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 wife and I have been married for almost 11 years and have been together for 15. I have tried to have many conversations about sex and they are hardly productive. I have tried many of the common suggestions for improving sexual frequency, having a set day/time for it, asking her what I can do to turn her on, etc. But every suggestion is brushed off, she wants our sex life to be spontaneous, or she just has to be in the right mood to do it, and while I respect her answers to these questions they don’t help me figure out what I can do to help.
Over the past year our schedule, in a loose sense of the term, has been once or twice a week. I know she has made an effort to increase frequency for me, and I GREATLY appreciate it. However, there is a hitch. Our sex used to include lots of pre-penetration fun: teasing, heavy petting, oral sex, etc. Now, she just wants quickies. Since this started I have come to realize that the foreplay is what made the sex so great for me. It really gets me into it and makes me see stars when I orgasm, and without it, it’s not nearly as satisfying. The problem is, is that she already made the adjustment to have more sex for me, so I don’t feel I have the right to ask her to make another adjustment. I know she has always preferred penetrative sex to all the build-up before, but it is not working that well for me. What should I do?
Your marriage is not a restaurant. What I mean is that while it would be absolutely unreasonable to send your meal back to the kitchen several times for adjustments, sexual relationships are an ongoing communication and process of small—or large—shifts. Our individual sexualities tend to change over the course of our lifetimes, because of the physical changes our bodies go through, life circumstances such as moving in together, and other factors. We also, through experience and introspection, gain a deeper understanding of our sexual preferences and desires. This is what you’re describing—you thought you wanted more sex, in the general sense, and now you understand that you need more of a certain kind of sex to feel satisfied.
How you approach your wife will require your expertise derived from living with her for over a decade. Maybe it’s “I’ve noticed we’re having more sex again, and I appreciate this. I’ve realized that flirting, sensual touching, and oral sex are a pretty important part of whether I feel satisfied or not, and that you seem to prefer penetration. I’m hoping we can figure out a way to have the kind of sex each of us likes most.” A different route would be “I’m loving that we’re having sex more often, and want to do some fine-tuning. Is there a way for me to experience the build-up that I crave and for you to get the penetration that seems to be your favorite part?” You might start from another angle entirely, by broaching a discussion about what appeals to her about quickies. There might be a feeling of spontaneity and lust that really works for her. She could be making the best out of a situation with time management difficulties.
Whether you ask for this information at the beginning of the conversation or after your request for collaborative problem-solving, you’ll need to hear her motivations and desires and express yours before the two of you can figure out a way forward that satisfies both of you. If schedules are demanding, the solution might look like quickies with a little less frequency and an occasional drawn-out date night where you’re able to have all those other aspects of sexual interaction. If the gap to bridge is more about her desires and yours, you might go for more of an equal balance where quickies and sensual sessions alternate. Be cautious of allowing this to become transactional, but do advocate for sex that makes you see stars.
Dear How to Do It,
I sexually assaulted my girlfriend while we were sleeping. We are in a long-distance relationship and see each other a few times a month. We are both in college. For the past few months, she has not been in the mood to have sex and so we haven’t. We were just on winter break, which is about a month, and spent almost every day together and didn’t have sex. However, one night we were sleeping and I had a fantasy but ended up humping her while she was asleep. I remember it and I don’t know why I didn’t stop. I believe I was stuck in the fantasy in my head and I don’t know why I didn’t wake up. I apologized to her when we both woke up, and she told me that she was awake for the whole thing and was very uncomfortable but she didn’t stop me because she thought to herself, “Let me let him get it out of his system because I’m not doing anything with him.” I told her that she’s not responsible and that just because we aren’t doing anything together, it doesn’t mean that I can do what I please. She’s not a means for my pleasure.
I told her that there was no justification—it was completely wrong. She said she forgives me and we can put it behind us. But I fear that in doing that, she doesn’t get to heal. But she insists. I feel so bad that I did that to her. I made her feel degraded, and I feel like a monster. She also told me that she doesn’t think she will ever be comfortable with us having sex again and that she can’t give me what I desire. She said she understands if I want to have sex with other people. I told her that I don’t want to. I need to learn how to cope with not having sex because I don’t want to lose her. I am so fortunate for her to even give me a second chance when it isn’t deserved. Do you have any advice for helping me to cope with my sexual desires? What do you think is the best way for me to help her heal, and keep our relationship from turning to shit?
There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s start with your feelings of guilt. You were asleep. While I’m sure that some people do hide intentional sexual assault behind claims of sexsomnia, I’m also sure that parasomnias are a legitimate phenomenon and that, sometimes, we do things in our sleep that we wouldn’t do when we are awake. I’ve been known to speak in my native language and a second language, once woke up in a securely locked room with my panties—which I had fallen asleep wearing—neatly folded into a square and tucked under my pillow, and recently grabbed my partner’s dick in the middle of the night. And let’s not even open the subject of text messages sent mid-snore. Investigating what happened, and taking steps to prevent a recurrence, is a great first step.
