How Do We Make Sex Work While We’re Separated?

How Do We Make Sex Work While We're Separated?


Estimated reading time: 15 minutes

Dear Dr. NerdLove,

I’m in a long-distance relationship, and while my (F) BF’s and my sex drives are well-matched in person, this is hilariously not the case when we’re apart. It’s not the amount of sex we want – we’re both pretty horny – but it seems like there are completely different sets of things that turn us on. For him, I can give him any sort of halfway suggestive image and it’s off to the races. Not even photos – just saying that oops, I can’t find my pants right now, or something. For me, I’m not even entirely sure, thanks to a wildly sex-negative upbringing, but it feels like I 100% cue off of Big Romance Feelings and 0% off of any descriptions of actual sex. So I can, and do, get very turned on by flirting, even any random sort of flirting, but that’s something that emerges spontaneously from our conversations, and if we have a sexytimes session planned, I just sort of…choke. Agh the pressure! And then what he comes up with to talk about are descriptions of the physical act, which does not turn me on.

Anyway, he’s not being a jerk, he’s doing his best, and this is all new to me, and I don’t really know how to steer him towards what I would enjoy more because I don’t have a very specific set of words or models for it, and it’s also not something that he has an intuitive understanding of. Which: fair. I personally don’t understand the appeal of watching random strangers have sex but very clearly there is a market for it!

Where do I start?



Men Are From The Not Having Pants Planet

It sounds to me like the issue isn’t so much as being out of synch so much as how to recreate the sorts of things that turn you on when you’re together. Now, for him, the idea of sex qua sex does the trick. For you, descriptions of sex, mental images of sex or even actual images doesn’t really do it… but feelings do.

This doesn’t strike me so much as a disconnect as just that you’re both vibing off different aspects of the same thing: your desire for each other. While that means things may not necessarily be as straightforward and simple as classic phone sex, trading steamy photos or spicy video chats, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways of blending your remote turn-ons together.

Here’s a question: are you more turned on by Big Romance Feelings for their own sake (such as, say, the restrained-by-convention slow-burn of Regency romances, movies like Scorsese’s Age of Innocence and the flirting/longing aspects of Bridgerton), or is it more about you feeling desired? It sounds to me like it may be more the latter than the former. If that’s the case, then it seems like what we have here are two different arousal styles.

From what you’ve described, your boyfriend has what’s known as “spontaneous arousal” or “spontaneous desire” – that is, he gets turned on like a light switch and wants to have sex. This is the form of arousal and desire that is the most commonly portrayed in media: boners out of nowhere, getting turned on immediately by even a hint of sexuality and so on. You, on the other hand, sound as though you have more of what’s known as a “responsive desire” or “responsive arousal” pattern – that is, you get turned on based on the actions of your partner. You may not necessarily be in the mood at first, but his actions – whether it’s the way he flirts or behaves with you, even if he initiates a make out session when you’re not already hot and bothered – are what get you going. So in his case, desire precedes action, while in yours, action precedes desire.

This is actually a fairly common arousal pattern for women, and it would explain why it’s easy for the two of you when you’re together, but trickier when you’re apart. Some people with this arousal pattern will choke – as you do – if they’re asked to be the initiator in scenarios like the one you describe. If your desires are sparked by action, rather than coming screaming out of the clear blue sky, it’s a little hard to know how to prompt it in someone else when you aren’t necessarily feeling it yet.

But that doesn’t mean that the two of you are at an impasse. If anything this – if you’ll forgive the cliché – is less of a problem and more of an opportunity. It just means that you’ll need to think a little outside the box when it comes to some long-distance banging.

While “so immediately hot for each other you can’t keep your hands to yourselves” gets a lot of airplay in our culture, there’s a lot to be said for the slow burn and bringing things to a simmering boil. Making seduction a part of the game you’re playing together can help bridge the gap between how you get turned on and how he does – and that would also encourage both of you to stretch your creative muscles and come up with interesting and novel ways of building and maintaining your sexual connection while you’re apart.

Since you respond more to those Big Romance Feels and your desire goes berserk when you’re flirting, rather than leaping straight into describing sex to one another, why not make flirting the dominant part of how you two stay sexually engaged while long-distance? Instead of scheduling sex, think of it as scheduling seduction; he uses his words to get you turned on, which then leads to your doing the things that get him going.

There’re a lot of ways that you two could indulge in this. Consider, for example, Gomez and Morticia. One of the things that’s notable isn’t just that Gomez is wildly turned on by everything Morticia does, but that Morticia clearly teases him and turns him on deliberately. I mean, does anyone really think that she would drop French phrases by accident? She’s clearly doing so because she likes how it gets him revved up, a sort of prime-time appropriate form of edging. By having your boyfriend take the Morticia role – that is, deliberately getting juuust flirty enough to get a response out of you – he can start a sort of low-grade arousal response that builds over the course of your Skype chats until it becomes unbearable.

