Communicating Sexual Boundaries | Counseling | Therapy

Communicating Sexual Boundaries

Jessica , LSW — Associate therapist

Recognizing when we have a boundary is challenging. Speaking our boundaries into existence can feel terrifying, especially when we have no idea how the other person is going to respond. While sexual boundaries may feel uncomfortable, the process of identifying them, embracing them, sharing them, and having them respected by a partner can help create more meaningful and satisfying emotional and sexual intimacy.

The first step is assessing sexual boundaries. This article is for adults who would like to further explore how to communicate your sexual boundaries to a partner, identify guidelines for when sexual boundaries are respected or violated, and learn about strategies to keep in mind to help manage external pressures.

What Are Sexual Boundaries

Boundaries are the invisible lines or personal shields we establish to safeguard our safety and well-being. While sexual boundaries define what we are comfortable with and what we are willing to engage in sexually, they are more so about what we are not willing to do, accept, or experience.

Why Sexual Boundaries are Difficult to Navigate and Communicate

Given that sex can be taboo, it can be difficult to speak to our boundaries based on pressure.

One complication is that sexual activity is generally more physical than non-verbal. A lot of sexual cues are not language specific. Permission giving can generally be non-verbal, in the realm of body language and movements or sexual sounds that indicate pleasure. Speaking boundaries during intimacy may feel unnatural and even disruptive. For example, if someone starts to touch you in a way that you are uncomfortable with, using your words to say “I am uncomfortable” might kill the mood whereas redirecting them by placing their hand somewhere else rather than saying something outright can set the boundary and keep the momentum.

Another complication is people generally have different communication styles, which ultimately affects their communication during intimacy. How we communicate is influenced by a number of factors including our personality, age, gender, culture, religion, formative experiences, and upbringing. Similarly, how adept we are at reading nonverbal cues and indirect communication can greatly vary.

The Impact of Pressure on Sexual Boundaries

When it comes to sex, we can have pressure presented from all sorts of people and all sorts of angles. Pressure can be imposed by our partner, society, and even ourselves.

There are a few tactics a partner might employ, knowingly or unknowingly. They might overtly apply pressure by being aggressive about their needs or continuing during intimacy in spite of your stated boundary. For example, continuing to pull your underwear down after you have redirected their hand. They might unconsciously apply pressure by making light of the situation or changing emotionally. For example, joking around about it being off limits and that they would only be able to take your underwear off on the third date. They also might try to manipulate or gaslight you, by blaming you, making you feel guilty, minimizing your experience, or trying to coerce you into changing your mind. For example, you are dressed so sexy right now, I can’t help myself. If your partner does anything but listen to your boundary, that is something that is really concerning and worth addressing.

In general, it can be difficult to distinguish between what society tells us we should want and what we actually want. Men have been primed to think about sex and have adapted a general role to be “consent monitors”, whereas women have been conditioned to be “sexual gatekeepers”. Without meaning to, our friends can also impose their own expectations or desires when checking-in with us about a date or relationship with simple questions like “How far did you go?” or “Did you hook up?”.

Similarly, some people might even inadvertently impose pressure on themselves. This can be the case if you are used to putting others' needs before your own, feel a sense of over responsibility for your partner’s feelings, or are concerned about how your boundaries might impact your relationship. For example, if I say no to taking my underwear off, it might become awkward and he might not want to continue dating me. You may also convince yourself that your boundary isn’t a big deal. Another common scenario is that you may have already consented to an activity but may have changed your mind. For example, you may have gone further in the past but decided in the moment that you have a different limit.

During sexual intimacy, it is important to constantly check-in with yourself because it is completely normal and natural to change your mind and have your own opinions that differ from your partner. Use your feelings to help you identify your boundaries and recognize that you deserve to communicate your sexual boundaries and have them be respected. Remember, good sex isn’t just about giving permission, it is about creating mutual enjoyment and pleasure for both people in the context of a safe, respectful environment.

Considerations Based On Relationship Status

If you are in a long term relationship, it may be helpful to have a conversation about your likes and dislikes when it comes to sexual intimacy, as well as how you signal your pleasure or disengagement.

If you are casually hooking up or dating, there may need to be more pre-planning in terms of assessing sexual boundaries and knowing where you stand before you go out with someone. Know what your limit is and know that it can change.

How to Communicate Your Sexual Boundaries Indirectly

If verbalizing your boundaries feels unnatural, consider making redirection your first line of defense. If your partner starts touching you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, you can try redirecting them by moving their hand, changing positions, or changing activities. You can also provide positive feedback for what is going well. For example, I really like when you kiss me softly.

