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 the birth of our child, my wife stopped personal grooming. It was fine and I’d since gotten used to it, but I’d mentioned that it made things easier for me if she were better groomed. She gladly obliged and made a joking comment, like, “Now you can see better.” My idiot self replied: “And the smell’s better too!”
I messed up. I made my wife so self-conscious, now whenever we want to have sex, she’ll spend 45 minutes in the bathroom meticulously washing and grooming herself. I apologized profusely and told her I was joking, and that any sights/sounds/smells didn’t bother me, but she said that she was now self-conscious and she felt sexier if she made sure everything was pristine. The thing is, it’s killing our sex life— it’s already hard finding time to have sex with a baby, and if she takes too long, I end up not wanting to have sex at all. What can I do? I’ve already tried reassuring her that I don’t mind how she smells naturally, but she’s steadfast in wanting to shower before sex from now on.
—No Nose Knows
Dear No Nose Knows,
Good for you for realizing that you’ve messed up, and hopefully myself and Pam Shaffer, a licensed marriage and family therapist and host of the Why Not Both? podcast, can help you figure out a way to salvage the situation. First up, you might try some proactive positivity. “It’s more than just affirming that something is not bad. It’s more emphasizing that that thing is, in fact, good,” Shaffer said. “Talk about the things you love about your partner’s body. Talk about how exciting the sensory experience of your partner’s body is.” She gave specific examples of words you can say, such as “You smell great,” and “It turns me on.” If you’re overwhelmed by all the statements you could possibly make, use her template as a guide for wording with your own language and desires.
Shaffer also suggested you consider asking to join the shower. “If someone wants to do a hygiene before the sexy times. Great. Maybe do […] hygiene together. Maybe incorporate it into the sexy times. Maybe that’s part of the planning, and the anticipation is doing the hygiene together.” Shaffer also encouraged asking, “Can we make this a group activity?”
It might help to spend some time considering the vast array of hormonal changes that take place during and after pregnancy, to help foster more empathy for where your wife might be mentally and emotionally. “The fourth trimester—which is about the year post-postpartum—is a roller coaster of a time,” Shaffer said. “Essentially what’s happening is that your hormones are recalibrating to one, not having a human inside you, but also to tuning to the human that is now outside you. Like we also are hormonally attuned to our baby.” This, plus the nature of caring for an infant, can mean sleep disturbance, and general differences within a person. So, lead with empathy and kindness, and I think you’ll be OK.
Dear How to Do It,
I have not had a lot of sexual experience. I was married once at a very young age and that ended in divorce. I remarried at 26 and have just celebrated our 25th anniversary. We have four adult sons and a grandchild on the way. I recently lost a lot of weight and was feeling pretty good about myself. For the first time, I approached my husband for sex at night. He was traditionally the initiator and this seems to have upset him. I feel a lot of shame about this. Tonight I’m sleeping in a different room. I love my husband but I’m so embarrassed and confused about consent (which is really important). I always asked him afterward if it was OK and he said yes but now he is setting boundaries. Here’s the thing… it seems like sex between us has to be on his terms only. Is there a place for me to have agency in our sex life?
—Do I Get a Say?
Dear Get a Say,
Your husband is traditionally the initiator of sex. And you approached him recently for the first time… but I’m unclear on whether this was your first time initiating sex with him, or specifically your first time initiating sex at night with him. Regardless, there was a change in a long-standing routine. You don’t give any indication that your husband has expressed being upset, said things that brought up feelings of shame for you, or told you to sleep in a different room. So I’m unclear on whether you’re making several assumptions here, and am wondering—and hoping—that he simply wasn’t sure how to process a new sexual proactivity after a quarter of a century.
If I’m wrong, and he told you he was upset with you for initiating sex, in ways that were meant to shame, before banishing you to sleep elsewhere, think about where that comes from. Does he have some deeply internalized ideas about gender roles within marriage? A huge Madonna-whore complex? Do you think there’s potential for growth there?
If I’m right, though, have a talk. Start with something that communicates your feelings of shame, and why you slept in the other room. Leave space for him to respond. If he’s uncomfortable having that discussion directly, try talking about the issues around talking. If it comes to it, bring in expert help in the form of a couples counselor. But see what the two of you can do on your own first.
All of that to say, yes, you do get a say. And you should have agency in your sex life, regardless of whether that relationship is with yourself, your husband, or anyone else. Given the precedent of the past 25 years, though, and accompanying inertia, you’ll want to start gently.
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Dear How to Do It,
For the past couple of years, I’ve been enjoying lightly biting my husband during our intimate times together once in a while, usually on his shoulders. I don’t know why, but sometimes I just need to bite him. He enjoys it too. I never bite hard enough to break the skin but sometimes I do leave bruises. Today, I had some dental work done. I had a couple of fillings put in on my top two front teeth for cosmetic reasons since my enamel has worn down a bit over the years—not from the biting, the enamel issue predates that. Think of them as being like veneers. I was told by the dentist not to bite into hard foods like apples anymore or I might chip off the fillings, although I can still eat corn on the cob if I’m careful. My dentist is a pretty conservative guy and I didn’t know how to ask him, so I’m asking you: Do you think it’s safe for me to still bite my husband when I want to? Or does that put my new dental work at too much risk?
