How to Do It

It’s My Turn to Give the Sex Talk … to My Mother

I need to do this before her wedding.

A hand make a stop signal with a woman looking over at it.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ranta Images/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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 mother is getting married to my absolute gem of a stepfather in a few months. I’m not being sarcastic—I love the man. But I have one, probably minor, concern that I want to address with both of them (or at least my mom) before they tie the knot. So, I know my mom has had sex before (myself and my younger brother exist), but our biological father is, to put it bluntly, a narcissistic turd. My mother is one of the “believe in the sanctity of marriage at all costs” types who didn’t even consider divorce when my father cheated on her. Between those two facts and that a couple of years ago I went to my family’s church and the pastor had a sermon that boiled down to an active encouragement of marital rape, I want to make sure my mom knows and understands consent.

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Her sex education is from the 1980s; I doubt this topic was covered. I highly doubt my stepfather would actually take advantage of her (I honestly doubt if either of them is interested in sex at all, at their ages), but I feel like it’s a conversation I should have just for my own peace of mind, if nothing else. Is this too invasive? Or weird because I’m their kid? Should I butt out and keep it to myself? Should I talk to one or both of them? If it’s OK, how should I go about this? I don’t think I remember getting a “birds and bees” talk from my mom growing up—how the hell do I start on the reverse?

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—Consent Really Is Sexy, Mom

Dear Consent,

Your compassion and concern for your mother are beautiful and also something to be cautious with. There may absolutely come a time when your parent needs you to step into the role of caregiver, but for now, she’s an autonomous adult. Do a quick check—are you “parenting the parent” in other areas? If so, take a step back and consider whether that’s warranted. If not, let’s proceed.

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I reached out to Kitty Stryker, editor of the anthology Ask: Building Consent Culture and upcoming Ask Yourself: The Consent Culture Workbook, for some tips. First, there’s the subject of whether your mother is open to discussions of sexuality. “Being considerate and respectful of your mother’s boundaries is a great way to model the consent culture you believe in! When you raise the topic, reassure her that she can opt out. I think just breaking the ice and indicating that you’re comfortable talking to her about it will enable her to feel safer coming to you in her own time,“ said Stryker. She credits her own open lines of communication with her parents to something they call the TMI rule. “If either party says ‘TMI!’ even jokingly, it’s a safe word for a shift in the conversation. It’s become a useful tool for us, not only in talking about sexual topics but anything that could be potentially fraught. We know that we can use that phrase, and no explanation needs to be given; our boundary will be respected.”

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Stryker cautions against assuming the sexual interest levels of people of any age. “It may look different as people get older, especially if they also struggle with health conditions, but I’ve definitely coached people in their 70s, 80s, and 90s who were curious about sensual massage or BDSM,” she said. And as for, well, how to do it: “My technique when talking to elders about sexual consent is to directly and clearly ask if we could have a conversation about sex and consent. I let them know that I’m available to discuss this at another time if they want to think about it first, that I know it can be an awkward topic but that I care about their health and that sexuality is a part of that. And then I take a moment to see their body language and how they react. If they seem to fold into themselves and close off, get quiet, I brightly change the subject. If they start to talk, I listen and ask open-ended questions to encourage them to explore their understanding of the world in a new way.“

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In some ways, the concept of consent has been around for a long time; it just might look different to you. The book Ask Yourself provides some wisdom:

Other generations have different language around consent—what I might call getting consent before using someone’s first name, my grandmother would have simply called good manners. Just as with children, I think it’s useful to consider mirroring language when discussing consent with elders. The active listening skills that enable you to speak on the same level will also encourage trust, which makes space to ask questions and gain better understanding.

Draw on what you remember of the ways your mother taught you to respect other people’s boundaries and autonomy when you were growing up, and try to use that language in your discussion.

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Dear How to Do It,

As a cis woman, anal sex is something that I have frequently enjoyed with my husband in the past. Unfortunately, pregnancy and birth caused hemorrhoids, which obviously shut down anal play for a while. Two years later, everything has healed sufficiently and I’d like to try again, but I’m afraid that it’ll be too much, too fast to just jump in penis first. My husband is on the well-endowed end of the spectrum, and I’m scared of the hemorrhoids returning afterward or an activity that we used to enjoy becoming … well, a shit show.

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Are there any toys—anal plugs? Vibes?—that I could try out myself to safely test the waters alone? I’m not super experienced with purchasing vibrators, so I’m not sure what to look for. Any other tips or recommendations to make the process of reentry into the world of butt play as smooth as possible?

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—Anally Anxious

Dear Anxious,

Longtime friend of the column Evan Goldstein, of Bespoke Surgical, is a wealth of knowledge on anal preparedness. Of particular note is his commentary on a recent study indicating that people with uteruses may be at heightened risk of complications from anal sex. Goldstein’s Medium post on general pre-anal practices may be useful as well. The short version is that fiber supplements are your friend, and while douching is fine, over-douching can increase your likelihood of issues.

