Asking about the root cause of kink.

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’m a 50-something male in a phenomenal relationship with a 40-something woman. We’ve recently married, and all is bliss. After dating for several years, our sex life has evolved to a place where we indulge all of our consensual desires, which involve bondage and domination with some intense sadistic elements, inflicted by me.

The issue is that I want to know why she enjoys pain so much. Prior to our relationship, I’d worked through the root causes of my particular kinks, and I’m curious to know hers. Should I risk ruining our amazing sex by overanalyzing it? Or should I just sit back and enjoy, hoping I get answers over time? Also, can you suggest any good books or sources that explore the roots of submissive behavior?

— Pleasure in Pain

Dear Pleasure in Pain,

Let’s separate submission from masochism, as they are, well, separate. Pain is a sensation. Some people like being tickled. Others like the sharp sear of a single tail. Do you analyze why your friends like spicy food? Do you want to now that I’ve brought it up?

Leigh Cowart wrote a book called Hurts So Good (which I was sent an advance copy of for a blurb) that delves into pain, and the people who pursue it. Cowart covers everything from BDSM, to ballet and hot pepper-eating, to ultramarathons, to create a nuanced picture of masochism.

As for understanding submission, I think your best bet is to have a conversation with your wife—”submissive behavior” is a very wide subject that can be deeply informed by identity and demographic. Before you do that, though, it’s worth considering your phrasing. Kink is still widely pathologized, and a lot of us have internalized those beliefs to some degree, so some people who are kinky may react strongly to anything that sounds like medical language, and your curiosity may feel like an attempt to diagnose. Rather than ask her to explain the roots of her desires, start with conversations about the sex you’ve had and what worked for her. Start low and go slow, if you will.

Dear How to Do It,

I’ve recently started seeing someone who is into having clitoral, vaginal, and anal stimulation simultaneously, and I am very eager to please! The problem is that I am kind of uncoordinated, and struggle to be imaginative when I’m a bit stressed (and I get stressed when I’m reminded of how uncoordinated I am during sex).

This means that I’m having trouble figuring out the practicalities of how to actually stimulate all three of those areas at once. I feel like every time I try, one of my fingers that are in one of her orifices ends up poking her at a weird angle because the palm of one hand is immovably squashed into the wrist of another hand; or I accidentally come way too close to gouging out my eyeball with a rogue enthusiastic thumb; or some other less-than-ideal thing ends up happening.

I would love suggestions for how to do triple stimulation in a way that actually works! Ideally, I’d love ideas that both use and don’t use sex toys; toys are useful and so much fun, but I do like the feeling of having the option of being bodies-only from time to time as well.

— Uncoordinated

Dear Uncoordinated,

Sexual geometry, much like spatial geometry, has limits. And since each body is different and I have not been given dimensions or flexibility ranges, I unfortunately can’t help you solve your specific equation. Even if I did have these measurements, I still wouldn’t know exactly how your partner likes to be penetrated.

Furthermore, you’re sort of asking the impossible. You want sex without awkwardness or incoordination, which is not something I’ve experienced. If you watch pornography produced by large studios, you might have certain ideas about how sex is supposed to be. Let me disabuse you of those: Pornography is edited. The awkward parts happen and are removed in editing. Even people who have sex for work frequently have awkward moments. We laugh, or we don’t laugh, and we move on. This gets easier with practice, embarrassment tolerance can be built.

Do you struggle with coordination in general? If so, a physical practice like yoga or tai chi might help you get some more physical awareness. If you’re mostly coordinated but less so in your fingers, try something like piano or guitar. And stretch your hands—the more flexible they are the better, you can maneuver around your partner’s anatomy. I think you’ve got this.

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Dear How to Do It,

Is it rude to use a loud vibrator in a shared home? I rent a room in a three-bedroom apartment with two roommates. I use a Hitachi magic wand to masturbate, and almost nothing else works for me. I can’t afford to try out quieter versions.

They can obviously hear it based on what I can hear from my room. Is pretending not to hear this sort of thing just part of living with people, or am I imposing on them?

— Rude Roommate

Dear Rude,

“Rude” is deeply subjective and depends on social context—what makes one person cringe might put a smile on the face of another. You can keep going as you are, assuming that you think your roommates are able to speak up if the sound bothers them. You can also broach the subject directly: “Hey, I realized you can probably hear my vibrator. Does this bother you?”

The choice comes down to who bears the brunt of broaching something potentially embarrassing. They might not want to say something to you to avoid embarrassing you, and you might not want to say something to them for the same reason. I’m leaning towards you taking the leap yourself, but it’s your decision.

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Dear How to Do It,

My partner and I have been in a long-distance relationship for about three years now. We’re both women in our mid-20s and had never had sex before each other. When we started dating we had sex constantly, over texting and phone or video calls. I thought it was great, but about a year ago she just… stopped wanting to have sex if it wasn’t in person, which only happens once every six months or so. Every time I’ve tried to ask about boundaries, what’s going on, or anything like that, she just shuts down and won’t discuss it. I gave up asking months ago.

I don’t want to be pushy, but I’m starting to get frustrated about her refusal to talk about it. How can I bring this up in a way that isn’t accusatory or pressing? How can I help her work through the refusal to talk about this? Should I just accept the new normal?

— I Just Miss the Sexting

Dear Sexting,

The fact that your partner won’t communicate with you about this after a year gives me extreme pause. I think it’s time for you to consider what you want in a relationship. Make a list of factors (Respect! Communication!) and then try to rank them in their importance to you. Then compare the relationship you have to that list. What would it take to get there? How much longer can you continue without the things that are missing?

Once you have some insight into yourself, go to your partner and tell them what’s happening on your end. “I’m frustrated that we aren’t talking about sex, and that I don’t know why we aren’t talking about sex. What do you need to have this conversation with me?” Crucially, your tone of voice when you say this will have a lot to do with how it is heard. Set yourself up for success by choosing a time when interruptions are unlikely, both of you are calm, and the environment is comfortable. Whether you have this conversation in person or over the phone is up to you; I’d go with whatever method you two communicate best through.

Do be clear that you aren’t pressing for sexual interaction. Also be clear about your willingness to continue in this partnership if things don’t change.

— Stoya

More How to Do It

I am a 35-year-old woman in a hetero marriage and could use some help figuring out how to communicate with my husband about foreplay. Once we get to the sex itself, he’s an attentive lover, happy to go down on me and make sure I come. However, he usually initiates sex by asking if I want to suck his penis, or telling me I want to suck his penis and just taking it out and shaking it at me. He also focuses on my breasts and vagina to the exclusion of the rest of my body. Sometimes I feel like I’m just the sum of my parts! Also, he is my boss, so if he’s gotten mad at me for something work-related, it can feel like my personhood gets shuffled aside. I am attracted to him, but I don’t always want to feel like a bird eager to swallow a fat worm.

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