How to Do It

I Just Found Out What My Girlfriend Did When Her Ex-Husband Got Sick. Yikes.

She says it’s all out of her system.

Man with his arms crossed and an angry look on his face.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by SIphotography/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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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, 

After dating my girlfriend for almost a year and a half, she told me all about her recent sexual history. When she talked about it, it was almost like she was bragging.

She’s had five threesomes in her recent past. I’m 68, widowed after being married 47 years to the same lovely woman, and she is 59. This occurred when her husband was ill and gave her permission to seek satisfaction outside of the marriage. She got on Plenty of Fish and hooked up with the friends with benefits who after a while proceeded to set up male, male, and female threesomes. She says she didn’t initially pursue the threesomes but thought it would be fun. She said she loves anal and felt like she just had to try it, including double penetration. They both enjoyed the one-on-one sex and the threesomes for about six months or almost a year all without her husband’s knowledge. His illness got worse and she walked away from that lifestyle. He eventually passed and she didn’t see anyone for eight years before dating me.

I really value this relationship and need to process the information she shared with me. I seem to be experiencing retroactive jealousy over something I had absolutely no control or involvement in. I’m shocked that she went for this in such a brazen manner. She says it meant nothing. It was just sex, i.e. no kissing. She said the other day, “I’m such a guy, I don’t know how I can be such a guy about it. Just pull my pants on, buckle up, and go.” Her friends with benefits worked hard at sending it up every time, screening Plenty of Fish candidates.

Since then, she’s also told me she was abused as a child. I’ve read that compulsive sexual behavior can be the result of child abuse, and she did remain faithful to her husband for 20 years before getting into this behavior. She told me all of this in late August. When I asked for details, she’s been very honest about everything. She says this behavior is all out of her system. She said that she loves me and I believe her. We have a great relationship and sex together. But I need help dealing with my jealousy so I can continue to grow this relationship.

Stoya: I’m looking at two quotes. “Husband was ill and gave her permission to seek satisfaction outside of the marriage” and “all without her husband’s knowledge.”

Rich: Yeah, so that’s irrelevant.

Stoya: Which one is it?

Rich: I would assume that they had a don’t ask, don’t tell policy.

Stoya: Maybe?

Rich: So, I think to your point, the letter writer is doing some nitpicking. This is a case, in my view, where our writer cannot see the forest for the trees. What he has is a partner who is so comfortable being open that she’s risking his judgment. I think it speaks to a level of intimacy. It’s wrong to interpret this as she’s somehow being brazen or bragging. She’s merely presenting her personhood to this person whom she already feels accepted by. It’s a sign of how close she feels, I think. There are a lot of stakes for a woman to reveal this information, specifically a woman of her age because of the way that society slut shames women. That she felt so comfortable doing so is actually a beautiful thing. So why not see it that way?

Stoya: Is it career torpedoing if my contribution to this particular question is just an array of noises? Hmmmmgh. Argh. Uuuugh.

Rich: I think it’s funny.

Stoya: All right. I’ll get it together. I can do this, this is not the first time I have encountered this line of thinking. So, our writer says: “I’ve read that compulsive sexual behavior can be the result of child abuse.”

Rich: Yes.

Stoya: How is this compulsive sexual behavior?

Rich: It’s merely not fitting in this very antiquated view of how women should behave. But there’s nothing to suggest that it was compulsive. Even by her own telling, she wasn’t involved in the coordination of this stuff. It seems like she took it as it came. Shit, I would love to have somebody setting up threesomes for me. Yeah, go ahead. You do all the work. The worst thing about a threesome is setting it up. It’s like throwing a party. You’re wondering, will everybody come? Having someone else do that work is great.

I would think compulsion would be like, I’m on the app constantly. I can’t pull my eyes away from it. She seems really self-actualized. Our writer’s reaction just strikes me as misogynistic. It strikes me as this not jibing with his view of how a woman should behave. Well, guess what? This is how some women behave.

Stoya: Yeah. And in regard to “need help dealing with my jealousy”—I’m not sure his definition of jealousy is within standard usage. I’m not sure why the word jealousy is entering the picture when we’re talking about a situation that had nothing to do with him. I think it would really help him to spend some time unpacking what that word actually means to him.