Some anal toys do vibrate, but not all vibrators are safe for rectal use. When it comes to toys, you want anal plugs that are specifically designed to prevent being sucked up past your sphincter. The bottom of the toy needs to be significantly wider than the stem, or the insertable portion, to act as a stopper. This is called a flared base. Check out b-Vibe’s beginners’ section for a visual of an appropriate ratio of toy to flare. Non-porous materials are crucial for effective cleaning, and softer materials are gentler, so your best bet is to start with medical-grade silicone.

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Play sober, use patience, and pay attention to your body. Take plenty of time to relax, breathe, and be as gentle on the way out as you are on the way in. Enjoy.

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Dear How to Do It,

I (27F) have been with my partner (26M) for three years. Early in our relationship, we struggled with erectile dysfunction and sex was hard. We did not handle it well. I took my partner’s struggles as a sign that they were not attracted to me personally and suggested opening our relationship, and my partner took my suggestion as an announcement that I was going to cheat on them. But we got past our trust issues, and our relationship is stronger than ever, except for one thing: initiating sex. When we’re both feeling it, sex is great. But if I initiate sex when my partner’s not feeling it, things become weird. My partner feels guilty for turning me down when they’re not in the mood, and that makes me feel as if I’m pressuring them for sex. At the same time, my partner says they want me to initiate sex sometimes, that it makes them feel wanted and makes sex better when we have it. Do you have any suggestions for navigating this dynamic?

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—Wish I Were a Mind Reader

Dear Mind Reader,

If you masturbate, you might invite your partner to participate in some way while making it clear that his involvement would be a bonus and not a requirement. By lowering the stakes, you might decrease any pressure he’s feeling. And it’s worth having a conversation about the concept of feeling wanted: What causes that for him? Does it have to be sexual to give him that feeling? How does feeling wanted feel when he isn’t interested in sex—is it still pleasant? Are you feeling wanted?

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It seems as if the communication issues you experienced at the beginning of your relationship are still happening, and putting in the work now will give you a chance to untangle this. How is your communication in the rest of your relationship? Do you have an easy time deciding what to eat together or what activities to engage in? Are you able to have direct conversations about emotional hiccups outside sexuality? If you live together, how do discussions about household matters go? If your struggles are specifically about sexuality, how much talking have the two of you done about your attitudes toward and experiences with sex? What is sex? Where is his guilt coming from? Are you pressuring him, and if you aren’t, where is your guilt coming from? Does he ever initiate sex, and if so, how does that go?

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Emily Nagoski’s Come As You Are, though written for cis women, contains a lot of insight into sexual desire for all humans. You and your partner can use Nagoski’s text, or the audiobook, as a guide for deeper conversations about your sexual response styles and encourage further discussion. Couples counseling is another option. Be patient with each other, be vulnerable and gentle, and start working toward understanding each other. Good luck.

Dear How to Do It,

I’m a 29-year-old female who suffered a lot of sexual trauma as a child at the hands of multiple men. I think I’m asexual, borderline demisexual. People are walking, talking mounds of flesh to me, and men always look dirty, and I struggle to connect with them. That said, I am finding that I have a passing preference (not set in stone) for some men.

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After a lot of therapy, I decided to try dating. My friend set me up with a nice man. We’ve been messaging for four days, and he’s a great guy, but I just don’t feel any attraction! Should I? How am I supposed to feel? (My friends swoon over men they just met, but I never have.) Will feelings come later, or am I just stringing the poor guy along, hoping to feel something?

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—Though She Is Little, She Is Fierce

Dear She Is Fierce,

There’s no should here. You’re supposed to feel exactly how you feel.

If you have yet to encounter Angela Chen’s Ace, reading through it might help you clarify whether asexuality is part of your identity. I’m wondering if your motivation to try dating has something to do with an opportunity to explore how you feel in potentially sexual situations now. If that’s the case, you’ll probably need more data than a few days spent messaging with one man. Demisexuality is defined as requiring emotional bonding for desire to develop, and that also takes longer than four days to grow. So, if you need that connection to experience sexual interest, you’ll need to give yourself more time, whether that’s with this man or someone else.

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It might help to think about what “passing preference” means here. And what you’re open to—and hoping for—out of a dating experience. Would you like to find relationships that are romantic and asexual? Are you open to friendships with men? Are you interested in sexual interactions of any kind, and if so, what are your boundaries? How much uncertainty are you feeling? Spend some time considering these questions, and do your best to come up with ways to communicate your desires and boundaries that are clear, succinct, and direct. Communicating your limits, interests, and how variable you are with those right now is an effective way to avoid stringing people along. And being vulnerable and open with our emotions is a great step toward connection.

—Stoya

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