This column is part of Advice Week, Slate’s celebration of all things advice.
Sometimes, all you need is a different perspective. So this week, our columnists have swapped fields of expertise. In this edition, Emily McCombs, a Care and Feeding columnist, handles your sex questions.
Dear How to Do It,
I am a 52-year-old mostly straight woman. I have a teen son and have been single for over a decade. I dated a man for a couple of years who met every sexual desire of mine. He was slightly dominant and I realized I really enjoyed being slightly submissive. We enjoyed exploring those roles in all sorts of different ways. We also had incredible chemistry. Unfortunately, we were not compatible otherwise and broke up many times, mostly because of his temper and gaslighting. We both have dated other people and often hook up when not dating someone else, but we know we cannot date again. The hookups are out of this world.
I recently met and fell madly in love with an older man and am struggling in this newer relationship. We are best friends and have a ton in common. We have a strong connection in all the ways my last relationship failed—we can communicate openly, we love spending time together, he has become close to my family, he is kind and generous, and we are intellectually compatible. Our sexual connection is fraught, however.
I am constantly frustrated. I have to really work to be attracted to him, even though I love him and he is in good physical shape for his age. His kindness and care are a turnoff during sex. I have described and demonstrated to him what I enjoy in bed, but his efforts seem to mostly fall flat for me. He wants to please me so badly, yet this in itself turns me off. I loved the raw and unfiltered intensity of my previous relationship, yet this is also what led us to break up.
I am constantly tempted to hook up with my ex, who lives right around the corner, and am considering asking my boyfriend if he would be open to this on occasion. I know he would feel threatened to some extent. All of this makes me really question my current relationship and is causing a lot of anxiety. This is such a common problem—women not being attracted to “nice” guys even though, obviously, being treated with respect is a basic requirement in a good relationship. How do I navigate my opposing needs for emotional connection and safety, as well as raw and unfiltered passion? I don’t want to lose my best friend, but I don’t see him becoming the sexual being I desire, and it seems unfair to want him to change.
—Turned Off by Kindness
Dear Turned Off by Kindness,
I feel personally attacked by your letter! As a fellow kinky woman whose sexual requirements are niche enough to narrow my dating pool, it has been the great struggle of my love life to find partners who I am compatible with on both a sexual level and an everyday emotional one. Because while you position emotional connection/safety and sexual passion as opposing needs, ideally they should not be. It is possible to explore even the most degrading of sexual fantasies in the context of a safe and loving relationship, and for me, the combination has been truly next-level. But it’s not easy to find—and you may have to be intentional in your search.
It all comes down to knowing what you truly need to be fulfilled in a relationship. Is the kink connection a nice-to-have or a need-to-have? If it’s the latter, you already know things are not going to work out with a strictly vanilla partner, although to be honest, it sounds like you may not be sexually attracted to your current partner in general, all sexual preferences aside. You might be better off looking for connections in a kink-specific space like the dating app Feeld, the social networking site FetLife, or even local events for the like-minded. Because sexual connection is a hugely important aspect of a romantic relationship, one of the key elements that separates a bestie from a (pardon the term) lover, and there’s nothing wrong with prioritizing it.
That said, if you find that you’re truly “turned off by kindness” outside of the bedroom context, and are repeatedly drawn to partners who treat you badly—believe me, I get it—you may have some trauma and/or family of origin issues to work out with a therapist. Because even BDSM relationships (especially BDSM relationships!) should be built on a foundation of trust and respect.
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 am a 38-year-old cis woman, married for 10 years to a great man with somewhat more traditional values than I. We’re a blended family with a total of four kids. Three years ago I had what felt like a lightning-strike “aha!” experience which made me realize that I am bisexual (not a sexual experience; essentially a love-at-first-sight experience). I told my husband last summer after several years of inner struggle. As I’ve come to accept bisexuality as part of my identity, I’m having feelings of “missing out” on this part of myself. I want to open up our relationship to explore this, but he is adamantly opposed to the idea. I feel very much at a loss as to how we can come to some sort of agreement on this that works for both of us; there’s a lot at stake here, and neither of us wants to split up. I just feel like I am out of touch with half of myself. For what it’s worth, our sex life has gotten WAY better since I told him, and I honestly think exploring this would make it way better still. I wish I could go to therapy but my work schedule makes it next to impossible. There are good and bad days; I’m just looking for any advice that might help me find the middle ground here. Any suggestions?
—Longing for Ladies
Dear Longing for Ladies,
Congratulations on discovering this aspect of your identity and being honest about it with your spouse. One thing important to note is that bisexuality is not synonymous with nonmonogamy. Many bisexual people are in monogamous relationships and it’s a misconception that being bisexual automatically means you need “both” to be satisfied.
But with that being said, you are bisexual and also, additionally, interested in exploring nonmonogamy. Opening a previously monogamous relationship requires a series of ongoing conversations. Your partner may have an initial knee-jerk reaction to what he thinks a nonmonogamous relationship looks like, but there are many different ways to approach it. Explain to your partner what kind of open relationship you envision having and listen to his fears and concerns. Is he willing to do further research on potential relationship structures together? (The Ethical Slut is the obvious place to start.)
