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’ve been in a relationship with my boyfriend for almost three years. From the first date, he told me he was polyamorous, and while I had little to no experience in ethical non-monogamy, was willing to give it a shot. We’ve had our ups and downs throughout the years, but I think we’ve reached a place where we’re communicating openly. I’ve also come to learn that I’m not really polyamorous, but since he considers it an essential part of his sexuality, I’m willing to accept him seeing other people if it makes him happy.
Since the beginning, he’s been adamant that he does not do hierarchical polyamory because he doesn’t want to give me veto power. That’s been a bit of a sticking point for us because while I don’t want veto power, I would just kind of like the label to make me feel secure in the fact that I’m a priority. He swears up and down that I am but still doesn’t want to use the term primary. I haven’t pushed the issue lately because in the end, labels don’t really matter and otherwise I’m happy with the relationship.
So, we were at a wedding a few weeks ago, and he started hanging out a lot with my friend “Grace.” I didn’t think too much of it because Grace is engaged, (her fiancé had to miss the wedding) and she was asking my partner for advice about her new job. I know they’ve had some phone calls and meetings since then, but I figured it was all business related. But last night, after a couple of drinks, my boyfriend confessed that he and Grace had acknowledged there was an attraction growing between them and asked my thoughts on him pursuing it.
I told him I needed time to think it over. But I hate it! I really don’t want my partner hooking up with the friend I introduced him to. Plus we all hang out in a giant friend group, and while we’re semi-out about being poly, I don’t want to add messiness to my closest friends. I don’t think (hope?) Grace’s fiancé would ever accept the idea, so I’m not overly concerned with the possibility. But how do I express my concerns without using a veto? I don’t want to control how my boyfriend conducts his love life, but how do I say, “Please don’t fuck my friends?”
—Please Don’t Fuck My Friends
Dear Please Don’t,
Your question is: How do I veto without a veto? I hope spelling it out like that illustrates the impossibility of your aspiration. The fact is, a lot of general concessions on your part have led you to this place of acute discomfort. Little by little, your boyfriend has guided you further away from a relationship style that truly suits you, and into a situation that suits him. An open mind and dogged consideration for your partner’s needs are wonderful qualities to bring to a relationship, but I think they’ve been used somewhat at your expense. I’m surmising that being in a relationship without vetos and hierarchies keeps your boyfriend feeling safe. It certainly preserves his ability to conduct his life the way he sees fit. The problem is, you’re feeling unsafe as a consequence. This is a lopsided agreement.
It does seem like this guy has been straight with you: This is who I am, this is how I live my life—take it or leave it. Everything you’ve described about his approach to polyamory is common. Plenty of people live this way and find joy and harmony within, especially when they have like-minded partners. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be right for you, especially as someone who isn’t in polyamory. He can hold onto his rules, and I completely understand and admire the idealism that generally underpins such arrangements—something to the effect of, “We’re together because we want to be together, irrespective of labels or obligations.” But relationships take work and I don’t think a set-it-and-forget-it approach is going to be tenable in the vast majority of cases. Maybe that’s what he’s looking for and he’s effectively imposing a test on the relationship. If it can operate according to his parameters, it’s the one for him. If not, he’s out of here.
But your agency is important, and while I understand your trepidation, I think you need to speak up. As it stands, your dynamic is set up so that you bend to him, but by virtue of his rules that masquerade as a kind of anarchy, there is no real space for him to bend to you. That’s only going to lead to more issues like the Grace situation in time, and your boyfriend has the trump card. I don’t get a sense that a relationship that leaves you voiceless about your boyfriend having sex with your friend is the relationship for you. It’s OK for you to say that regardless of the veto taboo. The no-veto rule is an ideal; your concern is practical in nature. Just be prepared for him to walk should you put your foot down. That might actually be better for you in the long run. You can’t work with someone who won’t work with you.
