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 a 21-year-old woman, and I’m seven months pregnant at the time of writing this. My boyfriend is on deployment, and while he was away, I decided to surrogate for a couple that lives in the area. The money is better than anything I could make otherwise, and part of the contract I signed meant that I moved in with “Miles” and his wife, rent-free and for much nicer accommodations than I could find on the market.
The couple I’m carrying for is super sweet and some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met, which is starting to turn into a problem. I’m sure it’s just a combination of pregnancy hormones, my boyfriend being away, and having a little too much free time, but I’ve found myself fantasizing about Miles. It doesn’t help that his wife, “Keiko,” keeps pushing us to spend more time together when she’s not hanging out with me. Nothing overtly sexual has happened, but sometimes he does this thing where he rubs my ankles (the swelling’s bad), and it just feels so unbelievably good. In my more rational moments, I can tell that this is very definitely a Bad Idea. But I’m living in his house, and he’s really quite good-looking for a guy in his 40s. And a few times I’ve “let my hands slip” to rub at his shoulders or chest. He always gently asks me to stop after a moment, but I know I’m on the verge of losing control here. How do I stop thinking about this guy?
—Fighting My Feelings
Update, May 5, 2023: You got us, nerds. We missed that this is a joke from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. You do you, but we stand by the advice to these fictional characters from 1996, wherever they are.
Dear Fighting My Feelings,
You know that this is a bad idea, you know that the hormone shifts involved in pregnancy can be intense and cause extreme cravings for everything from food to sex, and you’re aware that your grip on your self-control is becoming slight. Can you move? If that’s an option, consider it.
Also consider how Keiko acts around sexuality, jealousy, and reason. Do you think there’s a world where you can have a conversation about how you’re experiencing feelings you have no desire or intent to act on, and express that you would prefer to spend less time alone with Miles? You’d want to work out what you want to say beforehand and make your points as efficiently as possible. You also want to make sure each of your points has been understood before you move on to the next. And on the other end of possible outcomes, do you think she’d leave you responsible for their baby or resent the child if your relationship became strained over this? Consider that possibility before you broach this subject with her.
Otherwise, distraction. Mindfulness exercises, sensations that wake you up and divert attention from arousal. Getting out of the house. Ask Keiko to do the ankle rubs instead. Make every small decision you can to distance yourself from physical intimacy with and fantasizing about Miles. Good luck.
Dear How to Do It,
I see my ex-husband on a semiregular basis, since we share children and grandchildren. I try to avoid being alone with him because he makes what I consider to be more than inappropriate sexual comments. The most recent: “So, when am I going to see you naked?” My response: “Not today.”
I don’t feel I can respond angrily, which I would really like to do (“Would you please knock it off? We aren’t married anymore, and anyway, you shouldn’t say such things when your grandchildren are here”), since doing so would make being in his presence more than uncomfortable, most especially since these remarks are usually said in proximity to my grandchildren. We were married for 36 years, so for me, creating boundaries with him is extremely difficult. Any suggestions on how to handle this ongoing situation?
—Don’t Want Him Anymore
Dear Don’t Want Him Anymore,
First, are you OK? I imagine that the two of you divorced for at least one reason, and if there’s more to this than your husband making inappropriate comments to you, this is a whole other issue. Presuming that the problem with your interactions is limited to these comments, set the boundary firmly. You can address the issue of grandchildren and children overhearing this discussion by arranging to speak over the phone or video chat, or meet without your family present.
I reached out to Eric Fawcett, a licensed associate marriage and family therapist, for some insight into how boundary-setting functions best. “It’s never too late to learn how to free oneself from the painful grip of others’ words and actions, and instead to live more autonomously by consistently establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries with others,” Fawcett said, before listing three areas where you can make a change: awareness of our authentic feelings, our ability and willingness to express those feelings, and our ability and willingness to take action. Fawcett applauded your connection to your feelings and encouraged you to keep examining your emotions and listening to them. If sessions with a relational therapist are possible and something you’re interested in, he encourages pursuing that too.
When it comes to setting the boundary—expressing your feelings to your ex-husband—Fawcett had some tips. Initially, before talking to your ex, you should spend some time “translating your feelings into words that clearly and concisely express how your husband can act differently in order to respect your boundaries. You might find the right words by journaling, or by talking with a friend. Or, again, you might do this work with a therapist. When my clients are preparing for a challenging boundary-setting conversation, sometimes I will do a role-play with them in which they practice stating their needs out loud.” You’ll want to be very firm, and very direct.
Fawcett shared a potential script for you: “An example of a clear and concise statement in your case may be ‘I really don’t like it when you make any sex-related comments to me, and I’m asking you to never make any such comments to me again.’ Note that this statement does not include an explanation for why you don’t want your ex-husband to make such comments aside from the fact that you don’t like it. When you defend your feelings by attempting to rationalize with your ex (‘You shouldn’t say that because we’re not married’), you’re turning a boundary-setting statement into a conversation, and there is no conversation to be had here.”
