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How do I bring up my sexual limits and boundaries?

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Lishy asks:

I'm 15, and I have my first boyfriend (he's 16, almost 17, with a one year five month age difference between us). I really love him, and he loves me. Yesterday, we were kissing and ended up with us making out and him on top of me. He touched my leg, and my stomach and hip some, but didn't go anywhere near my privates. He's really sweet and polite and would never pressure me into anything, but we haven't talked about sex or anything. I haven't even asked him about his last girlfriend. I'm a virgin, and would like to stay that way for the forseeable future. I have nothing against sex in high school or before marriage, I just don't think I'd be able to handle it emotionally if I got pregnant or our parents found out or something. How can I bring up sex, and my boundaries, with him?

Heather Corinna replies:

I'm always so glad when I hear from someone clearly thinking ahead, who wants to establish sexual communication and boundaries early on, rather than after boundaries have been crossed or well after communication was needed. Well done! Kudos to you for planning to take the initiative yourself, rather than being passive about this. It also speaks well of your relationship that you feel you can make your boundaries clear. In healthy relationships, that's something we'll always feel and know is everyone's right, and will expect our partners to be strongly supportive of.

Ultimately, when it comes to bringing this stuff up, you just have to walk through that door, open your mouth, and take the plunge into the conversation. I know it can feel awkward at first, but the only way it gets less awkward is by doing it. It's okay for things in life to be awkward, by the way. Our interpersonal relationships are places where we should always be able to be learners and know we can try things out without an expectation that we or others will be an expert at everything. Talks like these between partners, friends or lovers are personal, intimate exchanges, not professional speeches we're giving to thousands of people who paid $500 a plate to hear us talk, after all.

Ideally, talks about sex and boundaries like this tend to go best when we have them outside an immediate sexual context. In other words, at times and places when you're not being physical, when no one is half-dressed or there's any expectation of physicality. We can tend to feel pretty vulnerable at those times, so can easily feel overexposed, and we're also often more than a little distracted in those settings by strong sexual feelings, so it can be harder to pay complete attention, listen as well as we should or grok nuances and subtleties well.

While these kinds of talks could be had online or on the phone, I think it's best to have them face-to-face. (I think texting is a terrible medium for serious or sensitive conversations like this, for the record.) Right now, the stakes aren't that high for either of you. You seem to be treating each other with respect, it's early in your relationship, and you're not in the middle of any kind of conflict. That puts you in a great position to learn how to talk like this, and to establish a habit of sexual communication in-person now, rather than having to figure out how to do it if and when there is a conflict or when you have to talk about what's going on right in the moment, when communicating is so important, but can be a lot harder to do well.

Ideally, I think it's great if you can set the stage for this kind of talk by saying that you'd like to set aside some time for the two of you to talk about where your relationship has gone, is going, or might go physically. You can let your boyfriend know that there's nothing the matter, or nothing he needs to feel worried about, just that you want to start this communication, and would like to be sure you have the kind of time and space you need to do it well.

If you want an idea of some openers for this kind of conversation, you might consider things like:
I know we're nowhere near this yet, but before we get anywhere near, I wanted to talk with you about my limits and boundaries around sex, find out about yours, and get started on some agreements and understandings around them both.
OR
I've really liked being physical with you the way we have been, and appreciate the way you've gone about that with me so far. But I don't want either of us to ever have to just guess about what is or isn't okay with the other, or make assumptions that aren't right, so I want to sit down and talk some of that out in advance.
OR
A lot of people wind up making a real mess out of their relationships around sex or physical intimacy, and I don't want that to happen to us. Can we start talking about all of this together so that we can do a good job staying on the same page, and keep our relationship as awesome as it's been so far?
OR
I don't really know how to get started with this, but I want us to start talking about sex and our boundaries. Can you do that with me?
OR
I want to fill you in on what I want and don't want when it comes to any kind of sex, okay?
OR
Sex and other touchy-feely stuff. Ground rules: yours, mine. Let's lay'em down!

My words probably sound more like me -- especially that last one, which may have you now wondering why you asked me about this in the first place -- than like you, but hopefully they give you some ideas for a starting point you can come up with in your own voice.

After you open that conversation, you can fill him in on some of what you have said here, talking about what you do and don't feel able to handle, and about what you do and don't want to risk with your life or your body, and what you do and don't want, period. Even if pregnancy wasn't or isn't a risk, or even if you could handle it emotionally doesn't automatically mean you're going to have interest in any or all kinds of sex at this point of your relationship or any other, after all. As well, what we do and don't want is often about more than just those things. I'd make sure that in your conversation with him, you don't make any assumptions about what he wants, either, or why he may or may not want it. He also may not feel ready or interested, and probably has his own sexual ethics and values, even if they're not exactly the same as yours. You also can't know what kind of pacing feels right for him, so it's always good to leave a lot of room for that, including acknowledging that if things feel too fast for him so far, he can let you know that and that's okay.

