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’m a man in his 40s who lives in a large building that started off as one massive home, got converted into a triplex, and then further broken down into smaller units. It works well for us residents, since most of us are part of a single group relationship, and the easy access facilitates a lot of things in our “polycule.” There’s some friction between us, but less than I imagine you’d get with a randomly selected group of the same size (nine adults, to be clear).
Two weeks ago, my adult son, “Robert,” who is 21, came over to visit. While he was here, he apparently slept with “Amanda,” a 34-year-old woman. They didn’t advertise their sexual activities but didn’t really try to hide it either. As far as I know, they had not met prior, but they hit it off pretty quickly when he came over.
Ever since then, I have not been able to be intimate with Amanda. We have had sex frequently before that, but ever since she was with my son, there’s just an inner “ick” at even the thought of being intimate with her. I can’t justify it, and Amanda has noticed my newfound avoidance and been more than a little upset with me at suddenly ceasing intimate contact with her. She thinks that I’m judging her for a past sexual encounter, which is a big no-no in the house, but I still feel that while this is a good general rule, it doesn’t really work for this particular situation.
I would like to work out whatever’s holding me back, and repair my relationship with Amanda. Can you help me?
—Confused and Withdrawn
I can’t say I relate to much that’s going on here, but even while keeping an open mind about freer living, it strikes me that it’s reasonable to tell partners, “Hey, if you’re having sex with me, please don’t have sex with my son.” For some backup, I showed your question to Elisabeth Sheff, who wrote one of my favorite books about polyamory, The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple Partner Relationships and Families, based on her longitudinal study of poly families. “I think it’s very reasonable to be like, ‘Hey, if you’re having sex with me, please don’t have sex with my kid,’” said Sheff of your question. Whew! Sweet validation.
Hopefully that gives you some validation, too, even if it’s retroactive. The “ick” factor you report is completely understandable, and Amanda’s seeming refusal to understand it is disconcerting, to say the least. While Sheff hadn’t encountered this exact situation, she did recall a situation in which two sisters slept with the same guy in a poly setting, and a pyrotechnical display of drama ensued.
“It’s really complicated when you have wider sexual boundaries than conventional society,” Sheff allowed. But liberal social boundaries do not eliminate your need for and right to personal boundaries. Amanda doesn’t seem to get that. I’m not sure how those conversations with her have gone down, but it seems like she could be claiming victimization over your rather understandable reaction to her sleeping with your son. Your right to refuse sex for any reason should not be revoked just because someone has hurt feelings.
“Relationship anarchy, really, is all about like, ‘Don’t tell me what to do. I can do anything I fucking want. And if you don’t want to do it, then don’t,’” Sheff said. “‘You could tell me no, you won’t do it with me, but you can’t tell me what I could do with myself and other people.’ And I think that’s legitimate. And people can still have boundaries.” Many things can be true at once.
Did Amanda not even consider that you might have some kind of reaction to this? You don’t owe her to just get over this, and it’s a little heartbreaking that you seem to feel that you do. Sheff agrees that it’s a red flag that Amanda isn’t at least acknowledging the sketchiness of the situation.
Ideally, you would have had this conversation ahead of time. Perhaps you thought it went without saying that Amanda would avoid having sex with your son. But that’s not how things went, and now you have to live with it. What you don’t have to do is bend to pressure to continue sleeping with Amanda regardless. You can attempt to ride this out. Time may break down the current feelings you have about the situation. But I would just let things stay where they are. Amanda made a decision, and she has to live with the outcome. It doesn’t make her a bad person, but she isn’t entitled to everything she wants, father and son, either.
Dear How to Do It,
Back in 2018, my boyfriend (38 at the time) caught a virus that was circulating at an event we were helping produce, which wiped out a good third of attendees for about a week. After he was sick, his libido never returned.
He’s been to the doctor and had all the blood/hormone tests done to check his testosterone and everything came back normal; he just completely lost any interest in physical intimacy with me or anyone else. I know that antidepressants and lifestyle choices can also lead to this kind of situation, but he had been on antidepressants for years before this; it was clear that his being sick was the dividing line in the before/after. I also know that stress can play a big role in this, but many of his major stressors have gone away with finding a good job and inheritance bringing financial security.
