How to Do It

I Can’t Perform the Way Women Are Expected to in Bed

Many men look mainly to these outward indicators.

Blonde woman with glasses looking off to the side. A ring of circles floats behind her.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Szepy/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,

I literally gasped when I read the How to Do It letter “She Doesn’t Cum.” This could have been me (it wasn’t), but the description of the arousal and response was exactly like me. I find sex deeply satisfying with the lovely man who has shared my life for many years. But, I too, am aware that I don’t always “finish” (hate that term…) or when I do, it’s a more quietly intense and deep sensation. There are no screams, head banging against the bedroom wall, or rattling of the neighbor’s chandeliers. It’s been depressing over the years to realize that many men look mainly to these outward indicators to assess whether women are satisfied with them (I appreciated your answer to that letter writer). I am well past my dating days now but way back then I wasn’t aware as much of these male expectations. If I was dating now I think I’d be tempted to fake the occasional scream or headboard shaking just to avoid being labeled a frigid failure.

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So are women’s “expected” responses to sex and the production of a window-rattling orgasm actually a male fantasy script? A construct that if not created by the largely male-led adult entertainment industry, certainly has been promulgated and magnified by it? What are other ways I can make it known that I’m deeply satisfied?

—Magna Cum Laude

Dear Magna Cum Laude,

I suspect you’re having an emotional reaction to years of lived experience dating several men, so I’m going to start with the communication issue that is topical to your life—as it is, in this current moment—and then address your larger question.

You have shared your life with a person who you describe as lovely for “many years,” and give no indication that you expect this to change. You don’t need to consider how to communicate your satisfaction to “men” at this point in your life so much as you (may!) need to bolster your communication with this particular man. Have the two of you talked about sex? Specifically, sexual satisfaction? If you have, and your partner has expressed that he hears and believes you, that’s great. Your task is to believe him when he says that he believes you. If you don’t talk about sex, or have only addressed the subject briefly, start having some discussions. Focus on sharing and listening, to develop an understanding of each others’ desires and needs—and if there is anything that would improve sex for you, do bring it up. In short, use your words. If your partner’s stance, like our “She Doesn’t Cum” writer’s, is one of skepticism, think about how much of that you’re willing to tolerate.

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If we go a few weeks back in the archives, we’ve also got a writer who compares herself to the deli scene from When Harry Met Sally and this woman who I advised to look into soundproofing. When I began performing in mainstream, heterosexual-oriented adult films, I was asked to “tone it down” on multiple occasions—sometimes due to fears of disturbing the people who lived next to the location and sometimes out of respect for the boom mic operator’s eardrums in the course of his work. My point here is that some people do orgasm quite noticeably, to a degree that others may be alarmed by, feel driven to mock, or instrumentalize to make their point about how they feel sex should be and what they consider “normal.”

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So, no, your first two (leading!) questions are not correct. Though your assertion that the adult entertainment industry replicates and magnifies “male fantasy script[s],” is accurate, it  oversimplifies the situation, erases the work of adult filmmakers from Candida Royalle in the mid-1980s to Shine Louise Houston and Jennifer Lyon Bell today, and leaves no space for the fact that some people who are not men quite enjoy an orgasmic spectacle. I imagine you were venting.

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The unfortunate reality is that, while sex and sexual response are extremely varied, our sexual education fails to convey this expanse. Porn, which should never be used as a substitute for education, sometimes does try, but that work isn’t widely seen because of several factors including economics and the mechanics of search engines. While sex can be a gorgeous space of exploration, demarcated only by the boundaries of ourselves and our partners, we saddle ourselves, each other, and our descendants with ideas such as “frigid,” “slutty,” “normal,” “dirty,” and countless more—all through the framework of how men should be, and how women should be, often with no mention of gender expansiveness, and with a stack of assumptions plopped on top. Have a talk with this lovely man in your life. I’m hoping he sees you as an individual human, who he appreciates and trusts to communicate her level of satisfaction.

