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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 boyfriend was recently showing me a folder on his phone full of pictures of me and accidentally showed me another folder with pictures of other women. He was really upset and apologetic. And although seeing his spank bank doesn’t make me feel good, I assured him that he hadn’t done anything wrong. I do really believe he hasn’t done anything wrong. The problem is that seeing the folder has made me lose sexual interest in him.
We have had a great sex life up until now, and I’m really upset that seeing this folder is having an impact on me. I feel that it shouldn’t be a big deal and shouldn’t bother me. I know it’s something lots of men do. But there are two aspects that keep coming up when I think about it. The first is that the pictures I did see were of women who looked very different from me. And that makes me think that physically he desires something else, but he is with me because of our emotional connection. The second is what these pictures actually were.
They weren’t pornographic. (I have no discomfort about him watching porn. We do it together, and I know he does it alone as well.) But these pictures of women from social media and other sources are just regular pictures where the focus is on their faces. He says when he finds something attractive about someone’s face, he uses these images to get turned on before masturbating. For me, the thought of him gazing into someone else’s warm, smiling face to get a boner is disturbing. I suppose it just feels like something you do with a lover, not something you do when you’re just trying to rub one out. I should mention these are not women either of us knows.
I’m trying not to be hard on myself, but I’m starting to feel really terrible about myself and the relationship. And I can’t seem to figure out how to reframe this. He’s a great partner and I don’t want to feel this loss of affection and sexual interest.
Rich: I think that being turned on by faces like this is unique enough of a kink or preference, taste, style, whatever, that his admission of it makes me feel like this guy is trustworthy. Maybe it’s my bias, but when you reveal something that can be judged as strange, I tend to trust that you’re legit. I would suggest first, trying to take that at face value. This is how he gets turned on. If you can’t refrain from judging that, then maybe this isn’t the person for you.
Stoya: I want to judge it.
Rich: OK. Do it. Go for it.
Stoya: I think it’s really sweet.
Rich: I think it’s sweet, too.
Stoya: The way he gets a boner is by looking at someone’s face. I mean, I feel like the thought of him gazing into someone else’s warm, smiling face to get a boner. It feels like she’s already judging it, but…
Rich: She is.
Stoya: When you’re dating someone and they’re like, “Hey, babe, I’m going to leave you for two hours to go bring medicine to my friend who’s sick.” What do you do? You say, “Oh, he’s a good guy.”
Rich: Yeah, right.
Stoya: Yeah. He’s not fixated on scenes from the front page of a tube site featuring 18-year-old girls getting their faces aggressively thrust into until they gag all over themselves. He’s turned on by looking at warm, smiling faces.
Rich: That sounds to me like somebody who likes connection. And it also makes the interest in multiple examples of this, to have this spank bank, even more plausible. I relate to this a little bit because that facial thing is very important to me. That’s how I perceive and also give connection. And I like that kind of connection. I just prefer it during sex. I prefer those reminders. I prefer eye contact. I prefer all that.
And as somebody who likes faces, I noticed that in terms of body type, background, and to a certain degree, age, those things are totally secondary. If you’re into faces, it’s possible to not really have a type because you’re just kind of judging the face. So then it makes sense to me that you then have a whole catalog of faces to go through. And it’s not a referendum on the partner because it’s like, well, you only have one of those faces, but there’s a whole sea of faces out there. You know?
Stoya: So, I’m really curious. The pictures that the writer did see were of women who look different from her, but I’m wondering, did all those faces look one particular kind of different from her? Or was there a wide variety?
Rich: That’s a good question.
Stoya: Because for me, it’s the brain, the smell, and the eyes, kind of in that order. Brain, smell, eyes. If you line up all of my past sexual partners, it looks like just a cross-section of humanity. It skews towards cis men, but yeah, we got all kinds of different shapes, different skin colors, different eye colors, and different ways of presenting themselves aesthetically. So I wish I had a little more information on the look because I think that also can be a way of helping our writer logic herself into an intellectual comfort with this. And obviously, feelings are feelings. Right? She’s having the feelings she’s having. Those are her feelings, but you can engage the logic, brain, and intellect and get some kind of balance that is less distressing.
Rich: Yes. Perspective.
Also, I would like to point out that being attracted to these women that are on his phone and being attracted to our letter writer are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Full quote: “There are two aspects that keep coming up when I think about it. The first is that the pictures that I did see were of women who look very different from me. And that makes me think that physically he desires something else.” He may desire something else. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t desire you. Desire, for many of us, does not have such strict limitations or work on an either/or basis. He may want a bunch of different stuff. So again, I just feel like it’s somewhat vulnerable to acknowledge the fact that he is attracted to people in this way. I think you could take him at his word. If you’re going to do that, then you could take him at his word that when he says he’s attracted to you, he is. And he’s attracted to these other people as well. That’s totally possible.
Stoya: I think our writer could think about: Has she felt insecure or even specifically insecure about her physical attractiveness in other situations, right? Is there some kind of running theme in her life that is something to look at and work on? Is there something that happened that was distressing or traumatic before this relationship and a button is being pushed? What is going on there? And that might help her untangle her reactions and be able to feel affection and sexual interest toward her partner again.
Rich: Yes. I would wonder too, in the greater context of the relationship, whether there have been any other triggers for this kind of insecurity based on behavior or their interaction. I think that we can assume there isn’t: “He’s a great partner and I don’t want to feel the loss of affection in sexual interest.” She wants to hold onto him. But is this a new experience or does this track in terms of the way that they’ve related and been relating previously? That’s another question to ask yourself because maybe this is just more evidence that you’ve been collecting that maybe it’s not a good fit for you. Or if this is the first time it’s come up, I would say—
Stoya: I would say firsts can be a lot.
Rich: That’s true.
Stoya: Maybe this is the first time this is occurring. And the first time something distressing occurs, it’s really—I mean, I hope it’s really natural, otherwise, I need to go back to therapy—but at least for me, the first time something happens, I’m like, “Ah, what do I do? Oh my God, this is… What?” And then…
Rich: That’s true.
Stoya: The second and third time, you’re like, “OK, I know what to do here.”
Rich: Right. To me, there’s nothing in the evidence we’ve been given that suggests that a deal breaker has occurred, but everybody gets to set their own limits and their own deal breakers. And if this is, if you can’t deal with somebody who is attracted to a panoply of faces, then maybe you’ve discovered that this isn’t the partner for you, unfortunately.
Stoya: Yeah. And that happens.
Rich: It does.
More Advice From Slate
I am a woman in my early 20s dating a man in his late 20s. At the start of our relationship several years ago, I had a very low libido which may have been the result of things like low self-esteem, previous sexual trauma, and depression. I told him I thought I might never want to have sex at all, which he said was fine. He absolutely never pushed me into anything. After therapy and time in a healthy relationship, my libido increased. I would like to have sex every day, but he only wants to have it a few times a month, if that. I figured he just has a low libido, and I would have to be patient about it the same way I wanted him to be patient with me in the past. Well, this week he revealed what’s really going on.