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 in a bit of a conundrum. I (demisexual female) have always had a very low to non-existent interest in sex outside of a relationship with an emotional bond. I also tend to be very apathetic to sexuality in others and have never had an interest in observing it, either in porn or otherwise.
I’m dating a man who used to be in the swingers scene. I was very upfront from the beginning that my sexuality doesn’t work like that and I have no desire to participate. He says he’s not committed to the lifestyle and is content going back to being monogamous if that’s what I want and am comfortable with. The issue is that he is still very close to a lot of people on the scene, and continually invites me to come and meet them at the clubs he used to frequent. He’s made it clear to the friends that we are not on the scene and I am absolutely flattered that he wants me to meet his friends because I know he cares for them. But I am so ridiculously uncomfortable. I just end up feeling out of place in those environments where sexuality and sex are the main draws.
I’m afraid that if I express too much discomfort I’ll be seen as judgmental or prudish. How do I approach this conversation with my partner (who tries very hard to understand my sexuality but definitely doesn’t “get it”) without sounding like I am making judgments about people who do participate in and enjoy that lifestyle? I want my boundaries and comfort respected, but not to the point where he feels like he can’t discuss things with me. I don’t want this to become my new Saturday night hangout, but I don’t feel fair telling him we can’t go if that’s where his friends are.
—Not My Scene
Dear Not My Scene,
I’m unclear on whether you and your partner are engaged in monogamy at this time. Whether he’s fornicating or not, though, he is still frequenting these clubs. Is this outside of your comfort zone? If so, your discomfort with a significant part of his social life may indicate that the two of you are a mismatch. If you are able to accept this facet of his life and trust him to adhere to any commitments the two of you have made to each other, there’s a simple solution to your Saturday night hangout problem. He can spend some of his evenings out with his friends in their customary environment, without you, and sometimes invite them for a drink or meal in a less sexually charged venue that you’re comfortable attending. If you don’t trust your partner to adhere to commitments, that’s a larger issue.
You don’t mention whether you’re sex-repulsed to some degree outside of the context of your own sexual interactions with an emotionally bonded partner. If this is the case, you’ll need to respect your own boundaries by communicating them to your partner before he can respect them. Yes, you may be misunderstood, deemed judgmental, or viewed as prudish. There’s no way to guarantee otherwise. You can set yourself up for success by examining your thoughts and feelings for instances of, well, being judgmental, and consider what you’ll say ahead of time. If you and your partner have a misunderstanding during this discussion, take note of whether he’s open to untangling that or is dismissive of you. If the latter, that’s a significant sign that it’s time to move along.
Spend some time thinking about what makes you uncomfortable in sexual environments. Are you feeling pressure to engage in activities that you aren’t interested in? If so, where is that pressure coming from? If your partner, his friends, or other club attendees are putting pressure on you, reassert your boundaries and be prepared to leave—the club, the table, or the relationship—if the issue isn’t handled satisfactorily. If the pressure is coming from your own ideas of what normal is, start considering what aspects of compulsory sexuality you may have internalized. You might find food for thought in the AVEN forums or Sherronda J Brown’s Refusing Compulsory Sexuality: A Black Asexual Lens on Our Sex-Obsessed Culture.
Dear How to Do It,
I’ve been married for 15 years and recently my wife started the pill to treat menstrual-related symptoms. I figured that this meant we could stop using condoms as contraception, but when I mentioned this possibility my wife didn’t agree. She prefers that I wear a condom to reduce the “mess” over the subsequent day. I realize that there is a group of men out there, rightly derided on the internet, who are anti-condoms for toxic reasons. In responding to my suggestion my wife lumped me in with these men. This comparison doesn’t seem fair: This isn’t one partner weighing their pleasure against the health risks to their partner. This is about intimacy and spontaneity for me, and weighing that against clean-up. I’ve read about couples with STIs who grieve the loss of intimacy required to stay safe. Their sense of loss is deep. I feel that in comparison to this, my wife’s relatively trivial reasoning trivializes our relationship. So I needed to ask before I discuss it with her further: Am I being too sensitive about this?
Your wife’s boundaries around what goes into her own vagina should be sufficient—she doesn’t want your semen in there, and she’s been clear. What you’re attempting to minimize by your use of scare quotes—”mess”—can be pretty problematic. The semen tends to congeal, and then ooze out over the course of the next 24 hours. Even with a significant finger-scoop in the shower to remove the substance, that fluid you ejaculate increases your partner’s risk of bacterial vaginosis. Sometimes BV has no symptoms, other times it results in an unpleasant smell, vaginal itching, and burning during urination. So, this is, yes, a case of you weighing your pleasure—your desire for intimacy and spontaneity that you appear to only be able to experience sans condom—against her health.
There’s no reason to drag anecdotes of couples with differing bloodborne virus statuses into this. But, since you’ve done so, the reality is that plenty of serodiscordant couples—where one partner has HIV and the other does not—and couples where one person has HCV simply have safer sex without experiencing grief every time the condoms come out. You’re cherry-picking, and then instrumentalizing, other people’s lived experiences to serve your own desire to ejaculate inside your wife. I have no patience for it. Millions of sexually active people use condoms for other reasons—without mourning rituals—and derive intimacy from other facets like eye contact, emotional closeness, and sharing of experiences. There are absolutely tools that ease clean-up after internal ejaculation, which I’m hesitant to list here lest you deploy them as coercion tactics in your next discussion with your spouse. Try listening to her position, accepting her boundaries as valid, and working on your entitlement.
