How to Do It

My Regular Massage Appointment Just Took a Wild Turn

Is this a road I can keep going down safely?

Woman and man kissing with a floating question mark next to them.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by LightFieldStudios/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 am a 38-year-old cis female. Beginning in 2018, I started going for regular massages (every 6-8 weeks) at a nearby massage franchise location, where I am a member. For most of that time, I would try to stick with an LMT I liked, but distance and scheduling made it hard. Then about 18 months ago, I switched to a location near my work since it was easier to find available appointments during lunch breaks. A few months after joining that location, I took an available appointment with a male LMT and have been booking with him ever since.

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Reasons for that: 1. He is usually free during the times when I have breaks in my work schedule.
2. He is a very good massage therapist.

To be honest with you and myself, I also liked the way he approached massages in ways that aren’t COMPLETELY related to zoning in and relieving muscle tension. For example, he’s not so overly concerned with blanket placement/modesty that he neglects areas that need attention like upper glutes and pecs. Less related and hard to describe is the overall feeling that he wasn’t just focusing on one section while making sure to avoid touching anything else. It definitely felt more personal and a bit suggestive but not overtly sexual. And, I definitely find him attractive. However, I wasn’t flirtatious or throwing eyes at him during the few minutes we talked before each massage. And he didn’t seem to be with me either, just the normal pleasant and low-key charming demeanor.

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Well apparently, I’m oblivious as shit! Last session turned into an erotic massage and then some. I was definitely receptive to it, it was consensual, and a damn fun time. I have no idea how often he engages in stuff like this, but I doubt I’m so desirable that I am the only one. I just know I’d be down for it to continue, if we both wanted to.

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Here is my question: From what I have gathered about these types of massage franchises, the owners would probably be displeased that anything like this was going on. It would open them up to legal action and bad publicity. He could be fired and/or lose his license. Yes, he is an adult and responsible for his own actions. Is that where I need to stop, in regards to thinking about the potential ramifications? Should I talk with him before our next session to see … I don’t know what? The higher-ups turn a blind eye if it’s loyal clients and he’s “vetted” them for a year? If he is concerned about ramifications, and if so how concerned? What types of consequence could I face if this all went tits-up?

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— Interdisciplinary Methods of Stress-Relief

Dear Stress Relief,

While it is not unheard of for those who patronize “happy ending” massage parlors to face criminal charges, the majority of stings/raids target those who manage and work at such establishments. Generally, that’s how it works in U.S. culture: The sex worker is stigmatized for providing in-demand goods. I want to make sure you understand, though, that your risk is not zero. In 2019, police arrested 20 men as a result of an investigation of a massage parlor in Rockville, Maryland—according to the cops, all of them had freely admitted to paying for sex when questioned. Also in 2019, hundreds of men were arrested for buying sex in a crackdown on multiple spas in Florida—many of these men were caught on video engaged in sexual contact with the massage therapists. Even with that kind of seemingly incontrovertible proof, though, many saw their charges dropped for lack of evidence of cash exchange on camera. See, it’s much more difficult to catch clients, who typically pass through for brief periods of time. Barring the kind of (potentially unreliable) video evidence mentioned, you’d typically have to be caught with your pants literally down during a raid and even then, you might escape prosecution. (Though just being arrested is its own hassle.) The punishment will vary by state—the Rockville guys were charged with one count of “prostitution-general,” which carried fines of $500 and/or a year in jail.

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The risk here is probably along the lines of illegal drug use, which many people engage in despite the well-publicized consequences. You can keep getting booty bumped by this guy with or without a conversation, though I think a chat might bring with it a sense of tension that could lessen the likelihood of future diddling. I think your task is to decide whether this is worth the risk, or whether you should find a new masseur—they’re everywhere and a lot of them will stay away from your genitalia without even being asked.

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Dear How to Do It,

I’m struggling with a kinky catch-22. I’ve been reading freaky porn since I was a kid—nonconsensual, humiliation, etc.—and it’s still what gets me off, but I can’t seem to read it anymore. Unless I’m actively horny to start with, it makes me embarrassed and anxious and ashamed. I think those feelings have been there for a while, which is why I was shifting towards more “consensual non-consent” or roleplay stories the last time I read much porn—which was when I was pregnant a couple years ago. But now even that is too awkward to contemplate unless I’m already worked up. Other porn is boring though.

