Consent and Healthy Sexual Boundaries

By MaryBeth Koenes

Let’s talk about sex, baby! It’s one of the most compelling and fundamental parts of any romantic relationship. Sexual intimacy can be a daunting place for survivors of domestic violence to navigate. So, how do we fan the flame of desire without getting burned? What does it take to enjoy healthy sexual relationships after intimate partner abuse? 

As with any sexual interaction, communication about expectations, needs, and desires within the context of your relationship will help define a healthy perimeter to feel secure. Each person holds the responsibility to bring their truth to their partner. Communicating what you are comfortable with and not comfortable with can be a vulnerable conversation to have, but it’s a must for creating the security you’ll need to freely explore your sexuality without feeling any residual emotional pain like shame or regret. 

How do you begin a conversation about sexual boundaries? You may be thinking, “Um, it seems a little unsexy to chat about what boundaries I’ll have during sexy time.” Well, let’s try to re-frame that thinking. The truth is, setting and discussing guidelines with a potential (or current) sexual partner can be very liberating–for both of you! By openly communicating what makes you feel safe, loved, and aroused, you’re giving your partner a playbook on how to maximize your pleasure. That’s always a WIN-WIN! Don’t be afraid to share in detail what you need to be fully open to your partner in the bedroom. If you don’t feel safe communicating with your partner or your partner shuts you down or makes you feel bad about bringing it up–it may be time to rethink other dynamics of your relationship.

Okay, so you get why sexual boundaries are important and you understand now that they require you to communicate them to your partner, so let’s talk about what those boundaries might look like.

Here are four key components of establishing healthy sexual boundaries:

  1. CONSENT: This is the mother of all when it comes to anything sexual–a handhold, a hug, a kiss, and everything beyond. You are the only one who gets to say when and how your body is handled. And, guess what?! Consent can change. Anytime. If you thought you’d like to take it a little farther than a kiss, but then realized later that you aren’t as into as you thought you’d be, guess what? You can reestablish the boundary, “You know, I am feeling differently than I thought I would about this. I’d like to take things a little slower and not get too hot and heavy until we get to know each other more.” Or, if you and your partner have been “handsy” in the past, but lately you haven’t been into it or you realized you don’t actually like it, guess what? You can revise those outdated guidelines, “Hey, babe, I know this is what we’ve done before, but I’m realizing now that I feel more respected (and therefore open to deeper sexual connection) when you don’t grope me while we’re in public, while I’m working, around the kids, etc. So, I’d love it if you could save it for our sexy time alone please.” Whether you are married, in a long-term relationship or just enjoying a fling, you alone say when and what is allowed when it comes to your body.
  2. SEXUAL HEALTH: This includes birth control, contraception plans, sexually transmitted infection (STI) disclosures and testing, and any other responsible care practices. If you’re not having conversations about these things, you’re doing yourself, your partner, and most importantly, your future self a monumental disservice. I get it, this is never a fun topic to discuss when all you want to do is…get down! But diving into pleasure without hearing each partner’s guidelines, relevant information, and expectations regarding sexual health will be setting yourself up for unnecessary disaster. Taking your sexual health into your own hands requires you to put your “big kid” pants on and start the conversation. Sexual health is not one of those things in life that goes away if you ignore it. It’s one of those things that explodes in your face if you try to pretend it’s not important. Be smart. Be responsible. Take care of your health.
  3. DOS and DON’TS: This boundary topic can get fun between partners who are open to exploring and respecting each other. Under this umbrella topic, you get to discuss what you like to do and have done to you, what’s cringe-worthy for you, and what is absolutely off-limits. So before you start this conversation, make sure you have thought about what you do and don’t like and want in the bedroom (or outside of it!).
  4. COMMUNICATE: Commit with your sexual partner(s) to maintain open communication throughout the relationship. As humans, we are always evolving. Sometimes preferences change, and therefore boundaries change. There’s nothing wrong with that. And there’s nothing wrong with each individual communicating what they need to be sexually fulfilled. In fact, it’s more sexually fulfilling when you communicate your truth and your partner engages with you in discussing how you can each get the most satisfaction and pleasure with each other. Stay committed to the practice of open communication.

In a nutshell, healthy sexual relationships aren’t just about timing, chemistry, longevity, or stamina. The most fulfilling sexual relationships are formed with healthy sexual boundaries. Sexual boundaries aren’t necessarily walls or barricades, they are clearly marked gateways that show your partner(s) how to love you well. If you are unsure what your sexual boundaries are, this online course can help. Get all the details on how to find, set, and maintain your own individual boundaries which can be applied to work, family, or sexual relationships. 

