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» Scarleteen Boards: 2000 - 2014 (Archive) » SCARLETEEN CENTRAL » Relationships » How to set sexual limits and boundaries?

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Author Topic: How to set sexual limits and boundaries?
Executive Director & Founder
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The sexual limits and boundaries poll has had some distressing, but sadly unsurprising, results so far.

Of the 59 users who replied as of today, 35% have a challenging, or impossible, time setting and upholding limits and boundaries when it comes to if they have sex, when, and how. 27% find it challenging or impossible to do so with birth control and safer sex.

I want to live in the world where it is easy -- even if it's not seamless or perfect -- for 100% of people to say yes or no to any given sexual activity, to express their limits, and to have an easy time with partners establishing what birth control and safer sex praactices need be used.

When 36% of those respondents reported that they've had a partner ARGUE with them about boundaries? And almost 30% report that a partner has coerced or forced them to dismiss boundaries?

Nuh-uh. I don't want y'all to live in that world.

We need an article on how to help our users become savants with establishing and communicating boundaries; with enforcing them and with establishing partnerships where limits and boundaries are taken seriously. Because when that's not so? Not only are most folks in the situations where that isn't happening going to be having lousy sex, more importantly, those folks are being endangered by their partners emotionally and physically.

I have some limits and boundaries tales/tips of my own, but I'd like to hear from all of you first.

What have your experiences been with limit and boundary setting? The good and the bad? If you've had bad experiences, in hindsight, what do you think could have been done differently: choosing partners more wisely, taking more time before becoming sexual or even before dating, establishing better communication, knowing more about how to have relationships of equality and respect, knowing how better to respect yourself?

If you've had good experiences, what do you think helped you have those?

If you're currently having a hard time with limits and boundaries, what's going on?

Heather Corinna, Executive Director & Founder, Scarleteen
About MeGet our book!
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. - Margaret Mead

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Good topic.

I've always found setting limits to be very difficult. I was sexually abused when I was younger and as a result I had a hard time relating to males. Still do. I started trying to hide that insecurity by being overtly flirty, which guys obviously took as a sign that I was interested, and I consequently ended up in a lot of relationships I had no real interest in being in and doing a lot of things I didn't want to in order to 'keep up appearances'. The first time I consciously realized what I was doing and actually managed to say 'Stop' wasn't until I was 17. But even afterwards the same pattern continued, with the only difference was that I was now completely aware of it and trying to deny it. Basically what I think I was doing wrong, was that I was expecting too much of myself and also expecting the wrong things of myself. I wanted to be like someone who was 'normal', who hadn't been abused, but I was totally going about it the wrong way.

What I did to fix it was starting to work through my past and dealing with it. I had to learn to recognize my own desires and feelings and to only do things I actually really wanted to do.

I'm now in a relationship where I was upfront about my history from the very start. It wasn't easy to tell him because I was afraid he'd pack up and leave. But he didn't. And him knowing means that there is a level of honesty that allows me to be myself. I decided to tell him because I knew that I owed it to myself to be honest, both with myself and with my partner, because that was the only way I was ever going to have a relationship where both partners are on the same level and where they both enjoy what's happening. And boy, is this a revelation.

Okay, this was long-winded and disjointd. Basically, my tip would be that the way to establish boundaries is simply to be completely honest about your feelings. If you're not comfortable with something, say so. And if you feel that you can't, examine why. Are you afraid of your partner? Do you think you 'should' like what you're doing and are embarrased to admit that you're not? Do you and your partner just not communicate well? If you're afraid that your partner won't like what you have to say, say it anyway. If they react badly, you know that you're with someone who won't respect you, and good riddance. ANything else is simply a matter of good communication, and that should be an integral part of a relationship anyway, so embrace it.

