My Boyfriend Won't Tie Me Up, and Navigating Sex After Herpes

Roe McDermott

Roe McDermott is a journalist, arts critic, Fulbright awardee and sex columnist from Dublin. She lives in San Francisco, where she's completing an MA in Sexuality Studies.

Dear Roe,

I’ve been with my boyfriend for over a year now, and the sex has been fine, if fairly straight-forward and vanilla. But a few things have been bugging me. Over the past year there have been several hints that my boyfriend is into some kinky stuff. Some of his mates have made jokes in the past about him being into leather and “nasty shit” (their words), and I know he had a casual-sex relationship with a woman where they experimented with bondage and some S & M stuff. Finally, through a bit of snooping on his computer (I know), I saw that all the porn he watches is pretty hardcore S & M stuff – leather, masks, spanking, pain, bondage, degradation, the whole lot.

The problem isn’t that he’s into this stuff – I’m into some of it too! Not some of the more hardcore stuff, but I’m totally up to play and experiment and want both of us to be satisfied. I’m not particularly satisfied, and, given his porn stash, I don’t believe he is either. But he refuses to talk about it with me. The only thing he said was that he didn’t want to do that stuff with me, and that he only did before with women he wasn’t serious about. He’s obviously still into this stuff if he’s still looking it up online, so clearly he just won’t do it with me. But why? 

Ah, darling, welcome to our little soiree, I hope you’ll have an enlightening night. Allow me to make the introductions. Madonna, meet Whore. Whore, Madonna. I think you’ll have loads to talk about – you’re actually the same person, don’t you know.

Allow me to explain: your boy sounds like he’s suffering from the unfortunately common affliction known as the Madonna/Whore Complex. Freud considered this complex to arise from the man’s issues with his mother (because of course he did). It’s a man’s inability to see women as fully rounded sexual beings, instead separating them into two categories – the Madonna, and the Whore.

Here are the broad strokes: to these men – these immature, misogynistic, stuck-in-stunted-development-and-the-1950s men – the Madonna is long-term relationship material: a wife, the mother to his children, an embodiment of all the best qualities of his own mother. She is innocent, pure, nurturing, wholesome and maternal. She’s the “good girl”, and these men would never dream of tarnishing, corrupting or demeaning her with kinky sex.

On the other hand, the Whore is the “naughty bad girl”. She’s the erotic, uninhibited, kinky, freaky one with whom he can enjoy completely filthy sex – but will never want a relationship with or take home to introduce to his mother. She’s not a person, but a sex object.

These two hideous and restricting little categories are mutually exclusive: a woman can be one or the other, but never both. Even though the guy wants both. Weird, huh?

The underlying attitude of this screwed-up mindset is one of blatant misogyny, a fear of women’s sexual desire, a denial of their sexual agency and a refusal to treat them as fully rounded beings instead of sexual (or non-sexual) ciphers.

These men place their Madonna girlfriends on a not-particularly-high pedestal, where respect and love are dependent on the denial and control of her sexual desire or agency. On the other hand, the Whores are viewed as sub-par beings, sexual objects who aren’t to be respected or cherished or valued or loved because they dare to own their desires – and fulfil the man’s.

Can we all just meditate on that for a second here? The man is judging the woman as less than a human being for doing what he himself desires and asks for during sex. It’s the most hypocritical, ridiculous, shaming, objectifying, sexist view of women and sex, and can never result in a healthy relationship.

And you know this – that’s why you wrote in.

Already, your boy’s hang-up is causing issues within your relationship. Neither of you are sexually satisfied, and it’s causing communication barriers, trust issues and insecurities. And him shutting down this aspect of his life to you means you’re not being allowed to express yourself, either emotionally or sexually. You’re not being allowed to be fully-rounded being.

Now, let’s be fair and throw your boy a lifeline here. He may not realise he’s compartmentalising you – and other women – like this. He may just be the victim of messed-up patriarchal ideals that have pounded into his head since birth. He may even think he’s showing you respect – he loves you so much that he couldn’t even contemplate doing all that “nasty shit” to you. He may think that this is how nice boys are meant to treat nice girls.

You need to set him straight.

Explain to him that you have sexual needs and fantasies and kinks, and just like you don’t judge him for his sexual desires, he shouldn’t judge you for yours. Tell him that you are not a category or a persona, and you don’t fit into either of his restrictive psychological compartments. Assert that fully evolved and respectful men can actually entertain the idea of women being both worthy of respect and possessing sexual desires, and that liking kinky sex does not lessen your worth.