Unfortunately, science isn’t completely sure why these things happen or how to prevent them. But, we’ve got some clues, and my co-columnist Rich Juzwiak has spoken with neurologist Guy Leschziner on a couple of occasions about the disorder. It’s worth asking your parents whether they noticed you engaging in any activities while sleeping when you were a child, and seeing if you can get evaluated for sleep apnea. Psychotropic medications may be able to help, and it seems as though the use of drugs and alcohol, insufficient rest, or other sleep disruptions may increase the likelihood of sexual behaviors occurring during sleep. So, regardless of the ability to access medical evaluation or treatment by a psychiatrist, you can still do your best to mitigate the risk by avoiding booze and recreational drugs when you’re going to be spending the night with someone, and, if you want to add an extra layer of risk management, you can sleep in separate areas—one of you in the bed and the other on the couch. If your university provides mental health support, you might be able to see a counselor to discuss your feelings about all of this.
Meanwhile, it sounds like you and your girlfriend are pretty young. Most dating relationships in our late teens and early 20s end for one reason or another. And, through this column, I hear from people who stuck with someone who was a match in most regards but not sexually, and now feel anything from regret to resentment. Some couples navigate this through a variety of open relationship structures, as your girlfriend is suggesting. However, I would tread carefully in this particular case—if her offer is coming from a place of feeling inadequate, you’re likely to have a bumpy road and may cause each other emotional harm. And, regardless, if plurogamy–having multiple sexual relationships at one time–is not something you’re interested in, it isn’t an option. Others develop a robust masturbation life. It is crucial, here, to think about how important sexual expression is to you. Try to put your emotions around this incident aside, and consider how much sex you want with your partners in a more general sense. How significant is sexual connection to you in romantic relationships? If the answer is “a lot” or even “some,” this wonderful and understanding woman may be fantastic and not a good fit for you.
As for coping with your sexual desires, well, there’s no reasonable way to medicate them away. I suggest taking time for self-pleasure when you’re alone, and practicing mindfulness as a way to bolster your ability to focus on other facets of life when sexual energy is unnecessary or unwanted. You can also spend some time thinking about your ability—when conscious—to desire something without doing or having it, and the difference between wants and actions. When you are awake, you have self-control, and the more you exercise that capability the stronger it will be. There’s a big difference between what you’re describing and what we generally deem monstrous as a society.
Your girlfriend is telling you what she knows about what she needs to heal, which is for sexual interaction to be completely off the table. She’s also expressing a desire to put it behind you, which might mean that she needs space to avoid thinking about what happened that night for a while. Think of it as not picking a scab. Process your feelings elsewhere, and give her what she’s asking for. I’m not sure if there is a way to prevent your relationship from, as you put it, turning to shit. I do know that you’re expressing regret, that you show evidence of seeing romantic partners as full humans with autonomy, and that you’re working through a complex situation. Whether this girlfriend is a forever partner or not, you have the tools to be an empathetic, respectful, and caring partner to whoever you date.
Dear How to Do It,
I’ve been trying to understand and honor my sexuality, but I am stuck on how to proceed. I’ve noticed that I often grow emotional, romantic, and/or sexual-tension relationships, and I am particularly drawn to become close to people that I experience those connections with. There is in me a romantic that feels every jolt of chemistry (physical, emotional, spiritual etc.) as a message from the universe. Could I be polyamorous? I feel like I am, and have been since I was aware of relationships.
Living open to that connection and leaning into that potential has resulted in my fondest memories and dearest friends, but it has also contributed to moments of deep shame and sorrow and has me looking critically at how I allow this part of me to manifest. Now, I am a married woman and am struggling with how to keep the beauty and spirit of that way of being in the world while living in a monogamous relationship. My main problem is as much as my sexual inclination is to engage in the poly lifestyle, I want this relationship to be IT. I would also love a healthy fantasy life that can be an expression of these desires.
But after the emotional and sexual traumas these desires have led me to, I can no longer fantasize about things that I would not actually want to happen to me in real life. It feels dangerous and a slippery slope and it is not a turn-on. I can’t fantasize about having sex with someone else because I would be cheating on my husband. Because if I fantasize about it, that’s what I want in real life. I used to think about scenarios where we would bring home a third because I can imagine a reality in which we would do that (and have once before, with a close friend). But now we’re healing our fractured bond and I’m beginning to believe he would never want to do something like that again. What can I fantasize about to satisfy the bisexual ployam inside me?