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"The question is not who will let me, but who is going to stop me." -Ayn Rand

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I've had my sexual boundaries violated, and I've learned from bad experiences. I try to pick up on signs in terms of reaction on a non-sexual level. I'm certainly more careful about choosing partners as well as honest with myself about my own wants versus limits. Even before I go on a date, I think about how comfortable I am with potential sexual activity (x or y but not z, etc.) and setting personal hurdles. For example, just meeting up in public versus at home if I'm dating someone who I've very attracted to but realize I'm not feeling up to introducing things like condoms or, most importantly, frank communication.

There should be no shame in discussing safer sex tools, boundaries, STI testings, personal experiences with abuse, what-would-you-do-if-I-got-pregnant, etc. However, I realize that it's a big can of worms to open, and one I absolutely must deal with when I have a sexual relationship. If I'm feeling too "lazy" to deal with all that, then I simply will not become sexual with that person. But I also can admit to myself that if I'm dating someone, chances are I want to and am going to be sexually active with the person. So simply not dating is sometimes the solution when I'm not wanting to deal.

At the same time, I've learned to listen to my gut: If my boundaries were crossed or disrespected, I'm going to cut my losses and move on versus staying and trying to repair what is wrong. As for a partner not being willing to support my decision about using condoms, etc.? No way, no patience whatsoever! It was hard at 17, but now at 22 and Scarleteen-informed [Wink] , it's an easy no.

Speaking of personal experiences, and to make a long post longer: I had sexual intercourse for the first time at age 17 with a boyfriend who turned out to be a real dud. He claimed a colorful sexual history, but he apparently couldn't even put on a condom correctly. It broke, I took EC and a lifechanging crisis ensued. I was forbidden from seeing him, but I somehow managed to see him and had an opportunity to have sex again. I didn't have any condoms with me, neither did he, but he really wanted to have intercourse. He begged me to, "just let him stick it in for a little while," (atrocious wording, if you ask me now!) but I was able to stick up for myself to say no and leave the situation. (Unlike I had early when he had raped me.) I'm proud of this big little step to this day. [Smile]

[ 05-08-2006, 04:49 PM: Message edited by: Ecofem ]

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I'm one of the people who have had no problem setting boundaries and having them respected in my relationship (this is my first one). I think most of this comes from being VERY clear of my intentions when the relationship started. However, this wouldn't have worked as well as it has if I didn't have a partner who was respectful of my feelings and well being.

I'm also in a bit of an odd case. I had a rather traumatic experience where I was forced into sexual play by my cousin when I was 11. My boyfriend was informed of this early in the relationship, and at this point it was explained that "this is part of the reason I have I will not be rushing into sex...and you need to understand and be supportive of that." It was made crystal clear that if he ever tried to force me into anything I didn't want/was ready for...the relationship would be over. Period. There was simply too much of my well-being at stake, as I'd never really worked through what happened to be from before yet. Also, I'm dead-set on not allowing myself to be forced into something I don't want again. Its just one thing that I have zero tolerance for.

So, I guess in a way, a part of the reason I'm so dead-set on my boundaries, my pace, and no arguments is because I've had my boundaries disrespected before outside of a relationship. While I wouldn't exactly say its "learning from my mistakes" I had no choice in the matter when I was 11 and therfore refuse to classify it as a mistake...I have learned from my experiences. What these expereinces have taught me is that I have a responsiblity to protect myself. In my case this came out as making a choice to enter a relationship where I felt my partner would respect me, and taking steps to make sure my own well-being was forefront.

[ 05-08-2006, 07:15 PM: Message edited by: greenapp1es ]

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Like greenapp1es, this is my first partner, and I've never had much trouble communicating my likes and boundaries.

However, part of the reason I think I've had such good experiences is holding off on sex for longer than most couples. I told my partner when we first got together that I didn't even want to have to worry about pregnancy for quite awhile, so we would engage in no activities that even posed the slightest risk. My first intercourse came just before the two year mark of the relationship.

So yeah, if I were advising young people on voicing their boundaries, I'd definately say to choose partners wisely. If you can't talk to them about almost anything, including your feelings about sex, then you're likely setting yourself up for some disappointment.

