DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #38: Romantic Love Is Not a Competitive Sport


Dear Sugar,

I started dating a really wonderful man about a month or two ago. He’s extremely smart, good-natured, funny, and – you’d approve of this – he definitely turns me on. I’m extremely happy to have met him, and even happier that he likes me as much as I like him. But before he came along, I hadn’t had a serious relationship in at least three years. Needless to say, I’d gotten quite comfortable with the single life – doing what I want, when I want, how I want.

Now, I’m quickly remembering what it means to be in a relationship and realizing relationships are much different at my age, twenty-five, than when I was younger and sex wasn’t really part of the equation.

Our sex life is really good, but my man has this bad habit of mentioning past sexual experiences. I’ve never had to deal with this because all the men before hadn’t been that experienced, so they didn’t have much of a sexual past to share. That’s not the case here.

He does not go into detail (thank God) and I don’t think he realizes his stories bother me. I think he genuinely trusts me, and simply wants to talk about these things because he’s never talked to anyone about them before. I want him to be open and honest with me, but part of me feels like, when it comes to his past sexual experiences, I just don’t want to know.

He started to tell me, very matter-of-factly, that he’d been in an orgy before. I stopped him and said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t want to know anything about this.” He said okay, was not upset, respected my request and talked about something else. But now, this image is floating around in my head. Constantly. Haunting me. I keep imagining what it was like, what he was like, what the women were like, and it’s making me sick.

Sick with jealousy. Sick with insecurity. Sick with fear, fear that I don’t really know him, that somehow being in an orgy (something I know I personally don’t want to do), says something about him. It intimidates me, makes me feel crazy.

I’m not worried that he’s going to cheat on me to go have an orgy, but I guess I do worry that maybe I won’t be enough to satisfy him.

I don’t know what to do. This image is still in my head—as are others—but I don’t know if talking with him about it (i.e., finding out more details, that my imaginative little mind will feast on in potentially terrible ways) will help or just make it worse.

Is this something that, if left alone, I’ll eventually just realize is a natural part of his healthy sexual past? Or do I need to tell him how it makes me feel, at risk of sounding like an irrational, insecure, jealous woman who doesn’t trust him, possibly pushing him away? And if I do have to talk to him about it, how can I keep from fanning the crazed fire that’s already burning in my head?

Haunted by His Sexual Past


Dear Haunted by His Sexual Past,

Hmmm, so let me see. Your boyfriend is:

  1. Wonderful.
  2. Extremely smart.
  3. Good-natured.
  4. Funny.
  5. Terrific in bed.
  6. As into you as you are into him.
  7. Trusting.
  8. Trustworthy.
  9. Respectful.
  10. Interested in talking intimately with you about his life.

Am I going to have to remove my silk gloves and bop you with them, sweet pea?

You aren’t haunted by your boyfriend’s sexual past. You’re haunted by your own irrational, insecure, jealous feelings and if you continue to behave in this manner you will eventually push your lover away.

I don’t mean to be harsh, darling. I’m direct because I sincerely want to help you and because it’s clear to me that you’re an incredibly good egg. I know it’s a kick in the pants to hear that the problem is you, but it’s also fucking fantastic. You are, after all, the only person you can change.

So let us dismantle your mania.

You say that your knowledge of your lover’s past sexual experiences makes you feel jealous and insecure and afraid that you won’t be “enough to satisfy him.” Really? One thing about love—especially free, unfettered and uncommitted love such as the kind you and your man are in—is that people pretty much do what they want to do. If you weren’t enough to satisfy him you’d know it because he wouldn’t be with you. The fact that he is means that he likes you, honey. A lot. And he doesn’t want to be with all the other women he’s fucked. Or at least not all that much.

Contrary to what the Bachelor/Bachelorette television franchise and the entire spirit-decimating Hollywood Industrial Complex would have you believe, romantic love is not a competitive sport. Some of those women your boyfriend used to fuck have nicer asses than you. Some are smarter or funnier or fatter or more generous or more messed up than you. That’s okay. That has no bearing on you whatsoever. You’re not up against those women. You’re running your own race. We don’t dig or not dig people based on a comparison chart of body measurements and intellectual achievements and personality quirks. We dig them because we do. This guy—your lover, my anxious little peach? He digs you.

Don’t ruin it because at some point in time he dug other women too. Of course you’re going to get a pinchy feeling inside when you think of those women rubbing up against your man! I get that. I know what that’s like. It was not so long ago that I was standing in my basement and I came across an envelope addressed to the man who’s taken up permanent residence in the innermost sanctum of the Sugar Shack and when I picked it up out fell about seven thousand little bits of glossy paper that if you put them all together would be a photograph of the woman who was the last woman my man fucked who wasn’t me. And this woman was not just any woman, but an impossibly lithe modern dancer of some acclaim, her body so tight and taut and bitch fiddle-esque I might as well be the Pillsbury Doughboy. And these seven thousand pieces were not the result of my man ripping up the photograph because he didn’t want to see the image of the last woman he fucked who wasn’t me anymore. No. This was a love puzzle she made for him—I know because I also read the card inside—which basically said, Come and get me, Tiger.

So of course I stood there among the spider webs and laundry lint and put the seven thousand pieces together, until there she was—sculpted and bedazzling—in all her not-Sugar glory.

It felt a little like someone had stabbed me in the gut.

But that was all it did. By the time I scooped the seven thousand pieces of her into my palms and returned them to their rightful place in the envelope, that feeling was just a tiny punch. I took a walk with my sweetie later that day and I told him what I found and we laughed about it a little and even though I already knew the story of the woman who was in seven thousand tiny pieces, I asked him about her again—what drew him to her, what they did together and why he did with her what he did—and by the time we were done talking I didn’t feel anything in my gut anymore. I only felt closer to the man I love.

I felt that way because we were closer. Not because I more deeply understood the woman who makes me look like the Pillsbury Doughboy, but because I more deeply understood the man who has chosen to take up permanent residence in the Sugar Shack’s inner sanctum. The jealous fire that’s burning in you, Haunted—the one that speaks up when your man tries to share stories of his sexual past with you—is keeping you from being close to him. The women your lover knew and loved and fucked and had wild orgies with before you are pieces of his life. He wants to tell you about them because he wants to deepen his relationship with you, to share things about himself that he doesn’t share with many others.

This is called intimacy. This is called fuck yes. When people do this with us, it’s an honor. And when the people who do this with us also happen to be people with whom we are falling in love, it lets us into an orbit in which there is only admission for two.

Isn’t that cool?

It is. It really is, pumpkin. It’s gratitude that you should be feeling in place of jealousy and insecurity and fear when your lover shares stories of his life with you. I encourage you to reach for that gratitude. It’s located just a stretch beyond the “crazed fire” that’s burning in your head. I’m certain that if you apply some effort you’ll have it hand.

Please read the letter you wrote to me out loud to your boyfriend. This will be embarrassing, but do it anyway. Tell him how you feel without making him responsible for your feelings. Ask him what his motivations are for telling you stories of his sexual past. Ask him if he’d like to hear about your own sexual experiences. Then take turns telling each other one story that makes each of you feel a little bit like you’ve been stabbed in the gut.

Let yourself be gutted. Let it open you. Start there.