No matter what your gender, race, social status, or sexual preference is, the key to experiencing a healthy sexual connection is understanding you are always in charge of your body. That means consent is mandatory. Above all else–whether you’re single, dating, married, attracted, desired, or solicited–you alone have the rights to your body. Whatever you are OK with is a green light, and whatever you say NO to is where it stops. If ever this is not what you are experiencing, please reach out for help with BTSADV Hotline 855-BTS-1777 or National Sexual Assault Hotline 800.656.HOPE (4673).

If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, there is help. You can visit the Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence website at www.breakthesilencedv.org or chat with one of our helpline advocates at 855-287-1777.


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Survivor Story: My Daughter and I Were Homeless for Six Months After Leaving My Abusive Husband

Submitted by: *Louise, Survivor

Common barriers faced by domestic violence victims when trying to leave include financial dependency upon the abuser, lack of transportation and employment, and lack of access to affordable, stable housing. Often, victims and survivors are forced to make a choice no one should. They either sacrifice shelter in exchange for their safety or expose themselves to continued abuse and harm to avoid becoming homeless.

A series of studies referenced by Safe Housing Partnerships demonstrates how frequently victims and survivors make this choice. Estimates show that homelessness impacts nearly 40% of domestic violence survivors during their lives. Of the homeless female survivors with children surveyed, more than 80% reported that domestic violence preceded their circumstances. Startlingly, some survivors have faced additional trauma during homelessness, while others battled landlords who either refused to make necessary repairs to ensure safety or evicted them using locality nuisance laws.

Louise was in an abusive marriage for 20 years. For the first half of her marriage, she did her best to hide the abuse from everyone, including her children. Over time, as the violence escalated, Louise could no longer keep it a secret. A few years after her husband was arrested for an assault during which the older daughter intervened, Louise and her younger daughter left and ended up homeless and living in a tent for six months. Find out where Louise is now and how she is using her story to help others.

I was with my husband for 20 years, and we have two beautiful daughters from our marriage. The first time he hit me was three months after our wedding. I ended up in the hospital after that attack, but he did not hurt me physically again for ten years. During the first half of our marriage, he used emotional and mental abuse to wear me down until I was just a shell.

When the physical abuse finally resumed, I tried hiding it from my daughters. I stayed because I did not want to deprive them of their father. In public, I presented myself as a confident woman, a professional photographer and business owner, but the local police knew better.

The state of our marriage continued to decline, and the physical abuse became more violent. It even started happening in front of my daughters. They were the ones who always called the police. One time, my oldest daughter, who was 14 at the time, tried to intervene and got between us while I was on the floor. She started pushing him, and after he tried hitting her, she managed to shove him down the stairs. Meanwhile, my youngest was distraught but was able to call 911.

When the police arrived, my husband was arrested, but he also wanted my daughter arrested for assault. I had to send my daughters away because of the harassment I received from his friends. During the trial, I lied on the stand because my youngest wanted her daddy to come home, and he promised to get help. He was only convicted of harassment.

For a few years, he was okay. However, when my oldest daughter left and got married at 18, he became even more violent, attacking my youngest daughter and me almost every night. One night while I was asleep, she drove him to a party and returned home. She then called a local officer who was a friend, told him what had been going on at home, and stated that her dad was no longer welcome in the house.

The officer went to the party and informed my husband that he was no longer able to go home or he would be arrested. He was not happy. We ended up homeless for six months, living in a tent, so my daughter could graduate from her high school with her friends.

Afterward, we moved to another state and started a new life. I am a survivor, and I’m happy. It took my daughter to be the strong one. I am now a court-appointed special advocate and work with foster children in the system who need advocates.

As a result of the abuse, I have PTSD and still have nightmares occasionally. Currently, I have an active order of protection, and he has a warrant because he has violated the protective order multiple times. Despite this, I am strong and can help others now.

Recently, I participated in a documentary about survivors of sexual and domestic assault. It was very difficult for me, but my daughters said that it would be good to help others with my story. I am proud of what I have achieved and the women my daughters and I have become since leaving. It is not easy, but it is worth it.

*Name(s) have been changed – and in some cases omitted – to protect the identity of the survivor and others affected by the abuse.

**If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, there is help. You can visit the Break the Silence website at www.breakthesilencedv.org, chat with one of our helpline advocates at 855-287-1777, or send a private message through our Facebook page. For crisis services, you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.


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Rachel H Survivor Sister Story

Survivor breaks their silence about domestic violence


When Abuse Hides Behind Love

I am afraid to tell you my story. Afraid because in my story, I am a victim and I have never seen myself as a victim. Afraid because even in the thick of it, I didn’t see the abuse and I’m afraid that you won’t either. Afraid because to tell my story, I will have to relive the pain, the fear, the emptiness. I will have to see into those parts of myself that I don’t want to see, that I don’t want to own up to, that I have tried to forget and hide and bury. And I am afraid of crying when I tell my story because I’m not sure that once I’ve started crying, I will be able to stop those tears from falling.