Also, it's easiest, at least for me, to talk about sex early on in a relationship, especially looking back at my early-mid teens. When the notorious teenage relationship drama sets in, things can sometimes seem too fast and heavy to drag down with a serious discussion.

[ 05-08-2006, 10:29 PM: Message edited by: Miss Lauren ]

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As Miss Lauren and greenapples have said, this is my first partner, as well.

My boyfriend and I were very careful to discuss sex well before we became sexually active in any way. He is very careful not to be forceful and to take things slow. I don't want to regret anything about 'us', and I've made that very clear. If I'm going to do something, I want to be ready, and the relationship needs to be stable enough for that type of advancement (intercourse, etc).

I am still hesitant with quite a few things (even after a year and a half of being with him), and he is understanding of that.

When the notorious teenage relationship drama sets in, things can sometimes seem too fast and heavy to drag down with a serious discussion.
I agree. But communication is key, which is something that mnay teen-relationships ignore. It scares me when some of them just jump into things. Hence, regret and hurt feelings.

[ 05-09-2006, 04:13 PM: Message edited by: Mathilde ]

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Interestingly, one of the things I was going to add is that one strange "perk" -- if you can call it that -- about being a rape and abuse survivor, is that both in my experiences, and as others have related their experiences to me, having had those experiences makes limits and boundary setting easier.

NOT only because it can make them a bit more important than they might be otherwise (see below), but in having them be respected.

Sadly, partners and potential partners often seem to take limits and boundaries more seriously, or accept them more easily, when someone is a survivor. That isn't to say survivors shouldn't be respected in that matter. Rather, that having limits and boundaries respected is vital for EVERYONE, and no one should need an abusive history to have them easily respected.

Heather Corinna, Executive Director & Founder, Scarleteen
About MeGet our book!
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. - Margaret Mead

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This is a great topic to discuss, and I hope another tasty article comes afterwards!

Honestly, I think a lot of boundary setting (or lack thereof) has to do with one's self-esteem issues. This is more common with girls than guys, as most girls worry that "if I don't do something with him he'll break up with me/ tell everyone I'm a prude/ ect. At the same time, guys might actually try to push boundaries for low self-esteem/peer pressure reason (think "American Pie" here: if every guy was determined to lose their virginity by prom night, some boundaries would be bound to be broken). Self-confidence and pressure issues definately come into play when it comes to setting boundaries with your partner.

Fortunately for me, I've always been pretty independent-minded and not afraid to voice my concerns. With my last boyfriend, however, we weren't very open with eachother, and he often made me feel uncomfortable with what we were doing sexually. We broke up before things could get too far. My current boyfriend and I are very very open together, and we've actually both had to say "Whoa...hang on a second," to eachother. Different people want different things at different times, but we both respect eachother's opinions and comfort levels.

To put it simply, communication is key, and you need the confidence to "No" when you don't want to do it.

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Sadly, partners and potential partners often seem to take limits and boundaries more seriously, or accept them more easily, when someone is a survivor.

Maybe because the reality of trauma becomes more visceral - as opposed to something one hears about in the media? Or the partner is worried about emulating any kind of violent behavior/recalling traumatic memories?

... which means that most partners might not consider the traumatic outcomes of sex in the first place.

I've never had trouble setting boundaries about sex, because I had the conversation with my partner before we did anything. But I feel sometimes like I should have waited, for some sort of (non-existent/wishful) guarantee of a committed relationship. Setting boundaries guarantees very little, unfortunately, because you can't predict a potential partner's behavior on all levels.

Maybe that's why people are reluctant to set boundaries - because they figure it's not worth it in the first place? i.e. they assume that when pressures about sex are factored into the equation, they won't be able to sustain their own boundaries.

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Before I get ready to head out for the night -- to an event of adults making arses of ourselves by reading out juniour high and high school diaries aloud, no less -- I wanted to go ahead and add some thing that have helped me over the years.

The very biggest thing has been for it to be clear that my boundaries are simply not negotiable. Negotiating boundaries with a longtime partner is often a very different thing than with more casual partners, but I have found that this works very well for both.

