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Dear How to Do It,
My wife (33f) and I (36f) have been married for eight months, and together four years. We both experienced childhood sexual abuse and sexual assault as young adults. The difference is that when we met I had spent several years in therapy and working through issues; she was still a virgin and had pretty much repressed all her experiences. In the beginning, she seemed inexperienced but enthusiastic, but once the novelty wore off, there was a steep drop in her sexual interest—to the point where, while I was quickly falling for her, I told her that if she saw her low sex drive as a part of who she was, we would need to discontinue the relationship because I couldn’t be unsatisfied forever. She said she wasn’t happy with it and saw it as a trauma response she’d like to overcome. Over the past few years, we’ve worked through so much, separately and together. We’ve both gone to therapy and we went through the workbook Sexual Awareness by Barry and Emily McCarthy. Our sex life has improved exponentially.
So, what’s the issue? I hate to even complain when I can see how far we’ve come. But I simply cannot get away from longing for the one element I am desperately missing: spontaneity. Any kind of sexual intimacy has to be planned ahead of time. If I approach and kiss her, she will peck me and be closed off to more, moving away or being very stiff if I try to continue. If I say something suggestive or try to touch her intimately, she either doesn’t notice or just responds playfully, like with a juvenile smack on my butt. If I try to initiate sex, she will turn me down. To her credit, she has learned the “right” way to turn me down—reiterating that she loves me, offering cuddles or other closeness, and suggesting a different time to have sex, such as the following evening. And she follows through with that plan.
I can avoid the letdown by never suggesting intimacy “in the moment.” If I simply start by suggesting it for some point in the future, usually we come up with something and it does happen. I don’t mind that, most of the time. But having to always schedule sex or even just make-out sessions leaves me craving the high of touching her or catching her eye and igniting a mutual spark and following that desire. Not to mention that always having to contain my urge to initiate the connection or risk the near certainty of being rejected feels awful. I’m not a walking sex machine, but I am attracted to her. I’ve told her how important it is to me to feel desired. She knows how often I’d like just a drawn-out steamy kiss or a hot stolen moment before we go back to the day’s events. I don’t need it every time, but just occasionally I’d like to feel as if I could proposition my wife and inspire an actual immediate desire. She says she just doesn’t know how to do that … and I don’t know how to teach her. Is there some therapeutic trick we can try? What am I missing?
—Missing the Spark
Dear Missing the Spark,
You mention a book and ask for a therapeutic trick, but have you tried actual therapy together? Your wife has said that her sexuality feels informed by the trauma she’s experienced and that she’d like to work on that. A qualified therapist can help facilitate this conversation between you two in a way that books, love, and tricks can’t. Find room in your budget, and if the first one isn’t a fit, move along to the next.
As for what you’re missing, Emily Nagoski’s Come as You Are might fill in an important gap. Not everyone has spontaneous desire. And not everyone gets revved up in that “immediate” way you want to feel from her, regardless of whether they’ve had negative sexual experiences or not. It’s possible that your wife needs more foreplay, more teasing, and more leading her into sexual desire, and always will. Nagoski’s book contains several exercises for getting to know one’s arousal style, and for working together as a couple when your arousal styles are at odds with each other. If the book feels useful for you, there’s also a workbook with further tools you can look into.
Dear How to Do It,
I know it’s never right to be in a secret relationship, but how does one get over a breakup that wasn’t so secret after all? He made me think he was having an affair with me because his wife was no longer intimate with him due to her menopausal state. All of his work associates knew about me, as did some of his other family members. After I discovered that there were (naturally) other playmates and he denied there were on several occasions but dropped enough hints, I regained my self-worth and bounced. I ended it in a text, which prompted him to call several times, but I didn’t pick up or return subsequent messages. I felt I didn’t owe him any more of my energy, time, or thoughts, and I still don’t.
