Faking it

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JUN 4, 2004

Can I stop him from going by pretending to come?


Dear Cary,

I am an attractive young woman who is married to a man I love and trust very much. I love sharing my life with my husband, coming home and telling stories of our day, cooking dinner together, going on trips together, laughing, bitching, cuddling, hiking, shopping, and having adventures together. ‘Til death do us part.

I also love making love with my husband — though with far less frequency than when we first got together three years ago. But here’s what’s weird: I never have an orgasm. I’ve had sex with several men before my husband and though I also enjoyed sex then — same thing. I can probably count on one hand the number of times that a man has brought me to orgasm at all.

That’s not the real problem, though it’s a problem, to be sure. The problem I want to discuss is the fact that my husband doesn’t know any of this. I mean, I fake it. I always have. Why? Now that I’m with him, a man I can share so many things with — it seems sad and silly. But I faked it when I started having sex in high school because I was in high school and I didn’t know any better. Then I faked it in college because I was embarrassed that I couldn’t actually have an orgasm and it would be just so exhausting to try and I wanted to save guys the effort and the weirdness of having sex with someone who’s never really totally present.

Finally, when I met my husband several years ago, I knew he was different. I didn’t want to lie to him. I faked it early on but convinced myself that I just needed to try harder and to focus more and I could do it. Without involving him. I managed a few times, but far more often, it’s just easier to enjoy sex on the level that I’m accustomed to: enjoying the closeness, the pleasure — but not the intense physical pleasure of orgasm. But then it was too late to tell him. He takes such delight in my pleasure that I can’t imagine what telling him now would do to him and his self-esteem.

Obviously there are a lot of issues here, physiological and psychological ones, like why I’m unable to orgasm with a man (but perfectly able to do so myself) and why I feel the need to fake it. But the real question I want answered is: Is it possible that my marriage is as good as I believe it is? How weighty is this secret, really? Isn’t it possible that — though this does bother me — I am still capable of having a happy, healthy marriage? Or am I in denial that this is always going to be a huge roadblock in our marriage?

I don’t know what to think about this problem, let alone do! Please help!

Cold Fish

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Dear Cold Fish,

First I will try to answer the question you want answered. Then I will try to answer the question you don’t want answered.

I will do this because questions can be a form of control, and if control is part of the problem (as it is in your case), then it’s time to take a little of that control away from you, to tie you up a little, to shush your mouth and find a place in that quick and agile brain of yours for a new and contrary idea.

The question you want answered is: Can your marriage be as good as you think it is, even though you have been deceiving your husband in this way? The answer is yes, it may be as good as you think it is, even with the deception. Your inability to have an orgasm during intercourse with your husband is not necessarily some dark indicator of a fundamental rift, but simply, for the moment, a common physiological fact. It’s one you share with many women. Basically you can stop worrying that failure to come during intercourse means there’s something deeply wrong with your marriage.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t something deeply wrong, however — which brings us to the question that you don’t want answered: Is it your role to shield your husband from the truth about you? This is the new and contrary idea that perhaps you don’t want to hear. No, it’s not your role to shield your husband from the truth about you. Such “protection,” however well-intended, is a form of control and disrespect. It is not as benign as you might like to believe. It may have larger implications beyond the bedroom.

It’s easy to understand how you got into this mess. A friend of mine was startled to find, when she took a poll at a dinner party, that she was the only woman there who had never faked an orgasm. She was the only one who even felt that it was a big deal. When she asked a prostitute friend of hers about the issue, she got another interesting fact: “I only fake it when I’m getting paid,” said the prostitute — which has some interesting implications, doesn’t it?

Sex between men and women often begins as mercenary barter in which each party, by seeking maximum pleasure and minimum pain, in effect makes an economic choice to minimize disclosure and maximize deception.

This is true as regards human vanity, in which a man may suck in his belly and a woman hide her thighs; it is true as regards emotional attachment, in which each party maintains the maximum of ambivalence lest unwanted commitments arise; and it is true as regards our desire to appear to be utterly sated, to exaggerate the pleasure we have derived from the encounter.

Why should this last form of deception be so important? It is, but why? Showing the other that we are pleased maximizes our options for repeat encounters. If we show displeasure, we limit our future chances. Furthermore, there is nothing creepier than bad sex, but bad sex is only truly bad sex when it is mutually acknowledged. Even the worst bad sex can be passed off as only mildly bad sex if both parties pretend, with great intensity, that it was really, really great.

So sex itself is far from a raw unpeeling of our true selves; more than many of us care to admit, it involves great deception.

At least that’s how it often is in the beginning, especially between two people who really don’t know each other all that well. As sex progresses, however, in a relationship — and this is what we all know about its legendary capacity — it does have the power to radically strip us of every shred of pretense and bare our souls to each other and to the heavens as nothing else can. So naturally as a sexual relationship progresses, if the heavens do not open and the deception does not fall away but instead endures and indeed, because it must, increases in its variation and virtuosity, then naturally the sense that something is wrong does become sharper with every episode.

