How to Do It

My Boyfriend Does a Horrible Job of Hiding His Fetish in Public. It’s Getting Weird.

I’ve caught him doing it.

Eye emojis next to a woman.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Lingbeek/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Every Thursday, Rich and Stoya answer a special question they could only tackle together, just for Slate Plus members. Join today to never miss a column.

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’ve been dating this guy, Carl, for a bit over six months. It’s been nice, but lately, I’ve run into a problem.

Carl has a thing for women’s arms. I’m not quite sure if it would more properly qualify as a kink or a fetish, but at a certain point, it’s academic. He loves looking out and touching my arms, especially between the elbow and shoulder. And sometimes he’ll just idly brush my biceps and have this almost contented glazed look on his face. Well, it started getting warm where we live, and with the warm weather come, the sleeveless tops. Not everyone is wearing them, but if you walked around the streets here you’d see half of the women in something sleeveless, and my boyfriend is definitely noticing. He probably does this every year, but this is the first summer I’ve been with him. It’s kind of embarrassing to be outside with him as if you know where to look, you can see the tenting in his pants, and he’ll occasionally run his eyes up and down a woman’s arms, which I’ve caught him doing.

I don’t know how to deal with this, and it’s not a normal sexualized thing. But at the same time, I know he’s sexualizing these women and it’s both making me jealous and angry more generally at how overtly he’s doing it. I don’t know how to deal, which is a shame because he’s otherwise a good guy.

—Off Balance.

Rich: I think that you could just take the fetish, kink, whatever you want to call it, out of the equation and you still have a guy who’s ogling other women in front of his partner, making her uncomfortable. That’s the root of the issue.

Stoya: And, from the perspective of someone who gets ogled—and I think this might be why she’s separating jealous from angry more generally—you get frustrated on behalf of the other women. My boyfriend knows how to check out women very subtly, I appreciate that. I appreciate that as a quality in him and as a quality in other men in the world, because you can feel them staring. When I’m in the Western world I am immediately alarmed because of how often stares have escalated. And when I talk to women in the West about this, it seems to be a very common reaction of like, oh, no. It doesn’t feel like a compliment, it feels like a potential threat.

Rich: It’s a trigger.

Stoya: Yeah. So, that’s a thing to also factor in. It hurts for her and it’s also like as a woman, can you be a little more chill, man, because you’re probably freaking someone out.

Rich: Yeah, exactly. I know the term “self-control” is controversial and the very existence of the concept is refuted by some, but this is a matter of controlling oneself. Being respectful. I mean, it would be such a tall order for you to say, never look at any other person that you might be interested in having sex with, even if you never pursue it. We’re in the world, we’re a visual species. But doing things to the point where your partner is noticing and uncomfortable noticing should make you pause and think, okay, now I have to take a step back. This is a young relationship, six months. This is a red flag, and it’s not unreasonable for something like this, and specifically the broader lack of respect it may indicate, to lead to the end of a relationship.

Stoya: Here’s what I would do. I would say, “Hey man, I’m going to admit upfront that I do feel jealous about this. But more broadly, this is also an issue…” And then with as much brevity as possible, I’d repeat what I just rambled about above. “So are you interested in practicing in a safe environment with me, getting your eye full without making it painfully obvious to me and the woman you’re staring at? Because if so, I am down for that. And if not, we’re at an impasse here because it makes my blood boil for two reasons.” And then see what he does.

Rich: Yeah. Because it doesn’t seem like there’s been any kind of discussion. She says, “I don’t know how to deal,” which implies to me that she hasn’t really approached the subject at all. So it’s got to start with the conversation and avoid shaming. By the way, this paraphilia, if you will, is called partialism, it’s under that umbrella. I couldn’t find the term for arms per se. There’s like a term for armpit, there’s a term for legs, et cetera. It seems like arms are one of the less common ones. Legs are obviously popular. I mean, people have that kind of kink, fetish, paraphilia. You hear people talking about that on TV, or at least you did back in the day. “Are you a leg man? Are you a breast man?” But it’s all considered part of that umbrella.

Stoya: I don’t know if this is going to be useful, but I want to push back hard against the entire concept of paraphilia. I’m fed up.

Rich: I know.

Stoya: I’m tired of it. These things are not paraphilia. It’s just appreciating people’s bodies and having a particular taste for particular parts. And making everything a philia, a kink, or a fetish. It’s this idea that, hey, we’re all weird together. But my concept, after over 15 years of reading extensively about sex in academic books, armchair books, internet forums, Twitter, talking to porn fans, talking to people who hate porn, having sex with all kinds of people, everything that we call a paraphilia or a kink or a fetish, I think Zachary Zane articulates this very succinctly in Boyslut, the weird thing is to have absolutely none of that.

Rich: Yeah.

Stoya: That’s what is strange and surprising is like, wait, there’s nothing other than penis and vagina sex that gets you off? Obviously, there are things that are dangerous. Choking is dangerous. Obviously, there are things that are inappropriate: Sex with people that cannot consent, with living creatures that cannot consent, that’s all inappropriate. That may be boundary violation or rape as opposed to sex. But outside of those things, it’s all just sex. It’s all just sexual appreciation. Rant over.

Rich: Yeah. Well, it’s stigmatizing for sure. But I understand the general desire to categorize. It just makes communicating your interests easier, for example. But I think to the initial point that you were making, especially, if somebody has a breast fetish there seems like a very, very limited continuum between a guy who sleeps with people with breasts who has a fetish versus one who just likes them. I mean, that’s so common. And it’s like, how do you even begin to draw that line?

Stoya: I also really want to defend the word fetish in appropriate use cases. We have to have a succinct word for I cannot get aroused or get off without this thing. That’s what fetish meant for a very long time. That’s what fetish meant when I first started learning about sexuality. And now it slipped and people are like, oh, I have a breast fetish. And I’m like, one, no, you don’t. And two, if you don’t see my breasts can you still function sexually? Okay, then why are we using the word fetish? But I’m pedantic about semantics, that is who I am.

Rich: In any event, that’s a little aside. Just to circle back with her, this is a matter of respect and that’s a completely reasonable conversation to have. That is not kink-shaming to say, do something a little bit different with your display, that’s the issue. The issue isn’t what he’s into, the issue is how he’s presenting it.

Stoya: So definitely skip the, it’s not a normal sexualized thing language. Do admit upfront, I am personally feeling jealous about that, but then address the more broad issue of, hey, you’re making me and probably the women you’re staring at uncomfortable because it’s really obvious, can we work on what grownups do, which is observe without whatever display is happening. The tenting in the pants—he can’t control it. But the running the eyes up and down, the being obvious—he can. And if he kind of explodes at you and doesn’t apologize in a couple of days with something genuine that shows introspection, move on.

Rich: Yeah. I mean six months, it’s low stakes at this point. You’re still getting to know each other.

More Advice From Slate

I love my husband. We’ve been together for 14 years. The issue is before we were together, I had an avid sex life. He has never really cared about sex. We haven’t had any in five years (he has a bad back and no sex drive). I’ve tried talking to him; we’ve tried therapy. No changes. Last year, I started sleeping with someone else. It’s amazing. Husband has no clue. My issue is that I don’t feel guilty.