How to Do It

I Caught My Boyfriend on Tinder. And It Gets Much Worse.

He’s been doing this for years.

Woman angrily showing a man a phone and pointing at it.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by AntonioGuillem/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear How to Do It,

I am a mid-30s woman, and I’ve been with my boyfriend for going on a year and a half. Last week, a friend messaged me, saying she had to tell me something about my boyfriend. Well, turns out he was active on Tinder. I was shocked and confronted him almost immediately. At first he denied it, but he eventually came clean … about everything.

He insisted he was just bored and seeking validation from matches and that it had meant nothing. I asked him if he messaged these women or exchanged pictures. He said no. The next night, when pressed again, he admitted he did message his matches and would move the conversation to another platform, where he would request explicit videos or pictures so he could masturbate. He said he’s engaged in this practice on and off for years, going as far as to reveal it had affected past relationships, but in the same breath, repeated that it means nothing and he just wants to get off.

When I asked why he doesn’t just watch porn or engage with cam girls, he shrugged it off. He says he has never met up with anyone in real life. I was, and am, at a loss. I wasn’t sure if I was angrier that he did it or that he lied and didn’t just come clean. Now I find myself in a whirlwind of emotion, sadness, anger, paranoia, and grief. We live together and he says I’m the only one for him and claims he’ll never do it again. Here’s my question: Is this considered cheating? Is there a way to come back from this? And if this is his preferred method for masturbation, is it possible for him to change it up?

—Swiped

Stoya: Oof. Let’s start with: “Is this considered cheating?” I don’t know, Swiped. Do you consider it cheating?

Rich: Yeah, that’s a subjective question. In the age of mass non-monogamous configurations, everybody kind of has to make that determination for themselves. I think one key indicator is … stuff in the sexual realm that your partner is doing and not telling you about—that’s a good indicator that we’re closer to cheating than not, right?

Stoya: Yeah. I think it’s specifically the fact that he is hiding it, right?

Rich: Yes.

Stoya: It’s a thing that has affected past relationships, but he didn’t disclose it in the first year and a half of your relationship. And we do talk pretty often about things that people might reasonably wait some time to disclose. In the past few weeks, one of our chats talked about a bisexual man who didn’t talk about his bisexuality for a bit, which we thought was reasonable to hold off on disclosing. But question mark number one is: “This is a thing that has affected multiple previous relationships.” And rather than say to this potential new partner when they first started dating, “Hey, I do this thing on dating apps. That’s how I get off. I don’t know why I don’t watch porn or engage with cam girls. I enjoy doing it on this dating app. You should know this so you can make your own decisions,” the girlfriend had to find out in stages.

I think if our letter writer is questioning what she will learn next, that is reasonable. It doesn’t mean there’s definitely something else that’s going to come to light, but it’s an absolutely reasonable position to be coming from at this point.

Rich: Yeah, I totally agree. It would be one thing if it were something new or an isolated incident. But he’s carrying this from a past relationship. He seems to have some kind of shame about it but is unable to stop. “What else is there?” is a completely natural question.

And also in these cases, to put as fine a point on it as we can about detecting what is cheating, you have to look at the reasons for not revealing certain information. If there’s a reason that reasonably includes stigma, then you can understand, “OK, you didn’t tell me that because of the way bisexual men are regarded in the world, specifically by straight women.” If we’re talking about something that you didn’t tell me because you knew I’d be pissed off and might think it was cheating, well, there you go. And that’s clearly exactly what’s driving this behavior here, right?

Stoya: Yeah. So, I could be completely wrong here, but I imagine the women on Tinder that this boyfriend is interacting with and that are sending him explicit material are doing this in the hope that it’s going to go somewhere more significant. And since he’s not being very honest with his girlfriend about it, I am skeptical that he’s being honest with these other women. That strikes me, from my position as someone who has done sexual labor for profit for many years, as really disingenuous.

Rich: Yes, I agree.