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My sex life has always been a bit complicated—between anxiety, teenage touch starvation, dysphoria, and a masturbation technique that’s hard to replicate in company, I’ve ended up mostly getting myself off and treating sex as a fun thing to do with a partner rather than a method for orgasm. But I do need to be at least a little bit horny for it to be fun! And that doesn’t seem to happen spontaneously! My partner will ask if I’m just asexual or whatever but is struggling with the uncertainty of being attracted to someone whose libido is a Rubik’s Cube.

I’ve been on hormonal birth control for over a decade (aside from the two pregnancies), but I’m currently using an IUD which I understood to have the lowest dose. It seems possible that this is just my baseline and my libido was unusually high when the hormones of adolescence and pregnancy were involved.

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I have no trouble coming once I’m in the mood, but how do I get in the mood when the stuff I used to enjoy actively distresses me?

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— Self-Exasperated

Dear Self-Exasperated,

This is indeed a catch-22. Probably the easiest thing to do would just to refrain from any sexual activity, including masturbation, until you’re horny. What it sounds like is happening is that your disgust threshold is lowering when you’re in the mood, which is quite common (Jesse Bering writes about this in Perv). Something that might keep us going once turned on may seem repellent in less libidinous times. It’s ok to let your body guide you into a sex schedule that is less active than what might seem “normal.” Don’t let your partner’s questions convince you that there’s something wrong with you. You do report being “actively horny to start with” sometimes, which indicates some kind of spontaneous desire. It might also be possible to cultivate desire in the act. You shouldn’t push yourself to the point of discomfort, but starting to engage in sex when you aren’t 100 percent turned on could result in your desire growing as the sex progresses. Sometimes it’s worth giving things a try, especially if your accelerator is prone to moving slowly.

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Otherwise, attempt to cultivate varied porn taste through varied exposure. Focus on stuff that you know you won’t feel bad about later. Try a range of styles and kinks. Or go off porn entirely and rely on fantasy. I don’t expect any of this to be easy—it will require an active process. But then, you specifically wrote in to avoid doing things the usual, easy, way. Now you have the burden of actually making it happen.

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Dear How to Do It,

My husband (58) and I (52) have been married for four years now. This is my second marriage and his third. We’ve been together for a total of seven years. A couple of years ago, my husband’s ex commented on a Facebook post about a vehicle we were selling. This ex had stirred up trouble in the beginning of our relationship (she was supposed to be blocked on Facebook) and he knows how I feel about her, but he assured me they were through. Shortly after that incident I caught him masturbating to a porn video on his phone. I truly feel that he was watching his ex in the video; however, he denied that she was in the video. I have never known him to masturbate and as far as I knew he hadn’t done it since.

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The other night I was using his phone, and I saw on open window with porn. Of course, my mind goes directly to the ex, although I did not bring her up when we talked about it and she was not on the screen. He says he just enjoys watching porn and it has nothing to do with me or how he feels about me. The last two years have been very unkind to me and my immediate family. We have had one death which we expected due to an illness but we’ve had two deaths that were sudden and unexpected. I have also had a lot of health issues. Due to some depression I have slacked on a lot of things such as letting the house work go longer than I should, not being very active outside of my home, my personal care, and I have gained 35 pounds since getting married. I don’t feel good about myself at all. For a while now, I’ve felt that we were drifting apart, but when I try to have a conversation with him, he states everything is fine. He will not really even talk about the porn. Is this something some men do? Is he looking at porn because I don’t fully satisfy him? Do we need to have sex more frequently? I know we love one another, and I’m willing to do my part to save our relationship, as long as he isn’t speaking to his ex again.

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— Is My Marriage in Trouble?

Dear Marriage in Trouble,

While it’s certainly possible that the person in the video was your husband’s ex, you’ve given no reason why you think it was her (you didn’t, for example, indicate that she works in porn), so I think we can chalk that one up to anxiety.

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As for the masturbation stuff, I wonder if you’ve ever heard the old joke (it’s at this point a cliché, really) that 90 percent of men masturbate and the rest are liars. (Sometimes the word “people” replaces men, though I think the reason the statement has been often gendered is because traditionally masturbation has been expected of men and not of women, which is dumb.) In any event, a lot of people jerk off, irrespective of their sex lives. It’s its own thing, not necessarily compensatory. There isn’t really a zero-sum to achieve—people who enjoy sex still masturbate, and often when they masturbate they look at porn. It’s true that your husband may desire more frequent orgasms than he’s getting through sex with you, but even if there’s something practical there, he’s taking care of it. It’s a good thing. You don’t “need” to have sex with him any more than you are inclined to—it’s in his hands.

