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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 woman and I’ve been with my boyfriend for a year. We’re both in our 30s. Our sex life is generally really good, but I have some reservations. The sex we do have is great and hot, but while we both enjoy some light kinks, some dirty talk, spanking, etc., we rarely have sex without these aspects, which isn’t my ideal. I enjoy kink, but I also want sex that has a different tone and is just about us. Not that kink isn’t or can’t be tender and loving, but I’d like to feel this minus the other elements. I’ve said this to him and he agrees, but when we start to have sex, he tends to slip into the dirty talk and the play dynamic, almost by default.
We occasionally watch porn together, which I’m fine with. We don’t live together yet, so I don’t know how often he watches porn without me. He’s implied that it’s often, which I’ve never had a problem with. He’s been a bit stressed with work and family stuff lately and he’s been staying up late when I’m not at his house. I know because I’ll get messages from him at 4 A.M. and he’ll tell me he’s been working or he can’t sleep. We’ve talked a bit about this and he’s mentioned wanting to cut down on drinking and be healthier, which is absolutely fine with me as I’m not a big drinker anyway. I’ve encouraged him to find a good therapist so he has some extra support and he says he wants to but he hasn’t organized it yet.
The other night we were having sex and we decided to put on some porn in the background using a tablet. When he went to type the name of the porn site into his browser, his previous searches came up including porn addiction, porn addiction help, and porn addiction help near me. I didn’t say anything and I don’t know if he noticed what happened as he was typing. I have absolutely no judgment of this. He’s an amazing boyfriend and if he’s struggling with this or if he wants to change his habits, I’m glad he’s looking for help. I do wonder if porn could be exacerbating the one-tone nature of our relationship.
My question is, do I bring this up? I’ve already decided not to suggest we watch porn during sex anymore and will let him take the lead. I’ll, of course, support him in his other choices to feel healthier, but I’m torn on whether bringing this up as an invasion of his privacy or if it would be helpful to just start the conversation and let him know I support him and I’m here to help. I have some acquaintances who work in sex therapy who could recommend some good sex therapists if he wants one. I haven’t said anything to anyone yet. I wouldn’t reveal it was him, obviously, and I would happily go to any couples-based therapy sessions if that was recommended. Would letting him know what I saw be helpful or should I keep quiet and just support him however I can without mentioning it?
Stoya: I’m going to start with no to both options. I don’t think addressing this from the point of “I saw you’ve been Googling porn addiction, porn addiction help, and porn addiction help near me,” is going to be the easiest entry, and we’re getting into making decisions on his behalf territory with “I’ve already decided not to suggest us watching porn.” There’s this whole middle zone where she could broach the subject of her core issue, have a conversation about that, find out what’s happening, and have a real dialogue.
Rich: This is a person who has revealed other struggles. He’s revealed drinking, wants to do less of that, and wants to find a therapist, but hasn’t done that yet. He seems at least, relatively open to discussing his shortcomings, which points things in a positive direction. It portends a potentially positive outcome. That said, sex stuff lives in its own realm and he hasn’t discussed this yet with her directly, so that suggests maybe it’s more deeply shameful than a drinking issue.
One way to get somebody not to talk, to totally clam up, is to put your finger on their shame. This is really, really delicate territory to walk in, so you just have to be really, really careful. I don’t think confronting him is the issue, per se. Also, he could be influenced by porn. It’s impossible to say for sure where some things come from, but certainly, we are influenced by culture. Culture is a feedback loop. We take it in and then we put it out and shape the culture, which shapes us. That’s just neuroplasticity doing its thing.
Stoya: What people direct and what performers do in porn is informed by their own sexualities, which goes into the world.
Rich: Sometimes, yeah.
Stoya: Memes spread throughout culture, which inform sexuality en masse, which informs what people effectively vote for with their clicks and their dollars, shifting what porn producers and performers do. It is a loop. But I think the first paragraph is the starting point. She enjoys light kink sometimes and sometimes wants to have sex minus the role-playing BDSM elements. If she can articulate in the positive what that sex is, I think she’s in a good position to delicately and gently say, “Hey, we’ve tried to talk about this in the past, and when it’s time to put what we talk about into practice, it slips into the dirty talk and play dynamic. I’m coming at this from a different angle with a positive list of what I do want and it’s really important to me to have that sometimes. Let’s go from there.”
Rich: Yeah, and men can be very thick. I would encourage a very careful approach to what I’m about to suggest, but look, pointing out to him that, ”We do your stuff and that’s great. I’m giving you a little bit here. It’s time to give me a little bit here.” I think that’s a completely justified point that, again, you have to approach delicately… You don’t want to be tit for tat. You don’t want to be like, “I’m only doing this because…” But at the same time, fair is fair. It’s like, “Scratch your back, you scratch mine.” That’s really what the situation calls for, I think.
Stoya: Yeah, and if this conversation happens and she presents the positive list and he agrees, and then he starts slipping into the dirty talk and play dynamic, interrupt the sex.
Stoya: “Hey, we’re trying to do this to cater to my needs and desires this time, and you’re veering off into what I don’t want. What’s going on?”
Rich: Worst case scenario is he feels like he’s already conceding and that this is just a kink mismatch type of thing. Hopefully, that’s not the case. It seems like this should be solvable, but it really could be a mismatch, in which case you can do all of the pre-planning and talking during sex you want and still two people are going to be left dissatisfied to some degree. Hopefully, it’s not that.
More Advice From Slate
I’m a woman in my late 40s who’s been with the same man, father of our kids, since my 20s. We have a solid relationship. In general, our sex life is fine, if slightly more vanilla than when we first met. We both orgasm most of the time, if I’m able to relax enough. He’s usually the initiator and would like it more frequently and more adventurously than I do or dare. We have a good emotional connection overall and decent communication, but for one issue: I masturbate without him knowing.