If My Girlfriend Knew What I Was Thinking About During Sex, She’d Be Crushed

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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 straight man in a healthy relationship with a woman whom I love deeply and find very sexy and attractive. Our sex life is active and fulfilling, and we communicate very openly about all things, including sex. We enjoy experimenting and are sexually compatible. But she doesn’t know what I think about when it comes time to orgasm.

I virtually always think about other women during sex. I run a porn reel in my mind. Throughout my life, whether having sex with a partner or masturbating, I basically star in my own little private porn production. There’s not a lot of difference in what’s going on in my mind as I reach climax in either case. I know your advice almost always centers on openness and communication, but I honestly think even the kindest possible discussion about this would crush my partner.

I’ve tried to redirect my thoughts many times to no avail. Sex is great. But to climax, I turn to the X-rated highlight reel. I know repressed desires seem to fit in terms of explaining why I do this, and maybe this was true when I developed the habit, but ironically, my partner would probably gladly do any of the pervy things I think about if she thought it would be a turn on for me. So what specifically do people think about during sex? Is it disrespectful to my partner to think about someone other than her during sex? Is there hope for changing a lifelong sexual habit?

Stoya: I mean, people think about all kinds of things during sex.

Rich: I think ideally—and this is a very subjective recounting of what ideal is—but to me, the best sex is you enter a flow state where you’re not really thinking about anything. You’re just kind of experiencing. You’re not always going to get there. And so, there are a lot of different methods that people use to get over the edge. Some might require sex toys. We hear from people with vaginas ask, “I use a vibrator to get off. That’s how I do it. There’s nothing else that’s going to do it for me. Can I do this with a partner?” And I would always say, “Yes, of course.” With a lot of this stuff that gets you over the edge, it’s kind of like, well, you have got to do what you got to do.

Stoya: As much as this man thinks about his X-rated highlight reel, some men think about anything that’s not arousing at all to avoid having an orgasm sooner than they want to. Sometimes my brain just goes to the strangest places—anything from the grocery list to a scenario that’s like a dream, one of those super surreal and spiraling kinds of dreams.

Rich: When my mind wanders, I’m always trying to get it back. It’s like a form of meditation, really, where a thought comes up and it breaks your concentration and you just say, “Oh, I see that thought. I can just divert my attention away from that thought. I can see the thought and just keep on trying to do the thing that I’m doing.” But I really think that during the best sex for me, that’s not even an issue. It’s this kind of experience that’s beyond thinking and words.

Stoya: Definitely, flow state is great. But the fact of having multiple orgasms tends to inherently involve either taking a step further out, or it’s really a step further in and then being returned a step further out.

Rich: Got it. Right.

Stoya: At that moment, it either gets hallucinogenic, or in the out moment it’s like, “Oh, I need to get the things for the floor that muffle the chair leg scrape noise because I can hear the cats playing on the chair.” But I really don’t think anyone’s going to be happy if I go, “If you could just pause, I mean, I guess you can keep going. Just let me grab my phone and put this on the grocery list.” So I don’t know why I felt the need to contextualize, but—

Rich: No, no. I love it.

Stoya: We’ve heard from people who think about one specific ex. We’ve heard from people who think about their specific fetish. And one thing that’s occurring to me is that even though this wouldn’t have been a thing in his formative years, when he’s saying “running a highlight reel,” like a porn highlight reel, that is how a lot of men who watch porn consume it now.

I believe women as well, but we don’t necessarily hear from women who love mainstream porn super often. But through his viewing habits, that has now become part of his sexual response. That’s something to think about, the specific pattern of porn use. I’m not necessarily sure it’s bad other than it’s the thing he’s withholding in an otherwise very openly communicative relationship.

Rich: Right. And he acknowledges that by divulging this information, it could really hurt somebody’s feelings. So if that’s its only real effect, then you’re just kind of divulging for the sake of formality. If you know you have this piece of information that will be hurtful if divulged, and you’re not breaking any kind of rules by not divulging it, I think it’s better kept to yourself.

Stoya: I do wonder whether he thinks—because of things he knows about the woman that he’s dating—that it would crush her, or if he’s made an assumption that telling anyone about this would crush them. Because she seems to enjoy experimenting and having novelty and variety and he says she would probably be up for any of the stuff that he thinks about. So there is also a decent chance that she might be like, “Oh, that’s actually hot. Tell me what you’re thinking about.” Or “Oh, let me tell you what I think about when I’ve decided I’d like to have an orgasm.”

Rich: I’m not sure if there’s been any research on this, but it seems reasonable to experience a large portion of your sex life in this certain mode, i.e., the audio-visual stimulation of porn, and then feel inclined to continue that kind of experience when they’re having sex. You become so used to the cinema of it that it’s what gets you over the edge. That’s not your fault. It’s just the way it goes.

You can maybe even look at it as a kind of wiring. Maybe you’re not inherently wired that way, but you’ve come to be wired that way. If you’re otherwise having great sex, and it’s just about getting over the hump with this, I think you can think about what you want. We’ve gotten quite a few questions along these lines: Fantasizing during sex—how ethical is it? How much should you share? And I’m generally of the belief that while it would be ideal to just be focusing on your partner entirely and have nobody else in the world in your purview, it’s sometimes what people need to do and that’s OK.

Stoya: I am thinking of someone who wrote to us in August who had a very detailed argument against our policy of permissiveness in thought, with regard to thinking about other people during sex.

Rich: Yes.

Stoya: So with that in mind, if he thinks his partner would really have a problem with this, I think it’s best to tell her in the kindest, gentlest way possible and let her make her decision now, instead of leaving it as something that he must never, ever reveal lest he later has to admit to omitting something for many years that he knew would bother her.

Rich: I believe what you’re saying is that supposition should come from a direct indication. If she has said something like, “Gee, I really don’t like it when my partner’s mind wanders during sex,” or “I would hate to think that my partner was thinking of somebody else,” the supposition is justified. Otherwise, it’s just a projection. Don’t let projection galvanize you.

Stoya: If she hasn’t said something that clearly communicates this would be a problem for her if she knew about it, there’s no need to bring it up. There’s no need to broach a subject if he has grounds to believe that it would upset her, but also grounds to believe that it would not be a deal breaker.

Rich: Yes. So it’s very specific advice. You kind of have to go off of the reporting that you’ve already collected over the course of the relationship.

Stoya: Should we just make a decision tree? If this, then this. If that, then that.

Rich: I think the larger rule that we’re talking about here is to base your decisions on evidence. Use context. But if you’re creating potential scenarios that really are entirely of your mind as to how your behavior might be problematic, you can kind of spare yourself and not create a problem where there isn’t one.

More Advice From Slate

It recently got out that someone at work did porn when he was younger. This porn does not line up with his apparent orientation (he’s married to a woman). We’re a relatively small workplace, so this got around quickly. Our boss probably knows at this point.

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