Should I feel guilty (for being afraid to say no)?

Anonymousss
asks:
So im 17 years old and have been dating my boyfriend (he's 18) for just over a year and a half. I will admit we have sex very regularly, about 10 times a week, but the problem is, i dont know how to say no to sex! During our relationship, ive only EVER said no to sex ONCE! And he got so angry and upset about it. Now i feel like i cant say no anymore, and i feel so guilty because i say yes even though I don't want to, and i have to fake my orgasms just so he can get off. PLEASEEE help me, i feel like he will break up with me if i say no to him continuously!!
Sam W replies:

You do know how to say "no" to sex. The issue is that you're afraid to say it, and that's a big red flag.

I don't know how your boyfriend reacted the one time you said no, but it was clearly intense enough that you've done the calculus and decided it's better to have sex you don't want than face that reaction again. In a healthy relationship, no one is having to run that calculus. They don't have to be scared of what could happen if they say no.

What that tells me is that this relationship is not in a healthy place right now. Whether it's salvageable depends on what happens after you start saying no. That's step one, and it might feel pretty scary, but it has to happen. You deserve to only engage in sexual contact when you want to, not because you feel obligated to. That's why the concept of enthusiastic consent is important: it's not the absence of a no, it's the presence of an excited yes. If you're only consenting because you're afraid of what will happen if you don't, that's not really consent at all.

There are two possible ways to introduce this to him, and the one you choose should depend on what makes you feel safest. One option is to, the next time he initiates and you don't want to have sex, say no. And be ready to leave if he reacts the way he did last time. If you're at his place, have a way to get to and from it that doesn't rely on him (that could be your car, a bike, a friend on call, the bus, etc). If he's at your place, figure out ahead of time how you'll make sure he leaves when you ask him to. This is going to feel harsh and weird to you, and he might say lots of things about how you're being unreasonable, a bad girlfriend, or other stuff designed to make you feel like your boundaries are not okay. If that happens, keep repeating to yourself that there are partners out there who will treat your boundaries with the utmost respect, and he can't do that he is not even meeting the bare minimum of being a good partner. That is such a low bar in terms of behavior, yet by pursuing his desires in a way that scares you he's managed to trip over it and show you his ass (and what an ass he can be).

If confronting him about this in the moment feels like it puts you in danger (and if it does that's a sign you need to get out of this relationship ASAP) you can bring it up in conversation in a space and time where you feel relatively safe. The exact way you phrase it depends on what feels natural to you, but it could sound like, "Boyfriend, we need to establish some new rules around sex, the biggest one being that if I say 'no' you accept that boundary and don't push or get mad at me. Right now I don't feel like I cant say no to you, and that's not okay." He may freak out, in which case we're back to the leaving the interaction (and preferably the relationship) option.

If he reacts well to these conversations, apologizes, and says he'll do better in the future, the relationship might be reparable. However, the deciding factor will be whether or not he actually does what he's promised. If he respects your boundaries in and out of the bedroom and takes steps to regulate his anger, that's a good sign. If he agrees during the conversation but reverts back to being angry at you when you say no, then it's all aboard the last train to nopeville.

If he breaks up with you over this? That's ultimately a good thing. It's not going to feel like it in the moment, but as the weeks and months progress I'll bet you'll feel less fear and tension in your body. And you won't be having sex you don't want, which is hugely important. You're not obligated to have sex with anyone (no one is). If he can't accept that reality, it's a sign that he's not in a place where he should be dating or sleeping with anybody. And you deserve to be in a relationship with someone who doesn't make you afraid to say no.

This is less critical right now than gauging if this is a safe relationship to stay in, but from now on let your motto be: fake no orgasm. You've mentioned a sadly still common notion that you should pretend to get off or enjoy yourself for the sake of your partner's feelings. This mindset often arises from the idea that if you aren't orgasming you're doing something wrong, so it's better to pretend so that no one figures out that you're "bad" at sex. There's also a strange line of thinking that says it's better to spare your partner's ego by faking than to have honest, ongoing conversations about what feels good and learning how to experiment together sexually. There's an added component for you, I'm betting, of faking so that the sex will be over, since you didn't want to be having it in the first place.

Even in relationships where there is enthusiastic consent, faking orgasms is still unnecessary and, ultimately, unhelpful. No one is going to automatically know all the right buttons to push to make a partner feel good. One person may love a massage to relax them, while another person thinks being massaged feels like being prodded by a crab. Communication, even if it's awkward at first, is the way for partners to learn each other's sweet spots and "do not touch under any circumstances" spots. Faking orgasms throws a wrench into that communication by making one partner think everything is fine while the other feels like communicating about what actually feels good may result in them revealing they've been faking. If you put the cultural story that says you "should" orgasm easily aside, you open up a new front of trust, communication, and pleasure with a partner.

Like I said, the talk about orgasms and pleasure can come after you establish whether this relationship is safe to be in. I hope that talking to your boyfriend about his behavior is enough to make him stop. If it isn't, I hope you find someone who treats you and your boundaries with the respect they deserve.

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