What happens, it seems to me, is that the various ways we deceive each other during sex become, after a while, a tool of emotional control in the relationship. Or at least it seems to have become so in your case.

Since women are often assigned the role of emotional caretaker in a relationship, a woman can gain power by “protecting” a man from the truth about her emotions and her body. Men collaborate in this deception by giving women a hard time when the truth is finally told.

We men can change that over time, but it takes work. We need practice in coaxing out the difficult truth and welcoming it, giving it a home, living with it. We need to work at doing this and get better at it so that the great knowledge women harbor becomes more available to us. Women know more than we can ever get out of them, but we have only touched the surface of the reservoir so far. And that is the area in which I believe you are doing your husband a great disservice: You are allowing him to wallow in his ignorance. He deserves the truth.

We all deserve the truth from the women in our lives but we will get it only if we work at it. We have to offer rewards to the women who tell us the truth. No woman wants to tell the truth if it’s met with scorn, resentment, defensiveness or abuse. So we men have to create an environment in which women can and do tell us the truth about how they feel and what they want.

But it’s a 50-50 proposition. And in this case, I think you have to come clean.

The problem with “having a talk” — you know, sitting at the kitchen table all evening drinking tea and trying to “understand” each other — is that talk sometimes makes it worse; it makes the next sexual encounter awkward and fraught with anxiety. So I suggest, though it sounds a little nutty, that you disclose this fact during the act of sex itself. The next time you’re having sex, instead of acting out an orgasm, act out your disclosure with the same thespian enthusiasm; let loose with your confession at the top of your lungs: “I’m not coming! I’m not faking! I’m not coming! I’m not faking!” Don’t interrupt the sex act. If your husband pauses, just say “Harder! Harder!”

Later, when he says, “What the hell was that?” you can tell him, with genuine contrition, that you were afraid all these years that if he knew you weren’t coming he might think you were inadequate, or that he himself was inadequate, and now you know neither one of you is inadequate but that your orgasm could be a goal you could work on together. Now you know your only inadequacy is your fear of losing him. Your only inadequacy was your mistaken belief that you could stop him from going by pretending to come.

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I’m 32 already. Time to get married!

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, SEP 25, 2009

I’m tired of fooling around with guys who just want one thing


Dear Cary,

I’m still single at 32 and hate it. I absolutely want to find and fall in love with a man I can spend the rest of my life with. The problem is, I keep ruining things by sleeping with men too soon, often right away. And each time I make this mistake, I am left even more hopeless, feeling worthless, terrified and convinced that I’ll never find a man who wants more from me than sex.

Here’s the latest: I met a great, handsome, friendly, smart, nice guy at a friend’s barbecue. We clearly hit it off, had immediate chemistry, and proceeded to flirt all day. After the barbecue, we all went out to some bars, and we all got pretty drunk. I and my new man-friend continued to flirt, which eventually turned into making out on the dance floor. Fast forward an hour or so, and I’m happily going home with him, and we spend the night together. The next morning is nice, we exchange information and make plans to see each other again. But after our first real date, I never hear from him again. Because this is not my first rodeo, I slowly come to realize, AGAIN, that I’ve completely ruined any chance he and I ever had by sleeping with him right away. And it’s my fault; I ruined it and now I feel absolutely worthless. The whole thing crashes down and it’s MY FAULT. My fault for being spontaneous, for wanting to have fun, for being a fun girl. It’s MY FAULT because it’s my responsibility to say no, to know that a guy couldn’t possibly stop it and beyond that, has no reason to do so.

I keep following this pattern even when I know it won’t bring the outcome I want. But in the glow of the evening, all flushed with flirtation and fun and devil-may-care attitude, I just want to go with the flow, enjoy myself and have some fun. It seems like I have only two options — be myself, have fun, and then get rejected; or be constantly on guard, suspicious of all men, keep them at arm’s length, and maybe get a second date. Neither option seems ideal, but obviously the one I keep choosing is ultimately not going to get me what I want. I try to convince myself that I’m this sexually confident woman who doesn’t follow traditional gender roles, but really I can’t help believing that deep down, I’m just an insecure slut. I get opposing messages from all kinds of media — books, movies, magazines, etc. — some telling me that I should wield my sexual power how I see fit, others saying I should hold back “the goodies” for three dates, or one month, or 90 days, etc. So now I’m asking you. Am I sexually liberated, or just a slut?

Eternal Bachelorette

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Dear Eternal Bachelorette,

I don’t think this is about being either sexually liberated or just a slut. I think it’s about your desire to move from one stage of life to another. It is sad to give up the fun and carefree ways of your current life. This behavior has given you much joy in the past. Yet it is not serving you now. It’s making you unhappy. So you know you must give it up. But you keep doing it.

You don’t think there’s anything wrong, or bad, with what you are doing, but you don’t like the results.

There was a time not long ago when you were fine with what you’re doing. So what changed? You changed. You want something different now.

