How to Do It

My New Massage Therapist Is Pushing Our Sessions in an Unexpected Direction

What is the, uh, etiquette for this?

A man's torso covered by a massage towel; a neon eggplant emoji.
Photo illustration/animation by Slate. Photos by 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 have had some unusual experiences with a new massage therapist. I have been going to someone weekly or bi-weekly for several years. When the lady who normally saw me retired, I went with the lady they hired to take her place. Many times, with my original lady, I would get erect—sometimes briefly, sometimes not so briefly. She basically just ignored it and continued on with the massage. Embarrassingly, I would sometimes ejaculate, which she simply ignored.

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The new therapist has not ignored it. When she gets to my inner thigh and I get erect, she tends to stay in that area massaging me. She’s actually gotten so close her hands have brushed my scrotum under the towel, and she even massages very low on my abdomen and brushed the base of the shaft of my penis. She will continue to massage in that area until I ejaculate. She then wipes me off with the towel that covers me and often doesn’t replace it with another. Yesterday, as she was massaging my thighs, the towel slipped off my erection and she simply completely removed it and watched as I ejaculated everywhere since there wasn’t anything covering my penis. She then wiped everything up and continued the massage.

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I am unsure of her motives and frankly don’t want to end up like certain celebrities who’ve been accused of being sexual misfits. Yet for some reason, I keep going back. Aren’t there rules of conduct here or some etiquette? Am I in the wrong for getting a boner during a massage?

— Unsure and Aroused

Dear Unsure and Aroused,

“Yet for some reason, I keep going back,” he says as if life is a mystery and everyone must stand alone. You aren’t wrong for getting erections during massages—that is common, seemingly out of your control, and most seasoned therapists are already aware that such a bodily response is possible. I think if you’re going here specifically to show off your hard dick and/or somehow coerce the therapist into engaging with it, you should stop doing that. People in the service industry already put up with enough without having your kink/dick thrust at them.

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If you’re having an inadvertent physiological reaction to a treatment that you’re seeking for nonsexual reasons, I don’t think there is that much to worry about. Different therapists have different styles, and your current one seems somewhat more engaged with your erection than the last while being sure not to cross a line. Maybe she finds your ability to ejaculate hands-free interesting. I would! That’s not something you see every day. (At least, it’s not something I see every day, but then I’m not a massage therapist.) I think in this case, your job is to lay there, and her job is to do her job. Left to her own devices, she gets to decide how much attention she wants to pay to any particular area.

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Since this is ambiguous to you, why don’t you cut through the silence with some directness. Next time your erection is unignorable, excuse yourself and ask if she’d like you to cover up more/turn on your stomach until it (theoretically) subsides. You know, you can talk to her. You’re clearly not a monk. As a professional in this line of work, she undoubtedly has comfort boundaries, so allow her to voice them. And tip her well, regardless.

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Dear How to Do It 

My friends have me at a loss. Years ago, an ex-BF told me he’d end the relationship if I couldn’t do penis-in-vagina sex with him. He only revealed this minutes after he’d finally fucked me.
I’d consented, albeit before he made it explicitly clear that being able to use my vag was more important than anything else about me. I was 18, he was in his early 20s. We were together for a few more months, broke up, and he wasn’t part of my life afterwards. I’ve since been in a healthy relationship for years with my loving partner, have a successful career, and am overall kicking ass at life.

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So, why are my friends and I even discussing this loser? Recently, multiple women who work in the same male-dominated fields that I do have alleged that he sexually harassed, assaulted, and/or traumatized them. It’s made me reanalyze so many of our interactions. Well, during private conversations, two close friends used the R-word to describe him sexually coercing me throughout the relationship. Notably, though both are women who had been sexually abused in past relationships, they’re each from a different friend group, and their inferences were made separately. One friend elaborated with “If he tells you that you don’t have value in a relationship unless you can provide sex, that’s rape.” The other said “Wearing someone down and guilting them until they agree is rape.”

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I do believe he was undeniably coercive by making PiV sex (which was frequently painful for me) a condition of the relationship and incredibly scummy to only tell me this right after he’d already notched my virginity on his belt. At the same time, rape is such a serious label; considering how many young women/AFAB people get manipulated at least once by cis men into feeling like they’re not just some lay, my experience seems practically mundane (yikes, that’s its own issue).

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I’m mad at myself that I tacitly accepted his conditions; that seems like it would disqualify me from considering this rape. I could have dumped him with minimal consequences. It’s not like I was dependent on him; if anything, it was the opposite for a few weeks when he had a major life challenge. I had options so many women don’t have the privilege of. Being a strong, empowered woman is so core to my identity, yet instead of telling him to pack sand, I listened to him when he said that I was the unreasonable/immature one and acted as his sex toy for months until he got bored of me and moved on the next barely legal girl.

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How should I respond to my friends? How should I classify what happened? I just want to know what the appropriate terminology is, correct those two friends if necessary, then re-bury this vat of toxic waste memories.

— Rated R

Dear Rated R,

Some survivors of sexual assault/exploitation will minimize their experience by comparing it to more extreme abuse that others have endured. It wasnt that bad, not compared to how horrific it could have been, they say. Part of this, I think, must derive from a survival instinct—one way to resist feeling broken down by something is to frame it as incapable of breaking you down at all. I think part of this, too, is that patriarchy remains so dominant in the organization of our culture that a lot of wrongdoing by men has long been taken for granted. I think as a corrective to this interpretation, a lot of people have come to use the word “rape” in nontraditional contexts. The whole point, after all, is to refute the tradition of misogyny that has long endured without serious challenge. Understanding the culture of rape in all of its vastness is a direct challenge on cultural complicity.

