Advice columnist August McLaughlin helps a guy understand his girlfriend’s past history of casual sex.
Editor’s Note: August McLaughlin is our weekly relationships advice columnist. She’s here to answer questions and offer guidance on the tough challenges we face in our intimate relationships. Readers can submit questions to [email protected] Not all questions will be published. The opinions expressed in this column do not constitute professional advice. The Good Men Project assumes no responsibility or liability whatsoever for any actions taken by, or reactions that ensue from, anyone following the recommendations in the answers.
My girlfriend and I were playing one of those relationship games at a party recently, and I ended up learning that she’s had quite a few sexual partners in the past. To be honest, it shocked me, and I’ve been struggling to feel okay with it. How could my sweet, thoughtful girlfriend have been such a loose party girl? (Sorry for that terminology—just being honest about my initial thoughts.) She said she felt ashamed of some of the experiences, which made me feel a bit better—like if she regrets them, I’m better off, and right in my angst. (Again, just being honest.) But she also says she enjoyed it all for the most part. I want to do right by here, and am hoping you can shed some light.
From high school into my early twenties, I was a serial monogamist, spending extremely little time single between serious relationships. After divorcing a man I’d married too quickly, I decided to focus fully on my career aspirations. For the first time, I adored being single, standing strong on my own, and focusing on work and time with dear friends—but I still craved sexual connection.
It wasn’t until I moved to Los Angeles and realized I could actually have casual sex and enjoy it that I realized how strengthening and gratifying it can be. Is it a substitute for the intimacy cultivated through a deep and lasting connection with another human? Not for me. But I learned that as long as I was being safe and honest, I could really benefit from sex without strong emotional attachment. It turned out to be one of the most empowering time periods of my life.
While my casual sex experiences pale enormously by comparison to the relationship I now share with my husband, I have no doubt that they’ve benefited us. They allowed me to learn more about my body, sexuality, and desires and have made me even more grateful for our pairing. I have not a shred of regret for the path here.
Also, research shows that women tend to be just as interested in casual sex as men, yet more prone to shame afterwards. This isn’t surprising, given the societal pressure on women to be sexual, but not “too sexual,” and the myth that having casual sex makes a woman a “slut.” These notions hurt men, too—your own discomfort with your girlfriend’s history being a strong example. Don’t shun yourself for feeling as you do. It’s not your fault these harmful myths exist, but you can choose to grow past them. Let your feelings serve as a catalyst for positive change.
When we feel uncomfortable with a partner’s past, it’s important to look deeper—not into their history, but within ourselves. Are you upset by the idea of her being with other guys? Were you taught that women aren’t as sexual or desiring of sex as men are growing up? Are there other issues in your relationship that this newfound knowledge has brought light to? Only you can know the answers.
Last week on my podcast, Dr. Megan Fleming shared terrific insight for a woman who’s struggling to feel as though she’s enough for her boyfriend, who happens to be bisexual. “It’s the idea of ‘other,’” she said, “that can feel threatening to us in relationships.” She went on to say that frank conversations, openly communicating what one feels threatened by, and determining how both partners can feel secure in a relationship, are the keys to moving forward.
I really think this relates to your conundrum. The more we communicate our concerns, desires, and needs, practicing honesty with ourselves and our partners, the better our chances of creating relationships of our dreams. The fact that you shared honestly with me suggests you’re on a stellar path.
Cheering for you,