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,
This is a typical story. I’m a middle-aged woman in a long-term marriage with no sex. I’m intrigued at how often the narrative is “women never want it” when all the women I know are dying for it and none of the men are interested. In any case, in my long-term marriage, there’s been no cheating, but our sex drives have never matched. His has been nonexistent for over 15 years. I finally (I know…) overcame years of social programming and learned to take care of myself.
I feel like I’m living with a roommate, not a husband. He is not capable of emotional intimacy. He is not a monster or a horrible person. But I’ve been quite blunt with him. If he can’t be there for me sexually, I need physical and emotional intimacy. He thinks chaste kisses and an occasional hug should cover it. He kisses me like a family member, not a wife.
I am tempted to have an affair, and have told him that as well, not to be horrible, but tearfully, like, “I can’t go on this way.” I do love my husband, it just feels like I’ve wasted a ton of my life. There are no guarantees anyone would even be interested in me anymore. And another marriage isn’t what I’m after anyway. I think I just want an affair. But how does one go about it? Then I just feel like a horrible person for thinking about it. Do you have any suggestions for how to make self-satisfaction enough? Do I just pretend I’m single so I don’t yearn for more (while staying married)? Am I crazy to think anyone would find a woman in her 50s desirable if I go another way? Most men who still have a sex drive in my age range want 20-year-olds.
—Not Ready for the Home
Dear Not Ready,
One thing that the archives of this column make clear is that people of all ages begin learning how their bodies work or exploring their sexualities, for all sorts of reasons. Some people start in their teens, others in their 60s, and most somewhere in between. You are right that there’s no guarantee anyone would be interested in you, which is a potential pitfall at any age. Sometimes we find the partner or partners we’re looking for quickly, and other times it takes several dates and a lot of time.
I reached out to Cindy Gallop, founder of MakeLoveNotPorn and infamous in sexuality spaces for her 2009 TED talk where she discusses the effect online porn has had on young people—information she gleaned from having sex with lots of younger men, for her take.
“Will anyone want to have sex with you, at your age? Oh my god sister, let me tell you, YES. Vast amounts of younger men. I discovered this accidentally 20 years ago, when I was running an ad agency pitching for an online dating brand, and we all had to online date. I was inundated with approaches from younger men, and as someone who’s never wanted marriage and kids, realized this was the perfect dating model for me. Because of the gendered double standard—older man/younger woman fine, older woman/younger man somehow deemed less acceptable—older women don’t realize how enormously attractive we are to younger men. Just post your profile on any cougar dating site and welcome the avalanche. That said, be selective: My number one criteria for my dates is that they must be a very nice person, and I’ve been happily dating only utterly lovely younger men for the past 20 years.”
As for how to do it, revisit that hard conversation with your husband and tell him that you need something to change. He’s had the opportunity to give you the intimacy and desire that you’ve communicated you need in your relationship, and he hasn’t delivered. Tell him that you’re open to opening the relationship, or divorcing, but the marriage can’t continue as it is. Good luck.
Dear How to Do It,
My partner and I recently moved in together after dating for a year and a half, and it’s been great so far! We both get along with keeping things clean and sharing responsibilities around the house. Money isn’t an issue either, but intimacy has become one.
When we first started dating we would frequently do the deed in cars, homes when parents were out, and wherever we could almost daily. After a few months, she switched to hormonal birth control, which slowly slowed her sex drive. A few months later she began taking antidepressants. These two factors are resulting in zero sex drive on her end. In the three months since we’ve moved out, we have only been physical once, and it doesn’t seem like that’s going to change any time soon.
We both had a discussion about this (multiple times actually) about why she thinks that is and she says it’s just her hormones acting up. She says she has always been super sexual and even told me she used to make fun of her friends for not enjoying sex. Now she tells me how she and her friends all talk about each other’s sexual adventures and she loves going into detail with her friends about these encounters (positions, length of partners), but still is adamant that she has no drive whatsoever. I, on the other hand, would love to go back to having sex daily, which while not realistic, is where we were for a few months ago. The sharp downturn in activity has made me feel insecure in my body and mental well-being, and has started taking a toll on me, yet my partner simply dismisses it and says it’s nothing that we can control.
Obviously signing off on birth control is a no-go, and we ruled out a copper IUD as we have had issues with them before (knocked out several times). I’m unsure where to go from here. I love my partner dearly and see a future with them, but I still crave that physical intimacy we used to have. What can we do?
Dear Silent Bed,
Hormonal birth control does seem to be a likely culprit. Some women have a great time on this kind of birth control—their skin clears up, their periods become regular, and their hormones are more balanced. Others’ hormones go haywire and cause issues, including the decreased desire for sex that you describe. Sometimes the reaction is a mixture of positive and negative.