Alternately, this could incorporate elements of roleplay. Perhaps on some occasions his goal is to use his words to get you turned on enough so that he can entice some spicy photos. You two could play it as someone trying to seduce a “stranger” remotely, or as his trying to convince you to send a provocative picture or a steamy chat, but oh you’re too shy and reserved to do that, even for your partner… unless…

Yeah, it may be a little more work than just “I’m horny, you’re horny, let’s talk about what we’d like to do”, that level of effort and creativity also means that the two of you will be finding more forms of novelty and inventive ways of overcoming barriers and obstacles… things that help improve and strengthen relationships and increase not just the longevity of the relationship but your mutual satisfaction and affection for one another.

And who knows? Over the course of experimenting and playing together like this, you may find yourself being more turned on by sex for sex’s sake while he finds that he gets more of a charge from those romantic gestures and emotions than he would’ve expected.

Good luck.

Dear Dr. NerdLove: I realize that dating is a numbers game, but what do you do when it feels like the likelihood of finding a partner is a statistical impossibility?

I am thirty-six years old, and I have never had a relationship. Complicating factors, I am a trans man exclusively interested in women, and I am also autistic.

I’m apparently attractive, interesting, and polite enough to have gotten a few dates from the apps over the years. For safety reasons, I do not put that I’m trans on my profile, but I tell women after we’ve exchanged a few messages. Upon learning that I’m trans, about half agree to a date.

(I must do a pretty good job of pre-screening, because the only study that I’ve found on the topic suggests that less than 2% of straight women would consider dating a trans man!)

Unfortunately, I almost never get a second date. I always get a variation on the same message: “you seem very sweet, but I don’t see romantic potential with you.”

Meeting people IRL has been kind of a wash. I get the impression that a lot of women can tell that I’m “not like other men” (either due to being trans, or being autistic, or both), but they assume I’m gay.

I might have better luck in queer-specific social settings, but a lot of them seem to be heavy on alcohol (I don’t drink), and there’s a lot of overlap between queer people and the poly community, which is a nonstarter for old-fashioned, monogamous me. Haven’t had much luck finding potential partners when I do come across a group of quiet queers–although I did get invited to join two D&D campaigns!

Given that my dating pool is so limited, it often seems like a waste of time to keep trying. The odds just don’t seem to be in my favor on this one. It takes so much more work (compared to non-autistic and cis men) for me to get even a single date, the stakes are so much higher, each failure that much more significant.

I feel tempted to throw in the towel all the time, and if the powers that be told me that there was truly nobody out there for me, I could make my peace with that. The worst part is having hope that the right person could be just around the corner, even though the math says otherwise.

How do you know when the kindest thing to do for yourself is to just give up?

Never Tell Me The Odds

Dating as a trans man definitely has it’s challenges, NTMTO; nobody is going to say otherwise. You’ve got a distinctly uphill battle. But I will say that the study you mention is an example of what I mean when I say that “statistics are not the same as information” – especially when you aren’t necessarily getting deep into the study.

You’re going to have to forgive me, but this is something that comes up absurdly often. It’s very much an “insert coin, get rant” topic for me because I see a lot of people point to studies – or even just accepted “truths” with no actual data behind it – as “evidence” that they’re doomed.

A study like this is a snapshot in time of a particular subset of people and questions, not destiny. It certainly isn’t something to base one’s life and decisions around. At most it’s descriptive, not prescriptive, and there are always aspects that aren’t or can’t be included in the study – because of availability of subjects and sample size, because the study authors can’t anticipate every possible question or circumstance and because so much of the human experience can’t be turned into math.

There is no way to quantify, for example, how someone’s opinions may have changed, how much of their responses are true in theory but might change when faced with an actual individual, or even the influence of the culture around them. And this is before we even get into the ways that a study’s author’s own inherent biases can affect the phrasing and presentation of the questions, or how specific phrasing can change people’s responses – something pollsters deal with all the time.

Now with that out of the way: I’m not someone who’s going to tell you to never give up or to keep doing things that only cause you harm and frustration. If you decide that you’d be happier, healthier and safer giving up on dating, then you don’t need anyone’s permission to do so, nor do you need a reason or final “proof” that it’s time. You can just decide to do so because you think it would be the best choice for you or just because you want to.

But it doesn’t sound to me like you’re there yet. So while I’m not going to tell you to keep banging your head against the wall, what I would suggest is that if you want to stop, think of it as “taking a break” rather than “give up forever”.

