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My boyfriend has boundaries and responses to sex I don't know how to deal with.

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cookie127 asks:

My boyfriend has a problem with sex, I know him very well and I know he's not just being a guy. He likes to play around a lot but he's very iffy about me touching him I don't know how to help this or what to do... he did have a really terrible experience when he was younger but he's had long term relationships and he has slept with other women but only 2. He wants to have sex we've tried it once but he got too nervous about it and pulled away I don't know how to handle this situation?

Heather Corinna replies:

I don't know what "just being a guy" means. I'm not messing with you, it's just that boys and men, like girls, women and everyone else, vary so much. There's just no one way guys are or behave. For sure, if he identifies as a guy, he's going to be a guy no matter what, but who that guy is and what he behaves like has more to do with the whole person he is, and the whole of his life, than it likely does with his gender or his gonads.

A lot of people unfortunately have the idea men are more innately or biologically comfortable and okay with sex than women. But that's a gender stereotype that often doesn't hold water, and one many men feel they have to try and live up to more than it is an accurate description of real behavior, feelings and experiences. That idea puts a lot of pressure on men to behave in ways that might not feel right to them and doesn't benefit anyone.

Let's walk into this understanding that if anyone has the idea there is one set of "rules" for one group of people, but a radically different set for another group, there's usually a double-standard in place. Let's be sure we're not applying any here, and talk about this with the understanding right at the gate that the rules and dynamics in a situation like this aren't different in any essential way for guys than for girls. I want to make sure you also know that I'm walking into all I'm about to say with the impression that you care about this person, and that you want not only to have a sex life you enjoy, but also want to be sure it's one that's positive and safe for both of you.

Sometimes we all want to do things we're not ready for or are not sure we're ready for. Sometimes we want to do things where we need specifics to have a situation be right, but we either don't know yet what it is we need, or don't know how or feel able to voice those needs, especially in a high-stakes situation. Having any kind of sex with someone is a high-stakes situation for most people, most of the time, interpersonally and emotionally.

Sex is also pretty much always an experiment, even with a long-term partner. If it was any different -- or when it becomes very routine and the same every time -- people tend to be unsatisfied or disinterested mighty quick. Our sexuality and our sexual experiences and relationships are an area of our lives where we're often going to be surprised by ourselves or others, and where we can't always anticipate how something is going to be or feel, especially before we try it. When I say "before we try it," I don't mean just once, either: I mean every single time. All too often, people frame sexual "first-times" as the only time sex is like that, forgetting or dismissing that sex never really stops being experimental.

I always suggest to people entering or already within sexual partnership to make sure everyone knows it's always okay and no big whoop to pull back from anything if they need to at any time; to let partners know that they'll do their best to avoid making snap-judgments or projections if and when that happens. For instance, you're not going to figure if your boyfriend pulls back like that that he's less of a man (a very oppressive cultural message few men avoid getting), that he doesn't love you or find you attractive, or anything else like that, right? Hopefully, you just said yes to that question. Does he know that? If not, reassure him. Hopefully, he's reassured you of the same kinds of things.

I'm not sure what his terrible experience was, or if it played a part in this or not. What happened may have had nothing to do with that at all. His nervousness could have been about birth control or STIs, around having that kind of sex with you at this point in your relationship, about performance anxiety, about realizing he had to pee or becoming suddenly distracted by a strong and inexplicable need to remember all the words to "Baby Got Back." Who knows. The only way to know is to ask.

If this, or any other issues in your relationship, is about that experience, was that experience any kind of abuse, assault or strong shaming around his body or sex? If so, has he sought out any qualified counseling or other sound support to help him deal with that? If not, that'd be a great thing for you to gently suggest. Sometimes when suggesting that it can also be good to make clear you're not saying someone is broken or in need of fixing, but that it's clear that they could probably benefit from some help dealing and learning some skills and tools to help them best process their experience and manage its impact. You might also add that you could benefit from what they learn in getting help, too.

If he has already had help with that terrible experience, whatever it was -- or even if he hasn't -- you can ask him what he feels like he needs right now and what he really feels ready for, which may be different things than what he wants right now. You say he felt nervous: were you able to talk about what he felt nervous about? If not, I'd ask him about that, ideally not at a time when you're being sexual together. It's often a lot harder to talk about sex when we're naked and in the throes of something sexual than when we're in a non-sexual situation. You say he's iffy about you touching him: have you two talked about that in-depth so that you're on the same page with what he is and isn't comfortable with, to be sure you don't cross any boundaries he needs?

You say he's had sexual relationships before. Have you two been able to talk about how those went for him? Did he do okay with those? If so, were there any particular dynamics, situations, behaviors or ways of communicating during sex that made those work for him? Was there anything in those relationships he knows expressly did NOT work for him? Do be sure you're not assuming that because he has had sexual partners before, that sex went well for him in them: it may have, may not have, or may have sometimes but not other times. Sex being something that works for us isn't just about -- or even mostly about -- being able to achieve the physical basics of doing this sexual activity or that one. It's also about feeling good about it all physically and emotionally, having our wants and needs met, and by all means, feeling safe.

Additionally, we don't always have the same experiences in one relationship or another, because people are different, relationship dynamics differ, and we also each change over time. In other words, even if things went okay for him with any given or all kinds of sex in those previous relationships, it doesn't mean it always will. This relationship may impact him differently, including in ways you might not even think about, and not because you're someone "better" or "worse" than his other partners in any way. For example, as a survivor myself, I find I am more easily triggered by the partners I am closest to and who know me best because I let my guard down around them much more. He may be in a different process of his healing now than he was previously, so might be experiencing some of sex differently. Those are just two possibilities of many.

