My husband wants a different form of eroticism

I'm not sure I'm ready for what he says he needs.

Topics: Sex, Since You Asked, Love and Sex,

Cary —

When I married seven years ago I knew my husband had had experience dating men and cross-dressing. He seemed uninterested in pursuing cross-dressing in our relationship at the time, and I didn’t particularly insist he spell out his feelings about it either. He said he was invested in monogamy. Our sex life was very good, if less frequent than I wanted sometimes, featuring a lot of oral on his part, and some mutually desired penetration of him, as well as the usual.

Somewhat naively, I did not conceptualize any of that as BDSM (bondage and discipline and sadomasochism). Over the years, we’ve lived apart for long periods because of our jobs. I got pregnant and had a difficult year after the pregnancy, and we moved in together but had terrible commutes as the price. The play with strap-ons diminished as a result of, well, serious other commitments like a baby, a teenage stepdaughter, job responsibilities, and crushing fatigue.

He was intermittently helpful at home and spent a lot of time playing computer games. Last year, during a very stressful period of trying to ready our home to sell after he was informed of another work transfer, he turned, somewhat obsessively, to Second Life, particularly the BDSM scenes there, and apparently did a whole lot of self-exploration (with others) over the course of several months. His avatars there are a gay she-male and a woman. Now we’re living apart, and he has opened up a bit more. Now he tells me he has learned he’s submissive, he wants to express his femininity more, and he wants a lot more domination, including more pain and penetration, and the ritualization that seems to go along with this form of eroticism.

I am awash in mixed feelings, including very angry ones. I’m relieved he’s starting to talk, but worried I’m getting only the tip of the iceberg. With respect to what he’s told me, the turn-on I can occasionally get from penetrating him was not, for me, built in the idea that penetration is humiliation. I am pissed off at his seeming equation of femininity with humiliation and lack of control. I’m extremely pissed that he basically checked out of the marriage to explore all of this, and the fact that, as far as I know, all the exploration has been online doesn’t decrease the sting of infidelity to me. He insists it is all somehow not a big deal, that he’ll stop online contact if I ask him to … And by positioning himself as a submissive, he’s now making me responsible for giving him the satisfaction of surrender.

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Other background: I was molested a bit as a kid, so some of my feelings about simulated sexual violence no doubt stem from an inability to separate fantasy from reality (I can’t watch horror movies, either). I seem to be somewhat atypical because I read that in BDSM most women with a history of sexual abuse are submissives, whereas I guess I’m dominant on some level. I know I’m psychologically “masculine” in some respects and am comfortable with that.

But the bottom line for me right now is that I’ve done a whole lot of work healing and don’t really want to explore how the molestation has shaped my feelings about gender, femininity, etc. I don’t think I have any sort of desire to replay violent scenes in an effort to get a handle on them; I have done some reading around and have difficulty understanding some of the things featured in BDSM — they are just scary and nauseating, and not a turn-on to me. The bottom line: I am not ethically comfortable exploring whatever sadistic side I may have. I mean, humans have all sorts of desires, but I don’t see how that means we have to explore them all. My husband, of course, has accused me of being judgmental.

I guess the question is: Can this marriage be saved? Because I took a marriage vow and we have a child (and debts) together, I haven’t just checked out. But I feel like all this is much, much more than what I signed up for.

Reluctant Top

Dear Reluctant Top,

Like you, I also feel like this is much, much more than what you signed up for. It feels overwhelming and exhausting. Any one element in your marriage — the moving from place to place, the living apart, the selling of your house, the housework, your new baby, your teenage stepdaughter, your changing of jobs, your husband’s emotional checking out, his demands for your participation in his sexual fantasies and his apparent attempts to break down the boundaries you are trying to maintain by calling your limits “judgmental” — any one of these might tax your capacity for coping, problem solving and psychological integration. Together, they paint a picture of exhaustion.

So before trying to untangle all this, let’s just say that you need some rest. You need some time. You need a beach. You need a lawn with sun and butterflies and cooling drinks. I think you can work all this out, but I don’t think you can work it all out until you get some rest and some stability.

How do you get that? You may be too far inside this maelstrom to even see how to get outside it, much less begin solving its riddles. You may have to get into therapy just to figure out how to get into therapy. Contact a psychotherapist and just say you are feeling overwhelmed and you need a supportive, somewhat objective person to help you get through it.

That’s the first step. There is too much stress in your life, and too many demands on you for you to work all this out now. Your creative capacities, your libido, your sense of self, your economic situation, your social role and your political beliefs are all no doubt connected in many interesting ways. That doesn’t change the fact that there is too much stress in your life and too many demands on you right now to make sense of all that. No matter how keen your insight and how fine your mind, all that machinery depends on a body and nervous system that need rest, nourishment, exercise and order. I would start there.

It sounds quite reasonable that you say you don’t really want to explore how molestation has shaped your feelings about gender, femininity, etc. Such an undertaking right now could be an intolerable burden. What you need to do, first of all, is get control of your life and time, and set some limits with your mate. Later, perhaps, if you wish, you may want to take up these other topics, or they may spring up as if of their own volition when you are ready.

Again, I would first contact a therapist just to get some help carving out a safe space.

It may sound like a cliché to say that our denials hint at our desires. And it may sound like the language that your mate is using against you in labeling your attempts to set boundaries as “judgmental.” So let’s be very practical and down-to-earth: Would you like things to be a little easier for a while? Would you like a more comfortable and relaxed view of your own life, and of the life patterns that have brought you to this point? If you could get more time for yourself for rest and relaxation, and if you could find a way to get more of your own sexual desires met without compromising your feelings of safety and security, would you like that?

One thing that helping professionals have suggested to me from time to time is to write down my own vision of what kind of improvement I want. Despite my own reluctance to indulge in this somewhat woo-woo exercise, I have found it surprisingly helpful.

So my basic message to you, and my fervent personal hope, is that you first pare down the many stresses in your life. I wish I could confidently suggest specific ways to do that, but I think it’s best that you make those decisions. Whatever it takes to do that, however, that is your first step. I think it is a crucial one.


The Best of Cary Tennis


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