Stoya: So the question of why he doesn’t watch porn or engage with cam girls feels pretty important to me and would help me decide—if I were in Swiped’s position—how I feel about this situation. Does this feel like more of an isolated case of, like, “Oh, there’s this thing that he’s ashamed about,” so he’s lying and saying it means nothing? Or is it that he’s lying to the girlfriend and he’s lying to these women, and maybe there’s a pattern of devaluing other people’s informed consent?

Rich: Yes, because if you’re using a model of modern tube consumption, where it’s like you’re watching video after video in one masturbation session, you apply that to actually interacting with humans. And the commodification, the kind of devaluation that occurs by the necessity of experiencing sex in this way, is baked right in. It’s hard to value something so abundant. Look at how people waste water. He’s probably not even thinking about the actual real-world consequences, but it’s like, hello, there are real humans here.

There’s a study from 2013 about guys specifically cruising Craigslist. Just using it as a masturbatory aid—the process of connecting like that, getting the pictures and stuff as an alternative to an in-person sexual experience. I’m not sure that it’s been studied in straight people because there’s a lot in this particular study about how certain identities, especially questioning men, may be able to play out their identity in a way that feels safe, etc. But I think regardless of the intricacies of the identity, it’s very clear that this is a mode of erotic entertainment that people enjoy. It’s not extensively studied or understood, but it is an alternative to just popping on some porn. Right?

Stoya: Absolutely. You know how Feeld is particularly known for kinky and non-monogamous people?

Rich: Yeah.

Stoya: If he were on some app that was particularly known for “We’re mostly going to sext and exchange videos and pictures, but if it’s working really well, I guess maybe we might meet up,” then my assumption would be much more charitable.

So is there a way to come back from this? Possibly. And if there isn’t, if the writer’s sadness, anger, paranoia, and grief are so strong and their trust has been so damaged, that is also reasonable.

Rich: I think coming back from this will involve some kind of actual action taking place. I don’t think this guy can just be taken at his word at this point, unfortunately. “Oh, I’ll change. I’m never going to do it again” doesn’t mean anything for our writer’s current purposes. The action would require visible effort. So whether that’s “OK—we’re going to go to couple’s counseling and we’re going to check in about this multiple times a week,” I don’t know. But if I were in that situation, I would actually need to see the effort before I ever even started to think about giving my trust. And that’s going to be a tough limbo time. Right? The time between the trust eroding and the trust building back up. That kind of sucks. So, as the person that this has been done to, you have to ask yourself: “Do I even want to go through that period with this person?”

Stoya: Especially living together. “Good morning. I don’t trust you. You want some coffee?”

Rich: It’s tough.

Stoya: All of these things, when they’re covered in a blanket of trust being shattered, become really oppressive sometimes and impossible to get away from. As for whether it is possible for him to change it up? Him looking into that himself, considering that, taking time to think about what about this pushes his buttons and what other things might do the same for him, that’s part of demonstrating whether there is a way to come back from that. And it might be part of him considering whether he wants to change the way he masturbates.

Rich: I think it will require a lot of work on his part. Because I would assume that if he’s been in situations before that have been affected by this, there’s a certain knowing that this is destructive behavior, that this can really get in the way of his relationships, and yet he still does it.

And what I would suggest as part of the reason why this keeps happening is it’s a sex-brain thing. It’s the thing where your disgust threshold lowers. Where it’s like, “Yeah, but I could still do it because I’m really turned on.” You know what I mean? It’s that switch that flips. And I think that’s a really difficult thing. You can know something and then be in a situation and fall into these old habits real easily because that’s just what feels good. So that’s tough. You’re absolutely right. He needs to be making that change himself.

Stoya: What you said earlier about him going to therapy might be one route. I 100 percent agree. However, it is kind of a tough needle to thread to find a therapist who isn’t one of the sex-addiction and porn-addiction people but is also going to deal with sexuality. So the AASECT database, if they’re in the United States, is one place to start. And the Kink Aware Professionals network might also be worth a try.

Rich: Good luck.

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