How to Do It

Every Time a Girlfriend Learns My Secret From My College Years … Things Get Awkward

I’m terrified she’ll leave me if she finds out.

Man holding a box with an engagement ring and a thinking emoji floating behind it.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Diamond Dogs/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 currently in my early 30s, and I’m almost four years into the most loving, supportive relationship I’ve ever had. My queen (let’s call her Emily) has been there for me through the passing of both of my parents, I helped her get her business up and running, and we weathered the storm of her being a small business owner during a pandemic. I feel like we communicate very well, I only have my frame of reference but I feel like the sex is phenomenal. I bought a ring last November and plan on proposing.

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At some point, after I purchased the ring, we had a party and she got very drunk and revealed that she was “kinda weirded out” by bisexual men who hook up with other men. She believes that they MUST be closeted homosexuals, and should stop duping women into believing that they are capable of male-female relationships. I was shocked by this; we are both forward-thinking, seemingly progressive people. The problem is, for about three months in college I was in a same-sex relationship. It started out very innocently, with a few drunk hookups but it was a pretty serious thing for a significant part of my life. I had two or three other flings that were similar, but have not had any desire to do anything with a man since. The only two other girls that I have been remotely serious with, the relationships turned awkward and uncomfortable after I revealed this part of my past to them.

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To that end, I have not revealed this information to Emily. I am both uncomfortable with her opinions and terrified that she’ll leave me if she finds out. I am weighing the pros and cons of just burying this part of my past—the friends that I still have who know about that part of my life are people that I trust would never reveal that information. But I do feel like you can never really be in a relationship with someone if things like that are topics you feel uncomfortable disclosing. What do you think that I should do?

—Occasionally Curious Carlos

Dear Carlos,

I think there’s a high-minded, extremely principled answer to the effect of, “Dump her to show her the error of her ways and make the world that much less biphobic.” But I don’t think that’s necessarily practical. People are imperfect, and even the seemingly coolest people may hold onto some outdated and/or toxic beliefs. (Remember how Cher had an issue with her son Chaz’s initially stated sexuality and then gender identity?) Everyone is a work in progress, including the queens among us. You get to set your limit for what you will tolerate in a partner. You also get to say, “I would like to continue being with this person who practices bi-erasure as a matter of course,” and then continue being with that person.

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Emily is coming from a place of ignorance that your life experience could in theory obliterate, if she is open to enlightenment. That’s a big if. Whether tempting fate is worth it depends on how important your past experiences with men are to you. Did they contribute to the formation of your identity, or are they merely discrete encounters that happened and were nice, but will be relegated strictly to your past? Do you think you’ll get curious again and want to act on it? If your bisexuality is mostly circumstantial and won’t really come up again other than in conversation, I think you’re justified in letting her comments slide. Her ignorance needn’t blow up your life; it’s bad enough that it colors her worldview. If you foresee a time when you’ll be in an open arrangement and theoretically available to hook up with another dude, or if it’s too big a part of your identity that suppressing all acknowledgement would qualify as effective deception, you should reveal and hope for the best. I’m guessing you’re leaning more toward the circumstantial scenario as it had not yet come up in your years together prior to her reveal.

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Also! She was drunk when she said this, which could mean that she really feels like bi dudes aren’t a thing. It could also mean she was exaggerating for effect, or even better, that she was just talking shit. Alcohol can be a truth serum, yes, but it can also be liquid bullshit. I think you need to engage her on the topic when she’s sober to get a better grip on her actual position. You can take the opportunity then to push back on her misconceptions about bi men without divulging your personal experience. If you position the conversation as a thought exercise, you can collect information that could help you plan the next step.

Dear How to Do It,

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My partner and I are both in our early 20s and have been together for two years. Seven months ago, he told me he figured out that he was polyamorous and eventually wanted to have other partners. I made it clear that I love, support, and accept him no matter what (and I do). But I’m really struggling with being OK with the idea of him having other partners. He recently admitted he had a crush on someone, but didn’t want to pursue anything. I still had a mental breakdown over it. Even though he says his other partners wouldn’t be as important to him as I am, I don’t know if I can truly be happy sharing him with someone else. I said I wasn’t comfortable with him having sex with other people, and that would be a hard boundary of mine.

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He replied with, “I would only have sex with someone if I really loved them.” His inability to promise me that much has been a source of stress and anxiety for me. Whenever I express my feelings about any of this, he just says “Well, I can’t change who I am.” He says over and over that he doesn’t want to hurt me and wouldn’t do anything to hurt me, but I’m upset that he sees how much pain and stress this is causing me and yet still wants an open relationship. It feels like I’m the only one expected to compromise.

