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’m in my early 40s and dating again, and I’ve discovered something a little unnerving about myself. After deciding I wanted a partner, the last three men I’ve had sex with over the last couple of months (I’m a woman) have all been great in bed. However, none of them have put a condom on after I’ve asked them to when we’re getting naked the first time. They acknowledge I’ve said it, and I’m holding a condom out, but then they go down on me or do something else amazing and I’m instantly into it and I don’t care about anything else.
It seems so simple, right? I’ve set a boundary—wear a condom—and they haven’t followed it. That is bad. However, I’m not going to minimize my part in it. I’m not that much of a fan of the feel of condoms either, and although I raised it with them as we started, I didn’t follow through. It’s almost as if my perception of risk changes when I’m in the moment when the burden of it is shared—because he’s fine with it, I’m fine with it too. It’s not that I’m scared of talking about sex either, and in the past, I’ve made sure to have discussions about sexual safety, boundaries, and contraception before having sex. However, with these three men, I’ve jumped into bed early and I haven’t had the conversation in advance. It’s been an in-the-moment thing.
After the first sex with each of these three men, we talked about how we didn’t use a condom and discussed my testing history (often and currently clear) and contraceptive status (IUD). I asked them about their sexual health and contraceptive status too. It all seems to be fine. I don’t understand myself, though. I promised myself I wouldn’t have sex unless it was with a condom. But then I asked the third man to come home with me this weekend after our second date, and he walked in all sexy, and I asked if he had condoms and he said no, and I said I did, and then I got one out for him to wear and then somehow I was naked holding a condom while he did something with his thumb on my clit and I just didn’t care about it anymore. The thing that’s so unnerving about it for me is that I otherwise try to minimize risk in my life (not obsessively, but normally). I wear a seatbelt, put on sunscreen, and drive safely. Why am I risking my health and safety in this one particular part of my life? And how can I get him to listen, if I’m not taking it seriously myself?
Dear Safety First,
First up, your perception of risk—or, really, how much you care about risk—probably does change once you’re in the heat of the moment. Disgust tends to depress during sexual arousal. Justin Lehmiller talks about this; Jesse Bering talks about this; and from years and years of conversations with friends, fans, and lovers, I’d say that this concept is akin to stating that the sky is blue. It’s simply, apparently true. I’m also thinking of all the times I’ve finished having sex, only to realize that I’ve bruised my spine because, at that moment, I did not care at all about the wooden beam in the middle of my back, or similar.
Good on you for doing a fairly blameless post-mortem here and isolating ways in which you can change your behavior. Having those conversations up top is a great way of setting yourself up for success. Put your condom requirement in your app bio or bring it up casually during the first couple of times you’re face to face, along with IUDs and testing practices. Remember, it doesn’t matter how often you or they have tested negative, it matters what they did with their genitals and mouth since the beginning of the window period before their last test—and, of course, the same for you.
Most importantly though, practice your no. My dear friend Heart wrote something for the Feeld blog recently, on the mechanics of what holds us back from saying no, the use of practicing our no, and practical ways to engage in that practice.
Also, consider your actual feelings, and the nuances of safety. You drive safely and wear a seatbelt because these actions prevent harm to other people in addition to yourself. So do condoms, but your partners can consent directly to specific risks—unlike fellow drivers on the road. You wear sunscreen to protect yourself, but sunscreen and condoms are different. I agree that having zero conversation about sexual health before sex and eschewing barrier protection is pretty irresponsible, and I also think that you’re capable of deciding to take whatever risks you deem appropriate and worth it and communicating those risks to your partners so they can give informed consent. So put some effort into considering what you actually want compared to what you feel you should do. Spend some time on the CDC website learning about the transmission of STIs—while condoms are a great start, it’s a lot more complicated than “use a condom.” Make yourself a chart of the safer sex methods available to you, and design your own ideal stack of swiss cheese—risk mitigation tactics you’ll actually use are more effective than failing toward someone else’s “should.”
Dear How to Do It,
I’ve learned recently that those who have a vagina will sometimes masturbate using a detachable shower head! However, I’m confused about how that works. Is it safe to try, and (at the risk of sounding stupid) how does it actually work? I didn’t know that a pressurized water stream could do that!
—You’ve Been Using Your What?