Dear How to Do It,
My partner and I have been dating for about a year and a half, and it’s the greatest relationship and most special thing in my life—we’re super in love (plan to get married, etc.), and very sexually attracted to each other. We have a pretty adventurous sex life and, with the help of toys, I easily get off almost every time we have sex.
The one hiccup is that he has never been able to reach orgasm from any partnered sexual activities. He can only orgasm through masturbation. This, of course, has made both of us pretty insecure. Though he assures me it has nothing to do with me (which I believe!) and that is likely also partly due to medication he takes (which I also believe), I think the main issue is that his mind has been trained for years to only orgasm with (pretty aggressive) masturbation. He still thinks it’s mostly due to the medication, but again, he can orgasm from masturbating while on the medication, and he’s changed his medicine a few times over the course of our relationship, and that hasn’t helped on the orgasming-from-sex front.
To make matters more complicated, we’ve been long-distance for the majority of our relationship. So, the times we’ve spent together are usually short, and having the looming deadline of one of us leaving both adds pressure to have Really Successful Sex that weekend, but also makes it so that we can’t “test out” him not masturbating at all to try to get used to the sensation of only intercourse over a longer period of time. I’ve suggested he try to not masturbate for several days before we see each other, but he has never been able to follow through with it since he gets uncomfortable down there when he goes more than a few days without ejaculating. (We had a semi-disagreement about the myth of “blue balls,” but I do totally believe him that it’s uncomfortable.) The thing is, I don’t want to deny him pleasure, especially because we are long-distance, but I worry if he keeps masturbating as he has been that nothing will ever change, and he’ll never be able to orgasm with me. The thought makes me really stressed and sad.
Where do we go from here? Is it worth seriously asking him to hold off from masturbating for a while before one of our reunions? Or to try to masturbate less frequently? Is there anything I can do? It’s embarrassing, but I’m crying a bit as I’m writing this because I feel like I don’t have anyone I can talk about it with.
Dear Delayed Gratification,
Your frustration is understandable and I feel for you, but I think it’s important for you to stay focused to avoid turning a hiccup into an earthquake. This relationship is the most special thing in your life. Between you there is great sexual attraction and shared adventure in bed. Ideally, yes, you’d both orgasm every time at the same time. But we’re not talking about ideals here; we’re talking about life. If this guy never came from sex, could the arrangement nonetheless qualify as good enough? By the way you set it up, it seems like it could.
You have no real say over his masturbation habits—the best you can do is offer suggestions and hope that he takes you up on them. His medication could very well be playing a role here (and it’s a good sign that he’s looking ahead). So could what sex therapist Michael Perelman calls an “idiosyncratic masturbation style”—in Ian Kerner’s book So Tell Me About the Last Time You Had Sex, he recommends weaning oneself away from their own hand (in the service of re-sensitizing for sex) by a short masturbation break or masturbating with the non-dominant hand. Blue balls are kind of a thing, but I don’t know if I buy your partner’s representation of the discomfort he’s feeling after not masturbating for a few days. Not wholesale, at least—seems like he could put in a bit more effort there. Whether he will or not is entirely up to him.
Is it possible to incorporate his masturbation into your sex? Could he finish himself off in your presence? Again, not ideal, I know, but at least you could share that moment with him. Given the situation, your task is to think about what you will do if things don’t change. Can you hang? I feel like you can and you want to. This might be a situation where you accept a partner’s perceived shortcoming for the sake of the relationship. He is human, after all.
Dear How to Do It,
I am a bisexual trans man in my 30s. When I was younger I had a lot of difficulties surrounding sex, without really understanding why or the cause of it. Things have gotten a lot better since I realized I was trans, and I was able to physically transition. In the last couple of years, I’ve learned a lot about myself sexually and otherwise.