There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a good thing.

But how do you become ready to move from one stage of life to the next? It helps to openly admit that it’s going to be sad to leave this stage of life you’ve enjoyed so much. If there were a ceremony to signal your readiness for this change, that would be nice. Perhaps there are, or were, at certain points in your life, but their efficacy was lost, or they were not held at the correct time. But this is no joke.

If you meet a man you like and you are afraid you are going to do the same old thing you always do but want to do something different, before you do anything, call yourself a cab.  Assume that you have nothing to lose by being frank and strong with this man. While the cab is on its way, take this man’s hand and lead him away from the crowd and lean him up against the wall behind the dance hall and tell him that you are so attracted to him in such a special way you’re likely to fuck him right then and there if he doesn’t call you a cab.

If he says, “OK, you’re a cab,” maybe there is a possibility. Put a GPS device on him. Tell him the cab is already coming, you know how to call cabs yourself. Get out of there. Pray that the cab comes fast.

Leave. Go home. Take a shower. Drink some tea. Get some sleep.

Give away what you have been withholding and withhold what you’ve been giving away. That doesn’t mean follow “The Rules.” It means get real. Tell him you want a man to fall in love with and stay with, and if that’s a problem for him then OK there are plenty of chicks. Plenty. Next. Not to be crass. But you have to come from a place of complete honesty and vulnerability and pain. Because if you want a lifetime relationship that is what it will be full of: honesty and vulnerability and pain.

It’s complicated, OK? Every pattern of pain is different. It’s your fingerprint of pain. It’s your snowflake of pain. Everyone is a little bit funny. So study yourself. Begin a course of spiritual growth. Begin meditating daily. Begin asking yourself big, open questions and being ready to receive the answers.

If you seem to be “difficult” or “can’t make up your mind” or are “wasting this dude’s time,” fine. Waste this dude’s time. You are not looking for a dude who is checking his watch to see if you’ve taken your clothes off yet. Not because you’re playing him but because you’re doing just the opposite: You’re being your true, cautious, wounded, loving self. Because for once you’re going to take care of yourself and value your own timing. You do not want a man who is in a hurry. You do not want a man who is looking for convenience. 7-Elevens are convenient. People don’t get married there.

You’re ready for a new kind of life. Open the door to it thoroughly, passionately, completely, and I have a feeling it will come.

Act now for best results.

I found a girl in my son’s bed

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JUN 30, 2009

I don’t think I’m comfortable with my 17-year-old bringing 16-year-old girls home — but what to do?


Dear Cary:

Last night I discovered my 17-year-old son brought a girl to stay the night. To say the least it was unexpected and I don’t think I was expected to find out. I found out when I woke up around 4:30 in the morning and went to have a glass of water and found an extra pair of shoes at the door.

I entered my son’s room to find a young girl of maybe 16 in his bed. I didn’t say anything (I think shock set in for a while) and said to him aloud that I wasn’t really sure what to say but would talk with him later on. I didn’t kick her out. I had to leave later that morning and my son worked at night so I haven’t had a chance to talk to him yet. After thinking about it I’ve decided that it’s not something I’m comfortable with and plan on telling him I don’t wish for it to happen again. I also plan on reminding him that he comes from a long line of successful impregnators so he would be wise to keep protection handy.

I’m a fairly liberal parent and give plenty of leeway to my children. I’m a single father as well. My son is an A student who holds down two jobs, and he is going into grade 12 this fall. He’s easygoing, ambitious and intelligent. I’ve never minded him having girlfriends. I expect he will respect my wishes and not bring her again overnight.

Is there something else I should say to him?

Concerned

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Dear Concerned,

There are many things you might say. But first: What is the girl’s name and age? Where does she live? What are her parents’ names, and their phone number and address? Those are reasonable questions. You may reasonably want to know much more — what precautions are they taking, how long have they been sexually active together, and how many other partners has your son had? But you need at least to know who the girl is and what her situation is.

Let’s hope she is at least 16. Otherwise he may have broken the law. And even if she is 16, in some states, under some combination of circumstances, sexual activity between them might be illegal. For instance, according to the age-of-consent laws linked to in the previous sentence, in New York state, “Sex with a person under 17 is a misdemeanor if the perpetrator is at least 16 (see infra). (‘Sexual misconduct,’ NY Penal Law § 130.20.)” So if they had sex in the state of New York, he may have committed a misdemeanor. It might not hurt to consult a family lawyer.

That said, might we talk a bit more broadly, and at distinct cross-purposes to what has just been said? For I am about to critique our entire society for doing what I have just done: treating sex first as a problem and second as a gift.

To begin again with an innocent mind cleansed of the obvious, let us ask: Why is sex bad?