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Dear How to Do It,

I’m not a conventionally beautiful woman, and I’ve accepted that my appearance is only going to be attractive to a small part of the population. But I find myself really uncomfortable with the people who are. I’m tall, I grew up doing physical labor, and continued lifting and running in adulthood. Exercise helps with my depression and keeps my weight from rising even more. I’ve also never been thin—I wear a 32F in bras and have big hips and thighs. I’m basically a tall Jessica Rabbit with muscles, no matter how much I wish I could be small. I don’t blend in and I’ve never hit the “healthy” BMI number. I look too aggressive to be feminine, but with my shape, I’ll never be able to pass for androgynous.

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Interested men typically see my appearance and are either turned off by my size or hope I’ll be a dominatrix (I’m extremely not). Multiple male hookups and boyfriends have been really into squeezing my upper thighs, which made me feel queasy. My current girlfriend is constantly squeezing my upper arms, which I also hate. All of these people have accompanied this type of touch with compliments or expressions of how hot they find these body parts, how I’m “so big and beautiful” etc. I hate it so much. It feels like a fetish, or at minimum, attention is drawn to things I wish I could hide.

How do I handle this feeling? My experiences with this have gotten more difficult as I get older—my DGAF attitude of my early 20s has curdled into feeling physically sick at some touch and comments in my 30s. It’s absolutely wrecking my current sex life, and I don’t know where to go from here.

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—Don’t Look, Don’t Touch

Dear Don’t Look,

Regardless of which extreme we’re talking about—bigger than average, smaller than average, more “conventionally beautiful,” or less—people who are what we call “noticeable” or “remarkable” tend to attract commentary. People who are able to blend, which usually means looking pretty similar to the people around them, often want the kinds of comments that you attract. This discussion of their bodies seems to create a feeling of being…seen? Acknowledged? I suspect that part of the motivation behind the comments you’re receiving is a desire to follow the golden rule and give you what makes them feel good, but it is having the opposite effect on you. Your frustration, aversion, and revulsion are all valid reactions.

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Since people are likely to continue to comment on other peoples’ bodies and specifically your body for some time, it does fall to you to figure out how to navigate this. Paying a therapist to help you deal with the things other people do and say to you isn’t fair, but it’s the most efficient way to work through your feelings around your body and the ways others often perceive you. Often, understanding our reactions and ourselves helps us to be less emotionally involved in other people’s projections, which can take some of the pressure off of superficial interactions like first dates or being approached by someone hoping to pick you up. Regardless of therapy, you can put effort into connecting with your body in ways that highlight what you do like about it. Maybe that’s something to do with the sensations it can provide, or the fact that it supports the existence of your mind. Whatever starting point feels functional for you. Since you mention femininity and androgyny in the sense of how others perceive you, you might do some thinking in that direction as well.

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When it comes to people you’re considering having sex with or entering a romantic relationship with, you might start screening for this issue. Communicate your boundary, “I don’t enjoy appearance-based compliments,” and see what they do from there. The more you can say this like you’re expressing a preference for tea over coffee, the better. Do they ask a clarifying question? That’s a green flag. Do they attempt to debate you into feeling differently? Red flag. Fetishizing you? Next.

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With your current girlfriend, the situation is more complicated and the stakes may feel higher but it’s the same template. “I enjoy our time together. I value your presence in my life. This is why I’m bringing up a boundary I need to set. I have to tell you that I don’t enjoy the way you squeeze my arms or the compliments you give about my appearance. I don’t like receiving either of these things and am often uncomfortable or in emotional distress when they happen—from you, and from everyone else I’ve been with.” Then listen. Is she dismissing you? Jumping to make this about her desire to express desire, or you needing to “fix” something about yourself? Or is she open to your needs? Curious about specific examples, how you feel, or what sort of compliments you like to hear? That’ll tell you a lot.