The abuse was cloaked in in love and longing; in logic and rationality; in silence and in distance. I spent so many years normalizing and explaining away and excusing the abuse. Even now, I find it difficult to call it abuse. Because I loved him, I worshipped him, he was the love of my early years. And I know that he loved me. The abuse was cloaked by his love and he had no idea that behind his love was abuse.

We met at a Christmas Party when I was 19. Our eyes met across a crowded room and so began a passionate, long distance romance. We wrote letters to one another on carefully chosen stationery. I spent hours crafting my thoughts into words in the hope that they would make him love me and then later, love me more.

We moved in together when I was 22 and so began the first signs of control. We discussed our finances and he expressed the need for all of my income to be used to cover our living expenses. I held a deep respect for his greater financial knowledge and experience. I readily agreed and only later realised that this left me with no financial autonomy. Any other expenses required discussion and agreement – When I over-spent, I don’t remember there being angry words or shouting, just the shame of his disapproval and disappointment.

This was to be the pattern for the next 18 years of my life – Subtle, whisper-quiet, insidious control; slowly eroding my sense of self and my place in the world.

My greatest sadness lies in the pain that my family also endured, watching my story unfold and knowing that they were powerless to intervene. Early on, they had tried to tell me that this man was not right for me, that there was trouble ahead. He himself had told me when I first met him that he was “not nice”.

My family warned me, he warned me, one of his friends warned me …… I should have warned me ……. But I felt loved and in love – I couldn’t reconcile the warnings with my reality. I could not see outside the cloakroom.

The years that followed brought us both successful careers, amazing travel adventures and the material trappings of upper middle class wealth. I had come to accept that my husband didn’t wish to spend any time with my family and that he didn’t like most of my friends. I allowed his feelings to guide my own actions in distancing myself from all those who loved and cared about me.

We had never planned to have children but nearing 30, I felt the longing to start a family. We talked about trying to have a baby and agreed that it was something we both wanted. It quickly became obvious that I suffered from subfertility and we were advised to commence IVF treatment. Over the next few years, we both rode the IVF roller-coaster with all of its emotional highs, lows; medical procedures with complications and difficult conversations. Intimacy fell by the wayside and the goal of achieving a medically-assisted pregnancy became an obsession. My husband understandably felt like an observer most of the time, powerless to influence any outcomes and bewildered by the many unsuccessful cycles. He had a disagreement with our fertility specialist over the seemingly “experimental” nature of the process and declined to attend any more appointments with our specialist present.

One night, we had a discussion about what to do if we didn’t fall pregnant next time around. I suggested donor eggs or adoption. He adamantly refused to accept a non-biological child. At that point, I realised for the first time that we were two very different people ……
But all of our differences were quickly forgotten when we fell pregnant the very next cycle.

The pregnancy was high-risk and downright hard on my small 5 foot frame. But nothing phased me. I was ecstatic to finally be pregnant and took it all in my stride – the all day and night sickness, the threatened premature labour, the gestational diabetes and the “house arrest” from 20 weeks onward. I think all of this most likely made my husband feel powerless and afraid. Outwardly, he seemed calm and supportive but he could also be very distant and even a little mean. By the third trimester, I was unable to bend over to pick anything up and I couldn’t seem to buy one of those reaching aids or “grabbers” online. I was spending most of my days on the sofa in our lounge room and a small pile of fallen items was gathering around me. I asked my husband repeatedly if he could please pick these items up for me. I can’t remember what his response was at the time but once my babies were safely home and I was able to bend over again, one of the first things I did was pick up all those items on the floor by the sofa – They were still there.

Caring for one or more babies is hard. My husband’s mother lived two hours away and helped when she could. My family were all interstate and overseas – I missed them terribly. My husband and I struggled as new parents and struggled as a couple.

I returned to work and life moved forward. My husband became increasingly stressed and distressed. There were financial pressures. He was drinking more. We didn’t talk much and if I tried to discuss my concerns, he would shut the conversation down by walking away. He would only touch me in the context of sexual intimacy. We were both becoming increasingly socially isolated.