Do know that for male-bodied or male-identified people, as well as for people who are gender noncomforming, sexual abuse and trauma can be particularly challenging. It's not like it's easy for any of us, and support for female-bodied and identified survivors is still way less available and supported than it should be. However, men, trans gender people and gender noncomforming people tend to be even less supported in this, and with men, there's also a lot of strong, negative messaging around masculinity and sexual abuse or assault, as there also is around what people can tend to view or present as sexual "failures."

Again, you didn't fill me in -- maybe because you don't know yourself -- on what his terrible experience was. But if it was abuse or assault, I'd encourage you to get some education on your own on being partnered with an abuse or assault survivor, particularly a male survivor, so that you can have a bigger-picture idea of what that can mean and what you can do, as a partner, to be supportive and approach and manage sex in ways most likely to work for partners who are survivors. For instance, those of us who are survivors of any kind of trauma often experience what we call triggers: specific situations, words, dynamics or actions that can trigger an emotional and/or physical response in us because something about them reminds us of our abuses or assaults -- consciously or unconsciously -- or brings feelings we had during them back to us. It may be that something triggered him, like a certain smell, a set of words you used, even the whole of the situation itself. That wouldn't mean you necessarily did anything wrong, because triggers can be a host of everyday things where no one is being hurtful or unsafe. But if you don't have a sense of what his triggers are, it's going to be hard for you to watch out for them, help manage them or see a potentially triggered response coming.

I do want to say that I'd hardly consider one time of trying to do something that didn't work the way you expected it to, or didn't happen at all, a "problem." Instead, I'd think of it as a time where something you tried to do once wasn't what you expected or didn't go as planned, that's all. I get the impression you're talking about more than just this one experience, which is why I've said all I have, but I'd still encourage you not to view people having physical boundaries or changes of heart or mind as automatically a problem.

Sexual partners, of any gender, without trauma, will tend to have at least some body boundaries. That's healthy and typical. It's also very common for people to want to do something, then find they don't, or for people to go to have sex, but to have a change of heart, even with people they like, love and trust a lot. If you haven't yet had these kinds of experience in your life before, rest assured you'll probably have them again. Like I said earlier, sometimes we find that what we want either isn't what we need, that it wasn't what we wanted at all, or that what we thought would feel good -- be it physically, emotionally or both -- really doesn't.

I don't want to make any assumptions about you, but since this did warrant coming here and asking for help, and you frame this as something you don't know how to deal with, it feels safe to guess that you didn't expect to have to deal with these kinds of issues in sexual partnerships, even though they're highly common. Again, it's hard to say what is and it's related to his experience when younger, but if any or all of this is about that, know that the chances of anyone having a partner who has survived any kind of sexual or other abuse are high, because so very many people have been or will be assaulted or abused in their lifetimes. I also hope you are able to think and talk about all of this without takig it too personally.

I know that can sound like a stupid thing to even suggest about sex because it IS all so personal, right? But the thing is, it is and it isn't. When any of us comes to sex with someone else, we bring all of our life experiences to it and our own, separate, sexuality. If and when his responses with touching or sex are, indeed, about your relationship or things you're doing or aren't, hopefully he's filled you in on that in a kind way. Ideally, if anything in your relationship is really loaded for him, or the sexual pacing is just too fast, I hope he's felt able to say that and you can both make adjustments. But if he's said this isn't about you, I also hope you can take his word on that and try not to internalize this incident or his boundaries as being about you if they're not. Even when we're really into someone, that can't usually just magic away previous trauma, radically change our boundaries, or make every single thing we want to do okay all the time or perfect.

A sexual dynamic where everyone gets and accepts that things can shift and change at any time, and that that's not a problem, is a good foundation for a sexuality and sexual life that's positive and beneficial for everyone. If your boyfriend finds that he's not ready for or comfortable with intercourse with you for a while, that doesn't have to be a problem, because it's only one of many, many ways to be sexual with someone. Reminding both him and yourself of that would be a smart, sound thing to do.

So, you can figure that what has happened is a good eye-opener for you, and potentially a great opportunity for you to learn more about how flexible we need to be in sex, both with partners, but also in our own heads in terms of our expectations of sex and sexual partners. All of us who have any kind of partnered sex always need to be prepared to have things go differently than we expect, including partners reacting differently than we thought they would, or needing to pull back when that isn't what we -- or even they -- ideally want.

Situations like this can also be great doors into deeper intimacy. We're all vulnerable in sex, but if and when any fears or anxiety we have with sex as a whole, or at a given time, show themselves up, we're even more vulnerable. If and when we have a reaction like your boyfriend did, having our partner be accepting and provide us with comfort, acceptance or reaffirmation is a big deal. Having a partner ask us about that reaction in an accepting way -- rather than a "What's wrong with you?" or a "What's wrong with me?" way -- where they make clear they're cool, it's all okay, and that they want to talk about it some to be sure they're caring for us well and being a good partner is a really wonderful experience that can make us feel very safe and very close to that other person. Same goes double for not making this stuff into a big deal. Reacting with acceptance, reassurance or even just a "Hey, whatever, what do you want to do instead?" are great reminders and messages that no one expects us to be machines or performers in sex; they just want and expect us to be ourselves, wherever we're at, and to be real and open.

We've recently added a new tool at Scarleteen you both might find useful here. It's a list that would allow both of you to check in with what you generally want, don't or may or may not want, and also includes space for things like triggers. I'll leave a link for it below, as well as a few more I think you might find useful:

written 15 Jun 2010 . updated 21 Jan 2014

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