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I think this discovery of yours that he enjoys watching porn might also be a good thing. It endowed you with knowledge. I don’t mean to come off as condescending, but you seem a bit naive about this stuff. You could hardly be faulted for that—the state of sex education in the U.S. (and a lot of the world, for that matter) is abysmal. If you want to learn more about what people enjoy, often within the confines of a monogamous relationship, I recommend Ian Kerner’s modern sex manual So Tell Me About the Last Time You Had Sex: Laying Bare and Learning to Repair Our Love Lives. And for more on relationships and keeping the spark, check out another entry in the HTDI canon, Esther Perel’s Mating in Captivity.

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Dear How to Do It,

I need advice on how to move forward regarding what looks like an emotional affair. My partner Mike” and I have been together for ten years. We own our home jointly and have made plans for our life into retirement and beyond. We both have professional careers, individual hobbies, and both mutual and individual friendships. Mike has always tended to have female friends, and it hasnt bothered me until recently. The intensity of Mikes relationship with our mutual friend Tracey” started to worry me earlier this year. Mikes primary method of communication with most people is via text, but he texts Tracey a LOT.

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Jealousy got the better of me, and I did a bad thing. I read their messages. I found nothing overtly sexual, but their conversations definitely cross a boundary. He refers to her as his beautiful, funny friend.” She expresses her gratitude for his support and hopes he knows how much she loves and appreciates him.” In one conversation he invited her to come by and watch a movie when I will be gone for the holidays and said, But no snuggling … unless you insist.”

Without telling him Id read their messages, I told him I was becoming uncomfortable with his involvement with Tracey and asked him to explain the nature of their relationship. Mike called it a heavy flirtation, admitted feelings for her, and said he would cut off contact. When I asked if he considered what he was doing an emotional affair, he acted confused about the definition. Mike insists he does not want to jeopardize our relationship and says he will do whatever I want in order to make things right. Im angry with both of them, but I havent spoken to Tracey about it. She is one of my oldest friends, and it hurts to think of ending our friendship. Am I making too big a deal out of their flirtation or am I being a sucker by taking Mike at his word? Should I cut Tracey out of my life, and if so, should I explain why?

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— Where to Go From Here?

Dear From Here,

You would certainly be justified to cut Tracey out of your life, and to break up with Mike. They went behind your back and engaged in behavior that was outside of the terms of your relationship. They betrayed you and trust is the cornerstone of any relationship, platonic or not.

But allow me to share my nonmonogamist perspective with you: You don’t have to cut her out. You’re already hurt, why hurt yourself more by ending a friendship? Maybe you see it differently, but in my view, this transgression is pretty low stakes in the scheme of things. And anyway, forgiveness here wouldn’t just be for Tracey—it would favor you as well, as you’d get to hold onto your friendship. People fall short of monogamous ideals all the time, and proximity is seductive. Affection is a difficult thing to regulate. You can draw up boundaries, but for a lot of us, to be friendly is to be affectionate, and affection is an unlimited resource.
I’m not saying that you have to adopt these ideals, but I am saying that you don’t have to let this thing do more damage than it has already done.

There’s a fuzziness to the wrong done here—“emotional affair” is a category like “creative genius” in that many people think they know what it means but there’s really not an agreed-upon standard. Mike may have been feigning naïveté when you confronted him with that term, or maybe it just never occurred to him that what he was doing could be described as such. In any case, emotions flow freely and humans are permeable. I think exercising some compassion for Mike and Tracey—two people who found a certain fondness for each other as a result of circumstance—might be the most constructive move here, but it would require a good degree of patience, a determination to be the biggest person in the party, and perhaps a deviation from your trusted morality. Maybe that’s too much to foist on you, but if you want to continue to have these people in your life, some version of that will have to occur to move forward. A group talk in which you are able to calmly and clearly enumerate your grievances and draw up a map for the future could work. Decide what you’re comfortable with in terms of Tracey and Mike’s ongoing communication and prescribe it to the two of them. If you’re able to be sensible and level-headed about this, you can avoid chaos. Again, it’s asking a lot of you, especially since you didn’t ask for any of this, but if you want to make it through this with the least amount of collateral damage, you’re going to have to take the reins. Good luck!

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Rich

More Advice From Slate

My wife and I have been happily married for 14 years, and being that we were fairly young (20s) when we got married and in a pretty religious area, we haven’t been very exploratory with sex. Recently, during foreplay, I changed things up and asked her to guide my fingers while they were on her, and then we switched and I guided her fingers while she touched herself. It was new and fun! It’s now part of our regular business because I love watching her touch herself, and it frees my hands up so I can grab tight or wander when I know she’s going to finish. Masturbating is looked down upon in our religious beliefs, and she admitted she felt guilty the first few times …

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