We know that sex is not bad per se. Yet we routinely greet the sexual awakening as a problem. We do not celebrate it. It represents for your son a unique rite of passage. Your son is having sex! He must be very happy about that. He is also proud. He may have wanted you to discover him in bed with a girl. No matter what you said, just knowing that you saw him means a lot to him. This is not the pride of callous male conquest. It is rather the pride of discovery and arrival. It is probably something he would like to share, if he could do so safely, with fear neither of ridicule nor of corny congratulations in the gruff, squirm-inducing way of men uneasy with intimacy.

It is too bad that we do not have family rituals for celebrating such a thing. Weddings have metastasized into grotesque spectacles of affluence perhaps in part because they no longer represent the moment of sexual awakening. There ought to be rituals for that, the actual coming-of-age.

Fat chance.

Imagine trying to institute such a thing.

The very idea could get you arrested.

And yet I remember well.

I remember the clatter of dishes at dawn, tiptoeing out of a girl’s bedroom before the mom noticed. This happened a good bit in high school. And though we knew we had broken rules, we had no consciousness of having done wrong, only that we had done right in contravention of the many unreasonable restrictions imposed on us by ignorant adults. We felt such pleasure and beauty, such happiness and satisfaction! How could the gods not look favorably upon us — even if adults sought to constrain our desires?

And what were we supposed to do — emulate the adults around us whose arid, pleasureless lives filled us with dread? We did not wish to emulate a society of adults seemingly locked in a dry, tortured existence. We did not want to learn how to live our lives as they were living theirs. Why would we? What did they have to offer us?

So we defied them, quietly seeking pleasure where we could — in the darkness, in the early morning hours, in the quiet, air-conditioned rooms of our parents’ houses while they slept. We had found something that seemed to fulfill our destiny, ill-understood as it was, and we happily pursued it as though it were our life’s calling.

Of course, whatever your experience of sex was as a youth, you now are an adult and responsible for enforcing all the adult rules and so, too, of course you are uncomfortable with the idea of your son having sex because he’s your son, after all. Of course it gives you pause. How could it not? Let us count the ways in which the issue is bound to cause you discomfort:

You don’t control it. It could have bad consequences. You’re probably supposed to stop it. If you don’t stop it you may be held up to public censure and private condemnation. You might find yourself with a granddaughter or grandson. You might have to pay for a wedding. You might have to tell the girl to leave. You might have to police your house more vigilantly. You might have to think about your son having sex. You might be troubled by thoughts that seem just plain wrong: You shouldn’t be picturing your son having sex. You may find you carry a deep-seated taboo about that. It just plain isn’t right. Other things that may happen that you could find yourself worrying about: Your son may come to emotional harm. His girlfriend may come to emotional harm. You may find yourself wanting to console them or fix things you cannot fix. The parents of the girl may call you. You may feel responsible for your son’s actions even though you know that properly speaking you cannot be responsible for something you knew nothing about.

And yet in the midst of all this, you might wonder why this beautiful event, which is celebrated in rituals and songs and dances and paintings and sculptures and myth the world over, is cause for such concern.

Sex may bring pregnancy and the threat of disease. There are religious taboos in addition to the many unpleasant repercussions mentioned above. It is an issue for a father to deal with. It is many things. But while you do what must be done, as a father, as an adult, try to take a minute to celebrate this as well. It is also an awakening.

 

Help! I’m falling for a fat man!

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JUL 27, 2006

I like this guy a lot, but the poundage is a turnoff.


Dear Cary,

Currently I’m dating a man who just won’t leave my consciousness, not for a moment. I think of him all the time. He’s pretty special.

My problem is this: This wonderful man with whom I’ve shared some amazing moments and do share a phenomenal connection … he’s overweight. He’s not merely out of shape or a hike and a swim away from fit, he’s fat.

I’ve made a conscious effort to look past it (“it” being my own stupid, shallow, superficial, counterproductive reaction to the weight), but there it is, all of the time. In bed, he’s attentive, very strong, wonderful — we enjoy genuine chemistry — but even when the lights are out I find it difficult to navigate his flesh. I’m a smallish person stature-wise; it’s difficult for me to wind around a man with what little leg I’ve been given, never mind a man the size of one and a half men.

Worse yet is I fear being a selfish lover, because I don’t fantasize pleasing him the way I would ordinarily with a slimmer man. I’m intimidated, daunted and generally unprepared for certain activities.

I don’t know what to do. It’s a turnoff. And worst of all, part of the reason it’s a turnoff is that I see myself with a head-turner when the lights are on. I’ve always been with striking men — not pretty boys, but men who had that quality; after all, it’s that quality which turns my head in the first place. And this man just doesn’t light my fire in that way. I’m attracted to nearly everything about him but his size. So he doesn’t light my fire, and doesn’t feed my ego in the company of strangers. I hate myself even for admitting it; it’s just so superficial.

Am I trying to convince myself that we have a future together? Is there any way I can get past my bias and enjoy this person for who he is in total?

Weighing in, in Washington

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Weighing in,

You haven’t gotten this far by pretending. You’ve gotten this far by being straightforward and honest, and I suggest you continue being straightforward and honest.