—Is This Just Fantasy?
Is your belief that your husband would never want to bring a third partner home again based on direct statements he has made? Or is it based on assumptions? If the former is the case, you may have painted yourself into a corner here. If it’s the latter, have a conversation with your husband and find out where he’s at. It’s possible that he’s excited to continue having threesomes, may have desires for other open relationship structures, and might even get off on the idea—and reality—of you having sex with other partners without him. Start slow, by asking him about that threesome the two of you had, his feelings on monogamy, or any other facet of the topic you feel comfortable broaching first. Facts are so much more useful than question marks, and open communication is a foundational part of any healthy relationship, whether the subject is sex or not.
If your husband has expressed a boundary around anything other than monogamy, expressing your bisexuality and polyamory through interactions is off the table for the time being. His position might change and your desire for this relationship to be “IT” might change. But unless either of those things happens, monogamy is your reality. I do not sign off on the idea that fantasies are always manifestations of desires we wish to realize. My How To Do It counterpart, Rich Juzwiak, eloquently articulates the argument against thought crimes here. If you disagree, that’s your prerogative, and I do still have some suggestions.
One route, again depending on your husband’s boundaries, is to fantasize together. Describe what you’d do with a third person in your bed to each other. Paint a picture of them. Mark that your role-play is just that—an exercise in imagination—and remind each other after the sex is finished that while you enjoy going on these mental adventures, neither of you is going to put them into practice. Another option is erotic media. This might be porn movies, erotic novels, or artful photographs of nude women. And you might write your own erotic work to share with your husband or to enjoy on your own.
I have one last piece of advice that you didn’t ask for. Sometimes a therapist can be a useful sounding board, helping us challenge our beliefs and sort through what serves us, and what could use some criticism. Good luck.
Dear How to Do It,
My husband and I have a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” arrangement regarding sex outside the marriage and it’s been great. For the last 15 years on and off I’ve had two long-term “friends with benefits” that truly was that—neither party wanted anything beyond the physical, and we genuinely enjoyed each other’s company but did not socialize outside otherwise. They have both moved out of state and I’d love to find something similar. I am fairly active and do group hikes and meet lots of people—sometimes someone who interests me. How do I deal with the question: “Are you single/available?” when I am not, but also looking? I absolutely do not want to try any of the apps out there. Is there a way to let people know I am open to something else without coming off strange?
—Not Single and Looking
Dear Not Single,
As near as I can tell, “coming off strange” means something along the lines of seeming to be unconventional. Regardless of cultures across history and the globe that allowed for or expected plurogamy—multiple concurrent sexual relationships—in some form or another, in the United States, even in ultra-progressive, super-liberal New York City in the year 2022, relationship structures aside from monogamy—or verbally committed to monogamy while cheating—are, in fact, still unconventional. The conventions of what relationships should be, or are assumed to be, are broadening, for sure, but the default remains monogamy and this is likely to be the case for a while. Unconventional does not need to equate to bad. For some, though, this is the case. By sharing details about how you live your life in the sexual sense, you absolutely are opening yourself up to judgment. There’s a risk. The reward, which isn’t guaranteed, is finding another friends with benefits relationship, within your boundaries, that brings you all of the beautiful things you get out of those interactions. You have to weigh that and make your own decisions.
You mention that you didn’t socialize with your previous friends with benefits outside of your physical interactions, in a way that indicates that’s a positive for you, so it’s worth thinking through whether you want to approach someone you meet in the course of your usual activities. Would you be open to a more significant friend aspect—to rolling around in bed together and also socializing on a hike? Are these hiking groups more stable, meaning you’d see each other often, or more of an activity where you rarely cross paths with the same people again?
If you decide to go this route, start by expressing your interest and giving them space to respond so you can gauge theirs. Then follow up with a mention of your husband and your “don’t ask, don’t tell” agreement. Get this across clearly and before any dates are scheduled. If they’re interested or open to the possibility, they may have some questions about the whole concept and/or your specific desires and boundaries. This is a great time to ask them questions about their own experiences, wants, and needs. Depending on your, and their, desire for privacy, you might defer discussion of details until the two of you are alone.
I can’t promise you that nobody will think you’re strange. I can tell you, with the benefit of years of walking through the world as a person with an unconventional life, that if you keep putting yourself out there you’re likely to eventually find at least one person who you overlap with in fulfilling ways.
More Advice From Slate
Eight months ago, I started dating my now ex-teacher. I’m 26 and he’s 43. At first it wasn’t serious (for many obvious reasons, I had a hard time imagining myself getting emotionally involved with an older man who was also my teacher), while he showed much more interest in me. Things turned sour during summer when I had a brief fling with someone else and told him about it.