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He swears that he’s happy with me and doesn’t feel like there’s anything missing from our relationship, so I just don’t understand why he even wants more partners in the first place. I don’t want to be a jealous and controlling girlfriend who bans him from dating other people, but I also don’t want to spend the rest of our relationship seeing other women as a threat and hating his partners for “stealing” him away from me. Our relationship is too important to us to end and we decided that breaking up would be the absolute last solution. I am currently looking for therapists for myself but figured having more than one opinion wouldn’t hurt. Please help.

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—Miserable Monogamist

Dear Miserable,

You don’t know how you’ll react to something until you’re in its midst, but I’d say a “mental breakdown” over your boyfriend’s crush is a good indication that polyamory/dating a polyamorist is not for you. This situation is already causing you pain and stress and it hasn’t even gotten beyond the conceptual stage. That your partner is unwilling to bend even while seeing the actual effects his theoretical polyamory has on you is disconcerting and it suggests a power dynamic he’s likely to continue exploiting unless he consciously overhauls his priorities.

This may just be an irreconcilable situation if he won’t change and if you changing would cause such grief that it is basically impossible to imagine doing with any kind of serenity. Sorry to confirm your suspicions, but that’s how it is. Couples therapy is a good idea as a last-ditch effort to make this actually work, but keep in mind that you haven’t been together for very long and you’re both extremely young. Your 20s can be about discovering who you aren’t, as much as they are about discovering who you are. You’ve just been given a good indication. Heed it.

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Dear How to Do It,

I often feel like if I never made physical contact with another human again, I would be overjoyed. Despite early experiences with sexual trauma, I healed and went on to have a great sex life in my 20s and into my marriage. All of this changed after my husband and I had a kid. Now at 11 months, the baby seeks constant touch and is incredibly grabby. Even weaning off breastfeeding didn’t help this. I go for a long run every day solely so I can strap the baby into the stroller. I often take the baby for drives so the car seat will separate us.

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I have zero desire to have sex because I feel my body is never my own. My husband and I have a roughly 40/60 split of child-raising, with me doing more (better than my parents, and better than most of my friends, but still unbearable) and when I parent alone, I often fantasize about climbing into a locked closet, a submarine, or an enclosed box and staying there. Recently, when my kid grabs me, I have flashbacks to being assaulted and have viscerally recoiled.

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There’s no money for us to hire out more child care than we have, our families are elderly, and our friends are already helping all they can. I otherwise like my husband but I never want to have sex with him unless he can close that 40/60 gap, and honestly maybe do more than half. I’ve considered divorce just to be alone more, but I realized I’d probably be parenting even more. I am a terrible mom, and a worse wife, but I cannot give any more and I just need to take take take. The highest level of sexual desire I felt since the baby was born was during a two-week period when I was hospitalized for PPD and I was blissfully free from touch, all day every day. Do other people write you and get past this? How does anyone manage to have enough sex to have more than one child? Is there a light at the end of this tunnel?

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—SOS

Dear SOS,

What you describe does not make you a bad mom, and you certainly aren’t alone in your feelings. The phenomenon of feeling “touched out” has been reported by many mothers—enough to warrant several articles on the subject, including one that ran on this very site last month. I think if you read that one, “How American Moms Got ‘Touched Out,’” you’ll find that you relate to it a lot—many of the feelings you mentioned in your letter are covered, including how being touched by a child can be triggering for assault survivors.

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A few things may aid your perspective here: Feeling touched out has been linked to maternal depression. You mention having been hospitalized for postpartum depression. A 2014 review of longitudinal studies on PPD found that “any time point between four months and three years postpartum, about 30% of mothers diagnosed with PPD still meet criteria for depression.” It could still be affecting you. Additionally, via email, the author of that Slate piece, Amanda Montei, told me that being touched out has also been linked to “overstimulation, ADHD, and sensory processing disorders, many of which reveal themselves more clearly (as happened to me) once one becomes a parent.”

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This is all happening to you in the context of a male-dominated society that has heavily bought into attachment theory, which has resulted, according to Montei’s article in “the idea that mothers should make their bodies, as well as their focus and their time, completely available to their children.”

In her email, which she wrote after reading your letter, Montei said that many women feel bad about their aversions to touch because “we live in a culture of misogyny and heteronormativity that expects women to put their children and husbands before themselves at all times. Sexual desire is inseparable from our body’s connection to systems of power and supremacy. When we feel our partner or child are somehow agents of that powerlessness (whether they really are or not), we may be inclined to try to establish some sense of power by refusing them.”