This is harder, of course, because we are freaked out about fat. It is one of our crazy things. It goes deep. It has its paradoxes and corollaries as well — we are freaked out about skinny, and we are freaked out about food, and the planet, and the body and money and exercise and power. We are a freaked-out culture. We are all freaked out.

The fat man knows this.

If you are a fat man in America you cannot help noticing that people are freaked out about fat. People will suggest exercise bikes. They will feed you lean portions. They will say to each other, “It’s his fault, and it’s disgusting; he must have no willpower; he must eat the wrong things; he must be repressing something; he must not respect himself.” And what does the fat guy say? He says, Yes, thank you for that astute observation, I have indeed noticed that I am fat.

So I suggest what you do is go in your backyard and sit quietly and meditate on the fact that you are not turned on by this fat man. Meditate on the fact that you like him very much but he doesn’t turn you on. Wait for something to come to you. Accept the answer that comes. If you come to the feeling that you have to end it, then end it. If you come to the feeling that you want to stay with him for a while more, then stay with him for a while more. If you come to both, then put each on an apothecary’s scale, weigh them and choose the one that weighs a little more.

Don’t try to reason it out and don’t guilt-trip yourself. We don’t know why we are the way we are. It’s not our job to know. Just meditate on it and wait for an answer.

Maybe you meditate on it and the answer that comes is that it’s just not right for you. OK. Make a tearful goodbye. Or maybe you meditate on it and it continues to intrigue you and so you stay with him for a while. What’s the harm in that? Maybe you learn something new. Maybe you have sex and it turns out to be good. Maybe it’s just some learning you have to do — maybe you are not used to having sex in ways that are not automatic; maybe there would be some learning at first and then it would be automatic, just as it always was. What can it hurt to find out?

And by the way, why are you in such a hurry lately? Two or three dates is not all that much time. Human emotion goes slowly. Insight is a complex computation; it can take days on our little computers.

Besides, consider: The sex is great in the beginning lots of times. This you no doubt know. It doesn’t always stay great. It might dwindle down. It might be great at first with some guy you don’t like that much otherwise. It might dwindle down and then what have you got? A guy you don’t like all that much anyway whom you don’t like to fuck much either anymore.

Some things are painful and sad and wrong but nonetheless true.

We are the way we are for reasons unknown to us. You needn’t feel guilty if it isn’t working out. Quiet your mind and wait for the answer to come to you.

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Our friend got drunk and went to a hotel room with a bunch of Marines

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, MAY 6, 2008

We think she’s out of control, and we think she should tell her boyfriend.


Dear Cary,

I am writing to you to get advice about a friend of mine who has some rather troubling issues that I fear may one day turn into very serious issues that will affect her entire life, and not just for the short term. My friend, whom I will call Jan, has been my friend for 13 years. We went to high school together. Jan rooms with another mutual friend from high school, whom I will call Lisa. All three of us are 26.

To make a very long story short, Jan went out one night with one of her friends (whom I don’t know very well), and got really, really drunk — so drunk in fact that Jan and her friend decided to go to a hotel room with a bunch of Marines that they had just met that very night. Lisa and I were up until 5 a.m. trying to find Jan, who had been drunken-dialing us with worrisome messages like, “I lost my friend, I can’t find her! I’m in a hotel room. Come and find me!” CLICK.

We did find Jan and her friend and brought Jan home, and immediately I knew something wasn’t right with her. Lisa got the full story from Jan’s friend, who then went home. As it turns out, Jan had consensual, unprotected sex with one of the Marines.

This is not the first time something like this has happened. Jan is notorious for having dangerous (unprotected), drunken liaisons with boyfriends and strangers alike. This happens frequently enough that Lisa has unwittingly become a “guardian” figure to Jan, having to rescue her on many occasions. Jan acknowledges, when sober, she has a problem, but refuses to take any steps to solve the problem. Rather, she blames everyone else (“You and she didn’t come with me to the bar!”) or tries to avoid the subject altogether (“I know, I know! Can we not talk about it right now?”). Lisa, for how kind and absolutely fantastic she is, is just too averse to confrontation to put down her foot and say, “Enough is enough! You need real help, and I am not going to come to your rescue at 5 a.m. anymore.”

Now, the kicker is that Jan is continuing to have sex with her long-term boyfriend, and she absolutely refuses to tell him about her encounter. (She hasn’t gotten the results of her STD tests back yet, either.) I personally don’t know Jan’s boyfriend well enough to talk to him about it, and even if I did, I’m not sure if it would be my place to do so. However, I worry that Jan is putting her boyfriend in jeopardy by risking infecting him with any STDs she may have. Lisa, on the other hand, knows Jan’s boyfriend really well, but she doesn’t feel it’s her place to get involved and is uncomfortably passive about the situation. I equate this situation to Jan’s pointing a strange, unknown firearm at her boyfriend and pulling the trigger, not knowing if it will fire blanks or a bullet.