Let him know that judging women and denying them their sexual independence, agency and expression while he is allowed to indulge his is not just hypocritical, but misogynistic. Explain that his refusal to share and explore his kinks with you is ensuring that your relationship can’t grow healthily, and he’s disrespecting you and refusing to let you express yourself and grow and develop personally too.

Hopefully, he’ll accept this, and want to change his attitude. In this case, I advise you to give yourselves a month or two to develop your new sexual dynamic. It’ll probably be a hurdle for him at first – and possibly for you too, if you’ve never comfortably explored kinkier sex before. You’re going to have to work on communication and let each other know what you’re into, what you’re not and what you’re comfortable with.

However, if he can’t or won’t change his attitude? You have to leave him.

You deserve a man and a relationship that’s open and honest and free from judgement, where your sexual desires are respected and hopefully indulged, where there’s no sexism, misogyny or desire to control, and where respect isn’t a bargaining chip that’s doled out or revoked based on an unequal and hypocritical view of your sexuality.

I know it’s a shocking statement, but you deserve to be accepted, respected and loved as a fully rounded being – sexual desires and all.

Dear Roe, 

I’m a bisexual woman in my early 30s, and I’m currently single. I’ve just learned that I have contracted herpes, and have had my first outbreak. Ever since, I’ve been totally depressed and have had such body images, I just feel disgusting. I know you’ve written about having the STI talk with partners, but I can’t imagine ever wanting to be with someone again, let alone face telling someone. I’ve read that herpes is fairly common, but I literally know no one who has it, and I always hear people joking about it as if it’s the most revolting thing, and now I feel like I’m revolting too. And it feels worse because I contracted it when I was single, and while I’m feminist I can’t help but feel like this happened because I was having casual sex, which is compounding my fear of having sex again even more. How could anyone find me attractive and want to sleep with me when I’m so disgusted with myself?

Okay, here we go. Here is your step-by-step guide to dealing with this. You ready? Let’s begin.

1) Sit down, have a glass of wine/cup of tea, and have the last great crying fit you are allowed to have about your herpes. Proceed to Step 2.

2) Find out what strain of herpes you have contracted, so you’ll know more about what your outbreaks are going to be like, and how you can treat them so they’re manageable.

For Type 1, which is oral herpes (can be contracted on the genitals through oral sex, etc.), like the strain that causes cold sores, you need to get more sleep, eat a healthier diet and add L-Lysine supplements to boost your immune system against viruses.

If you have Type 1 on your sexy regions and you are still having outbreaks a year on, you need to get it checked out again. If it’s Type 2, which is genital herpes, also take care of your immune system and also ask your doctor for an anti-viral that will help lessen the frequency and severity of outbreaks.

3) Remember that while herpes has inexplicably become the pop-culture joke of the moment, it’s one of the least dangerous STIs, health-wise. Sure, flare-ups are a pain, just like cold sores are a pain, and just like cold sores, Americans (who tend to make all the media where herpes is a joke) take them far more seriously than anyone else because they’re all weird and germ-phobic and overreact and are the country that has made Donald Trump a viable presidential candidate, so maybe let’s not look to them for a proportional response to anything.

Herpes is not that big a deal. Out of all the STIs that can potentially kill, maim, sterilize you or infect you with cancer, you got the STI where you get some uncomfortable bumps every now and then that will likely lessen over time. The chance of complications, which are to do with newborns and blindness and a remote chance of provoking meningitis, are tiny and involve a series of aligned events that only occur when Poseidon and Athena are at war under a full moon while Neptune is in retrograde.

So remind yourself: you’re luckier than most people who catch STIs. This isn’t a big deal.

4) Remember that this is really common. About 10 percent of Irish people have HSV-2, while 70-80 percent of Irish people have HSV-1. It’s everywhere. And look, the world is still rotating, there are no herpes-only colonies and people are still having sex like nobody’s business. Herpes wasn’t even acknowledged in medical textbooks before pharmaceutical companies started pushing to sell anti-virals. Like most of the world’s problems, this is all Don Draper’s fault. And with those numbers, you’re in good and plentiful company, so stop convincing yourself you’re a lone sufferer. Look up support threads online if you want more reassurance – there are lots.

5) Take some time to regroup, and re-learn how to love your body, and yourself. Treat yourself, exercise, get dressed up, eat delicious food, masturbate – do whatever you need to to remind yourself that you and your body are so much more than this tiny virus that’s basically like a cold. Read some great feminist books and body-positivity books and take selfies when you have a great-hair day and go on nights out with your best friends and indulge some sex flashbacks to remind yourself of what a goddamn catch you are.