Dear Using Your What,
Because you say “those who have a vagina,” I’m assuming you do not have a vagina yourself. So, let’s start with the fact that things people with vaginas do to our own vaginas are not necessarily things we want other people doing to our vaginas. Meaning, don’t haul off and hose your girlfriend’s hoo-ha down at high pressure out of nowhere and expect gratitude.
Yes, the detachable shower head—and the bathtub faucet, if you’re flexible enough—are time-honored ways of enjoying sexual stimulation. Sometimes people also use the jets from hot tubs for this purpose. The water, falling on our labia and clitoris, can feel very nice, and if the stream of water is directed properly can cause an orgasm. Vulvas and clitorises tend to respond well to anything from pressure (squeezing or pressing), rubbing, stroking, and tapping. It’s the stroking and tapping that water tends to provide, in a way that is near inherently frictionless.
There’s also a lot of safety stuff to keep in mind. Do not ever spray water INTO the vaginal canal. Be cautious of the risk of washing soap into the vaginal canal, or bath oils, bubble bath, and especially any kind of scrubbing substance. You’ll notice that, generally, we’re cautious about what goes into our vaginas. That’s because they’re delicate ecosystems that can be thrown seriously off by stuff like soap. Heat is another concern. The tissues are delicate, so water that is too warm can cause discomfort or even damage.
So, if you do happen to have a vagina of your own, be cognizant of the safety tips I listed above. And if you don’t have a vagina, but you want to try this, ask your partner and use your best communication skills.
Help us keep giving the advice you crave every week. Sign up for Slate Plus now.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a college student looking for a friends-with-benefits situation, but I’m finding that difficult to navigate online. Almost all of the romantic and sexual connections among my peers start out through social media or dating apps, and I’m very conscious about my digital footprint. While I’m confident in my sexuality and my body, I‘ve never sent nudes or even dirty talk over text for fear of social and professional consequences. Expressing my sexuality online is very hot in theory, but I worry that in practice, it would effectively be a staggering loss of autonomy—that if I ever did so, I could be surrendering my most intimate self to the rest of the world in perpetuity.
I’ve read horror stories about intimate videos being uploaded to porn sites without consent and remaining online despite their subjects’ best efforts to remove them. I’ve seen embarrassing screenshots of celebrities’ horny DMs in the news and been aware of people who’ve circulated their partners’ nudes in group chats without their permission. Because there’s an inherent risk that my activity will be made public, I feel that, in some ways, there’s no distinction between sending something to one person and sending it to everyone.
Despite my convictions, I’m deeply saddened by the thought that my reticence to express myself online might be inhibiting the breadth and joy of my sexual experience in the real world. Am I missing out on great sex just because I’m afraid to text someone and tell them that they’re turning me on? Are long-distance relationships off the table for me because I’m unwilling to be sexual with future partners online? In short, how can I communicate my sexual desires and satisfy others in a way that feels safe to me?
Dear Digitally Distressed,
So you’re feeling atemporal. I came of age as a very sexual person in an era of purity rings and saving oneself. You’re extremely into privacy when the norm seems to be casually texting each other pictures of our buttholes. It probably will take longer for you to find people who want to interact with you in ways that fit with your convictions, concerns, and curiosities. You will almost certainly find those people eventually, and have rewarding relationships with them. But it will take some time. I got through my reversed version of it. You probably will too.
You can still meet people online. Apps don’t necessarily require sexting, and setting boundaries around digital engagement can be a way of screening for people who will respect your boundaries—regardless of what they are. Don’t get bogged down in arguments, don’t take people’s reactions personally, and do keep swiping until you match as mutually attracted with someone who is open to understanding what you are and aren’t open to.
There are also other ways to meet people, which have less of a “nightclub on your phone” feel than the apps tend to. As cosima bee concordia pointed out during a recent chat for a previous column, the concept of friends with benefits involves a component of friends. Are you looking for a friend who you have sex with? Someone you click with, care about, and will hopefully be emotionally intimate with 15 years down the line? Put yourself in the same positions where you’ve met non-sexual friends. Build that friendship. Be prepared for love, and to navigate whether your relationship changes toward or away from dating when that happens. If you’re working with a different definition—say, “beers and boning with a bit of banter”—articulate that. The more you lead with exactly what you’re looking for, the more efficient the search tends to be.
Leave worrying about long-distance relationships until you’re looking for a relationship. Your views might change. The technology might change, allowing you to express yourself in sexual media without feeling too exposed. Sexting scandals could continue apace until nobody cares anymore and there are no potential professional consequences. Stay focused on what you need and want now. Deal with the kind of relationships you might want in the future when you get there. And remember to breathe.