Thankfully, the COVID pandemic has brought more attention to the loss of libido and permanent effects that viral illnesses can have, so I know this isn’t an isolated case, but I still don’t know if there’s anything else we can do—as far as I know, medication like Viagra for physical issues aren’t aphrodisiacs and don’t have an impact on libido. He has talked a lot about how he’s identifying more and more as asexual now, and I was curious what your thoughts were on that since I read recently (possibly here, but I’m not sure) that you don’t “become” asexual as a result of something physical like an illness or traumatic event, but it seems like that’s happening here. Is there anything else that we haven’t thought of (diet, exercise, lifestyle changes, etc.) in bringing his libido back? Or do I have to just accept that I’m in a companionate relationship instead of a romantic relationship now?
—Another Kind of Incel
You are right—there is not much more you can do besides accept that this is just the way things are. Notice that it is you, not your boyfriend, who is writing in for suggestions regarding how to bolster his libido. The words and action (that is, inaction) of his that you describe suggest he has come to terms with his disinterest in sex—he’s already talking about identifying as asexual. A virus didn’t revise his sexuality, but certainly any hit his libido took as a result of his illness could have helped him recognize a more longstanding sexual apathy. Or perhaps things that come with illness—disruptions to fitness, sleep, and diet—could be playing a role here. Even if one or more of these things were contributing to his lack of libido, it’s not like you could, for instance, exercise for him. He’d have to make that decision himself, and if he’s content to identify as ace, he’s probably not going to do anything proactive about changing that.
In terms of taxonomy, your relationship is not necessarily aromantic now—romance and sex are two different things. But yes, I think it’s time to at least start thinking about what it looks like to be in this relationship when sex is taken off the table and is never to return. Can you hang? Do you want to seek outside sex? Is it time to start thinking about finding another partner? It seems like you’ve talked quite a bit about his relationship to sex, but it’s time to talk with him about yours. You have every right to seek satisfaction and if your current relationship isn’t providing that, it’s time to figure out how you can.
Dear How to Do it,
I have a deep and unshakable fetish for being humiliated and manipulated. I am in my 30s and have done quite a bit of therapy, and accepted my bisexuality a few years ago. I’ve also managed to (mostly) stop hoping my kinks would go away. Because they are so strange and transgressive, I had basically resigned myself to satisfying them through masturbation, sometimes aided by online chat or erotica. But in the spring, I put up profiles on a couple of kink-friendly dating/hookup sites, and to my surprise, I met someone who really seemed to get it. We are girlfriends now.
“L” and I complement each other well in bed because she can be very dominant, sadistic even, and is also quite creative. We got heavily into roleplay right away, using the names of real people I know when talking dirty to me, bringing up real events I’ve told her about, and slipping into her “domme” persona out of the blue when we’re not having sex. It’s definitely risqué, and she pushes my boundaries, but that’s also what I love about it. In fact, when we talked about boundaries, I admitted that it does often really turn me on to have my stated limits: not entirely ignored, but bent, for lack of a better word. I like to feel out of control, as if I don’t matter, and to be thwarted at every turn when I try to push back. She is also very affectionate and loving in an after-care sense whenever our play is over, but she can be dismissive when I suggest we might have gone too far.
For example, recently we were out at a bar we don’t usually frequent and she knew I was quite horny and excitable. It was late and the bar was dark, and she got very amorous with me and got me very excited talking about how she wanted to fool around with a guy there (this is one fantasy of mine), and how I should sit and watch them in a dark corner booth.
We did that, and we left soon after, and had probably the hottest sex we’ve had yet when we got home. When we woke up, I expressed that I had some funny feelings about everything, but had trouble putting them into words. L said we hadn’t hurt anybody and suggested that I was just feeling shame about enjoying kinky sex, which may be true.
Our relationship is good. She is certainly not physically abusive or demeaning in nonsexual ways—quite the opposite. I don’t see red flags with her. With the sex stuff, she says we’re unbelievably lucky to have found each other and that she thinks I just need to “take yes for an answer” and enjoy having a partner who can take advantage of me the way I like to be taken advantage of. She points out that she does ask for my consent before crossing any lines, and that my consent is always enthusiastic—which it is! She thinks there’s a gap between what I see as my “normal” self and my “sexual” self, and that my normal self needs to accept that my sexual self isn’t shameful just for consenting to kinky activities. I think she’s right. Or am I missing something?
