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 queer polyamorous nonbinary person, and I have a question about sex party etiquette, mostly about throwing one myself. I practice kitchen table poly, as do all of my partners, and I have had threesomes and foursomes with a number of my partners and metamours. I know that all are interested in group sex to some degree, and while I enjoy the group sex that I have, it is often spur of the moment, at the end of a group hangout, when a lot of the polycule has left and whoever is still around falls into bed together. The people who leave first often express jealousy (and compersion!) at missing out on the fun, and would have stayed had they known it was going to happen.
This has caused several of us to discuss planning a sex party for the polycule and like-minded friends, where this type of play is explicitly the goal. We’d likely start with an hour or two for drinks, etc., before any clothes come off. My question is, what would my responsibility be as a host? Almost everyone invited has had some kind of group sex before, and I have personally had sex with most of them myself. All get tested regularly (and use condoms with new partners) and all are proactive about enthusiastic consent. Should I have some kind of list of rules? Are there things I am not thinking about that we should discuss in advance? Or are just setting out lube and bowls of condoms enough, considering no one here is a stranger? I am assuming this would be somewhere around 10-to-12 people.
— When Three Isn’t Enough of a Crowd
Dear When Three Isn’t Enough,
If you’re dealing with an experienced crowd, they know the drill when it comes to group drilling. Condoms and lube might really be enough. Personally speaking, in these situations, though, I always appreciate upfront explicitness regarding the guest list. Confirm with everyone individually that they are interested in attending a sex party and then, again individually and with all parties’ permission, send out a list of names of confirmed guests. This way people can make informed decisions ahead of time. If there is someone that another person is not interested in hooking up with, they can make that decision before they’re standing within spitting distance of that person’s junk. In these individual texts, you can send out reminders regarding enthusiastic consent, a total lack of obligation to participate in anything they are not interested in, and safety precautions if, for example, condoms are the rule. I wouldn’t worry about doing anything particularly special for this party that you wouldn’t in a typical group hang beyond making sure everything is comfortable and providing novel spaces for sex (such as a sling), if those things are within your means and interests. So much of the party’s success will depend on the curation, and if it isn’t jumping, you’re not going to be able to do too much about that in the moment. Just try to relax as host, but certainly be available to troubleshoot should anything go awry (you can set yourself up as the point person for any issues in one of your pre-party texts as well). Remember that as the host, you set the tone for your party, so be the sex party participant you want to see in the world (or your home, as it were).
Dear How to Do It,
I recently found my husband’s Facebook messages with other women. He says it’s only chatting and does not mean anything, but this still feels like a betrayal. I was recently diagnosed with endometriosis and am on hormone therapy so of course, my hormones are a little whacked up currently.
When we have sex it’s fantastic—though since my diagnosis I am sore and hurt afterward. I don’t dare say anything especially after finding out about these chats. I’ve been reading that endometriosis can cause divorce due to painful sex. We’ve been married 23 years and raised two kids. My husband had stage three cancer early in our marriage and we made it through that.
I feel now that the shoe is on the other foot so to speak, he has not supported me as I supported him. I’m not sure what to do, though. My son says I should let it go since it’s only chatting.
Dear Chatting Husband,
Whacked-up hormones or no, it’s completely reasonable to interpret this as a betrayal. If you were given no expectation that such conversations might take place and you were defaulting to monogamy, like so many people in our culture do, of course this would come as a shock. What your husband did was off-limits and he knew that, otherwise he would have told you well before you could discover for yourself.
“It doesn’t mean anything” is a cliché, and a self-centered one. This may not mean anything to him, but clearly it does to you. Unfortunately for his logic, what means something to one person in a relationship almost always means something to the relationship itself (which is to say the seemingly disinterested party), especially something that rattles the foundation of what you thought was your arrangement. Just letting things go can be wonderfully freeing, but it’s understandable if you cannot bring yourself to do that in this case. It’s much harder to let something go if it isn’t going away on its own—resolution will likely be crucial for you.
As you go forward, do keep in mind that the Facebook interactions do not indicate that your husband doesn’t love you or that he isn’t interested or that he’s unsatisfied. Love for one’s spouse and a sexual interest in others are not necessarily at odds. They certainly can be, and his callousness here is disconcerting, but some people feel more naturally inclined to nonmonogamy, and many deviate from the relationship in search of something their long-term partner can’t give them with any ease (if at all): newness. This is not to excuse him, it’s just to say that these messages are not necessarily a sign that your husband has divested from the relationship, and without more evidence, they should not be assumed as such. There is a possibility that with understanding, you can make this work—the question you have to answer now (or soon) is whether you want to.
Dear How to Do It,
My girlfriend and I have been together for almost five years, and we agreed on an open relationship around three years ago. We promised to be honest and inform each other if we have sex with other people. Still, I’ve never slept with others, and she told me the same. However, we had an intense argument about half a year ago. Since then she closed up on me. I knew she slept around after that and even had a short romantic relationship with a guy, but she never mentioned it to me.
We had a few long conversations and she just cannot openly admit what she did. She just keeps saying that she knows she is the kind of person who needs new excitement and new men in sex, and that this sex has nothing to do with our relationship. So she feels that not mentioning when she seeks other men out would work better. After these events, I honestly don’t feel an open relationship could work for me. What should I do?
— My Girlfriend Needs Sex With Others
Dear Sex With Others,
Three years in should give you a pretty good sense of whether an open relationship is for you. Trust yourself—I do. If you need monogamy and your girlfriend cannot take it, well, this is a mismatch, unfortunately. You should listen to her—if she “just keeps saying” that she needs to sleep with new men, believe her. If you can’t hang with that, this relationship isn’t going to work, not without a major change. You can try counseling but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t do the trick.