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Crucial to this widening definition of rape is an interrogation of the possibility of granting consent. Progressives, largely, agree that even if someone underage believes they have consented to sex, they haven’t, and they may only realize that with age. Inebriation, obviously, convolutes the notion of consent, as well, even when said inebriated person has seemingly granted it.

I have seen people online argue that someone who does not disclose or misrepresents their HIV status to a partner has withheld enough crucial information so that their partner cannot properly consent to the sex they are having and that sex ends up qualifying as rape. I have explained at length why I feel that particular scenario is more complicated than that, while not advocating that people lie about their HIV status. I understand the desire to paint all consent violations with the same broad brush to underline how serious these transgressions are, but I do think that sometimes this ends up steamrolling nuance.

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In general, I tend to agree with you: There is a difference between rape and coercion. Both things can be wrong, harmful, predicated on a misogynist tradition, and yet, distinct. Moreover, you get to decide how you view your experience. I will assume that your friends are well-intentioned and want to afford you perspective that they feel that you are missing, but attempting to impart enlightenment can be extremely condescending and counterproductive. While hearing other people’s takes can be useful for your own processing, you don’t need correction here and attempting to provide one is insulting.

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I’d break the corrective cycle if I were you. You have people telling you how to view something that was personal to you; I don’t see what use it is to foist your enlightenment back on them. Beams of light don’t push each other out of the way when crossed … they just sit there. One thing I have noticed about a lot of this discourse, at least as it plays out online, is that people seem to urgently need people to agree with them. The belief in a monolithic truth, especially about something as subjective as the understanding of trauma, is at best idealistic and at worst its own kind of oppression. It’s really okay for everyone to have different ideas about this stuff, as long as they’re aligned on the idea that predation is wrong and should be eliminated from our culture.

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Your friends feel the way they do based on their experiences. Let’s assume they have good arguments to back up why they think what happened to you qualifies as rape. You don’t! The best you’ll do is agree to disagree. But the thing is, you can do that right now, in your head, and avoid whatever awkwardness and hurt feelings may arise from an argument on the subject. I recommend it.

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Dear How to Do It,

A few weeks ago, my girlfriend and I talked about fetishes. We share the vast majority, but I did not say that I have some interest in practicing pegging, and I do not know how to talk about it and how she will react or if she is willing to try it.

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— Curious and Handsome

Dear Curious,

And you won’t know how she will react or whether she is willing to try it unless you bring it up and ask her about it. It’s really that simple. You have to weigh whether your desire is enough to warrant the risk of being turned down. In most cases it is. A compassionate partner won’t view you differently after revealing that you’re into experimenting with butt stuff. I think you can help guide things in your favor by establishing this as something you’re interested in pursuing with her: present it as an adventure you go on together, a chance for a different kind of intimacy between the two of you.

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Refer back to your conversation about fetishes: “Remember when we talked about that stuff and how much we had in common? Well, there’s actually something else I’d like to try with you …” You might want to work up to pegging, keeping things vague at first or suggesting you start with fingering and/or rimming (though depending on her particular predilections, rimming may seem the most extreme out of all these activities). You can emphasize that you feel vulnerable or a bit anxious about revealing this stuff. To be sure, it is a risk to discuss such intimate matters, but it is also a compliment when someone feels comfortable enough to do so with their partner. Let her know that, too.

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Dear How to Do It,

I am a 27-year-old nonbinary vagina-owner, and I have a kind of serious problem. Im going to sugar coat this somewhat for the sake of other readers: About two years ago, I unintentionally got black-out drunk at a trusted friends house, and had that drunkenness taken advantage of,” if you catch my drift. That part isnt really the issue Im writing about, however. My greater concern is that sometime after this occurrence (and I dont know if this is because of the event itself? or maybe some of the maladaptive solo sexual activity I used to help me cope in the aftermath?), I discovered a somewhat significant tear in the wall of my vagina, one that is now more or less healed up, but not repaired. I have not been sexually active with anyone since this event took place, and now Im terrified of the idea that this is something that can’t be fixed, that Ill have to live with this physical reminder of that event all my life, and that no one will be interested in sticking anything inside me anymore (least of all body parts!), which is something Ive always quite enjoyed sexually.

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I feel ashamed and embarrassed about this problem, and havent felt able to bring it to a doctor or even my therapist to begin to work through it, so Im hopeful that the anonymity your column provides can give me some of the answers I need. Is this something that can be repaired with medical help? If not, do you have any suggestions about how to approach this with any prospective future partners? I find it deeply uncomfortable and sometimes even painful in a dull, achy sort of way to be touched in the area of this tear now, but Im even more uncomfortable with discussing it with anyone. What can I do?

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— Terrified and Torn

Dear Terrified and Torn,

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I have good news: The kind of injury you describe can be fixed. However, that will depend on whether your self-diagnosis is correct (which is not guaranteed given your lack of medical training) and your willingness to talk to a doctor. If this were the kind of thing that could fix itself, it would have by now.

Dr. Tami Rowen, an OBGYN/professor at UCSF told me in an email that, “It’s entirely possible a laceration healed but not back to what the tissue was like before, so there is a defect or scar in the tissue. Usually this can be repaired by excising the scar tissue and reattaching the edges of skin/tissue to their original state.” This is naturally theoretical, as she has not examined you, but I hope it underlines how important it is to talk to someone about this. I understand your reluctance. It’s unfair that after being taken advantage of, which never should have happened in the first place, you now have to live with the effects of it. Unfortunately, no one is going to pick up your pieces for you—it falls on you to get the process started. It really comes down to deciding if you want to keep feeling the way that you do, or if you want to improve your situation. I think you’ve decided that you want to improve, and now you have to enact that decision. Good luck.

— Rich

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