It’s now been over two years, and while I went on the apps I found the same guys (including him) from then messaging me and new ones who just seem to turn me off in the way they present themselves, their inability to say more than a hello in a message, and the assumption I want to be with someone who is already attached to another or others. I am OK with non-monogamy in the confines of an agreement I may potentially enter, not one already established. I am as clear as I can be about what I am seeking and not seeking but am open to some deviation, as getting to know someone requires you to spend time in person with them. Sometimes I feel it’s better to be alone. What’s your take?
Dear Longtime Reader,
I think it’s worth separating the affair from the post-breakup blues you seem to be experiencing, and both of those from your feeling that it might be better to be alone. They’re all related in some way, but these things are sometimes easier to handle in smaller parts.
So, you had an affair. And the guy didn’t keep you a secret, which probably gave you a false impression of how much of a “relationship” your relationship was. Of course, the guy who didn’t keep you secret failed to keep his other partners secret from you. And it sounds like you didn’t have a talk with him about wanting this to be a don’t-ask-don’t-tell situation with regard to those other partners. You’re done; you can move on—in theory.
After this relationship that wasn’t what you want, your boundaries are more clear to you. You know you’re OK in a non-monogamous relationship—though I’m not sure what “an agreement [you] may potentially enter, not one already established” means. Maybe you’re OK if you’re the primary but not when someone else is? You might want to ask a friend to help you work on your phrasing there. Lack of clarity in your profile as you’re swiping may be part of the issue you’re experiencing.
And you’re feeling like being alone might be best. That’s OK! Sometimes alone is the best thing for now. Sometimes it’s the best thing forever. Take a break—from the swiping, from meeting people, and from looking for a partner. If you get to a point where you do feel like you want to go searching, you’ll feel more rested. Hopefully more curious, excited, and invigorated too.
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Dear How to Do It,
I am a woman in a relationship with another woman, and we have a very classic top/bottom dynamic. I am historically what one could call a service top: I get off on giving pretty girls what they want. My girlfriend tells me she enjoys our sex and I believe her; however, she has in the past enjoyed more power play and even pain in her sexual relationships. I’m definitely interested! I think the idea of her giving up control and me using that control to make her feel amazing is very hot, but I’ve never been a dominant top, and I really don’t know where to start. Dominance just isn’t in my comfort zone, but I feel as if this could be a really fun avenue for us to explore, and I, of course, want to give her what she wants. She is in no way pressuring or rushing me, but it’s something we talk about pretty regularly, and I would appreciate any advice on becoming the dominant top of my girl’s dreams.
I reached out to Sinclair Sexsmith, a sex writer who describes themselves as “a nonbinary dominant with 20-plus years of experience, who started off as a service top” for some tips from someone who has walked the path you’re hoping to follow. I’ve been a fan of their work for over a decade, and they’ve got a way of articulating the tenderness of dominance. First up, Sinclair says to “create a ‘palette of permission’—create a list together of things that you have consent to do. For now, don’t include things that are edgy for either of you; focus on activities, feelings, and play that are comfortable and well-established between you. Then you can trust that you can choose things from this list in different orders, and with different variations.”
Trust is crucial to healthy BDSM. Sinclair’s next point is to “trust her, and trust yourself—dominance is about confidence, and trusting that you are in control. Create some short sentences that you can repeat to yourself before (or during) your play, like ‘I’m in charge.’ ‘I can tell her to do anything on the palette.’ ‘I am focusing on my pleasure.’ You could ask her for a few affirmations and sentences, too.” Part of the function of this trust is to reduce the number of times you’re breaking the fourth wall, as it were.
“Checking in—try not to check in with her too much during play,” Sinclair says. “Asking things like, ‘Is this okay?’ can take her out of her submissive mindset. You can use the stoplight colors—green, yellow, red—as safe words, and if you ask, ‘Green?’ and she says, ‘Green,’ then you know you’re good to go. Trust her to tell you if anything is not working.” Often the desire to submit is driven by a desire to temporarily give over control, so the goal here is to set yourself up to be able to feel comfortable taking that control.
