Dear Dana is a bi-weekly advice column for humans who engage in romantic relationships. Please send your dilemmas, issues, conundrums, assumptions, conflicts, anxieties, worriments, obstacles, complications, predicaments, queries, questions, and any other synonyms for “problems” to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In a recent game of “I have never” with a group of friends, I discovered that my girlfriend once had a threesome with two strangers. I never like to ask about someone’s past, I don’t think it’s really relevant in a current relationship. But my girlfriend explained to me that she went out with a guy and when they went back to his place, his flatmate was there so she had sex with both men. I find this quite gross, to be honest, and I have been suppressing it for some time. The issue is that when I am drunk or when we have an argument, I keep calling her the “s” word. I hate using the word and I hate berating her, and I have never done this before. This is driving her away and I do love her dearly—is it normal for me to react in this way?
Any help would be much appreciated.
Oh, dear. What’s happening here is occurring on a few levels, so I’m going to start at the top and work my way down.
I agree with you that someone’s sexual past isn’t relevant to their present relationship. It would be awkward if you worked the question “ever had a threesome?” into a second date. The sex a person has before they met you has absolutely nothing to do with you, their current partner. But in not asking about your girlfriend’s past, you assumed that you knew what her sexual past was. You assumed it was tame, vanilla and, possibly, similar to your own sexual past. When you discovered that your girlfriend had a threesome with two strangers you also found that she is more sexually adventurous than both your assumptions of her and, possibly, yourself.
That was level 1. Ready for level 2? Cause here it comes—you gotta keep the word “slut” out of your mouth. When it comes to your girlfriend, you gotta keep any word that isn’t her given name out of your mouth. I’ll allow a “honey” or a “baby” if that’s you guys’ thing, but names that are meant to belittle and dehumanize and shame are not to be used. I don’t care how angry or how drunk you get—you know what you’re saying. Kindergarten rules still apply in relationships: no name calling. And if you happen to be so drunk that you’ve blacked out and you don’t know what you’re saying then 1) stop drinking so you can 2) stop calling the woman you love horrific names.
That was level 2. Ready for level 3? You need to look at yourself and your feelings about female sexuality, take those feelings, put them in a bag, tie that bag up, throw that bag in the goddamn garbage, and start fresh.
Thought experiment: You’re at a bar, you’ve broken up with your girlfriend, and an attractive young lady comes over and starts talking to you. She’s tall and has green eyes. She touches you on the arm, you like her, she likes you, the evening goes on, and she invites you back to her place. You are very excited to go have sex with this sexy stranger. You get to her place and hang out with her and make out a bit on her couch and she has her hand down your pants when her roommate comes home, but instead of stopping she keeps going, touching you, and her roommate takes off her coat and doesn’t leave the room, she stands there and watches and smiles, and you realize you have the opportunity to have sex with these two hot girls tonight. Do you do it? Or do you run out of the apartment screaming because taking advantage of this opportunity to have sex with two consenting adults is “gross”?
My guess is this scenario is in no way gross to you, which means that your problem isn’t with threesomes. Your problem is with your vagina having touched way too many penises. I said your vagina there not to imply that you have a vagina, but rather to imply that you somehow believe that you own your girlfriend’s vagina and, therefore, can be ashamed because her vagina has not acted the way proper young lady vaginas should: only have sex when you’re in love, say please and thank you, lie and say you don’t care if you come or not because it was “still fun.”
Straight male sexuality can be super fraught with ideas of possession and purity and Madonnas and whores and even though vaginas are the reason that every human you have ever laid eyes on exists, straight men can treat vaginas as though they are delicate and easily corrupted. Like Kleenex. Like a vagina is Kleenex and sperm is snot and once a bit of sperm gets on a vagina that’s it, game over, throw that vag out and head off in search of a new, clean one. Except you don’t want to throw out this vagina because it’s surrounded by this woman you love, but now you know her vagina is dirty and how do you forgive her for that? For having dirtied your favorite vagina?
Your girlfriend is not a slut. No one is a slut. Sluts aren’t real. Sluts are a construction invented to make women feel bad for daring to fuck the way men do—which is exactly however they like. The term “slut” assumes that a woman belongs to any man they sleep with—that vaginas are erasers that take on some of every penis we interact with and somehow, in the process, become dirtier. Used. Not as good as a clean, untouched vagina. Less worthy of respect, admiration, and love. Are penises used when they interact with vaginas? Based on sheer volume, way more lady juice gets on a penis than sperm gets in a vagina. But no, penises aren’t considered to be less worthy if they’ve seen lots of vagina. Because penises are supposed to seek out vaginas and vaginas are supposed to stay locked up in a tower waiting for true love. Isn’t that how it works?
Right now you’re telling yourself the story that if only your girlfriend wasn’t such a fucking slut you’d be happy. If you want to keep your girlfriend, you have to change this story. I’m not saying it’s wrong that you have a problem with your girlfriend’s sexual history. Your feelings are your truth and your feelings themselves aren’t bad—it’s what you’re doing with them that’s causing everything to go wrong. You’re trying to suppress your feelings but, as you already know, suppressing feelings doesn’t work. Suppressed feelings get out, but the act of suppressing them means they come out sideways, twisted and mean and unhelpful.
I think it’s fine to have a reaction to the news that your girlfriend is more sexually adventurous than you previously thought. It’s fine to feel odd about that—like you don’t really know her, like maybe she’ll want more from the sex life the two of you have, that maybe she’ll want to have sex with other men during the course of your relationship, that maybe you two aren’t sexually compatible if she does want those things and you don’t.
But you solve this problem by talking to her, finding out what she does want, having an honest conversation about you and her and sex. You don’t solve it by pretending to not be mad until beer number three strips away enough of your inhibitions that you start yelling at her that she’s a worthless slut. She’s not a slut, and you’re being terrible to her because you can’t handle your shit. This entire thing is your shit, not her shit—your shit. It’s about your assumptions and your unexamined beliefs and your fears. So handle your shit. No more name calling, no more assuming that women who have lots of sex are dirty and worthless, and no more pretending your feelings aren’t hurt.
Your girlfriend isn’t a slut. Your feelings are hurt. Talk to her about your feelings, not her sexual past, but your feelings and you’ll find a way through them.