Dear Captain Awkward,
First, background: I am currently near the end of year two of a fantastic and wonderful relationship with my boyfriend “Jeff”, and we are both 21. I am a junior in college, working towards finishing my pre-med requirements and studying for my MCAT in May. He is taking a year off from his community college in order to try being a working man, and he loves his new job that he got last September.
We’ve wanted to move in together for a while now, practically after the seventh month of dating, but we both agreed that we were going to wait until he was financially secure before signing a lease. Jeff was a temp at his job, but they recently hired him on completely a month ago, so we’ve been looking for apartments. We finally signed the lease on a lovely little place that’s so close to my school. We’re both very happy about our great place and we’re moving in next fall. Money is no problem for me, thankfully I have a hefty scholarship.
I started getting worried about how we would divide up the chores when we lived together, and tried to think about any annoying habits that I have that I should warn him about. Most of it was completely mundane (who’s in charge of dishes, I have a billion shampoo bottles that clutter up the tub that I would be willing to trim down to one or two if it bothers him, etc.), but then we got to one of mine that I breezed over, assuming it wouldn’t be a big deal. Occasionally, when I’m in the mood I like to watch porn and masturbate by myself. I consider it sort of like my alone relaxation time. I would never roll over in bed with him, smile sweetly, and say “Honey, could you please leave? I want to get off and you’re kind of ruining it.” I just wait until he went off to play video games, or I do it while he is sleeping. I’ve done it at least twice while he was over at my apartment (he practically lives here over the weekend), and I just never thought enough of it to mention it before. I consider masturbation and sex to be two completely different things.
While I casually mentioned this, Jeff was floored. He was very hurt that I would do something like that, and was upset that he wasn’t fulfilling my sexual needs completely. I tried to tell him that he was amazing in bed (which he is) and that it wasn’t like that, and he tried to see it from my point of view. However, he admitted that there was no way he could understand where I was coming from. He says that whenever he masturbates, he always wishes that I was there and that if I was around when he wanted sex, he’d come to me first to see if I was up for it. I almost wish that I hadn’t told him, except for the fact that we both really value honesty in our relationship, even hard truths. I asked him if he wanted me to not do it, and he said that he wouldn’t want to control me like that. He just is hurt that I have those feelings in the first place.
Captain, our sex life is fantastic. We have usually do the monster mash at least twice a day (record is five, count ‘em five), and he never pressures me into sex. He is the most gorgeous man I’ve ever seen (think Sherlock from the BBC show of the same name, only not an asshole), gives me bushels of satisfying orgasms, and is very adventurous in bed. But sometimes, I just want to be by myself and watch some hot guy-on-guy action. How can I explain to him that while he fulfills my sexual needs completely, an occasional solo performance once every couple of weeks is something that I can’t help but want?
If it helps, I already asked if he would like to join me in mutual masturbation (he’s bisexual, so the whole gay porn thing would not be a problem), and he declined. He says that he doesn’t want to be there if he would be a second wheel, so to speak. Honestly, I kind of agree with him. I really want to be alone, and I’m already embarrassed by the terrible acting in my favorite pornos. But I’m worried that this will exacerbate the insecure feelings that he has admitted that he has sometimes. He occasionally worries about what I see in him, and whether or not I’m attracted to his tall and skinny body type. Captain, sometimes I worry about what he sees in me, and whether he’s attracted to my short and fat body type! I love my adorable, witty, and sweet man to bits, and in my heart I know that he feels the same about me. What can I do to reassure him that he’s the only man for me, and that this once every few weeks porn-watching habit is nothing but a more X-rated version of relaxing in a hot bubble bath and painting my toenails harlot red?
The gender-flipped version of “Dear Prudence, my husband watches too much porn”
We’ve covered this topic before around these parts, but I like the question your letter raises, which is: Once you’re in a committed relationship, does your sexuality belong somehow to your partner? Do you have an obligation to give them right of first refusal over your orgasms?
The answer, my friends, is HELL NO.
I mean, isn’t that the whole thesis of the Virginity = “Purity” Brigade? Don’t have sex with other people, you’re ruining something that should be only for your eventual spouse. Don’t touch yourself – that belongs to your eventual spouse! If someone gives you happy pants feelings, how will you ever recognize True-Love-Sacred-Emotionally-Connected pants feelings? (Answer: You just will. It IS different when you love someone. It’s different even at the beginning, when you think “You? I could love. Stick around please so we can find out.“) Insert horrible metaphor about plucked daisies or already-chewed gum here.