6) Realise that when you’re ready to sleep with someone again, and when you tell them, without shame or guilt or fear, that you have herpes and it’s not a big deal but here’s some information so you can both be careful, that you’ve just been given an amazing litmus test for new partners. The men or women you want to be with aren’t the uninformed, closed-minded, shaming assholes who would freak out over small health issues – you’re looking for the people who are smart and funny and compassionate and sex-positive and who will navigate this with you, respectfully and supportively, before delivering all the orgasms you deserve. (Yes, the final sentence is my happy-ever-after to every scenario.)

7) Be kind to yourself. Always.

Do you have a question for Roe? Submit it anonymously at


Roe McDermott: Roe McDermott is a journalist, arts critic, Fulbright awardee and sex columnist from Dublin. She lives in San Francisco, where she's completing an MA in Sexuality Studies.

Reader responses

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at 16 March 2016 at 14:19

With all respect, I don’t think this is a very helpful or thought-out response (letter+1) to what is actually an interesting problem.

The simple solution of giving an ultimatum, of breaking up with the boyfriend for refusing to satisfy this specific desire (and should he apparently not admit and reject his outmoded complexes), is something that anyone could say. Presumably this person wrote in to a sex-advice column looking for a more nuanced reading of the situation — maybe hoping for a few ideas actually related to this kind of sex, and some solutions to engaging the partner that don’t rely on a bald choice of dumping or keeping him based on a chitchat about a shopworn old theory.

One imagines that, if he were requesting the bondage, and she saying no, she would not be told to reassess herself and her ideas, and to accommodate him or else. Yet the fetishistic desire needs to be acknowledged and satisfied — I suspect that is more because the columnist thinks it a point of principle to validate any desire that a female correspondent might have, not because of any motivation to understand or validate fetishism (any on show here anyway).

On a related note, I imagine that were a man to write in and reveal that he knew his girlfriend was into fetishism, in part because he had looked surreptitiously through her porn history on her computer, I reckon he would be lightly and deservedly castigated for this slight breach of trust.

Having said that, I think that its potentially quite beautiful to discover a shared fantasy after already getting together. The issue of actually making it happen is left opaque, as is the issue of the man’s point of view.

As for advice: on her side, it would have been better to focus on the specific idea the writer has of being tied-up, which has a wide fascination around the world, and so many variables within itself. It can be done in a very wholesome way. It could be a joke interlude on Richard and Judy. Yet it also goes straight to the core of the domination and submission dynamic in the world of the fetishists; it can be really hardcore. Which end of the scale does she want? She says that she only wants this, and that the rest that she’s seen is not appealing to her; would she be disgusted if he wanted any of the rest? At the least, I would press him (in some smarter fashion) on what he might actually like, and if this specific focus matches her fantasy. If so, there is a ground to build on. If not, then he should possibly consider doing it anyway, just because he likes her — its not necessarily a big deal, and not necessarily a reason to immediately break up. But going in with this insistence that he accept her whole being, and do it simply for that reason, is one-sided and wrong-headed. There is no reference at all in the answer to what the man’s personal desires might be.

I’d also say that, for a couple that’s also loving, going into this shared fantasy together is not going to be so simple as accepting that the other has a matching desire. The fetish-fantasy world runs to extremes precisely because people are drawn to it not for stability and reassurance, but for the flashes of uncertainty that it gives. The moment of the fantasy itself is about potent energies that are in tension with the loving parts of the psyche. This tension is present in all desiring people, not just the fetishists that are brave enough (or compulsive enough) to act it out. A reluctance to combine the loving instinct and the dark fantasy is not just an issue with misogynistic males, as the writer is so quick to assert. Its a very tricky problem. If there’s any truth in that old Freudian saw, then it runs both ways. The instincts that push us to nurture and protect, and be appreciated for this, or to be objectified as either a dominant or submissive being (depending on the person and situation) are there in some measure in most people, in my experience. They’re also both oddly present in the BDSM situation itself, where people care for each other in different ways.

I’d also maybe suggest that if a couple were able to breach some of the barriers involved, it could be very exciting for them at first, but would also be a serious test of their limits. The great film ‘Ai no Corrida’ (Oshima: […) is a tragedy about the explosions that can erupt when a couple run to their last ebb with the energies of love and fetishism at once. Its also more art than porn, and very sexy; they could maybe watch it together. I wouldn’t explain what it is, I’d just download it and stick it on.
Just don’t try to re-enact the ending.

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