How to Do It

My Husband’s Involved in a Secret, Online World. It’s Worse Than I Could’ve Imagined.

Woman looking at a phone with the Instagram logo.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by fizkes/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,

A few weeks ago, my husband had Instagram open, and I saw over his shoulder that all of his recent searches were of college-age girls. We’re in our early 30s. This bugged me as our sex lives have declined significantly. When we started dating three years ago, we were having sex almost daily, and now we’re at once a month maximum. I initiate regularly. He usually says he’s tired and we’ve gotten pretty experimental to keep it fresh. He really likes having other guys join us, which we’ve done twice now. So it stung to finally have it hit that he was still horny, but wasn’t interested in being intimate with me. This nagged at me for a few days, and I did bring it up to him. He said it’s just for times when he does want to masturbate and doesn’t feel like watching porn. I’ve never had a problem with him watching porn before, but did ask if he could try to shift that energy toward me instead. He promised to work on it.

This brings us to yesterday.

Nothing’s changed in terms of how often we’ve been having sex, but my husband has gotten extremely clingy with his phone. It’s never not on his person, and if he shows me something on his screen, he refuses to physically hand the phone to me. So yesterday, when he went to shower, I looked through it. It turns out he isn’t just looking at girls. He is using their pictures to role-play extremely graphic scenarios with other guys he’s met online.

From what I could tell, he basically tells stories to people who reach out to him directly through a forum. The three chats I looked at included a story of him pretending to be one of the girl’s fathers, a story of him drugging and raping a girl, and a gang bang scenario. There were dozens, if not hundreds, of message chains. I also noticed he has Cash App on his phone, which he never uses in his regular life. A bunch of transactions with indescribable captions. So I’ve gone from thinking maybe he wasn’t attracted to me as he was a few years ago, to finding out he’s sending disturbing messages to random people at all hours of the day using unknown young girls’ pictures, and possibly paying for porn/chats.

I know I invaded his privacy, and I know it’s normal to have fantasies you’d never act on in real life, but this feels so gross to me. I have no idea how to confront him about this. Is there any healthy way to talk about this with him?

Rich: Well, what leapt out to me immediately is the story opens with the writer going through his phone. And then we get to the paragraph: “My husband has gotten extremely clingy with his phone. It’s never not on his person. So yesterday when he went to shower, I looked through it.”

That’s cause and effect, transposed. He’s so clingy, so I looked through it. You look through it, and that’s why he’s clingy. And then, of course, there’s this whole other life that’s happening. But the lack of trust, I think, is working on both ends here. This guy seems to really be in deep.

Stoya: I wish people would have these conversations before they get married.

Rich: Yeah. This is really interesting from a kind of sociological perspective. This particular kink that’s happening, where he’s having sexual conversations with other men, but the conceit is that they’re having sex with women together. Just that way of bonding with people, and connecting with people. This homosocial flavor of heterosexuality with a real erotic charge on the male bonding of it all.

I’m so fascinated, I would love to talk to him about it. That doesn’t help our writer very much.

Stoya: No.

Rich: There’s no way to talk about this without effectively saying, “I looked in your phone and I saw this stuff. What do you have to say for yourself?” Right? I mean, essentially it’s going to come down to that.

Stoya: But it’s the word “confront,” right? You’re not going to get anywhere good with the connotation confront suggests.

He’s most likely either going to feel a lot of shame and be unable to begin being honest and vulnerable. Or he is going to blow up, and seize on the invasion of privacy that the partner engaged in.

Rich: Right. At the same time, I imagine it would be an elephant in the room going forward. So the least harmful way to approach this might be the best course of action. But I mean, what do you do? Just say, “Hey, what’s up?”

Stoya: You apologize. You start with, “I looked over your shoulder at your Instagram searches, and then I had a whole kind of conversation with you about that. And then you reacted to my small invasion of privacy by being protective of your phone. And so I went and looked at a bunch of stuff.” Then you explain why those actions were inappropriate. You don’t demand an explanation of what you found when you were snooping. Because these weren’t messages where he was saying, “I’m going to leave my spouse for you.”

Rich: Or even, “I’m leaving my house at 5 p.m. I’ll see you at 6 p.m.” Right? It’s not even evidence. It’s all fantasy play, it sounds like.