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Dear How to Do It,
I’m a gay man in my mid-40s and have recently celebrated my twentieth anniversary with the most wonderful man I have ever known, who is in his mid-50s. I feel so incredibly lucky and grateful to have this man as family, though I struggle all day, every day with guilt, shame, and the feeling that I do not deserve the wonderful life that my partner, “D,” has shared with me.
About ten years ago, I started dissociating in ways that incapacitated me cognitively and physically. It turns out I had PTSD from surviving conversion therapy and 15 years of severe abuse from parents and the church community.
I’ve been very sex-positive for most of my adult life, and my partner and I enjoyed a healthy and fulfilling sex life until I got sick, though I was always the one to take the lead and communicate. D is less communicative. (He may be on the spectrum a bit.) Over time we slowly stopped talking about sex. Our weekly sex started just happening, rather than being instigated. Every Sunday, right after our shower, always the exact same thing, which I didn’t mind because my energy was tanking so bad. It was hard to come up with new things to do, and hard to extract information about what D wanted.
Then we started speaking in code. “Do you want a shower?” Then I started taking medications to help with the PTSD and its comorbidities (depression, anxiety, sleep disruption, insomnia). I stopped being able to finish. It was like my brain would short circuit when I got to the point of climax. D was very understanding and was only concerned about how it was affecting me, but I insisted on pleasuring him, even if I couldn’t finish (just as fun for me, honestly). Eventually, that side effect went away, but my sex drive never returned completely. At the same time, I was gaining a good amount of weight, my hygiene habits completely evaporated, and I really struggled with shame that D was completely supporting me and I often couldn’t even do simple things like wash the dishes. D has never once made me feel bad for this, or in any way disparaged me, but neither has he been able to communicate any reassurance.
I told D that, while the sexual side effects had dissipated, I was really feeling gross about my body and insecure about my place and contribution to our relationship, and that I didn’t want him to feel obligated to sex with me when I was in this state. So if he wanted to have sex, I wanted him to initiate it, so I could be sure he wasn’t feeling at all pressured. He said, “okay,” and that was it. That was two years ago and we haven’t had sex since.
All other aspects of our relationship seem to be as healthy as they can be. I’m very happy in our life, and every time I inquire about his happiness, if there’s anything I can do within my limitations to better contribute, he always says he’s happy and things are fine. I’m so terrified that I am causing D pain, or keeping his life from being fulfilling. He’s the best thing to ever happen to me, and I’m so scared that I’m the worst thing to ever happen to him, and that all these ways I’m failing might grow into resentment or even hatred inside him, or already have. I can’t seem to find a way to get through my brain to communicate about it to him, and experience tells me he wouldn’t even be able to put a response into words anyway and it would just turn into an, “I’m fine, I’m happy, don’t worry.” How do I talk to him?
— Never Sure Where I Stand
Dear Never Sure,
You have been talking to him. What you’re having a hard time with is listening. You repeatedly illustrate how understanding and loving your partner is—unless he’s a masochist or truly directionless, why would he go along with this relationship while remaining supportive and seemingly game to do just about anything you’ve asked if he wasn’t getting something out of it? You’ve been together for 20 years. You say that he hasn’t been able to communicate reassurance to you, but his support during difficult times and avoidance of disparaging you may be his brand of reassurance. Perhaps that’s not enough for you—some people desire verbal reassurance and if you are one of those people and not getting that, dissatisfaction is bound to follow.
Perhaps D is not giving you exactly what you need, but it sounds to me like he’s giving you a lot. You question whether he is on the spectrum, but if that’s the case, perhaps what is intuitive to you may be less so to him. This could be, in fact, regardless of his neurodivergence. Given how supportive he’s been, asking him directly for certain things may be an easy way to get those things, or at least start a conversation about them.
Of course, you could cite your request for him to initiate sex as proof of why this suggestion won’t work. Sex exists in its own distinct category, though, with its own attendant issues. Firstly, your guy is in his mid-50s, and many people experience a declining libido with age.
Hopefully he’s getting his testosterone checked. If not, it’s probably time. Regardless, sex in a lot of relationships wanes as they go on, despite both parties’ commitment—keeping the fire alive is an active process, and one that neither of you has been particularly diligent about lately. He also may not be initiating because of extrapolations/suspicions similar to those you’ve made regarding his behavior: Perhaps he read your request for him to initiate as a soft announcement of disinterest on your part. Or, maybe he’s just not cut out to be the initiator. If what it took for you to have sex previously was for you to take the lead, well, that might be how things work for you two. You can sit and fret about your partner not returning a favor or you can get off your ass and actually make it happen. Being practical gets things done—including yourself.
On that note, you’re wrapped up in these fears and assumptions. Do you have any actual evidence to believe you’re the worst thing that’s happened to this man you’ve spent 20 years with, a man you introduce to a stranger like me as “the most wonderful man I have ever known”? That’s such a leap and it’s one that you are taking. Try to refrain from projecting. You don’t know what’s actually going on in his head, and no matter what it is, it is almost certainly not, “My partner of 20 years is the worst thing to happen to me.” Clearing your mind as best you can—via therapy, meditation, exercise, or whatever other means works for you—will allow you to actually hear him, which I’ve already noted I suspect is the real issue here. Your thoughts are interfering with reality. Luckily, this is workable. Your thoughts are much more manageable than someone else’s feelings, so if I were you, I’d put my focus there.
More How to Do It
I’m only attracted to fat women. I don’t think I over-sexualize or reduce them to only their bodies, and I treat everyone with respect and kindness regardless of whether I’m attracted to them. But listening to girlfriends and friends talk about how they are treated like their fatness is either seen as disgusting or exotic to people makes me worry that ONLY liking fat women is fetishizing. How do I parse out the difference between having a “type” or an objectifying fetish?