My respect for Jan has waned so much that I fear I may not be able to look her in the eye and consider her a friend. She is a 26-year-old woman, handling adult problems like a child. Worse yet, she is possibly endangering the life of someone she claims to love. (She has been with her boyfriend for eight years.) Her fear is that he will leave her, and he very well might, but doesn’t he have the right to know and make an informed decision, at the very least to ensure he uses protection when having sex with her?

Do you have any advice for how we should handle this situation? In your opinion, it is our responsibility to confront Jan’s boyfriend with this issue if Jan won’t? Also, do you think that Lisa should continue to be Jan’s guardian figure, or do you think that she is unwittingly enabling Jan by always being there to bail her out?

Concerned Friend

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Dear Concerned Friend,

The boyfriend has a right to know that he may have been exposed to a sexually transmitted disease.

If the test comes back clean, that proves nothing. She is engaging in a pattern of behavior that may result in infection at any time.

She doesn’t need to tell him that she got drunk and went to a hotel room with a bunch of Marines. She just needs to tell him that because of her behavior he may have been exposed to an STD.

Informing him carries certain risks. The most likely risk is that they’ll break up. That would be unpleasant but probably for the best. There may be a risk of physical violence as well. Has he ever threatened her or her friends with violence? Some people respond violently to traumatic or upsetting news. If he is violent, she should be protected when she tells him. There should be someone capable of controlling him there — a friend or a police officer.

If she won’t tell him, someone else will have to tell him. Who will that be? Health department policies on partner notification differ widely from state to state and county to county. If she won’t do it, then you and your friends have to figure out a way to make sure it gets done.

Tell her that he has to be told and he is going to be told. Don’t let her talk you out of it. Instead, use the fact that he is going to be told as a way of persuading her to tell him herself. Maybe she will reason that if he’s going to be told anyway, she should do it first.

Then fill her purse with condoms.

Really. I mean, if she’s going to keep on like this — and she shows no sign of stopping soon — then she has to start putting condoms on the men she has sex with. Otherwise she’s a public health risk. She may be too out of control to actually be sure that her partners wear condoms, but put them in her purse just the same. Future partners may choose to wear a condom if one is available.

Remember: It isn’t just about her and him. It’s about those Marines, too, and about anybody else who might cross her path — or her boyfriend’s path, because we don’t know what he’s doing, either.

There is a limited amount of useful information on the Web; InSpot.org is a good place to start. See also this discussion and this article that discusses a survey of American doctors on the question of partner notification.

As I read over your letter, I keep coming back to the phrase “consensual, unprotected sex.” You say she had “consensual, unprotected sex” — while drunk, in a hotel room full of Marines. The sex was with a Marine and it was consensual. OK. She had just the Marine — while drinking. OK. Maybe they were both drunk. We don’t know. And there were a bunch of Marines. She was drunk in a hotel room full of Marines. Marines are strong young men trained to kill. OK. They are also trained to be gentlemen. OK. And, well, it may have started out fun, but at one point she was dialing her friends on her cellphone, crying out for help, calling for rescue, crying out that she had been abandoned. She was drunk and afraid. It does not sound like an episode of “The Love Boat.” That’s not to say she was raped. But perhaps we could say she had sex with a Marine under conditions of traumatic fear blunted by drunkenness. That’s not good.

I picture that hotel room full of Marines and your friend, drunk, abandoned by her friend and hungry for something, seeking something, vaguely aware that once she starts drinking she often can’t stop or control what she does next, vaguely aware that whatever has been happening to her lately is happening again, and every time it happens it seems to get a little more out of control. When I picture that hotel room and what went on there — maybe with just one Marine but maybe more than one, given that her shame may be overwhelming and her memory incomplete — when I picture her desperation and her hunger for whatever it is she was seeking at the end of the night, and then I hear the phrase “consensual, unprotected sex,” I marvel at the gulf between the language and the event. Perhaps this language indicates the gulf between your world and hers as well, and between the full horror of what happened and our willingness to imagine the full horror of what happened.

So I wonder what she says to herself about it. I doubt she says to herself, “Well, I went and had unprotected consensual sex with a Marine again, darn it!” I wonder what she would say if she could speak freely, with deep emotion, to someone she completely trusted. I wonder how it seems to her — that she was abandoned by her friends and ended up being taken advantage of? That they were nice guys but things just got out of control? That it would have been great if she and the one Marine could have just gotten off alone by themselves? And did she, in her heart of hearts, do it to get back at her boyfriend for some slight real or imagined?

I also wonder in what sense it was truly consensual. We are animals and we feel fear. Drunk, we do things to survive. We can feel when there is a killer in the room. We can feel when a killer’s reflexes have been trained. We can feel when it would be unwise to resist. Given our animal nature, the instincts that drive us when we are drunk and incapable of rational choice, given our desperate pretense in the face of implied danger, to say that it was “consensual” is to say what? What does the phrase “drunken 26-year-old woman in a hotel room full of Marines” say to you? Does that say the same thing as “consensual, unprotected sex”?