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In her article, Montei discussed using feelings of being touched out to set boundaries and teach children about consent. In response to your letter, she underlined the importance of doing so: “The first year is such a high touch time, but as children grow, they need our bodies less. Opening up a discourse on consent in the home now, however, can help restore a sense of control and respect for your body’s limitations.”

Additionally, Montei, who is also at work on a book about care and consent, has this advice for you:

Talk to a therapist about your PPD, which can last well beyond the first year of parenting, and explore with them how past trauma might be showing up in motherhood.

It’s also important to talk with your partner about all the feelings that are coming up with regard to past and present sexual experiences. Have honest, ongoing conversations with your spouse about your sexuality in this era of parenting and about what you need from him as far as sharing labor in the home.

The isolated way in which we’ve been taught to parent, alone in the home, can also exacerbate both a baby’s requests for touch and feelings of claustrophobia. Getting outside by yourself and taking long drives to get a break from all the touch are great ways to care for yourself, and not at all something you should feel guilty about.

And consider what sorts of unrealistic parenting (and marital) expectations you may be pressuring yourself to fulfill. See if you can release yourself from some of those. Start doing some taking, wherever you can. There is a light on the other side, and it’s a deeper relationship with your body, clearer boundaries, better sex, and the important work of passing on norms of consent to your child.

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Good luck!

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Dear How to Do It,

My partner of nearly two years gave me gonorrhea through oral sex. Once I had tested positive I got him to test and it was found in his throat. He told me he had suffered on and off with sore throats for some time. We have had plenty of oral sex previously and I’ve always been ok. Is it possible he cheated or could this have been lying dormant for well over a year?

—Am I With a Cheater?

Dear Am I With a Cheater,

Once again I am roped into a game that I would generally not elect to play, but am compelled to as a result of this job: Spot the Cheater. I wouldn’t be comfortable even taking a stab here without some hard data, so I come bearing it: Researchers in a 2021 study published in the Clinical Infectious Diseases journal found by analyzing 21 pharyngeal gonorrhea infections, that the estimated median duration of untreated infections was 16.3 weeks. Quite short of the “well over a year” that you’re inquiring about. Many infections cleared spontaneously in much shorter time periods, or so suggest the numbers.

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Keep in mind that data on this are scant, primarily because of the ethical barriers in monitoring untreated infections. This study overcame those hurdles by having the men who participated (who all had sex with men) swab themselves on a weekly basis, and then those results were frozen and not tested until the participants had completed the 48-week study. They were told to be screened for STDs as usual, and many were treated with antibiotics over the course of the experiment, as the study notes.

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For another layer of certainty—the condom unrolled over our proverbial PrEP bottle if you will—I consulted with some experts. Dr. Lindley Barbee, the lead author on that study, as well as a professor at the University of Washington and the medical director of public health at the Seattle and King County Sexual Health Clinic, pointed out in an email that, “pharyngeal GC usually doesn’t produce many symptoms, so if you equate dormancy with symptom status, it is pretty much a ‘dormant infection’ by definition. Definitely will only be found if tested.” Barbee also emphasized that her study should be taken for what it is—a series of observations. “There could certainly be longer infections, but that has not been observed,” she wrote. Finally, Barbee reminds us to keep in mind that gonorrhea may be spread via kissing. If extracurricular make-out sessions are allowed in your arrangement, that could potentially be one pathway.

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I also spoke with Dr. H. Hunter Handsfield, professor emeritus, University of Washington, and a nationally recognized STD expert. “Two years is an awfully long time,” he told me by phone. “I would be skeptical if someone said they had pharyngeal gonorrhea for two years, and only now transmitted it to his or her partner.” OK, to cover our bases, let’s be conservative, I said. How about one year? “One year is also unlikely,” he said.

Handsfield also pointed out that the majority of pharyngeal cases of gonorrhea present no symptoms. “Most people have no clue anything is wrong. My guess is this has nothing to do with [the partner’s] sore throats,” said Handsfield. (Though, sore throats can certainly be symptoms of oral gonorrhea.)

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So, there you have it. It’s not looking good for your partner’s veracity. Only he knows what he’s been up to, but at least now you have your own information to check his against.

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—Rich

More Advice From Slate

I’m a bisexual woman in my late 20s. I’ve dated about the same number of women and men. I hate performing oral sex on women (for what it’s worth, I don’t particularly enjoy receiving it either). There’s something about the smell and taste that really, really grosses me out. I don’t think it’s just a one (or two) time thing because I’ve gone down on around 15 women, and it’s gross every time. I don’t mind performing oral sex on men (I’ve only encountered one gross-smelling dick before), and most guys are thrilled not to have to go down on me, but women react very differently. I’ve been called a “pillow princess,” a fake bisexual, a bad feminist, etc. when I mention I don’t really like oral sex.

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