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Dear How to Do It,
I am in my mid-40s, married for just over 20 years with kids ranging in age from 20 to 12. My husband and I have had our share of ups and downs, which have included mismatched libidos. When he was up I was usually down and vice versa. We’ve been pretty good about communicating needs and trying our best to meet halfway. Things are OK now—we’re the same age. I think, especially for our ages and busy lifestyles, we look pretty good. Here’s the issue, I am absolutely dying to go to a sex club. We both kind of get off on voyeurism but I don’t know if we’d be considered too old and/or creepy. And I have no idea on how to find something safe, appropriate and that would accept newcomers—so not a club. We live right outside NYC so I would think there have to be options but I really don’t know how to find and trust any specific place. Any thoughts or suggestions? Or are we just too old?
—Old Dogs Looking For New Tricks
Dear Old Dogs,
I asked a dear friend who frequented sex clubs prior to the pandemic, and they said that their top recommendation would be Toronto’s Oasis Aqualounge, if you’re up for a mini getaway. A quick look through Oasis Aqualounge’s FAQ indicates that attendees tend to be in the 30-55 age range, which skews older than the NYC clubs I found that state the average age of their members. At the time my friend went, Aqualounge offered some orientation education for first-timers, and my friend gave positive marks for their sanitation procedures.
Many of the sex clubs in NY require a membership, and they aren’t cheap or that inclusive. I tend to point folks toward the sex-positive communities that throw sex parties, meetups, and events. While they do require you to join as a member, they are super inclusive, and only one has a membership fee at this time. I love these places because their communities have worked to be inclusive and safe havens for sexy fun.
She recommends Hit Me Up, describing it as a curated community, and Chemistry, which hosts an icebreaker event for newcomers. Both of these are fee-free, though they do require membership applications. Lola also mentions NSFW, which has occasional nonmember nights but otherwise requires an application and fee, and Labyrinth, saying, “Labyrinth is your classic swing club. Membership is required, but you can purchase it online before attending an event. Swing clubs are great for voyeurs (just don’t be creepy about it) and couples looking to have public fun. My only advice is to read the description of the event you choose to attend carefully to ensure it’s something you’re ready to be in the middle of.” Labyrinth does allow single men at every event, which might factor into your decision-making.
Munches and video chat events are also an opportunity to listen to people in the scene discuss community norms, which will help you avoid engaging in behavior that might feel creepy to others. Take some time to think through what you’re hoping for out of your sex club experience, and have a discussion with your husband about his desires and any concerns. You want to know where your comfort zone as a couple is, and how far outside of that zone you’re open to going. Remember, you’re free to leave the party at any time, and you have the right to decline any sexual activity. Be prepared to state your boundaries and limits, and, if it doesn’t feel right for you, head home. I think you’ve got this.
Dear How to Do It,
My husband and I recently had a baby. It was a vaginal birth and according to my doctor, it all went well. There was an episiotomy and I struggled with the recovery. Now, almost three months later my doctor gave the green light. But I am terrified to try having sex. My husband does not mind at all and is willing to wait as long as I need to feel not terrified at the thought of penetration. I know we could explore other ways to have fun but the thing is, I love penetrative sex. I have tried masturbating and everything works fine down there (I was genuinely concerned the fear would paralyze my clit and I would not be able to have an orgasm, but thankfully that is not the case). My question is: How do you get back on (or under) that horse after what felt like but was not a traumatic experience for your vagina?
—Horny But Terrified
Dear Horny But Terrified,
Congratulations on your new family member. The closest I could find to a definition for trauma experienced in childbirth is this paper by Mari Greenfield, Julie Jomeen, and Dr. Lesley Glover, which attempts to lay the groundwork for one. Regardless of the T-word, this transition you’ve just undergone, along with the associated medical procedures, is pretty intense, so I hope you’re giving yourself patience. Your feelings and hesitance are valid.
I spoke with Sylvie Bee, a sexological bodyworker who entered the field because of her own postpartum experiences. Her first recommendation is to see a pelvic floor physiotherapist for an exam, which can evaluate whether any of your muscles are overly tense, in need of strengthening, or otherwise a hurdle to enjoyable penetration. Sylvie told me that pelvic floor specialists are usually happy to perform these exams, and you can usually schedule an appointment with them directly. Regardless of whether therapy is needed, pregnancy and birth is likely to have changed what feels good for you. Depending on the legality in your area, a sexological bodyworker can help you methodically map out your current pleasure zones. (If a bodyworker requires you to have seen a pelvic floor specialist first, that’s a good sign.) You can also do this—slowly, with a lot of lube and even more patience—alone or with your husband. Try different types of stimulation—stroking lightly and firmly, tapping, massaging—in different areas and make note of what feels good.
If you’re experiencing increasing anxiety, or feeling stuck, it’s worth asking for a referral to a mental health professional who specializes in new parents.
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I have been with the most amazing woman for the past several years. We are older and each married before, each with kids. Our fast-paced life is complicated at times, but mostly we have fun, easy conversations, similar values, and great sex. I am totally smitten with her. Recently, through a combination of causal conversation, a few direct questions, and just a little bit of math, I have come to understand my partner’s sexual history is a bit more, and possibly quite a bit more, colorful than I had led myself to believe.