What are sexual boundaries? And how do we talk about them?

Let’s talk about boundaries. Most people have them when it comes to the bedroom, and they apply to what a person will, or will not do, as consenting adults in a sexual relationship. 

Having boundaries is one thing, but standing up for them is a totally different thing. Many relationships can become one-sided, disrespectful or even toxic when one person can not stand up for themselves and the other participant either doesn’t know about the lines they shouldn’t cross, or actively ignores boundaries for their own gain. 

This is an important topic when it comes to talking about sexual wellness, as sexual wellness does not just cover the physical aspect of intimacy but the mental load that comes with it, too. Sex has the power to enrich people’s lives daily, but it can also harm your mental health if you don’t feel respected in your sexual relationships. 

Here’s a short guide on how to recognise boundaries, not just yours, but those of your partner – and how to be more empowered in your relationships to enjoy real sexual wellness. 

First up, what are your boundaries?

You may instantly think, “well, I don’t have any boundaries – this doesn’t apply to me.” If you have zero boundaries in the bedroom, you are in the very small minority (and good for you! You’re allowed to do what you want). But most people do have one or two reservations about what they will or won’t get up to in the sack. 

There is a long list of things you can get up to in the intimacy department that goes way beyond sexual intercourse, and you may not be down for all of them. Boundaries can apply to things like how you want to be spoken to in the bedroom, using handcuffs, utilising different kinds of protection (or lack thereof), or being respected when you say no the first time to an offer of sexual intimacy, for whatever reason. And once you tell someone about a boundary, whatever it is; it’s not up to them to make you change your mind because they want to cross that boundary. 

Once you ask yourself what your boundaries are, it’s time to make sure your boundaries are taken seriously, so you don’t ever find yourself compromising on your comfort or safety.

Talking about boundaries.

Knowing your boundaries is the first step, but they will not be respected if your sexual partner does not know about them. Your sexual partner can’t read your mind, and you can’t read theirs, so if you are wanting to set boundaries as a couple – you will have to talk about it.  While you may not sit down at the start of your relationship or one night stand and itemise every intimate deed like a contractual agreement (this isn’t 50 Shades), some trial and error may come into play as you realise your boundaries and react to things you don’t like. Having open communication about what you like, and what you don’t like is crucial to nurturing a healthy sexual experience. 

We get it. Talking about it can feel awkward, and there is definitely a way to do it without coming off as aggressive, accusatory, or unintentionally hurting the other person’s feelings. Be prepared; you or they may feel initially defensive, but with some chatting, it should become clear that boundaries are not a criticism, but they are something that should be embraced as you move into a respectful sexual relationship that benefits both.

Open the floor to both of your preferences.

Opening the floor to discuss both of your preferences at the same time often just leads naturally to the things you wouldn’t like, too, and having that back and forth is a positive and inclusive way to share what you want to do and what those boundaries are without feeling like you’re sitting them down and laying down the law. 

Two-way open dialogue at all stages of your relationship is a great way to bond and share an intimate relationship that feels safe and supported. Preferences can change over time, and boundaries may adapt to life events and different stages of your sexual journey. So be aware that talking about boundaries is something fluid and continuous and shouldn’t be considered a rulebook that is set in stone after one chat early in the relationship. Chances are, the goalposts have moved since then.

Dealing with negative responses

If you express a boundary and the other person takes offence or refuses to abide by the boundary, it is their problem. You should not have to compromise on what makes you feel comfortable and safe to appease your partner’s wants over your own. 

For instance, you could approach a boundary that involves dubious consent, which is a hot topic in modern relationships. If your partner is pushing for sexual intimacy because they thought you saying “no” to their advances was just you being playful and hard to get, you need to make it clear where you stand on that. If you are playing hard to get, and that’s fun for you, carry on. But be clear when and if you need to convey that you are serious about stopping the sexual advances. Confusion over dubious consent doesn’t make the partner immediately a monster who is trying to violate you, but by continuing with their behaviour after you’ve made it clear you’re not interested, or repeatedly ignoring your set out boundaries is abusive and must be addressed immediately. 

If, at any time, someone tries to make you feel bad about your boundaries, or repeatedly ignores them – you need to stand your ground, or concede that this person may not be the right one to trust intimately.

Not sure if it’s ok? Ask for permission.

If you want to try something new with your partner that you’ve not tried or maybe even discussed before, it really just does help to simply ask if they are ok with it BEFORE you go ahead and do it. For most sexual play, this isn’t so important, but actions like entering a previously unchartered opening with any kind of object, be it a finger or a toy, should never be sprung on a person without permission. Open communication is key and showing a little restraint goes a long way to making your partner feel safe during your activities.

Be empowered by your boundaries

Adults are allowed to enjoy fruitful sexual relationships on their terms – it’s one of the great things about being a consenting adult. Trust your preferences, and feel proud to defend your intimate boundaries. Only the people who are not right for you will take issue with your boundaries, so getting them out in the open is a great way to not waste your time with people who aren’t ready to respect you and your lines. 

In short, boundaries are a good thing, and allow for mutually beneficial sexual experiences that are built on trust and respect. You don’t have to be a committed relationship to action your boundaries, or to respect those of others. And, as always, if in doubt, just ask

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Be a responsible and considerate sex partner – use contraception, get tested, and always disclose. 


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