The more I imagine what went on in that room, the more I wonder if you and your good friends have come to terms with, or admitted to consciousness, the full terror of the event. No one probably knows for sure what really happened in that hotel room. Has anyone uttered the word “trauma” in relation to these events? Imagine the trauma to her roommate. Imagine her own traumatic shame when she woke up. And where did she wake up, or come out of a partial blackout? In the hotel room with the Marines, or in her car, or on the street, or in her own bed? Shame and degradation hide behind the phrase “consensual, unprotected sex.”

So beyond the public health issue of notifying the boyfriend, the emotional trauma of the event needs to be acknowledged, and she needs to get some help. I am convinced, having been out of control at times in my 20s, that we do not just go out of control for no reason. It happens in context. It happens because of feelings, because of our inability to control our response to alcohol, because we are hurt, cut off from friends and family, fearful about survival, unable to process and admit to ourselves our feelings about other things, and it snowballs. It escalates. One out-of-control incident leads to shame and humiliation and fuck it all, who the fuck cares now, might as well get out of control again because my friends did not rescue me the first time, so fuck them too, they must not care about me, and since they don’t care about me I must be pretty worthless, and if I’m worthless you’re worthless too, you shit, we’re all worthless, so what if I give my fucking boyfriend an STD, he should have been there to protect me from those Marines and protect me from myself, too. So fuck him. Fuck you. Fuck it all.

This is the way we end up dead. It snowballs. We stop caring. We enter into a spiral of shame and anger and humiliation, hopelessness, betrayal and self-betrayal, abandonment and apathy. We shut off. It’s too much to feel. We go dead. We shut off by drinking more and by abandoning ourselves, by giving ourselves away in pieces like a car parted out to thieves.

Cary Tennis Connecticut Writing Retreat

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Vibrators and the man

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Cary’s classic column WEDNESDAY, JAN 22, 2003 12:05 PM PST

My husband “goes at it” with porn and sex toys right in front of me!


Dear Cary,

Lately, my husband of 10 years has developed a fascination (obsession?) with video porn and vibrating sex toys. He says he’s sick of hiding it, so after the kids go to sleep, he pops in a tape and commences to “go at it” whether I’m in the room or not. His purported reason is that since I have no interest in him and he doesn’t want to cheat on me, he will resort to his own devices, so to speak. I find this behavior shocking, disrespectful, morally bankrupt and frankly repulsive.

There is nothing wrong with me, biologically, that I so consistently fail to meet his needs. But in truth, I would rather read a book. And this spectacle makes me want to run screaming from the house, which I would do were it not for my kids.

I should say that when we are intimate, it is mutually satisfying, and while I’m set for at least a week, it sets in motion a campaign-like effort of his to get me to do it all the time (like every night). Sure, there is a bit of a mismatch in our frequency preference (which is normal, isn’t it?), but I find myself literally avoiding him so as to duck the pressure. He doesn’t hug me, he grinds me. He doesn’t kiss me, he gropes me. Get the picture? He wants me to wear uncomfortable, skimpy things when I am cold, tired or just plain bloated. I am no lingerie model — more like an overweight, middle-aged soccer mom, albeit with high cheekbones and good hair (just so you know I’m not depressed and self-loathing).

I am no prude and enjoy the above-mentioned entertainments, in small doses (as a “spice,” not the main ingredient) on especially romantic occasions (which are so rare as to be nonexistent). I fear that this pastime of his is becoming a lifestyle, and it’s one I deplore and cannot abide, never mind share. Emotionally and sexually, it’s driving me further and further away from him, which is supposedly what started it all in the first place!

As an aside, could worry about one’s wife’s health (say, if she had a life-threatening but treatable illness) cause or exacerbate such extreme and objectionable impulses/behavior, with no apparent regard for said wife’s response?

Tired and Dejected

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Dear Tired and Dejected,

Yikes! That’s disgusting! He can’t do that! Make him stop!

That’s my gut reaction. In a moment, after I shake it off, I’m going to try to make some coherent and useful suggestions in a cool, empathic and measured manner, as is my job and my native bent. But first I just have to say, one more time, yuck. Please, so we all can stop cringing and groaning, as a first step, tell him to stop doing that.

Thank you. That’s better.

Now, here’s the thing. Theoretically, just for the record, this could be perfectly OK. There’s nothing wrong with two people doing what you describe if they both want to do it. But if only one of you wants to do it, and the other finds the behavior shocking, disrespectful, morally bankrupt and frankly repulsive, then it’s like the polar opposite of mutually pleasing behavior between consenting adults. It’s more like some weird creepy kind of psychic rape. He’s not even touching you but he’s transgressing a sacred boundary, making it clear in symbolic terms that you are defenseless. It’s like his libido has come unmoored from domesticity and, drunk on commercialized sexual imagery, is running wild. It’s a little bizarre and kind of frightening.

