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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,
My husband, 43 male, and I, 44 female, have been married for 22 years. We both come from rather conservative backgrounds and married early in life, meaning neither of us had much experience with sex before marriage.
In the early years of our marriage, we really tried to be good partners for each other, reading books and trying new toys and experiences in the bedroom. And while it was okay, I never really felt centered in our sex life. Once he came, we were done. I stated my discomfort with this arrangement, and bless him, he tried his best, but his impatience when going down on me made it even that much more difficult than it should have been. I rarely came. After a few years, we faded to once every few weeks lovers. And after a decade, that became months. Now, I can’t remember the last time we had sex, but it was at least a couple of years ago.
I think about sex multiple times a day. And the one sex act we do together is that we masturbate next to each other to our respective porn choices nearly every night. His porn choices tend to be of the gay variety. And I’ve known since early in our marriage that his only prior sexual encounter before our wedding was with a man. I’m fairly convinced that he is gay, but he loves me and I love him. Even if he came out, I’d be happy to still be married to him. We are great partners and best friends. I want to grow old with him by my side. When I bring this up to him, either focusing on our lack of sex drive or naming, “Hey, I love you no matter what.” He says, he understands and that he wants more too. And that he loves me more than anything, but then nothing changes.
At my age, I’m beginning to feel an urgency to have at least a few satisfying sexual experiences in my lifetime. And given the track record, I doubt those will be with him. I don’t want to break up to have those experiences. But he balks whenever I mention the idea of both of us experimenting with others even slightly, like opening up enough for flirting or kissing. I’d be glad for him to experiment with men. And I would like to just have some casual connections. Most of all, I want him to be happy. And he says I make him happy. He makes me happy in every way except sexually. I used to think that was enough. But here in middle age, I feel I deserve this big part of life that I’ve never enjoyed. I just don’t know how to move forward without actually ending my really very good marriage for only the potential of good sex. It seems a bad trade-off. I love the life we’ve made together and the risk seems too great, but I’m only getting hornier and angrier. How might I move forward?
Rich: The sexual relationship that does exist between them is truly fascinating because, on one hand, it doesn’t seem like he’s voiced this potential gayness. I mean, he could also be queer or bi, but it doesn’t seem like they’ve done a lot of talking about that and why that might be complicating their sex life. And yet he’s openly masturbating next to her watching gay porn. So it’s almost like this disconnect between their reality and how they represent it verbally.
Stoya: I also get the sense that the writer is tiptoeing in the conversations about opening up and pitching it as a “we, together, would do things with other people.” And it may be that his hangup is discomfort around his attraction to men. Regardless of whether he’s gay, bi, heterosexual and just likes to look at dicks, pansexual, or whatever. I don’t know. But it may be that the LW’s tactic has been, “Hey, and you could have sex with other people like the men you obviously want,” which is where his reluctance is coming from.
Rich: Yeah. Because also, keep in mind, he’s 43. He was sexually mature when AIDS was still in its plague years. There was a really long time when it seemed like sexual contact between men meant certain death. And that’s a hell of a thing to shake yourself from. I mean, he’s a little bit younger than the generation that was seeing their friends dying all at once. But it’s still old enough to have watched that from afar, be shaped by it, and have your idea of sexuality shaped by that. So there could be that reason too, why he feels like masturbating to gay porn is the safest thing for him.
Stoya: And it might be that he’s concerned about STIs in general and doesn’t want either of them opening themselves up to that risk. It also could be that watching his gay porn with his wife is like a big theatrical, no homo, but I think there are kind of three options here. Stay in the marriage with the sex life that they have, leave the marriage for the potential of good or even great sex, or throw a hand grenade in it and see what happens.
Rich: Yes. To your earlier point, it’s all about framing this. It’s not about, “Oh, look at how generous I’m being to you while I go get mine.” I think now is the time when the writer says basically the last paragraph, or the last few sentences to their partner.
Stoya: Leave the fairly convinced that he is gay part out. Start it with: “We are great partners and best friends. I want to grow old with you.”
Rich: Yes. Emphasize the, “But I’m having a really hard time.” Say: “I’m totally fine with this arrangement. I just need a little bit more.” And see where that conversation takes you. That’s the first step to opening up. Express your own desires.
Stoya: Yeah. And if the writer is really considering dropping the Hail Mary of: “Hey, either we open up, or I leave because I do not want this completely lifeless bed that we have, I want more than that,” that gives her the possibility of retaining the relationship and gives him the option to understand the extremity of the situation and possibly make a choice that is less comfortable for him. So remember, there are more than two options here.
Rich: Exactly. I think that our writer is basically conceding in the current arrangement, so to put him on the spot and ask him to concede as well is not an injustice. It’s only logical, really. You have to make this arrangement work. And by the way, because I just answered a question recently that had me reaching for Joe Kort’s book, Is My Husband Gay, Straight, Or Bi? The book is from 2014, and he wrote, at least at the time, that two-thirds of mixed marriages, in which one partner is gay and one partner is not, end in divorce. That means that one-third of them does not. I’m sure these statistics are from scant data, so take them with a grain of salt. But still!
That’s a lot of people in these arrangements that make it work despite the discordance of sexualities. So what I’m saying is this is not a certain death for the relationship. There is a way to figure it out and make it work and keep somebody in your life as your life partner, even if you’re not having sex with them. I mean, this happens to couples that aren’t mixed in their sexualities. There are gay people, there are straight people, there are all kinds of people who have partners that they live with and spend their life with, but don’t have sex with. It’s all possible, but it’s not going to be possible without a real declaration of necessity of what our writer says she needs.
Stoya: Yeah. Otherwise, he’s just going to keep doing the most convenient thing, which is not the fireworks sex that our writer is looking for.
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