Here’s where I trip myself up: I’ve been wanting to explore more casual sex and I’ve found a local kink community where I feel welcome and that has a good vibe. However, I have discovered a tendency when people express interest in me to become avoidant and standoffish. They text me or reach out and my instinctive reaction is to be annoyed and like they are bothering me. But these are people whom I actually DO want to see again, I’ve already made out with them (sometimes), I enjoy their company, and I feel the chemistry is there. I like them and would like to take things further, so why am I sabotaging myself like this? I also don’t want to mistreat or blow people off, and I am doing my best to not do that, but these feelings are really not helping in that regard.
I’m not sure what this problem is due to. Prior to transition (and realizing I was trans) I had a lot of shame and fear around sex because I couldn’t do it, and that made me feel awful and broken, but I don’t really feel that way more. I had a bit of a rough childhood (bullying, parents who fought a lot and weren’t really emotionally available) and as a consequence, I learned to be really self-sufficient and not be dependent on anyone else. Maybe these things are contributing factors, but that hasn’t really helped me figure out how to overcome these feelings at the moment when they appear, or how to work toward not having this reaction anymore. How can I overcome this?
—Want to be GGG
Dear Want to Be,
The way to work through these feelings is to acknowledge them and do the opposite of what they’re suggesting. Feelings are only one part of the behavioral calculus here; logic is another and yours remains solid, even if it wavers at times. I’m not sure what your cycle is, but I can infer it’s something like: Make a connection, get annoyed when someone follows up on it, realize the error in this kind of thinking, and finally, course correct, at least in your head. (I’m not sure if you’re in fact following up with them once you catch yourself getting annoyed for no clear reason.) It seems like you want to shorten that cycle by subtracting the annoyance, which is sensible. But at the same time, if you’re getting back to where you think you need to be—welcoming former sex partners back in—this is all part of a process, and one that works, albeit circuitously.
I can’t tell you why you think the way that you do with any more clarity than you have. And since you have little of said clarity, I’m even less sure than you are. My hunch is that the shame you previously felt around sex has not been entirely eradicated by your transition, though it seems to have been somewhat mitigated. Shame can be more like a habit and less like something that clears with treatment, like acne. I also think that maybe these texts are just interrupting your daily flow—you’re busy concentrating on something and a polite, but insistent, chime sounds to draw you away from it. Maybe you’re not in sex mode at the time. It’s very easy to let minor irritation express itself in crabbiness; it’s somewhat difficult to observe that crabbiness in yourself and stop yourself in your tracks. It takes patience and practice to understand that while your feelings are going to be there, your behavior need not follow suit. Meditation helped me start to separate the two. Give it a try.
Dear How to Do It,
I’ve recently met a partner who I’ve had the most amazing sex with, but, they don’t seem to be available very much. I don’t get the sense that they’re seeing more people outside of me. I want to see them a lot more than they can give me so… What’s the best way to tell them that either they need to spend more time with me or we should stop seeing each other?
—Hurt But Not Broken
Let’s start with the worst way: “You need to spend more time with me.” That is as sure as any method to turn off a casual partner. Anything along those lines is going to risk repelling them. The fact is that, at this juncture, the relationship you have with this person is defined as much by distance as it is by proximity. Allowing things to flourish with a less responsive bud means maintaining space. Treat this connection like a plant—approach with patience and do not overwater. This is something I’ve learned over the course of years. It can be frustrating and the payoff is not at all guaranteed, but maintaining a chill vibe is the most reliable method to keep the good times rolling. If you can’t do this, this is probably not a match worth pursuing. Signaling your interest means communicating, and it sounds like you’ve been doing that. You’ve put it out there that you’re interested, they’re well aware of how to find you, and that’s really all you can do. If what they’re offering isn’t enough, look for other options. They might notice less communication from you and pick up the slack. Don’t be surprised or disappointed if they don’t, though—it seems like you already have your answer staring at you.
More Advice From Slate
I’m a 55-year-old woman who’s been married to a 56-year-old man for nearly 30 years. We have sex at least twice a week, and it’s better than ever! However, I’ve noticed now that when I get in positions where I twerk a lot—like on all fours, cowgirl positions, 69ing, etc.—my lower back is tweaked afterward and hurts for a day…