Sometimes there is room for compromise. For instance, could you explore together by dating or playing as a couple? Perhaps he would be more comfortable with a lesser degree of emotional involvement, wherein only casual sex, not dating, is on the table. But nonmonogamy requires a lot of commitment and communication from both partners, so if he’s not fully on board, the whole thing is likely to implode. If you can’t come to an agreement, you’ll need to seriously think about just how essential sexual autonomy is to your overall sense of self and relationship satisfaction.
If you do decide to stay together, it doesn’t have to mean boarding up your sexual identity. There are plenty of ways to explore your sexuality within a monogamous relationship. You can fantasize about other women, either alone or with your partner. You may want to watch lesbian porn, alone or together. And of course, there’s more to being queer than just sex. There’s a wealth of pop culture and literature focused on the experiences of gay and bisexual women to work your way through. Go to Pride! Visit a gay bar! Volunteer with an LGBTQ+ organization. Talk about and process your identity with friends. Experiment with changing the more heteronormative aspects of your look, or get your partner one of those T-shirts that says “I’m not gay, but my girlfriend is!” (Just kidding on that last one—I think they stopped making those in the 90s.) Ultimately, your bisexuality is not dependent on whether you currently are or whether you ever have sex with women. You just might need to work a little harder to create your own bisexual visibility within your marriage.
Help us keep giving the advice you crave every week. Sign up for Slate Plus now.
Dear How to Do It,
My wife and I have been married for 25 years. My wife has been suffering from severe depression for 20 years, and I have been her caretaker for all these years. Due to her condition, we don’t have a sex life. I realize that I will be her caretaker until I or she passes away. I am in my early 60s and I want to experience life. I never wanted to cheat on her and I know she will never approve of my cheating on her. Lately, I am getting an urge to seek sexual relations outside of my marriage, is it wrong for me to seek sexual relations outside of marriage? We cannot get divorced because she depends on me for her well-being, I will never forgive myself If I do that.
Dear Ethically Challenged,
This is a tough one. Sex is one of life’s vital pleasures and everyone deserves to experience it. I also imagine that you are missing the intimacy you once shared with the partner that you love enough to care for ‘til death do you part. If your wife is absolutely no longer interested in sex, you can still find non-sexual ways to enjoy intimacy together like holding hands, cuddling, hugging, or massaging one another.
Even so, I can understand why looking forward across a vast sexless tundra with no specific end date in sight could be a bit soul-draining. It won’t be an easy conversation, but I think you have to express to your wife that while you love her and are completely committed to your relationship, you also have needs that are going unmet. Ask if you can work together to come up with potential solutions. If your wife isn’t comfortable with potential emotional entanglements, you might consider seeing a sex worker in some capacity. Many of my friends who are sex workers have described seeing clients in similar circumstances. A couples counselor could be of assistance in helping you determine the conditions of your agreement.
As hard as this might be for your wife to hear, I think it’s essential that you express your needs because if you don’t, you are likely to end up resenting her. Additionally, if your needs are not tended to as well as your wife’s, you’re likely to find yourself burnt out on providing her with the long-term care she needs.
Dear How to Do It,
I’ve been with my partner for about six years now. We faced and dealt with a mismatch in libido which turned out to be caused by my partner’s relationship with sex and masturbation—they used masturbation to manage a not-inconsiderable amount of anxiety. With some healthy alternative outlets like therapy and meditation, we now enjoy a more evenly matched sex life. He now enjoys masturbating as a positive, affirming activity!
One habit I got into when we were having a libido mismatch was, ironically, furtively and secretly masturbating after partner sex. They would go off to the bathroom, and I’d immediately jump to getting a few more orgasms.
Now even though the libido issue is fixed, I’m stuck in this vicious loop. I can’t stop trying to get one (or two, or three) more in the time it takes them to come back to bed. My partner is super attentive during sex. We’ve masturbated in front of each other and if I said I wanted to do it more, they’d likely find it attractive… However, the furtive element is a large part of the allure here. But I’m also terrified of them one day coming out, seeing me, and feeling like this is a sign of inadequacy. Do I have to come clean as a partner?
Dear Bonus Fun,
First off: Congrats on your ability to give yourself rapid-fire multiples in the time it takes your partner to brush his teeth and wash his face. Impressive!
There are lots of reasons to sometimes prefer masturbation to partnered sex, and I don’t think your desire to top off a satisfying sexual encounter with a bonus orgasm or two is necessarily a cause for concern on its own. After all, masturbation and partnered sex are different experiences that serve different purposes. But the fact that you don’t feel you can be honest about the behavior, and are actively hiding it from your partner is what worries me.
What is underneath the secrecy? You did say you are masturbating to have “a few more” orgasms, so I’m assuming you are getting off during partnered sex, and it doesn’t sound like you’d prefer to have more orgasms with your partner. If you just don’t want your partner getting involved in your post-sex masturbation sesh, could you explain to them that it’s not a reflection on them or your satisfaction, but you enjoy the quick and relatively low-effort experience of a few minutes of solo play after sex?
Given that your partner was willing to be vulnerable and work through the issue with his own masturbation habits, I do think you owe it to him to do the same. At the end of the day, there’s absolutely no reason to be ashamed, so you should have nothing to hide.
More Advice From Slate
I’m a 39-year-old woman. When I was 20, I met my first very well-endowed man, who in a way “trained” me to take a large penis. Since then, I’ve been in two monogamous long-term relationships, both with average-size men. I hate to admit this, but I left both those relationships because the length just didn’t cut it for me…