You need to be prepared for the fact that your ex-husband might not agree to abide by your rules. “If he refuses to agree, this can and should still be a short conversation. You might end the conversation with ‘That’s very disappointing to me. I still expect you to abide by my request.’ It’s possible that your ex makes such statements just to get under your skin,” Fawcett said. We can only control our own actions and hope that others treat us with respect. If it comes to it, you might want to start seeing the shared family at times he isn’t present. Regardless of how things work out between you and your ex-husband, Fawcett reiterated, “the most important reason to state clear and concise boundaries with your ex has nothing to do with whether or not he honors them.” Expressing our boundaries makes it easier for us to have and express them in the future.
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Dear How to Do It,
I’m a woman in my early 30s, and while I think I love sex and find both masturbation and partnered sex amazing, I have a newly hypersensitive brake pedal when it comes to arousal. As recently as three years ago, I could and would often forgo sleep for sex, often made the first move, loved touch, and found sex comforting in times of stress. Arguments, SSRIs, body image issues—none of it slowed my sex life, and I would have described myself as someone with a high drive and enthusiasm for kink. But over the past few years that’s changed, although my doctor says my hormones and bloodwork are completely normal. I didn’t go through any trauma.
When my girlfriend and I are on vacation, or on a rare weekend when I’m really well rested (eight-plus hours of sleep for two consecutive days) or really physically relaxed (think after a few hours at the gym and then a massage, or long run and then a joint), then it’s as if something unlocks and I can feel mildly aroused for vanilla sex. But outside of that, I find it surprising and kind of unpleasant to be touched. I make space for closeness with my girlfriend often: kissing, cuddling, holding hands, and holding her/dirty talk while she masturbates.
Even that stuff takes effort—the idea of touch feels unappealing a lot of the time. I desperately miss the closeness of sex and the way it feels to be horny or focused on sex. I miss flirting with strangers and the satisfaction of masturbation and thinking up hot sexts to my partner. I miss crushes on hot co-workers and that spark in my stomach when I see my partner, and the warmth of looking forward to the end of a date with her. I feel as if I can’t get back there, and I don’t know what to do, even though I want it so badly.
Dear Barely Sexual,
Like the rest of us, our sexualities change over our lifetimes. Sexuality, despite often being relegated to a hidden space, is woven into the rest of our selves, our emotions, and our other circumstances. What affects one area can affect another.
Since you’re using the language “brake pedal,” I suspect that you’ve come across the Sexual Excitation System. If you haven’t read Emily Nagoski’s Come As You Are, I think that’s a great next step. Her book may help you understand the nuances of what turns you on now. In the meantime, one major area to consider is your energy and relaxation levels. Is it possible to find out what your interest in sexuality is after a week of restful and relaxing days? Is it possible to build more consistent downtime into your daily life? Basically, does the phrase “burned out” sound like you, and is there anything you can do to compensate for that?
Do consider your emotional engagement and ability to be physically present in other areas of your life. If you notice a pattern, it might be helpful to see a mental health professional. If it’s only this area, think about what’s different about sex for you, which areas of sexuality you lost interest in first, and what remained arousing for you for the longest. The former will give you topics to consider, and the latter subjects for practical experimentation. You might also try letting those flashes of interest in vanilla sex simmer when they do happen, and see if they become stronger.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a 27-year-old cisgender woman, and I’ve been hooking up with this guy, “Thomas,” for the past several weeks. I really like him, but the sex has only been so-so, in part because he absolutely refuses to finger me, at least in a penetrative way. This isn’t because he doesn’t realize I like it or anything, but he has nerve damage in his hands and can’t feel most of them. He absolutely will not move his hands out of his field of vision for any reason whatsoever, and he goes over this quick look of his hands after he touches pretty much anything. He even has these clear wrappers he puts over his hands and forearms for when he sleeps; it’s kind of a weird ritual.
I don’t want to be dismissive of his medical concerns, but I would also like to be fingered some of the time. Is there any sort of toy or tool we could use that would let him stimulate me while keeping his hands and fingers in sight? Or some sort of glove that he might find reassuring while at the same time being thin enough that it would work for me?
—Not Being Handled Right
Dear Not Being Handled Right,
There are lots of toys and tools. A whole world full of them, most of which can be ordered online—though it’s worth going to a local sex shop to check things out in person if that’s possible. Without some idea of what you like in terms of girth, sensation, texture, etc., I can’t give you any recommendations that will be helpful. HeyEpiphora.com is a great resource for toy reviews, so hopefully her site can be of help.
I did reach out to Dr. Mitchell Tepper—friend of the column, sexuality coach, and director of the documentary Love After War—who also suggested, via email, that Thomas might see a therapist about the anxiety he’s experiencing. You can gently inquire, and might even gently suggest, but do remember that therapy is a personal choice and not something someone should be coerced into outside of life-threatening circumstances. Thomas’ treatment team may be able to refer him to someone local with a specialty that is relevant to his situation.
More Advice From Slate
I am a 43-year-old man, and my wife is 41. We married when I was 31 and my wife was 29. She never had sex before we got together, not even masturbation, because of her conservative upbringing. On my part, I started masturbation in seventh grade, and I first had sex while I was 16. We enjoyed ourselves the first few years. After that, she seemed to lose interest. I think she had a few real orgasms, but mainly faked them. Now, I always suspected this was because I am not very big—I’m about 3.5 inches erect, and I tend to ejaculate quickly. I told her about bigger men, since she really had no idea, and said she could try another man, since I had 13 to 15 sex partners before we were married and she had none.