, even if she doesn’t think to initiate it that often. She knows about my history with this stuff, and has gone out of her way to make me feel safe talking about it, in and out of the bedroom. The problem is: I can’t get myself to believe it. I can’t convince myself that it’s actually OK to ask for what I want. I can’t get past the feeling that I’m being selfish by even bringing it up—what if she’s tired, or preoccupied, or otherwise not in the mood? If I ask and she says no, my brain tells me, I should’ve been less oblivious, should have realized it was the wrong time. If she says yes, my brain helpfully continues: what if she’s only going along with it not to disappoint me, but really she’d rather not? Obviously, she wouldn’t tell me if that was the case, so my anxiety grabs hold of past experiences and starts screaming that I should just know better than to bring it up in the first place.

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—Oral Argument

Dear Oral Argument,

Yours is a sex problem, yes, but more than that you are struggling with a classic fear of rejection. In this particular case, that fear has been fostered by partners who misled you. On one hand, it’s heartening that you have been so respectful as to refrain from so much as asking for head—a lot of guys treat blow jobs as a God-given right. But on the other, there is absolutely nothing wrong with asking for something. An open and egalitarian sexual relationship allows room for requests, just as it allows room for those requests to be denied. I’ve never heard of don’t-ask-for-blowjobs etiquette, and at least in most American places, it’s unusual that you encountered a string of partners who seem to believe that is a thing. If you ask for something and your partner declines, it’s really OK. You can do something else or not! It doesn’t have to be bigger than that. If your current partner is open and communicative, you can trust that sincerity underpins her oral.

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In terms of getting over rejection sensitivity, I’m surprised that your therapist did not work with you on this (and I’m also surprised that you spent two years discussing the blowjobs that you weren’t getting only to turn to an advice column—maybe get a new therapist?). Your specific needs are beyond what I can provide, but it’s my inclination to suggest that you practice asking and practice getting turned down. You’ll see the world won’t end. The sun and your dick will both rise to greet another day. This Psychology Today piece on overcoming the fear of rejection outlines a course of action for overcoming rejection anxiety: 1. Identify the stimulus; 2. Take steps toward doing the thing that may trigger rejection; 3. Remind yourself that the pain of rejection, should it occur, will pass; 4. Reframe rejection as an opportunity to work on your approach.

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Be careful here—too much persistence becomes badgering and too much badgering can become coercion. But it seems like you have a great partner with whom to discuss this stuff. Overcoming your fear can be as easy (and difficult) as going for what you want.

More How to Do It

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. 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. Eventually, I made a sex suggestion I’ve been desperate to talk back ever since.

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