I would be sure to be more clear with him than "I want to stay a virgin." Virgin, as a term, means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, so what it means to you may not be the same thing it means to him. Some people define virgin as someone who has no kind of intimate contact with anyone at all, others as someone who has had no kind of genital sex, others as people who have had every other kind of sex under the sun, with the lone exception of vaginal intercourse. If there are kinds of sex that are off the table for you now and in the near future, let him know what those kinds of sex are clearly, rather than using a term like virgin that's vague, unclear, and may result in him walking away from what could have been a great conversation with no clue as to what your boundaries actually are.

It's also helpful to talk about what you DO want, rather than just what you don't. For example, with what happened yesterday: are those all things you do want, do feel ready for and do feel comfortable with? If so, let him know. Was there anything yesterday that you didn't feel comfortable with, either a way you were touched, a way you were or were not asked, or even a way you reacted yourself, that you want to bring up for you both to know or think about moving forward? If so, go ahead and do that. Talking about both what we do and don't want, especially in initial conversation, can set up the start of a great dynamic in sexual communication where we can talk about our no's and our yesses, about what we don't want, but also about what we desire. To have good sexual communication, we all need to be able to talk about both ends of that spectrum, not just one, and all the gray areas or maybes in between.

Obviously, when it comes to talking about sex and other physical intimacy, there's an awful lot to talk about. Don't stress yourselves out thinking you have to somehow cover it all in this one, initial talk. You don't, and really, you couldn't possibly, Figure, and communicate to him, that this is just an opening for many talks to come, and that what you're doing this first time is just opening the door and getting a start, not having the only conversation you'll ever have about this. For both of you, your feelings about all of this may not always stay the same, either, so it's a good idea to always acknowledge that when you're talking this way, both people always have the right to change their minds in any way, and revisit the conversation with any new or different feelings, thoughts, ideas, boundaries or limits. On the whole, agreements you two make should also be understood to not be written in stone, but to be things that either of you can always ask to talk about, renegotiate or revise.

In the case that you or he feels that you need some things that you just do not want to be up for discussion at all, then you're talking about hard limits. For instance, some folks feel very strongly that they do not even want to consider a given kind of sex until they are at a certain point in a relationship or a certain age. Some people have sexual things they know they just absolutely are not up to considering doing, or things that they are 100% not cool with a partner doing. It's always okay to have those kinds of limits, you just want to communicate them, make clear when those limits are hard limits, and let a partner know that whatever those things are, if you have them, they're non-negotiable unless you bring them up for negotiation yourself. This is another area where you want to make clear that if the other person has any of those, they get to have them, too, and you intend to respect them the same way.

I like setting a precedent after a first conversation like this for open, good communication ever after. You can do that by closing this kind of talk by thanking the person you're having it with for having it with you, and by saying that you'd always like to be able to talk about these issues together, and he can always bring these things up with you, too, whether they're about your concerns, wants and boundaries or his own. Since communication about something as loaded and sensitive as sex and our feelings can be so intimidating and challenging, making sure everyone involved knows their efforts to communicate well are valued can be a really big deal. That means you should give yourself a big pat on the back for your own efforts, too!

I don't know if this is the case with you, but sometimes our users have voiced concern that if they are the ones to bring up any kind of conversation about sex when they don't want to have sex -- yet or period -- they'll be sending a mixed-message. In other words, some feel that if what you want to talk about is what you do NOT want to do sexually, talking about it at all suggests that you DO want to be sexual in the ways that you do not. While I understand that worry, I also disagree. Talking about sex is not having sex, and talking about sex is not "asking for" sex unless in the talk you're having you are asking for sex with your words. Saying otherwise is nonsense, like saying that if I say "I'm not hungry," I must REALLY be saying I want to eat would be nonsense. So, in the case this was a concern you also had, I'd encourage you to let it go. If you are ever with someone who suggests that you wanting to talk about sex must mean you want to have sex, know that'd be a signal that person was without the kind of maturity for intimate relationships, not a signal that communicating was a bad move on your part.

I also want to make sure you know it's okay to ask people about their sexual and/or relationship history. Mind, asking someone we just met on the bus, or the person who delivers our mail is often invasive and not so cool. Asking for all of that history the first time we start hanging out with someone romantically is also often a bit much, unless we're getting sexual with that person at that time. But once we've started to get involved with someone, especially to the point that we're being at all physical with them, it's always okay to ask and to share that kind of history yourself. Our pace in wanting to know isn't always the same as someone else's pace in wanting to disclose, so they may not always want to share when we ask, but asking should still be okay. You also get to have your own limits around how involved you want to get with someone who doesn't want to or doesn't feel ready to share that kind of history.

You sound clear and confident in knowing what is and isn't right for you right now. It also sounds like this is a relationship you feel safe and cared for in and you obviously have some strong self-esteem in your pocket since you're planning to bring this up. I'll leave you with a few extra links that might give you some more information, just in case, but I'm sure you're going to do just fine bringing this up and having these conversations together. Go forth and get gabbing! I'm willing to bet this is all going to go beautifully and be something you both feel great about.

written 14 Sep 2010 . updated 23 Sep 2010

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