Rich: In my experience of having written about sex for about 10 years on the internet explicitly, there is an ire that I have faced—and I’m sure you’ve experienced this to an order of magnitude beyond my comprehension. But there is a level of discomfort with other people’s sexuality and their willingness to talk about it that manifests in a bunch of different ways. If you have a woman, certainly there’s a misogyny angle there a lot of the time. But I think that there is something to be said for people having discomfort with other people’s comfort. And I think I have to assume a certain segment of the population is like, wow, I wish A) I had those experiences. And B) could be that comfortable about them to share them so freely. That’s how I read the jealousy thing.

Stoya: I didn’t read it that way at all. You are correct about the likely order of magnitude of larger pushback that I’ve experienced talking about sexuality in public because I look so feminine, because I had sex commercially, in the context of adult entertainment, and all of those sorts of things. So I am reacting emotionally to this linking of female sexual freedom to childhood abuse and am really stuck on it.

Rich: Absolutely.

Stoya: That is why I am sitting over here making unintelligible noises and focusing on semantics. Because what I want to do is tell him off. There is no scenario where it is reasonable for this person to be looking at a woman who’s had the kind of sex that she was interested in when it was handed to her on a plate, with the permission of her husband, and saying, this is compulsive sexual behavior and relating that to child abuse. Having been so often subject to the narrative that I must be so victimized—based on the facts of my interest in sex and later career in sexual entertainment—that I cannot evaluate my own boundaries, calculate what I am willing to engage in, or discern my own desires, trying to work with this line of thinking has my whole nervous system freaking out.

Women have been pathologized for sexual expression over decades in ways that included confinement to in-patient mental health facilities and unnecessary surgery, including sterilization. The concept of promiscuity was used to justify the forced sterilization of Black women and Native American women. This sentiment ties into so much awful misogynist rhetoric, which isn’t always coming from men. And it is often wielded to invalidate the ability of so many people to speak for themselves about their own experiences, which are usually nuanced and a mixture of wonderful, mediocre, and, yes, awful. That invalidation can be so affecting that, years after my last encounter with it, all my brain can handle right now is the chaos of my body screaming that I am unsafe at this moment.

So, now that I’ve gotten that off of my chest, this guy’s got a whole tangled-up ball of feelings, too.

Rich: And I hate to see you in any pain, but I also think it’s useful here to illustrate this legacy, the way that these things can touch and haunt you and come back. I think that you’re totally right that he seems desperate to pathologize this behavior. And the reason that our writer is doing that is that his worldview is shaken. That worldview is almost certainly informed by misogyny. What this partner has provided to him is an opportunity to comprehend the world beyond his understanding. It’s to have exposure to another way of life. And so often this is all it takes. So often a homophobe is converted by knowing a queer person. So here is an opportunity for somebody who seems to hold onto these beliefs that are traditional, and by that, I mean grounded in misogyny. And to learn that his girlfriend’s behavior does not make one a bad person or does not predict any trouble down the line.

Again, this is a partner who shared something intimately with you. Treasure that if you want to keep this partner. This is your opportunity. This is the fork in the road. You can either stigmatize this person, or you can accept her and understand that somebody can have five threesomes in her past and still be a wonderful person and a good partner. For the record, I have had more than five threesomes in my past, and I think I’m a pretty good person and a great partner.

Stoya: Yeah. I also have to kick the horse. It’s not so much the jealousy that he needs help dealing with. It’s bigotry, and that is not going to be solved in a single exchange with an advice column.

Rich: I totally agree. I think what’s so telling is that even through his lens that I think we’re reasonably assuming is informed by misogyny, she comes off as self-actualized and reasonable. Even with his interference! He’s the middle man here with, to put it nicely, a poisoned worldview. And she still seems cool. So in a certain way, the answers are all there for him right there. He knows the right thing to do. I think he’s at least looking in that direction. Keep going.

Stoya: He’s able to see her awesomeness enough that it shines through in his letter. And another thing that I can speak personally to, is it is absolutely possible to work on your bigotry, to work on your judgmental issues, and become not a total asshole. I don’t think that he should let any perceptions about his age interfere with doing the work. I agree he has the tools to get there, but it is his work to do, and he needs to strike a balance between sharing with his partner and being honest with her, and putting it in her lap—making her do all the work and drag him through this by his arm.

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