So I don’t care how you do it, but first just make him stop. This may involve some argument, but it really has to be nonnegotiable. His argument — that he doesn’t want to cheat on you and he doesn’t want to hide — may sound almost reasonable on its surface, but it’s not a reasonable argument. It’s shallow and childish. He should be given to understand that after he agrees to stop, there are lots of options to discuss. But, as in diplomacy, the open hostilities must cease before talks can begin.

Once he’s put away the toys and turned off the video, you two have to really come to terms. You’ve obviously grown far apart sexually. And he, I would guess, is very angry at you. Yes, he is angry. Perhaps he feels sexually rejected. Perhaps he feels unwanted. I don’t think, even for a very stupid man, that this could be an innocent act; it is a naked provocation. He must want to hurt you.

This is going to take some work, and probably somebody smarter than all of us in these matters will need to step in and translate for you, so that you can make yourselves understood to each other. He is not only trying to hurt you but also trying to get your attention; he wants to say something to you. That he’s chosen this way indicates an alarming lack of discretion and a shocking disregard for your feelings, but nonetheless I don’t think he’s just an angry idiot innocently consumed with pornography. There is something he wants to say. It could be that he wants out of the marriage. It could be that he is incredibly hurt. It could be that he feels monstrously guilty. It could be that he just needs some privacy and needs to exercise some discretion.

If he has worries about your health, he needs to verbalize them. And if they bear some connection to his behavior, that must be made explicit somehow. He’s the only one who can tell you what he feels about your state of health. Whatever the underlying feelings are, you need to get them out in the open. But getting them out in the open is not therapeutic in itself. That’s just the beginning. You need to understand their implications. Maybe he needs to go jerk off twice a day. Maybe he needs to go to strip clubs or watch naked lesbian mud wrestling. Maybe you two need to split up.

I would think that if you love him and you two can accept that while well-matched in some ways you are comically mismatched in others, and just get over it, you could live together and not have to freak out the kids. If you could grant him a private sexual life with agreed-upon boundaries and just not have it shoved in your face, perhaps you two could stop hurting each other and call a truce.

Or perhaps the marriage is over and it would be best for you and for the kids if you split up. If underneath all this is just a bottomless pit of anger and recrimination, you could spend the rest of your life trying to get to the bottom of it for little benefit to either of you. That’s what you have to decide. You have to take your discussion all the way. It might take a while, a year perhaps, to work through it all. But you can’t keep going like this. There’s too much being acted out here and not enough being said.

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Her vagina smells like spoiled cabbage

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Dear Cary,

How do you tell your vegan girlfriend that she smells like spoiled cabbage, and sometimes the smell “down there” is revolting? Hopefully you can pull this out of the archives, I hate to see people work for free.

Signed,

Let’s Come Together for a Better-Smelling World!

Dear Let’s Come Together,

First, before you say anything to her, I suggest you learn as much as you can about the possible sources of vaginal odor. The Mayo Clinic site is great for solid, general information.

Then bring it up, but gently. Don’t mention spoiled cabbage. Don’t mention her vegan diet. Tell her that you noticed an unusual odor and that while it may have many causes, you are concerned, lest it be a health issue for her. Suggest that if it persists she should see her doctor just to be sure it isn’t an infection that needs to be treated, or one of a few more serious conditions.

While food doesn’t directly cause strong vaginal odor, according to this piece at the site Woman4Woman, “it can contribute to changes in the vaginal environment and affect the scent of your vaginal secretions.”

The fact that you mention that she’s a vegan indicates a couple of things. You may have noticed food-related odors on her skin and breath, and diet may have something to do with that. You may also have certain negative feelings about her vegan diet that you haven’t fully shared with her. So this could be a tricky subject, maybe as touchy as her vagina. So be careful and keep in mind that the most important thing here is the relationship. And the sex. Without condemning her diet, you might mention that certain foods really do change how she tastes. You might mention that the sex is very important to you, and you want to continue to have a good sex life, and then see if perhaps you can bathe together first, or something like that. Or ask if you can wash it. She might like that, actually, if you put it the right way. It might feel pretty good. It depends on the person.

And definitely, if it persists, she should see a doctor.

Also — and here we get to the emotional part: If she objects to your bringing it up, or seems not to care, or thinks it shouldn’t be an issue, then you might get mad. You might want to break up with her. You might want to make hypothetical statements about some perceived connection between her vaginal odor and her vegan diet. If that happens,  just take a deep breath and tell her that it feels like she’s not taking your feelings seriously.

Seriously. I know that sounds all kinda California and all, but give it a try. Focus on the feelings, not on the cabbage.

I am indeed as you say “working for free” on this column now, until we can figure out a revenue model (O Holy Grail of Internet commerce where are you?) so I cannot go into as much detail as I might like, but I hope this is helpful. And if this reply isn’t helpful, try Dan Savage. Our many wise readers will also, I hope, comment with their experience and knowledge.

Thank you, O Great Readers and Commenters, Many of Whom Have Come Here From that Other Land We Remember Fondly but Also with Concern …

Best
CT

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