Stoya: Yeah. And it’s not like, “Sucks that you tested positive for chlamydia right after we hooked up.”

Rich: Right.

Stoya: There’s no harm that’s been done to this person. So the letter writer doesn’t have anything to really demand an explanation for.

Rich: What I keep coming back to is the fact that he is having these interactions with men. It seems like that’s an important thing to him in whatever way, whether this is a proxy for sexual feelings toward men, or whether his sexual feelings end at, “I like to be in the same room while we’re doing this. I like to talk about this with guys.” Which actually makes a lot of sense, given the way that many straight men interact about sex, to then take another half-step and say, OK, I enjoy that experience so much with my buddy that it is fundamentally and in many ways erotic. But we’re not touching each other’s dicks or anything like that. We’re doing it together…apart.
No matter what that actually is, when fully teased out, it’s not going to be something that the LW can provide. So it’s going to be about accepting that aspect of him in one way or another if the relationship is to continue. Because you’re not going to convert him out of it. So it’s like, this guy somehow likes to have this erotic contact with men. Can you handle that? Can you deal with that?

What kind of scenario would it be OK for him to be having these kinds of interactions? Maybe the answer is none. “I don’t want a partner who does that. I want complete monogamy, including emotional and intellectual.” In which case, OK, well, you just found that your partner is not right for you.

Stoya: As for the specific content, what age group shows the most skin, takes the most overtly sexual pictures, and puts them on the internet? It’s college-aged women. Or professional influencers and sex workers.

So I do think the phrasing, “young girls’ pictures” is kind of overblown. But when we look at the content of these chats, out of the three, gang bang can have such a broad definition. It can be a snuggly pile of eight penis-having people giving one person pleasure. Or it can be very aggressive and violent—and still about the pleasure of the person being gangbanged. And then, there can be non-consensual scenarios.

But the next fantasy, pretending to be someone’s father. We’ve given a theoretical pass on technical incest in the past, but we’ve also always mentioned that these familial power dynamics are the problem. That the extremely valid feeling against incest stems from the morality of an inherently hierarchical relationship becoming sexual. And then the drugging and raping. That would give me qualms! Anything about your partner’s sexuality, if it squicks you out in a way that you cannot find a way around, the kindest thing is to say, “Hey, either this is reserved for private time, or we need to separate and find partners that are better suited.”

But in this specific scenario, it is incredibly valid to be like, “Look, I can’t be with someone who fantasizes about those things.” But the line between asshole and not is, whether it’s a confrontation where you are telling the person that their sexuality is gross. Or, after apologizing for the invasions of privacy, seeing how those conversations go, doing some introspection, and then saying, “I can’t continue this relationship because of my own feelings.”

Rich: Exactly. So take as detached an approach as possible and actually just ask questions and try to understand. At the same time, you can ask questions in order to get at whether or not you can continue this relationship. But to at least have as much compassion as possible, and be open-minded, without being naive. I think tonally, those are probably directions that you’d want to go in. I would love to know what “transactions with indescribable captions” means.

Stoya: Oh my god.

Rich: How are they indescribable? Describe them. Was it emojis? Was it gibberish words, or do you feel like it’s not ready for primetime? I mean, you could tell us. You could tell us anything.

Stoya: Most people who use micropayment services for sex work transactions warn consumers not to write explicit, obvious descriptions when they send payments.

Rich: Right.

Stoya: But if there were a bunch of transactions with indescribable, as in cannot be said on television captions, that would kind of raise concerns about boundaries with people that he’s engaging with sexually.

Rich: I think that the best course of action is just to tread with caution and respect. And try to understand. Because the immediate task is to gain more of an understanding of what’s going on, where the husband is at, and how he sees himself in terms of his sexual orientation.

These are the questions that I would be asking, that I would be curious about. From there. you can kind of go on and make your decision. And to me, it seems like that decision could very well be OK, that’s that for us.

Stoya: And that’s OK. Better to have these talks before you get married. But that’s not how things work so often.

Rich: It’s true. We see it all the time.

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This morning, I found my partner’s porn. Initially, I did not intend to snoop—I wanted to check the weather on his computer (which I don’t think he would mind, as he uses my computer without asking sometimes) and I found his porn browser open with furry bondage porn open.