Dear How to Do It,
I’ve been dating an awesome guy for the past four years. He is sweet and supportive and I trust him in a way I never thought would be possible. He is the first person I’ve slept with—there are lots of reasons for this, which I think I’ve dealt with in therapy (there was some minor molestation from older kids at my daycare, my parents are a great team but did not model affection to each other or their kids, and I developed a serious chronic illness at 17 and it took me a long time to get back to a place where I could imagine enjoying my body and believe anyone would willingly choose to love someone with these limitations). I think we have pretty great sex.
Over time, we’ve learned he really enjoys being in control and feeling dominant, this works for me, I find it very gratifying to please him and enjoy feeling I have the power and skill to please him in that way. That said, I’m very aware that I need to be 100 percent (or like 85 percent because it’s exciting enough that I know I’ll get into it) into these activities or I won’t like how I feel later. He gets this and tries very hard not to pressure me but inevitably there are times when he wants to have sex and I feel I have to say no. Usually, this is no big deal but sometimes he takes it really hard, he feels rejected and gets upset with himself for “letting himself get excited.” Because of my illness, this might happen more with us than with other couples but we do try to communicate and prioritize sex. In terms of our attachment, I’m definitely more of a reassurance seeker and he, I believe, tends to try and “need less” and I see him doing this with sex. This worries me. I know I’m right to say no to sex when I’m not into it and that some disappointment is inevitable, my body is frustrating and I do need him to be understanding but I want him to feel wanted and to meet his needs. How do we keep exploring this power dynamic playfully while also protecting ourselves?
—Knows When to Say No
Dear Knows When to Say No,
“My body is frustrating.” This statement and feeling is super valid. Your body frustrates you sometimes. That’s part of being human, and that is often a more intense part of being a human when our bodies require more tenderness or care than others’ bodies seem to. When they send more uncomfortable signals, like pain. Or when they have less capacity in certain situations than we want them to have. Speaking from personal experience here, the sooner you can start from a place of “What am I up for right now?” over a place of “What is the gap between ‘want’ and ‘can’ today?” the likelier things will feel more manageable.
One thing I do is give, basically, a weather report. I might suggest entirely non-penetrative activities or only shallow and slow penetration. I might be less proactive, and say my cervix is sensitive today, leaving it to my partner to suggest ways to engage without exacerbating that. I might, depending on conditions, answer the door with “Body hurts like hell—couch snuggle?” or even text a warning before we’re supposed to meet that I’m happy to see them tonight but am up for essentially nothing other than existing gently, in a soft nest, and talking. This tends to communicate that the range of possibilities is narrower than other times, allowing the other person to keep their suggestions and requests in whatever the “probably yes” zone is that day. The reverse of this is pretty important, too. I’ve also said, “I have tons of energy, no discomfort, and would like to have acrobatic sex while the opportunity is there.” Same with “Feeling great—let’s go for a big walk.” Stating ideas or requests, or at least letting the person know where the boundaries are today, helps prevent the “no rut” in which you’re both frustrated and stressed because everything is a no when all you want to do is find and collaborate on a yes. Depending on the dynamic of your interactions with domination, this might be a status update regarding his tool’s function. Or a plea for particulars you’ve chosen, delivered from your place at his feet. If part of the appeal of being dominated is letting him lead, the two of you might find a way to incorporate that into this information sharing. Have fun with it.
Encountering the field of disability justice helped me begin to contextualize my own body. Whether you’re an art person or a theory person, sex-positive group Sins Invalid is a great place to start. If you can find a way to view Dr. Mitchell Tepper’s documentary Love After War (with your partner would be awesome) you might find some useful examples of couples who have navigated relationships with a dynamic of care tilted in one direction. You also might look into local classes that address BDSM within relationships. There’s no handbook for your situation, but there are resources that might help you unpack various aspects of it.
Remember that feeling wanted, needed, ill, frustrated, loved, satiated, and understood are all temporary states. They may recur, they may last for a long time, but these feelings are not static. He can feel wanted and sexually sated one day, and work on patience the next. So can you. I think you’ve got this.
More Advice From Slate
My girlfriend and I are a heterosexual couple in our mid-40s. Both divorced; no children from either marriage. We started dating last year and moved in together as the pandemic started. Our sex life is very good except for one big thing: I am not allowed to penetrate her vagina in any way or perform oral sex on her.