Trigger warning for discussion of rape, abuse and boundary violations.
Knowing Your Boundaries
This is the most important rule of boundaries: it is okay to set whatever boundaries you want.
IT IS OKAY TO SET WHATEVER BOUNDARIES YOU WANT.
Our culture (I blame rape culture) has a bunch of rules about what boundaries are the right boundaries. Kiss the cheek of your Aunt Mildred. Hug your friends. Have sex on the third date. Give him oral if he’s paid for your dinner. Eat women out or you’re a misogynist. But those rules are completely bullshit.
The only reason you ever have to have for not wanting to do something with your own damn body is “I don’t want to.” Period. End of story. And if anyone guilt-trips you about it, they’re the asshole here.
Every person has the right to boundaries. Men have the right to boundaries. Higher-libido partners have the right to boundaries. Doms have the right to boundaries. Everyone!
It is important to make your boundaries as clear as you can. Let me be clear: this is a “do what you can” situation. There are lots of reasons– being a survivor, being uncertain of your boundaries, shock in the moment, not wanting to make a fuss, being shy or socially awkward, being sexually inexperienced– why someone might have difficulty expressing their boundaries firmly, and that’s okay. People do not have the right to violate you just because you froze up instead of saying “stop that, I don’t like it.”
Nevertheless, it is generally easier for other people to respect your boundaries if you have expressed them clearly and firmly. Captain Awkward has a lot of advice for people wanting to learn how to express their boundaries better.
Respecting Your Partner’s Boundaries
The first step of boundary respect is very simple: no means no. All kinds of no mean no. “Maybe later” means no. “You’re too drunk” means no. “I’m not sure” means no. “I’m not ready” means no. Some people seem perfectly capable of understanding that “I dunno, I’m kind of busy” means no when they’re asking someone if they want to play GalCiv, but are completely unable to work out that anything means no in sexual situations except signed, notarized paperwork properly filled out in triplicate and crossfiled with the Department of Justice.
The corollary of no means no is that only yes means yes. Now, some people have interpreted this as saying that only all partners continually chanting “yes!” counts as consent. However, there’s lots of things that “yes” can be. “Yes” can be actively participation in the sex– taking off clothes and initiating sex acts. “Yes” can be a prearranged safeword. “Yes” can be the various sounds of enjoyment people give during sex. “Yes” can be “fuck me hard, you sexy stud.” Whatever.
Sometimes you might not be certain if your partner is saying “yes”– perhaps they’ve gotten quiet and you’re having trouble reading their body language. In those cases, it’s best (in my experience) to check in. I tend to say “hey, you okay, or do you want me to change something up?”, but there’s no set formula. Some people find that check-ins break the mood (…I don’t get those people either), in which case you should probably tell your partner that and accept that if you’re not enjoying what they’re doing you’ll have to speak up.
It can sometimes be hard to distinguish between negotiation and pressure that might lead someone to violate their boundaries, so I’ve written up two sample conversations to show the difference!
Pat: I really don’t want anal sex.
Robin: But whyyyyyy?
Pat: I just don’t.
Robin: That’s not a reason.
Pat: I think it might hurt.
Robin: Come on, anal sex doesn’t hurt.
Pat: I don’t know, I’m just not comfortable.
Robin: If you really loved me you’d have anal sex.
Pat: I really don’t want anal sex.
Robin: Okay. Do you mind if I ask why?
Pat: It just doesn’t appeal to me.
Robin: Do you think if we go slowly it might make you more comfortable?
Pat: I don’t know. I just think it’ll hurt.
Robin: I understand that. But if we do decide to do it I’ll make sure to go slow and use lube, and we can stop whenever you feel pain.
Pat: Okay, but I still don’t really want to.
Robin: I’m not going to lie, that makes me kind of sad, but I’m happy to do what you want.
Finally, in some circumstances, even enthusiastic consent is not good consent. For instance, you should not have sex with someone you have power over. Although the age of consent is contentious, because it’s drawing a big red line through a whole lotta gray area and because some teenagers are capable of consenting to sex with adults, it’s still better to not have sex with someone under the age of consent. The only people worse than teenagers at deciding if they’re mature enough to have sex is the adults that want to sleep with them. You can wait until they’re legal. Finally, the whole “drunk sex” issue is contentious, and I feel hesitant to comment on it, because my experience with alcohol is only slightly greater than my experience with traveling to Mars. However, I’m willing to state that there is a point at which people are impaired enough not to give good consent, and you should probably not have sex with them then unless you’ve previously discussed that drunk sex is okay.
Dealing With A Partner That Disrespects Your Boundaries
Dump the motherfucker already.
…Damn, you mean I have to provide actually helpful advice? Okay. Sometimes people violate boundaries by accident, mistake, or miscommunication. You can tell those people because they apologize a lot (whatever “a lot” looks like for them), feel bad about it, and stop fucking doing it.
However, if a person systematically, flagrantly, or repeatedly violates your boundaries… that person is not a good person, no matter how much they claim to love you. There is no justification for someone touching, kissing, or doing sexual things to your body without your consent– no matter how “minor” they are. You are not overreacting, and it is not your fault.
Obviously, there are a lot of reasons why someone might stay in an abusive relationship (and any relationship where your boundaries are systematically, flagrantly, or repeatedly violated is abusive). But please, I encourage you to consider breaking up with your partner and to talk to RAINN’s online hotline, or another hotline you find comfortable, even if you don’t feel like a survivor.