Sinclair also encourages you to consider yourself. “Generally, dominance focuses on the dom’s pleasure and desire. What kink and sex things do you really love and crave? Can you focus on just those, just for a scene, an hour?” Think about your motivations and desires in the grand or broad sense as well. “Take some time to ponder why you’re so focused on doing what she wants. What does your mind say when you think about being more dominant, taking what you want, telling her what to do, and focusing on your pleasure?” Sinclair notes.
And, when it’s all over, Sinclair reminds us of the importance of “aftercare—since you aren’t checking in (as much) during the scene, take some time to debrief. Ask her what she liked most, what was the hardest part, and what she’d love more of in the future. Dominants can have aftercare too.” I’ve learned a lot from Sinclair’s work over the years, and encourage you to check out their blog. They also offer one-on-one coaching, which, whether you go with Sinclair or someone local, might help you work through any hiccups that come your way or step up your game—there’s nothing like having a person you can call to discuss a specific moment with to figure out what went sideways or what could make your sex life even better.
Dear How to Do It,
How can I tell the difference between platonic and sexual attraction? I’m pretty sure my “first crush” was actually just someone whose personality I loved and wanted to get closer to, simply as a friend. I also have a best friend whom I love in multiple different ways, but ever since I met her, I’ve questioned whether I love her as a friend or more than that. I’ve struggled with knowing the difference between platonic love and romantic love my whole life since I’ve found myself attracted to people (though I’m not even completely sure if this has happened even now, other than two particular fictional characters). I know this probably differentiates between people, but I’m still curious for some tips, if possible, to figure out how this works for me.
—Best Friend or Girlfriend
Dear Best Friend or Girlfriend,
Like most binary sets of categories, the idea of platonic and sexual attraction doesn’t quite give the full picture. Sometimes platonic affection (which I’m taking here to mean friendship) grows out of a sexual relationship. Sometimes sexual attraction comes from platonic regard. Romance, as best as I can tell, is about a special kind of sweetness—holding hands, bringing small gifts, and expressing love. Until my mid-30s, I was more romantic with my platonic friends than with my lovers. I was also friends with most of my lovers and remained friends with some after the lovers aspect ceased. You see how it’s all topsy-turvy? I think what you’re trying to describe with “sexual attraction” and “romance” is the feeling of this person possibly being your person (regardless of whether you have more than one person across a lifetime, or even simultaneously). You want to be with them, wholly. There’s no area that feels inappropriate to engage in—sex, cuddling, thinking deep thoughts, emotional sharing, or fun activities.
To come at it from a physical angle, crushes are generally felt in the stomach and chest. Sexual attraction is more often in the genitals, ears, and nipples. And friendship and love tend to be felt in the heart and shoulders. To be clear, the same person can inspire some combination of, or all of, these feelings. And exactly where you feel what sensations might vary—this is simply a way for you to start thinking through it.
If you can, try to focus on this particular friend of yours and what you might want with her. If you’re willing to risk destabilizing the relationship the two of you have, talk with her about these thoughts you’re wondering about. Find out where she’s at. The more you engage in relationships, the more you’ll understand what your physical and emotional responses tend to mean. It’s a process of trial and error. You’ll gain an understanding, and then you’ll find yourself in the position I’m in—trying to explain to someone a whole mess of things that poets have been attempting to describe for centuries. To me, this quest to articulate is one of the most beautiful aspects of being a human, regardless of whether we’re sexual or asexual, romantic or aromantic. You’ll get this, slowly.
More Advice From Slate
I have been trying to do my own research, but I am running into a dead end and would like some input. I am a 43-year-old straight woman in a relationship with a fabulous man. My problem, not that I am even sure that it is a problem, isn’t necessarily with my relationship—it’s with my orgasms. They are Earth-shattering.