Is there some reason that condoms aren’t an option? If used exactly right, they’re 98% effective. If you get a little sloppy, they’re still 85% effective. Internal condoms (also known as the female condom) are 95% to 79% effective. Maybe the latex is a problem? That’s OK—external and internal condoms come in various materials. If you’re only having sex with each other, and you’re both negative for sexually transmittable infections so you aren’t considering that aspect of sexual risk management, lambskin condoms are an option. Plastic can prevent pregnancy and STIs, too. There are options.
You’re also running into a likely issue with antidepressants. I imagine these antidepressants were prescribed because your partner is struggling with depression. Would you, if you were in her position, want to give up the thing that makes your life manageable? Would you want her to set her mental health back in order to be sexual with you?
Let’s also consider that you’ve moved in together. Things change when you’re living in the same place—not necessarily for the worse, but the relationship tends to shift. How’s your intimacy in other areas? Are you talking while giving each other your full attention? Are you taking time to sit on the couch together? Are you giving little massages, making out, and doing little things for each other to show that you’re in each others’ thoughts? If that’s slowed down, try ramping it up.
And, of course, you can always consider opening up the relationship. Spend some time thinking about what you would want that to look like and what wouldn’t be OK for you. Write your thoughts out, speak with a trusted friend, or run them through your head as you walk or shower. If you decide you’d like to give opening up a try, choose your time to broach the subject wisely. Make sure you’ve got enough time to talk about complex feelings that may come up. Make sure there are no pressing appointments and arrange comfort. Is the room too cold or hot? Is anyone thirsty or hungry or in pain? Take care of all of that before you dig in. Think back on how you’ve handled difficult conversations in the past and what worked well. Good luck.
Dear How to Do It,
Up until the last few years, I’ve never been interested in porn. I always thought I’d get a virus on my computer if I Googled it, and I also didn’t feel like I needed it. The first time I saw porn was with my girlfriend when I was 22 (for reference, I’m a bisexual woman), I’ve probably seen porn a dozen times since then.
Fast forward to today, I’m engaged to a wonderful man. Occasionally, my fiancé and I have found we enjoy watching porn together. I particularly enjoy lesbian and threesome porn (I know, so original). The problem is finding it. I generally find the depictions distasteful, and I worry about the labor ethics in these random free productions. And also, I think I could still get a virus.
I would happily pay for some ethically produced porn with fairly compensated actors. But I have no idea where to find this. Googling porn hardly narrows the field. I’ve considered something more individualized, like OnlyFans. But even before the recent news with OnlyFans, I’d read positive and negative takes on OnlyFans and ethics. I’d like to indulge in this occasional treat with a clear conscience. I’m just not sure how.
—Want to Pay For Porn
Dear Want to Pay,
Ethical, like pornography, can be a highly subjective term. Let’s say ethics in pornographic video production by studios means consent. This includes the transparency required for informed consent during the booking process and on set, regarding the sexual activity, payment, and tone or theme of the project. Let’s say it also means fair pay for the talent and for the crew, representation of diverse bodies and sexualities, and use of a gaze other than cis male heterosexual objectification. Four Chambered Heart and Pink & White Productions come to mind as the best examples of this. You might try searching “ethical porn” and “feminist porn.” I wouldn’t try the phrase “fair trade porn,” despite it being included in articles about ethically-made pornography, as the top results for that search string are tube sites with a very different interpretation of the concept.
Ethics in the world of independent content creation are a little different. Jiz Lee wrote an article several years ago that discusses the complications that arise when two creators are collaborating and sheds some light on the considerations involved. Add to that the platform involved, whether it’s OnlyFans or Clips4Sale, and the ways that payment processors and credit card companies dictate what a creator may and may not post on their pages or in their DMs.
As with any industry, there are many steps along the way where ethics can be in line, or out of line, with your own. You might consider how precise you are about the food you consume, and use that as a comparison to how particular you feel you need to be about the pornographic media you view.
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Dear How to Do it,
I’m a transgender man in a relationship with a nonbinary partner (both mid-30s). Our sex life is generally pretty rad, and we share an interest in a particular fantasy/roleplay kink we’ve been incorporating into our dirty talk and play every time we have sex. However, on an unpredictable basis, some switch will flip in my head and the previously delicious fantasy will set off my gender dysphoria very badly. In an instant, I’m teleported from blissful sexuality into an agonizingly painful awareness of the body I was born into.