The difference is subtle but significant. “Giving up” is effectively saying that you are drawing the curtain on this part of your life, closing it off for good. Taking a break on the other hand, suggests that while you are stopping for an indeterminate amount of time, you are leaving the door open to the possibility of returning some day. Now that is, to steal from The Godfather, a day that may never come. But until that day does, this is an opportunity for you to let go of the frustration that comes from the struggles you’ve been facing and a chance to recover. You can come back, or not, as you see fit.

I’d suggest seeing it as “taking a break” rather than “giving up” in part because of the difference it makes in how you see things. Giving up doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to lose the desire for love and companionship, but it does reinforce the idea that you’re uniquely unlovable or that love, affection, sex and companionship are just for other people. By taking a break, you see this as a choice that you’re making for your own good, not acknowledging an impossibility or resigning yourself to an inexorable future. And as I’ve said before: taking a break is often how you succeed.

It’s a little like getting stuck in a boss fight at a video game; you get frustrated that you can’t beat the boss and that frustration causes you to do even worse. You get sloppy because you want to rush through the early stages of the fight, but that’s causing you to mistime your attacks, to miss blocks, dodges and parries you were nailing before. So now not only are you not beating the boss, but you’re not even getting to the stage of the fight where you were struggling. And if you’re especially unlucky and your autosave or save point wasn’t at the boss fight, now you have to get through the minions and grunts again… and your frustration means that you may be failing before you even get to the boss itself.

But if you put the controller down and decide to step back for a bit, you give yourself a chance to decompress. You let the stress go, you allow yourself to unclench, relax and to recover your energy while you give your time and attention to other, less frustrating things. And then, when you come back to the game, you often find that because you’re more relaxed and recharged, you’ll breeze through the parts that gave you the most trouble.

So taking a break for an undetermined and indefinite period may well be what you need… even if you ultimately decide that the stress and heartache of dating isn’t for you.

But if I may make a couple suggestions for when and if you come back to dating: one of the things that’s important to remember is that it’s better to make opportunities than to look for opportunities to seize. There are a few areas where I think you could make some changes that might make finding a partner a little easier.

One is making sure that you’re attracting the right people in the first place. While there are entirely reasonable, realistic and understandable reasons why you might not want to disclose that you’re trans in your dating profiles – and to be clear, you are the sole and ultimate arbiter of your own safety concerns and risk tolerances – this does increase the odds of false positives. One of the mistakes that people often make on dating apps is casting too broad of a net, under the assumption that a broader dating pool is better. In practice, however, the goal of dating apps is to waste as little time as possible going on dates with incompatible people. People who aren’t down for dating a trans man are, by definition, incompatible with you, and you’d be far better off weeding them out in advance rather than spending time chatting with them before you tell them.

And while there may be more straight cis women who aren’t open to dating a trans man, there are plenty who are or who may be actively interested; you want to make sure that those women can find you.

I would also suggest not worrying as much about hypotheticals or theoretical complications before you actually encounter them. Yes, a lot of queer social settings may involve or center around alcohol. If you’re ok with being around people who drink – you aren’t at risk for breaking sobriety, for example – then I don’t think you need to write those opportunities off out of hand. Most people aren’t going to care if you’re having a soda or a tonic water and lime instead of alcohol, and the ones who do are, like the transphobes, showing  that they’re not compatible with you. You may also find that there’re more activities – queer amateur sports leagues or hobby groups, for example – that aren’t as focused around drinking and drinking culture. These would be well worth your time to seek out.

The same goes with polyamory. While the Venn diagram of the queer community and the poly community has a significant amount of overlap, it’s not total or even a significant majority. There are monogamous queer people out there – I hear from them on the regular. The fact that more gay men and bi men are likely to be poly or non-monogamous doesn’t mean that you as a monogamous person are shut out; it just means that there’re folks who won’t be right for you, that’s all.

As a general rule, people in general should approach dating and finding partners on multiple fronts. Yes, the apps can be a good resource, but they’re not theonly way to meet folks or even the best. It’s best to maximize your opportunities by not just being on the apps but meeting and mating the way our grandparents did: through activities, through mutual friends, through going out and about and living our lives and meeting people who share our interests, passions and values.

This is especially true if you’re someone who faces challenges – such as your being trans. The more avenues you find to put yourself out there, the greater the odds of not just meeting people but meeting the right people. By making opportunities, instead of hoping to encounter them, you change the math and help tilt it in your favor.

But as I said; this is an if-and-when situation. For now, if you need to step back, by all means, step back for as long as you require. I would just suggest that you see this as a break, rather than a permanent change.

Good luck.