Dear Tender Teeth,
I don’t know where you live, or how traditional your dentist’s values are when it comes to sex, nor do I know how sensitive they are—so I’m not sure whether it would be advisable to simply ask the person who did the dental work. Sometimes it’s tempting to encourage people to throw embarrassment out the window, but there can be real-world ramifications such as having to change dentists.
However, I did find an actual, real-life dentist who was willing—nay, happy—to give me quotable insight into your question. Dr. Konstantin Rubinov, DMD, FICOI, director of Williamsburg Dental Arts, had way more insight to offer than I anticipated, so I’ll step out of the way and let him deliver his wisdom:
“Every dental material, just like a tooth, has a hardness scale and what we call a ‘modulus of elasticity’ or in layman’s terms, the amount of inherent flexibility, or ‘give,’ that a material or structure possesses. The greatest advent in modern dentistry has been in material science. The latest and most advanced bio-materials are very hard and strong but also possess a modulus of elasticity that allows them to interact with the oral environment much like enamel. To put it simply, a properly applied and bonded dental restoration, whether a composite bonding or a porcelain veneer should easily tolerate a solid bite, or two. Or three. And in the case of porcelain veneer, it can actually strengthen the existing tooth, as porcelain is about 10 times stronger in compressive forces than enamel. So go ahead and bite freely. As a matter of fact, I have some patients that come in and ask for vampire-shaped veneers for the sole purpose of drawing blood.”
So, you’re probably fine. If you want to seek out a second opinion from someone who knows the exact materials in your teeth, and your exact teeth, you might call someone across town and explain that you have a sensitive question, which you’re uncomfortable asking your regular dentist about. Based on experiences in the course of this column, I suggest you absolutely do not lead with, “I bite my husband during sex and don’t know if it’ll hurt my fillings,” as that tends to lead to being hung up on—probably because the person on the other end assumes the call is a prank. Start subtly, and hopefully, you’ll find someone who can help.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a late-20s woman in a relationship of three years with a man. He’s always been very consent-minded in bed, and historically, I’ve loved all kinds of new stuff with him because I know I’m safe. I was date-raped a year before we met, so this is extra important to me.
Recently, a local children’s organization was in the news, being sued by victims for failing to stop decades of sexual assault on kids in its charge. I was horrified—it was bad as an adult and would be so much worse as a kid. My boyfriend was horrified but for a different reason. His dad walked out when he was small, so he found important father figures within the organization and many cherished childhood memories.
He’s furious at the survivors for the amount the suits will likely cost, and the org will probably have to close some programs to absorb the impact. He says the survivors are taking things away from kids and need “to get over it,” since the named abusers are no longer volunteering there. I feel sick to my stomach, have started having nightmares again, and experiencing flashbacks during sex, because my brain is telling me he’s not safe despite three years of safe and thoughtful sex behavior. What do I do?
Ideally, your first move is to line up therapy. I know that sometimes the cost can be prohibitive, and insurance may add a layer of bureaucracy. Increased demand for mental health services over the past few years, combined with the working conditions for therapists in the U.S., may also mean that you might get stuck on a waitlist. So in the meantime, reach out to your friends. The ones you feel safe with, and who you feel comfortable relying on. Let them know what’s going on with you. If you have an idea of what you’ll need as far as support, tell them what you need. Ask them if they’re able to be there for you in a sustained manner, and in what capacity.
Once you’ve got some support in place, think back. Are there other—smaller but concerning—interactions or statements from your partner, with regard to sex or to other areas of life, that you’ve dismissed over the past three years? If so, I’d bail. If not, and you want to bail regardless, I absolutely support this. It is your right to say “I can’t…” or “I don’t want…” and move along. If not, and you want to keep dating this man, buckle in and redouble your efforts to get a competent mental health professional lined up for yourself.
If you’re going to explore staying, it’s worth considering your partner’s perspective. Losing a dad is tough. This organization helped him when he was young and needed support. His words, which you’ve quoted here, may be coming from a similarly emotionally charged place. Was this a one-off comment or is it a repeatedly expressed opinion? If the survivors are suing for concrete changes in the structure of the organization with the aim of preventing abuse in the future, that’s one thing. But if they’re suing entirely for monetary compensation, your dude’s position that resources are being taken from kids who need it might hold some weight—though that doesn’t capture the whole picture by any means. And, lastly, hold space for the possibility that he’s internalized messages about sucking it up and walking off trauma, that he’s now projecting onto these survivors.
Draw on everything you know about how the two of you have handled hard emotions in the past, and get ready to start having talks. Depending on your dynamic, and what’s been said—and felt—about the situation so far, it might be better to begin by acknowledging his points and talking about his feelings. It also might be better to lead with, “I’m really screwed up over this and need to let you know how intense my reaction is.” I don’t have enough information here to provide any hunches about which end to start from. How those talks go, though, will be a big indicator of whether it’s worth working toward salvaging your relationship.
And, so the validity of bailing doesn’t get lost after those two paragraphs about ways to work toward continuing the relationship—you can go at any time. You can end a relationship for any reason. You can, and should, prioritize yourself and your happiness, and protect your mental well-being.
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