I exclusively top in our relationship, more based on my partner’s preference than my own. It’s fun, but it doesn’t really get me off, physically speaking—there are no nerve endings in a strap-on! I do like to get off, but at the end of the day, my pleasure generally isn’t our priority as a couple. Since this usually happens, when it does, when things are really moving at a fast pace and my partner is begging me not to stop and to keep talking to them like that, I… don’t stop. I just white-knuckle through the dysphoria and let them finish because it’s not like I’m building toward an orgasm that could be ruined by my sudden change in feelings. They are, and it’s my job to take care of that.
I’m not happy with this state of affairs, though. The inequality in pleasure could be its own whole letter (or multiple therapy sessions) but for the matter at hand: how do I balance my own discomfort with my partner’s pleasure? They want me growling dirty talk about wrecking them on my huge (fake) penis, and half the time I’m riding the high along with them, and the other half I’m dying inside. How do I make this work?
—404 Dick Not Found
You’re balancing a lot, and I wanted to get you some perspective from someone who thinks a lot about gender and dysphoria. So I reached out to Cory Silverberg, author of You Know, Sex, and non-binary human themselves. Cory had a lot of useful stuff to say so I’ll let them take the lead:
“I can’t tell how much you may be beating yourself up for the way you’re managing this situation. If you are, I want to start by saying that I hope you can try to do less of that. All of us who experience gender dysphoria and are in relationships (sexual or not) find ourselves white-knuckling it through sex, a conversation over dinner, or a therapy session. In some ideal world that wouldn’t be the case, but it can be such an intense, jarring feeling to go from being fine in your body to being completely outside it, or disgusted by it. And it’s something that people who don’t experience dysphoria have a really hard time connecting to. It isn’t just that we aren’t good at talking about it with the people in our lives because we aren’t good communicators, it’s that it’s a very hard thing to talk about and experience. None of us need to make hard things harder by being mean to ourselves.
That said, making this work has to mean you getting more of your needs met. This may include your sexual needs (you are worthy of pleasure and feeling desired), your relational needs, and whatever it is that you need around your experience with gender. I don’t know you so I can’t say what it is you need, but what I can say is that based on what you’re describing it sounds like there’s an imbalance in the way you and your partners bodyminds are being cared for and attended to.
No one in a relationship gets their needs met all the time. But some people in relationships take this to mean that there are times when they suffer, and then later there are times when their partner suffers. It’s an approach to needs like they are a zero-sum game. There are other ways of thinking about it. Disability Justice invites us to think about needs as something we all have all the time. In disability community, communicating our needs and finding creative ways to meet our own and each other’s needs as best we can, can be understood and experienced as a form of intimacy. It’s not easy to throw out the ableism (and fear of non-normative bodies of all kinds) but when we do, we can begin to imagine new ways of thinking about setting boundaries around our bodies. Instead of you being a problem or a drag for not giving your partner the sexual experiences they want and expect, you sharing with them the ways this isn’t working for you, and inviting them into an imagining of how you might both have sex that feels hot and liberating, is a gift.
Of course, they may not be up for that. They may not be worthy of your sharing. Or they might be.
It sounds to me like you’re clear about what isn’t working for you in terms of the sexual dynamics. It also sounds like you’re doing most of the heavy sexual lifting in that dynamic. I’m curious about what the relationship dynamic is around caring for each other’s bodyminds. Is your partner aware when you get into a bad place with gender dysphoria? Have you talked about what it looks and feels like for you when you’re in that place? What would it be like for you if your partner was more aware of it and wanted permission to say something if they notice you moving into your white-knuckling zone? If it isn’t something they are currently aware of, would you know what to tell them to look for?
I want to end by repeating the part about you being worthy of pleasure and feeling desired, cared for, and seen, in whatever ways feel available to you. As someone who experiences pretty intense dysphoria, and who has also spent years working on my gender stuff, I can share that for some of us it doesn’t ever really go away. It changes, it can be easier sometimes and harder other times. There can be moments of awareness that feel liberating. But I don’t think we have to get over or through something completely before we can have the sex and connection we desire. We get to both build the world we want while living in the world we have.”
If you’re struggling to implement Cory’s advice, or to answer the questions they encouraged you to ask yourself, your therapist might be your next resource to visit. I think you’ve got this.
I’m a woman in a heterosexual, monogamous marriage. I love my husband, but throughout our five-year relationship, our sex life has had its ups and downs. It has mostly involved what I thought was my husband’s fairly continuous masturbation while he is at home and I am at work (we work different schedules), which he says leaves him undesiring of sex with me when I get home. We’ve fought about this many, many times, with him promising to change and leading to some “up” moments, only to be right back to the same issue a few weeks later. He’s also lied many times about the amount of time he spends masturbating (and watching porn), and I’ve felt like he’s constantly hiding something from me. Well, I caught him in another lie.