I’ve Had Lots of Sex Through My 20s. I Just Hit My First Big Consequence—and I’m Weirdly Devastated.
Article By Jessica Stoya
~ September 2021 ~
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a mid-20s woman who mostly has sex with men. I’m not one for relationships, and prefer regular and casual hookups. I’ve always been pretty sex positive and adventurous, but always use protection, ask my partners if they’re clean, and get tested regularly. A few weeks ago, a guy I had gone on a date with and hooked up with five days prior texted me that he had been notified by a previous partner that he had been exposed to STIs, and that he had just received positive results for two STIs—both of which are common and completely curable through antibiotics. I was able to get a doctor’s appointment later that same day, and the doctor started me with a week of antibiotics for both of the infections before even getting my results back, cautioning that since I had been exposed so recently, neither would show up on a test yet if I’d gotten them and it would be better to just proactively treat them instead of waiting a few weeks to see if they’d appear on a test. I finished both rounds of antibiotics, and am waiting another week to get tested again to make sure all is clear.
Logically, I understand that this is kind of the best-case scenario for an STI diagnosis. I was notified within days of exposure, never dealt with any symptoms, hadn’t had any partners since this guy and thus didn’t have to notify anyone else that they’d been exposed, and got treatment immediately. I’m so grateful for all of this, and do not take for granted that both of these infections are completely curable and that I was able to access medical treatment quickly—both things that so many people are not lucky enough to encounter.
Practically, though, I feel humiliated. I didn’t expect this reaction in myself, and am almost embarrassed to even say that I’m feeling this way. I’ve always been such a cheerleader for sexual health, encouraging all those around me to get tested regularly and take charge of their own sex lives. I also realize that being a non-monogamous person who has regular sex means that STIs are a real concern, and shouldn’t be brushed off. Honestly, I’ve been sexually active over a decade and have not always been proactive about getting tested—something I’ve never had to face consequences for until now. In terms of karma, this is just a slap on the wrist and a harsh reminder to keep sexual health front of mind, I suppose. I just can’t seem to shake this feeling of dirtiness and frustration. I keep reminding myself that I did everything right: I asked this guy about his status, he told me he’d recently been tested and everything was negative (now I realize how loosely some people use the term “recently”), and we used protection. Even when reasonable precautions are taken, this kind of stuff happens. I know that, and I keep reminding myself of that, and yet I’m just sitting here hating myself for “letting” this happen to me. As some of my regular flames continue to text me and ask to meet up, I can’t shake the paranoia that I could get an STI from them too. Fool me once, I guess. How can I shake this ridiculous shame and self-stigmatization, and how can I (once I’ve gotten the medical all clear) return to having a satisfying and varied sex life without constantly fearing another exposure? I feel like this has scared me so much that I’ll be abstinent forever out of caution.
Dear Scared Celibate,
In your first sentence, you say you ask your partners if they’re clean to discern whether they’ve recently tested negative for sexually transmittable infections. This sets us up for a positive STI result to mean the person—in this case, you—is dirty. There’s a ton of social baggage that comes to bear here, and this bit of language doesn’t help matters. No wonder you’re feeling humiliated and reminding yourself that you “did everything right.” Society tells us that infections in our genitals are more shameful than infections in our eyes or throat, and that to acquire one means we are or have behaved in a way that is wrong somehow, that we’ve been reckless, or that we deserve punishment.
Given your sex-positive stance, I imagine your embarassment at the feelings you’re experiencing may be causing dissonance. But your actual feelings are just as valid as your logic or philosophy. It’s OK to feel bad. We all have internalized shame about sexuality, our bodies, or transmission of bacteria and viruses. Whether you talk out loud in the shower, speak with a trusted friend, or write it out, I think it’s worth taking a look at the negative feelings you’re having. You might want to express and dismantle them one at a time, or you might want to get them all out and then evaluate your list. Some of your worries might be complicated. For instance, some amount of aversion to risk of disease is adaptive. And you may want to expand your safer sex proceedures by, say, asking for a date of sample collection when you inquire how recent the person’s last negative test was. You also might consider their safer sex proceedures in general—do they also ask for testing history? How recent is recent enough for them to consider a test valid?
You’ll notice the “r” in safer sex up there. There’s no way to guarantee safety during sexual activity. That goes for emotional safety and physical safety. And, specifically, it includes STI transmission. We take risks when we have sex, and while we have many tactics we can use to manage that risk, there’s still a chance of injury to a body part, emotional hurt, and infections.
Your sexually transmittable infections experience is very recent. Sit with your feelings for another few weeks and—even if you aren’t raring to romp—see if your perspective is shifting in a direction you’re happy with. If you’re finding yourself unable to engage in or enjoy sexual interaction in a couple of months, or experiencing any other interruptions to your daily life, see a counselor who can evaluate you for mental health concerns and help you figure out how to best get back to the sexual lifestyle you prefer.
Dear How to Do It,
My wife and I have been together for five years. For the most part, we are happy. My wife is very beautiful. She works in a profession in which she provides professional services mainly to men. For the most part, I’ve done OK with it, but it has created some issues because some guys have tried to cross the line with her, and because sometimes it seems she enjoys the attention. But in the time we’ve been together, I have NEVER given her reason to question my commitment or loyalty.