—Not Quite Right
All I’m seeing up to and surrounding the issue here is clear and precise (and generally “enthusiastic”) communication. However, once we get to the issue, that communication gets fuzzy: “When we woke up, I expressed that I had some funny feelings about everything, but had trouble putting them into words.” I think it’s going to help both of you if you can put those feelings into words. This is not to question the validity of your feelings. I don’t, and I think it’s absolutely natural to view a situation differently the next day when you aren’t in the thrall of sex. Your reaction was not unreasonable—you were not dramatic, nor did you claim to have been victimized by something that you consented to. But boundaries have been such a huge part of your dynamic (even when they’re “bent”), and you can’t draw boundaries without an implement. Here, that implement is your words. Make them sharp.
If you can’t figure out what didn’t sit well with you about the referenced play, how can you expect to avoid situations that will make you feel similarly weird in the future? A relationship like the one you have depends on regular, direct, and clear communication. That means it’s also on your girlfriend to accept when things have gone too far—pushing boundaries will always be a matter of trial and error, and she must accept when an error occurs. There is something to what she says about the gap between your “normal” and “sexual” selves—our disgust response may diminish when we’re turned on, which can lead to shame over what we just did when we’re no longer turned on. Perhaps you have space to grow there in terms of really understanding that, and being OK with feeling a little strange about your turn-ons (you do report to have “mostly” halted wishing away your kinks). But she should also be taking you seriously and not dismissing you as you attempt to fine tune your shared sex life. Part of me wonders if that brusque reaction is the domme in her rearing its head in another context, but I think it’s worth pushing back and repeating that there are times that you feel less than cool with what went down, and for the sake of harmony, it’s worth ironing out … well, not the kinks, exactly, but you know what I’m saying.
Dear How to Do It,
I just started a wonderful relationship. We are compatible in so many ways, including sexually. We both like a lot of long, intense sex. She is incredibly multi-orgasmic. I don’t keep track, but I would say 10-20 orgasms during a long session of love-making—on average about 30-60 minutes.
Which is wonderful—except her orgasms are so frequent and so intense that I cannot achieve orgasm myself. In over six months, I have had only two orgasms. Her orgasms are so frequent and physically intense that at most I have only one to two minutes before we have to stop to let her recover. In addition, her vaginal contractions are so strong that it takes all my effort and concentration on my part just to stay inside her. I can never build up enough of my own “momentum” to have an orgasm. Even when I try to go slow, she will accelerate things to the next orgasm. I am not complaining—sex is amazing with her. But … in the past, similar situations have ended up building up some frustration in me. I don’t want to hurt her or make her feel bad, and I certainly don’t want her to not be herself sexually. Any suggestions?
—Too Much of a Good Thing
Dear Too Much,
Pursue other ways of coming. As great as an orgasm can be via intercourse, especially when it’s simultaneous with your partner, it is not your only option. You can masturbate yourself to an orgasm, or she can masturbate you. She can blow you. You could try outercourse, like a so-called “thigh job,” in which you place your penis between her pressed-together thighs and hump as you would during intercourse. There’s a lot at your disposal. The body is a wonderland! I agree that you should be sensitive toward your partner. But it’s OK, too, to acknowledge that the situation has been less than hospitable to your ability to build to and achieve orgasm. She should be aware of this and it’d be great to see some effort on her part there. See what her reaction is to such a conversation. Emphasize that the sex is amazing and that you don’t want to change things—just add to them.
More How to Do It
Last night, I went on a date someone who I had met somewhat spontaneously a week or so ago. We were having a really great time—natural conversation, very similar interests, just a good vibe. I don’t normally click with people this easily, and I was so glad our connection didn’t start on an app, so I followed the mood a little more than I might have otherwise and went back to his place. We slept together, and it lived up to the rest of the night. But in the afterglow, he casually let it drop that he’s dating someone seriously, but they’re open. I felt extremely betrayed. I left, and he texted later and said he hadn’t meant to mislead me. But he did, didn’t he? People seem divided on this.