However, if you are feeling violated, it is essential for you to communicate your sexual boundaries directly, given that people are not always good at reading non-verbal cues.

How to Communicate Your Sexual Boundaries Verbally

Before you start to think about how to communicate your sexual boundaries, start with gauging your comfort level in expressing sexual boundaries. On a scale of 1-5, how comfortable do you feel about communicating your sexual boundaries? Think about what contributes to that number. Is it about speaking up? Is it a concern about how you will be perceived? Is it a concern about how the person will respond or how the person will feel? It can be helpful to journal about this or talk this out with a trusted friend or therapist.

While sexual boundaries may inherently hold a different kind of pressure, the principle of communicating boundaries is similar. Boundaries are direct, meaning that they are clear, explicit, and easily understood with nothing left open for interpretation. Boundaries are relational, meaning that they are our needs in relation to another person as far as what is acceptable and not acceptable behavior. And finally, boundaries are self-compassionate, meaning that they are created with our best interest and emotional well-being in mind. Communicating boundaries is a way for us to advocate for ourselves and keep ourselves safe.

Examples of communicating your sexual boundaries include:

  • “I am comfortable with…”

  • “I am not comfortable with…”

  • “Let’s just…”

  • “Let’s pause”

  • “Let’s slow down”

  • “Let’s go back to…”

  • “Let’s stick with…”

  • “Let’s continue…”

  • “Stop…”

  • “What I really enjoy is…”

  • “I really liked when you…but, I need you to…”

  • “I prefer….”

  • “I felt really (hurt/frustrated/ignored/surprised/confused/disappointed) when…”

  • “I need you to…”

  • “I need us to…”

How to Know if Your Boundaries Are Being Respected

Feeling open, excited, connected, or any other pleasant emotion can help us recognize that our boundaries are being respected. While we can look at our own internal cues, it is also important to look at how the other person responds to our boundaries. Consider how your partner is responding to your cues. If you try to redirect them physically, are they able to get the hint and slow down? If you become quiet, stop making eye contact, or stop moaning, are they noticing?

When you share your boundaries, do they acknowledge them and agree? Do they slow down or stop when you ask? Do they check-in with you to ask what you need or make sure you are ok? Do they take accountability for times when they may have misread something and acted contrary to your boundary?

How to Know if Your Sexual Boundaries Are Being Crossed

Feeling upset, sad, disappointed, or any other unpleasant emotion can help us recognize that our boundaries are being crossed. Similarly, feeling unsure or hesitant can signal that we need to pause, slow down, and reassess the situation. Good sex sparks feelings of outright enthusiasm and excitement.

One thing to note: while feelings are generally a helpful signal, there are some instances where sex might create a strong emotional response or release that has nothing to do with an infringement of your boundaries. If you do find yourself in a situation where you have a strong emotional response, it is important to engage in some reflection to see if there is a direct correlation with boundary crossing. If you find that you are satisfied or even comfortable with how things transpired sexually, it is unlikely a boundary violation and more likely a biophysical manifestation of sexual interactions.

Exit Strategies to Employ If and When Our Boundaries Are Crossed

If you find that your partner is not listening to you and is disregarding your boundary, you may need to consider an exit strategy.

If you enjoy your partner overall and feel that they are generally respectful you might want to consider a “soft exit”. Consider what you would like to do with your partner and how you would like to spend your time with them. For example, if you find that your partner isn’t listening and continues to pull down your underwear, you might tell them that you want to spend some time talking about your day or watch a movie instead, putting an end to the sexual activity but still maintaining a connection.

You can also directly put an end to the night if it feels safe to do so. If things feel more challenging, you can also take a moment to excuse yourself, to the restroom, for example, as an opportunity to gather your thoughts and decide on an excuse you would like to give if you feel you need to leave. If you are feeling concerned and unsafe, you may want to phone a friend, let the person know an emergency has come up, and keep them on the phone with you as you are leaving. It may also be a helpful strategy to let a friend know where you will or where you end up after going out for the night, especially if you are meeting someone for the first time or still getting to know them.

Final words

While it might be uncomfortable to communicate your sexual boundaries, it can be important to remember why honoring our boundaries is important. Think of a scenario where you disregard your boundary or don’t share it openly with a partner. How might you feel afterwards if you push yourself out of your comfort zone or put your partner’s needs above your own?

If you are someone who might feel guilty about disappointing your partner, it is important to reframe things to consider what you might do if someone articulated their sexual boundary to you. Removing yourself from the situation can help provide perspective and compassion. Remember, good communication with our partner(s) about boundaries leads to better, more satisfying sexual relationships for everyone and helps prevent misunderstandings and conflicts.

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