Even waaaaaaay back when when I was the age of most of you -- including during times when no one even knew what the phrase "safer sex" meant -- having the confidence to say clearly what I was and wasn't willing to do, without setting it up as any sort of negotioation at all per my limits, made a big difference. Always having condoms of my OWN, and taking one out at any time I felt sexual activity was likely to happen has always seemed to immediately negate most people even discussing with me the idea that condoms not be used. The few times someone did suggest it, I have always just made a point of saying, "No, I'm not willing to do that. I'm preferctly fine with us not having sex if you don't want to use that, but I won't be having sex without." People really do tend not to argue with that: I feel like even seeming like you'll cave if someone suggests otherwise opens the door to limits and boundaries not being easily respected. I think you have to appear very firm, and you really can do that and still be friendly about it.

As well, I'm someone who has benefitted (which sounds awkward, but so it is) when it comes to setting limits by having abuse history. Making clear that I have triggers and what they are hasn't always been easy just because talking about rape and abuse isn't, but it's a lot easier if you do it well before you're in the sheets. Making clear that I am very well-versed in the difference between rape and violence and respectful, partnered sex has been helpful.

I'll also add that through most of my life, I tend to be the initial sexual initiator. I certainly don't think that that HAS to be the case with women -- I think men absolutely can initiate sex healthfully and respectfully -- but I have found that that being the case seems to have been a help with limits and boundaries.

Anecdotally, I've found that what I do for a living can be a help or a hindrance. Nobody wants to be the one who louses up sexual boundaries with someone who is a visible personality who writes about sex. A lot of people assume that I am NOT a sexual pushover because of what I do. On the other hand, I have also have dates in my life who have assumed that because of what I do per sexuality work, that I'll automatically be up to anything at all.

And that's off the top of my head for today.

Thanks so much to all of you participating in this discussion: you're validating a lot of what we already know, and my own existing thoughts and knowledge, about how self-esteem is a big helper with limits and boundaries, as well as preparation and discussions in advance of sex. I think what you're saying is of a lot of value to those who DON'T feel so capable yet. Thanks!

Heather Corinna, Executive Director & Founder, Scarleteen
About MeGet our book!
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. - Margaret Mead

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I just want to chime in my imput [Smile]

I have been very upfront with all of the guys that I have dated and flings. Until I was 17, I told all of them that I was not ready for sex and that they'd respect that. I wasn't in the relationship for sex and if that's what they didn't want, they had to get out now. It was a very personal decision. Most respected that. There was only one boyfriend in the past that tried to pressure me sexually with things, but i was very firm, and was not ready for that.

My current lover and I had a full out conversation about boundaries, and etc at the beginning of our relationship. (by that time, I was already not a virgin). I'm really glad we had that, and we're still together after nearly 5 years and about to get married.

I agree that if you can have sex, you should be able to communicate about sex, limits and boundaries as well. It's very important that couples know about it together and respect it together. Being on the same page is awesome.


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The biggest problem with maintaining my boundaries wasn't my husband (then boyfriend). It was myself. Morally, I didn't feel comfortable doing certain things. However, part of me wanted to do those things, and it's hard to remember moral boundaries when things get heated.

My husband and I didn't discuss boundaries when we first began dating because we didn't need to. We both knew we wanted to wait until we were married, and for the first 9 months or so of our relationship the temptation to cross that boundary wasn't overwhelming. However, over time it became more difficult. So then we had to set boundaries to keep us from overcoming our boundaries. We tried not to be alone together, or cuddle facing together without a pillow between us (go ahead and laugh), or make out. Those were the boundaries that my husband sometimes tried to talk me out of, because they weren't things that we believed were inherently wrong. However, he never tried to talk me into crossing major boundaries, such as sex.

Now we're married. It's nice to finally have sex, but it's also nice to be able to lay together and not be worried about where our hands are or whether one thing is gonna lead to another. Freedom. [Smile]

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Originally posted by Miz Scarlet:

If you've had good experiences, what do you think helped you have those?

