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My boyfriend hides his genitals from me and I’m panicking

Ask Roe: If you can’t accept your boyfriend’s boundaries around his body, you should not be with him

‘Should I consult him about it, and run the risk of really offending him if I’m incorrect?’ Photograph: Getty

Dear Roe,
I think my boyfriend’s a hermaphrodite. Over lockdown, I started talking to this guy I met online. We’d do video chats, he seemed really sweet and after two weeks of constant chat, we made it official. Since the easing of lockdown, we’ve been meeting up more and more regularly.

We haven't had sex yet, and he seems really hesitant to show that part of himself. Whenever we're doing stuff together, he only likes to do stuff to me, not vice versa. He never takes his trousers off fully, only exposing just enough, as if he's trying to hide something. Seeing him in the shower is ultimately out of the question, and I overheard him talking to his friends about some secret he has to keep from me.

I’m starting to panic and need your advice. Should I consult him about it, and run the risk of really offending him if I’m incorrect? Or should I just see how it plays out and find out in the long run? 

I have stared at this question for a very long time, in a mix of bafflement, exasperation and slight awe at the extreme logical jumps you are making. Let’s lay out the facts. You have been with this person for possibly a couple of months, and have been meeting up in person even more recently than that. You have started getting physical with each other, but your boyfriend isn’t ready to be naked or to have penetrative sex, so he’s focusing on other sexual acts, mainly ones that prioritise you.


I am not seeing a problem here.

Like everyone, your boyfriend is allowed to move at whatever pace feels right to him. If he isn’t ready to be naked or to have penetrative sex, that’s perfectly fine. You don’t specify your own gender, but I must emphasise that just because you’re dating a man, that doesn’t mean he must inherently and immediately desire sex. Regressive tropes about masculinity posit that men should always immediately jump at the opportunity to have sex, which is utter nonsense that can be dangerous. These attitudes can lead to men’s consent not being taken seriously and men feeling pressured to have sex.

Men can want to move slowly in sexual relationships, and assuming otherwise is ignoring their individual needs, desires, consent and safety.

These attitudes can also pressure men who have specific physical or emotional needs to rush into disclosing personal information they’re not comfortable sharing yet. For example, men who have experienced trauma and move slowly in their relationships in order to feel safe; men who have temporary or ongoing medical issues; men who have erectile issues or penis sizes or shapes that fall outside of the average; men who have never had penetrative sex before. There are so many possibilities, but what they all boil down to is trust and consent.

For whatever reason, your boyfriend is not ready to take certain steps with you. If you can’t accept that your boyfriend is allowed to have boundaries around his body and his privacy, particularly in the early stages of a relationship, you should not be with him, or anyone else, until you work on these issues yourself.

Now, if we pretend for a moment that the only issue is your concern that you and your boyfriend may be incompatible in your attitudes to your sex life, this is an easy fix. You can simply have a respectful, pressure-free conversation with him to check in.

Tell him that you’re enjoying the sexual activities you are having and personally are excited about taking steps like being naked together and having more shared sexual experiences. Then ask him how he’s feeling about your sexual life and the pace of it, and if he has a different vision for your sex life. If he says he does not want to be naked or explore other sexual activities with you now or in the immediate future, you can ask him if he would like to explain further so you understand his perspective. But you don’t get to pressure him or force him to tell you anything. Then you can either come to an understanding that you’re both comfortable with; you can slow down all of your sexual activity until you know and trust each other more; or you can end the relationship. Sexual and emotional compatibility matter, and are valid reasons to end a relationship.

However, the pace of your sexual encounters is not the only issue. The glaring issue here is your immediate, very specific, utterly baffling “panic” that your boyfriend is “a hermaphrodite”.

Because "hermaphrodite" was always medically inaccurate, and used as a slur against a range of individuals whose bodies, appearance or gender challenge limited social norms, I literally do not know what you mean when you use it

This is a stigmatising term that I urge you to stop using. In reproductive biology, “hermaphrodite” is used to describe organisms such as particular plants, molluscs and fish that have partial or complete reproductive organs typically associated with both males and females. In relation to humans, the term was historically used to describe humans with ambiguous or atypical genitalia, but it was always a deeply problematic term used to police lots of people’s gender and bodies. It is now considered offensive, medically inaccurate and obsolete.

Now, intersex is a word used to describe individuals born with any of several variations in sex characteristics including chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones or genitals that do not fit the traditional binary definitions of male and female.

About 1.7 per cent of the population is born with intersex traits – comparable to the number of people born with red hair. Intersex is an umbrella term, and many of the sex characteristics variations of intersex people are not even visible, and/or do not pose any health issues. The major concern facing most intersex people is not their bodies, but social stigma, damaging myths and unnecessary and non-consensual medical interventions.

Because “hermaphrodite” was always medically inaccurate, and used as a slur against a range of individuals whose bodies, appearance or gender challenge limited social norms, I do not know what you actually mean when you use it. But I do know you’re assuming your boyfriend has to move at your sexual pace or there’s something wrong with him; you hold uninformed attitudes towards certain bodies that make you “panic” just thinking about them; and you are choosing to make wild, baseless assumptions about people’s genitals instead of… well, not doing that.

You mention you “overheard your boyfriend talking to friends” during a socially restrictive pandemic, but even if that happened, a “secret” could refer to absolutely anything.

If we, even for a moment, imagine that you are onto something, that he is hiding the reason he doesn’t want to be naked around you, then you still need to stop with the “panic”.

If he tells you something about his body or his self that explains his reluctance to be more sexual with you, you can either be respectful and stay with him, or be respectful and end the relationship.
But now would be a good time to start doing some reading on consent, boundaries, sex, gender, bodies, so that you can be more informed.