Vaginas, penises, hands, tongues, mouths, brains (big sexy filthy brains!)….don’t wear out with use. There is no finite amount of pleasure to be had in this world; you can have all of it. I don’t know why that’s so terrifying to some people.
Masturbation, for you, is self-care. You’re taking care of your own sexuality. You’re relieving stress. You’re making yourself feel great. You’re reveling in your own fantasies. It’s not something that takes anything away from your partner or how you feel about your partner, because your body belongs to you and your brain belongs to you. You get to be the protagonist of your own sex life.
The awesomeness of masturbation aside, your letter gets at two very interesting issues surrounding communication, honesty, and relationships.
Your partner wants to offer his entire sexuality up to you and make it only about you. Perhaps you should explore that in some kind of kinky manner down the road? But if we take sex out of it for a second, what we have here is one partner offering up something that the other partner never wanted or asked for, and then using that offering to try to extract something in return. “I gave this to you, so you owe me something now.”
It’s an attempt at manipulation. Even with the caveat that he doesn’t want to be That Controlling Guy….he says that because he knows that it’s kind of controlling And you guys, this is so common, and so human. “I want/need something from you, so I’ll give it away to you first and hope/assume that you’ll reciprocate and be hurt when you don’t.” This is primal stuff. This is how we sometimes behave around needs that we don’t even know we have or know how to express. It makes me think of Holly’s excellent piece on the Geek Social Fallacies of Sex, especially GSFS1: “You can control your emotions around sex.”
“Pretending you can just decide whether you’ll feel any emotions at all is a geek fallacy stemming from the idea that you should be able to optimize your own brain to not do anything unproductive or unintended. But geeks ought to know better, because come on, you can’t even get a computer to do that. This stuff comes on you, it gets you by the heart and the gut, and it doesn’t ask you “pardon me, I’m an emotion, are you okay with experiencing me?” first.
What you can and should voluntarily control is how you express your emotions. It’s okay to feel strong emotions; it’s not okay to attack people or break promises and use “I was emotional” as an excuse. This is when it’s time to tell your partner “hey, we need to talk, I’m feeling an emotion!” Solving the problem may involve changing your relationship boundaries, it may just involve talking it out, or it may mean you have to end the relationship. But the solution is never “that is anincorrect emotion, please stop experiencing it.”
An attempt at manipulation doesn’t make you a bad person, it just makes you a person. Ever seen a toddler who doesn’t want to go to bed try to get “just one more story?” The kid knows it’s bedtime and knows s/he shouldn’t ask, but can’t help it because s/he just wants one more story, and to be awake and have attention and love from adults, dammit, so it becomes a whole show about drinks of water and crying and being afraid of the dark.
So now that your partner has figured out and expressed this need (and this insecurity) and it’s out there. And you have a choice about how you deal with it, and that choice is about boundaries.
Which is the second big “This Is What Being A Grown-up Is Like” question that shakes out of your letter. You were honest about what you do with your idle hands, and he was honest about how it kind of freaks him out, and now you get to decide what kind of boundaries you want to have in your shared living space. And this is where you might have to slay the fallacy that the two of you can and should share and talk about everything. And this is where you slay the fallacy that you can control your emotions and negotiate what they will be in advance. Living with someone will always be full of surprise things you didn’t realize would affect you but now they do, and full of small negotiations about what’s yours/mine/ours – that’s the adventure of joining up lives with another person.
Your watchwords here are boundaries, privacy, and manners.
You can be a safe place for your partner and do your best to make him feel great. You can show and tell your attraction all the livelong day. But he’s got to handle his feelings about himself for himself, and it’s not fair to make the question of your masturbation about him and his insecurities. That’s a boundary.
You guys can make an agreement that in your house a closed door means “knock and wait for an answer before you open it.” And you can decide that you get to masturbate when you want to and that it has nothing to do with him. So don’t tell him about it. Wait until he’s out of the house or asleep or busy and settle in for a good session. There gets to be stuff in your life that’s just yours. That’s not being dishonest, it’s being private and having good manners.