If you're currently having a hard time with limits and boundaries, what's going on?

I have two examples, one good, and one bad.

The bad one is my first messed up relationship. I refuse to call the boy my first boyfriend, because he doesn't deserve that title. He and I were friends, and he had asked me several times to go out. I told him no. I just wasn't attracted to him, and I was mostly his friend because he flattered me, and I felt sorry for him a lot. A bad reason to be friends, but I was in a bad place in my life.

Eventually, I visited him at his house. Now, I was a virgin in every sense at that time. I hadn't kissed a guy or even held a guy's hand. This boy KNEW that. The second time I came to his house, he kissed me. Not only did he kiss me, he FORCED me to kiss him. Then, when he was done, he announced that I was his girlfriend.

Now this is where I went wrong.

I felt ashamed. I felt like he would tell others he had kissed me and they would think I was a slut because of it. But, I thought foolishly, if I was his girlfriend, they wouldn't. Plus, he obviously wasn't taking no for an answer. He had just forced his tongue down my throat for gods sake.

So, I got into a very abusive relationship. He molested me, manipulated me, scared me, and finally he cheated on me. That, in some perverse way, was what finally slapped some sense into me. I had been molested in the past several times, so I was almost able to accept the abuse, but the cheating just brought something out in me that refused to be ignored. I find it almost funny that a man (that I didn't even LIKE, and really had begun to hate) cheating on me was the straw that broke the camel's back.

After one month I got the nerve to break up with him. I did it at school, with a note. I was too afraid of him to do it elsewhere.

He harassed me for months afterwards, but eventually he moved to Florida, and I haven't heard from him since. THANK GOD.

Now, enough of the bad choices. Here is my current relationship, and how I did things differently.

My current boyfriend Matt is a sweetie pie, but I knew at the beginning I had to lay down the law.

I was very open about sex. I told him right away that "It might be a year or two before I'm ready for sex, and it might be never." He said okay. I was friends with him, and I told him how I had been abused. When he found out about the previous guy (who he had known) he was furious. He understood where I was coming from. He understood the rules. I repeated them often.

We would flirt and be sexual, I'm not saying we didn’t, but it was always ME who started it. If I stopped it, he stopped. I was in control.

Eventually, after three months (and a year of friendship) I decided I was ready. Not only was I ready, but I wanted to be with him. The day before I saw him for our date, I told him I still was adamant about not having sex. He was fine with it.

[Big Grin] He got a bit of a surprise.

I feel very proud, and like a very powerful woman because of how I handled it. Not only did I initiate my first sexual experience, but I was on top. You might not understand, but that’s a very liberating thing for a girl who's been sexually abused since the age of nine.

I'm being smart about this. I demand he uses condoms (he's fine with that) and I'm going this friday for birth control. I also made it clear that I'M in charge of when and if we do it again.

Now I'm not saying girls have to totally be in control. Still, be in charge of YOURSELF. Do only what YOU want to do. Yes, care about how your partner feels, but always consider yourself first. It might sound selfish, but it’s the healthiest thing to do. Encourage your partner to do the same. How can you make each other happy unless you are comfortable and happy yourself?

So be PROUD to be in control of yourself and what you want. Be PROUD, and don't let anyone ever make you do anything that you don't want.

That is a hard lesson, but I know I'm all the better for learning it.


“People out there must be told about the self-loathing that follows rape and how it's the greatest breakage in divine law to mutilate themselves, as I have done.” Tori Amos

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If you've had good experiences, what do you think helped you have those?

What really helped me was knowing that my boyfriend would be okay with my decisions, having that extra support. Sure, once we had to REALLY discuss boundaries and really set it in stone, but that was cleared instantly, and I'm glad it was discussed. Cody (bf) is very keen to know if I'm comfortable with something that is happening, etc. If I don't feel comfortable with a certain action, then it doesn't continue or happen at all. I was sure to make that very clear. Luckily, when it comes to sex we're both holding off, so that's not a hard boundary to keep.

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