Today, we were hanging with a group of friends. I quickly checked an email that was addressed to me and her. It was from a woman who is a mutual friend. Our friend, “Joan,” is very attractive, but I am not attracted to her, if that makes sense. I closed my phone and quickly rejoined the conversation.
At one point, because I had just read the email, I accidentally called my wife “Joan” in front of our friends. We all had a good laugh and moved on … so I thought.
When we were alone, my wife began crying and accused me of having a thing for “Joan.” I showed her the email I had just read and explained it was simply a mistake. I apologized profusely and explained how I was sure it embarrassed her, especially in front of our friends … all to no avail. She has barely spoken to me in days, no physical connection, etc. I have to admit there’s a part of me that is glad that she finally knows a little of how I’ve felt these past few years, the insecurities I have had to swallow. At the same time, I don’t want this to continue as it is driving a very unnecessary wedge between us. Any thoughts on how best to proceed?
You find the attention your wife receives at work—combined with what you perceive as her enjoyment of it—threatening. You’re also unsatisfied with the way she responds when you express your insecurity. That’s one issue that should be addressed if it occurs again. Your wife very well might develop another layer of empathy for you after this experience. She also might not, so keep that in mind and consider how to best communicate the reassurance you need in the future. You’ll want to put this on the back burner until intimate communication is reestablished, for the sake of practicality. I wouldn’t bring it up unless something happens in the future, and if that happens, you’ll want to have the conversation at the first appropriate moment.
In this case, I suspect something is going on with your wife that contributed to her reaction to being called “Joan,” but just like you, I have no further detail. The only way to find out is to broach the subject, and that can be tricky when the baseline is barely talking. You’ve been together for five years, so I imagine you’re got some idea of how to approach her. Direct communication is ideal. Something that communicates your commitment, expresses a desire to work through the problem, and suggests a conversation. Set yourself up for success as much as possible and do it when you’re both awake and alert, have privacy without distractions, and are physically comfortable. If there are previous situations you’ve navigated that you can draw useful strategies from, do. If she says no, ask her whether she wants space and what “space” means for her at this time, then respect that. If she simply refuses to engage, you’ll want to start thinking about couple’s counseling and where your limit is.
Dear How to Do It,
I am a 32-year-old man married for 12 years to my college sweetheart and best friend. She has never been very interested in my penis. We’ve talked about this over the years together, and I have educated myself a lot on hwe PIV sex is not how most women experience pleasure. I totally get it. My hands and fingers and kisses and a giant stash of toys are where we spend our time in terms of her pleasure. We flirt. Date. Touch non-sexually. There is no orgasm gap in our bedroom—she always comes first, and the most. I enjoy that. But when it comes to my penis, she rarely touches it, and when she does, it is with no enthusiasm.
When it comes to PIV sex, it is always saved for last and is something she endures for me. We’ve talked about it and she does not enjoy it but has said she will do it if I need to.
Well. I do desire to feel pleasure resulting from that part of my body. I have learned to derive pleasure from other elements of our sexual relationship (giving to her, touching, kissing, cuddling), but when it comes to my penis she she says it’s just not something she likes to touch, look at, or feel. She’s assured me it’s not my particular penis. And it’s not like mine is especially unappealing. It’s solidly normal. Oral for me is something that is completely off the table. A hand job but only in the shower maybe a couple times a year (she doesn’t like the messiness), and if I’m allowed, PIV it has to be quick and only at the end. I am stuck though. I don’t want to resent this. But I am feeling unfulfilled sexually. I can masturbate. And I do. But I desire to feel connected to her. I see in your column sometimes talk about opening things up, but that is not something I want or desire. I want that particular type of connection with my wife. Any ideas for how to work through this?
Your wife’s sexuality does not appear to include attraction to penises. You’ve known for a while she isn’t interested in yours. You want her to engage with your penis with active consent, but I don’t see a world where that happens with your current wife. And this line is concerning: “She does not enjoy it but has said she will do it if I need to.” Your wife is having a kind of sex that she doesn’t want to have—sex that she has to “endure.” That needs to stop. If you want to continue this relationship in a healthy and consensual way, you’ll need to respect her boundaries without putting pressure on her to engage in acts she doesn’t want to and never has.
What are other ways that you can feel a connection? You mention a number of them, but even added together that isn’t quite enough for some. I’m wondering if there’s some possibility in the space between a handjob in the shower and you masturbating alone. Is cuddling you while you give yourself pleasure something she’s comfortable with? How about if you masturbate while you give her oral?
Hopefully there are a couple of options, and that they’re enough for you. If they’re not, you need to accept your wife for who she is and reconsider if this major sexual mismatch is too much for your relationship to survive.
Dear How to Do It,
I like my porn in the form of GIFs, and I like my performers paid properly. Can you recommend somewhere I can scroll through that hot, hot GIF action, ideally sortable by act, while supporting the people who made it?
When you recognize a performer you’ve admired, you might find their fan page or solo site and subscribe for a couple of months or send a nice tip. You might be able to order custom GIFs, too, and with a big enough collection be able to scroll. And if you’re able to find a producer, they may also have a tip function somewhere or a website you can subscribe to for a couple of months. If that’s too much research, you might consider donating to a sex-worker-led organization, like Sex Workers Outreach Project or G.L.I.T.S. By no means is that compensating the creators, but each organization has common causes like the effects of SESTA/FOSTA and MasterCard’s new policies, which affect pornographers as much as any other sex worker.
A version of this article originally appeared here on slate.com