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Dear How to Do It,

I (F, 29) have fallen for a close friend of mine. She’s the first and only woman I’ve ever been attracted to, and I think it might be more of a romantic/emotional attraction with a slight sexual component. Kissing is OK, the strap-on is fun, and I love touching her breasts, but I’m having a really hard time enjoying going down on her. I’ve done it about four times now, and the smell and the taste kind of gross me out. I just don’t find the anatomy sexy the way I do a man’s. What do I do? I’m starting to dread hooking up with her, but I love being intimate with her and holding her.

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—Vulva Anxiety

Dear Vulva Anxiety,

Start a conversation about the ways the two of you interact. This might look like a direct check-in after the big shift the two of you have made or a more general discussion of how you’re both feeling about your relationship at this time. Come prepared with a list of the activities you do enjoy, including social interactions and things like holding her, touching her breasts, and anything else physical that is particularly nice for you. Spend some time thinking about what you want and where your boundaries lie, both specifically with her and in the relationship structures you’d like to have in your life. You don’t have to have all the talks in a single sitting, but do get on the same page so you both have a better idea of what the other wants and doesn’t want.

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One very important point to communicate is that you’ve tried eating pussy, and it isn’t your thing. I would be very cautious with any use of the word “gross,” though. There are a thousand ways to phrase this, and you’ll want to come up with the wording that’ll be easiest for her to hear. And prepare yourself for the possibility that she wants more—or less—than you’re interested in. I think you’ve got this.

Dear How to Do It,

How does someone typically handle having erectile dysfunction and resulting small penis approach new partners? I have this debilitating fear of rejection and have resigned to never getting that far with a partner. Whenever I approach any kind of physical intimacy with a woman I ultimately will slow my advance to the point that I redirect to something else to diffuse the situation. Are women really turned off by the fact that a man may not have the default tool needed to satisfy her needs? I understand that a woman can achieve orgasm in other ways but how many of them acknowledge this and is willing to accept a man that can’t provide the penetration commonly related to sexual intercourse? How does one tell his partner that he has this problem? “I have ED and can’t hold an erection and my penis is small” doesn’t really improve the mood.

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—Short Comings

Dear Short Comings,

I’m assuming you’ve seen at least one urologist, been checked for physical causes of ED, and tried ED medications.

There are absolutely women who will reject you based on the measurements of your penis, the stiffness of your penis, or some combination thereof. Some of that subsection of women might be pretty cruel about it, too. Other women might not mind and be happy to figure out other ways to engage in sexual pleasure, or even have a stack of options ready to go. Still more, for a variety of reasons—such as vulvodynia that can be triggered by penetration, or a distaste for penetration—might find your situation matches perfectly with theirs. Women, much like the rest of humanity, are pretty varied in their needs, desires, and boundaries.

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To find women who accept or celebrate the state of your dick, you’ll have to risk some rejection. Since you describe yourself as having a debilitating fear of rejection, your best bet is to start working with a therapist. They’ll help you figure out ways to start tackling your fear, and ways of navigating the rejection you’re almost certain to experience. When you’re ready to start interacting sexually, you’ll want to figure out what you are and are not interested in. Are you interested in gently stroking their skin? Fingering them? Eating pussy? Are you comfortable with any stimulation on your own genitals, if there’s no pressure for penetration? What are other areas you’d like to have touched? Your phrasing could look like: “I’ve got a boundary around using my penis for penetration, but I’d love to give you a massage and start learning how to give oral sex.”

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Sexual relationships can be anything the people involved collectively decide on. I’m confident that with enough perseverance, you’ll find at least one woman who you find attractive and engaging and who feels the same about you. I’m also confident that with a little help from a mental health professional, you’ll be able to tolerate the rejection you’ll hear along the way.

—Stoya

More Advice From Slate

I am a straight man and I have a girlfriend who travels a lot. When she is gone, my straight guy friends (some married) come over and chill. By the end of their time at my home, there is usually some reference to banging. Sometimes this gets kind of awkward, and they talk about relieving themselves.

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