At this point, my mother had entered into a wonderful new romance and was getting married. My sister was flying her family over from Europe for the wedding and my brother was flying his family over from Perth. We hadn’t seen each other for several years and knew that it would be several more before we all met up again. With this in mind, my husband agreed reluctantly that we could attend the wedding. The twins were waking up to 6 times a night and we were all exhausted. We flew interstate and stayed in a motel some distance away from my mother’s house. My husband did not want to see my family before the wedding and I didn’t have any energy to try to do so without him. We attended the wedding but he refused to go to the reception. The following day, he agreed to visit my mother’s house which didn’t have any child safety measures in place – Book shelfs and tv’s were free standing, there were scissors within reach and unguarded power points. My husband and I were racing around trying to prevent any toddler accidents when he suddenly yelled that he’d had enough, picked up the twins and said he was leaving. I pleaded with him to stay – This was the only opportunity I had to spend time with my family. I also knew that if I stayed against his wishes, he would see me as being disloyal to him and there would be a period of emotional distancing and silence. I was too exhausted to protest and stay.

I will never forget my entire family hurrying out of the house after us, begging us to stay and then all standing on the driveway crying as we pulled away. I too cried silently as I waved them goodbye, knowing that I would not see them again for years.

Last night, I messaged my brother and sister to ask for their recollection of events because a decade later, I still don’t trust my own memory of what happened – I have tried to explain it away and blamed myself as I have done so many times before. And when I imagine looking at my story from the outside, like you are now, it doesn’t seem that bad. It doesn’t seem dramatic or violent or damaging.

But every one of these small, hurtful arrows combined with the long silences, the emotional distancing, the financial control, the feeling of being trapped, of being separated from family and friends – it all added up to almost two decades of being slowly hollowed out, of losing myself.

From the outside looking in, this type of subtle abuse may not seem to be “real abuse” but how many victims of this type of insidious control have sought to escape their lives through suicide or disappearance? How many have left or been left by their abuser and added to our divorce rate / the legacy of a broken home?

I have asked myself since, ‘How did I actually let that happen?’ I have looked inward and trawled through the medical literature to try to uncover the psychological flaws in myself that could have led to this abuse. I have also wondered what motivated my abuser – He didn’t know then and doesn’t know now that he was abusing me.

Jess Hill, in her polarizing book “See What He Made Me Do” explains the complexities of being in the shoes of both the victim and the abuser. She highlights the fact that the issues are both societal and individual with the solutions demanding individualized treatment through community-led, collaborative programs. (See https://www.amazon.com.au/See-What-You-Made-Me-ebook/dp/B07M8RGLF7 and https://www.audible.com.au/pd/See-What-You-Made-Me-Do-Audiobook/B07TFBHD27.)

By the time I turned 37, I understood why some people choose to disappear from their current lives – leaving their spouse, children, friends, loved ones and familiar surrounds – for another time, another place, another story. Not that I myself was going to disappear but I had entered into the mindset of someone who could. I felt a deep despair at losing me, my – self; I felt imprisoned, trapped, devoid of any other emotion besides desperation. I felt a deep, raw need to escape, to find my lost self and break free of my old story.

I knew that I had somehow lost my truth, my way, my light.

When I was 39, my husband chose to take a 12 month overseas work posting on his own, intending to give himself time to work out what was important to him, including his marriage and his family. An unintended consequence of his absence was that I was suddenly set free and reveled in my new-found freedom. Over the course of that year, I reconnected with friends, family and myself.

I came to the realisation that every choice, every decision, every step I had taken up to that point in time were my own. There were outside influences, yes (people, events, places) but ultimately, the slow-moving train wreck that I found myself on was of my own doing – And there would be no one miraculously coming to rescue me. I realised that no one could save me but me – I was going to have to save myself. And so, I did. By the time my husband returned, I had made the decision to leave our marriage.

Thankfully, after the break-up, I continued to work full time and quickly established my financial independence – There was no requirement for child support payments and I found myself free of my ex-husband’s financial control. For this, I give thanks every day – I am deeply aware that for many victims, this is not the case and that financial control can remain an ongoing source of trauma.

But my ex-husband’s pattern of emotional distancing, silence and control continued in spite of the divorce. He hasn’t spoken a single word to me in 8 years even though we have 50 : 50 shared custody of our children. One of us drops the twins at school on a Monday morning and the other picks them up on Monday afternoon. During the holidays, they are dropped off outside the other’s house.

Without any in-person dialogue, we initially agreed to communicate by email. Predictably, my emails would frequently go unanswered and I often found myself pleading for replies. After a while I gave up begging and waiting for responses. I set about arranging the twins’ schedule at my place and not worrying about the schedule at his place. I began organizing and paying for the children’s extra-curricular activities fortnightly – I would then email my ex-husband with the details of the activities and give him the relevant contact details for him to arrange the same activities during his weeks with the children if he wished.

I didn’t realise it at the time but we had begun a system of “Parallel Parenting”. (Parallel parenting allows parents to take charge of parenting decisions while the children are under that parent’s care without the need for approval of the other parent. It is often the chosen parenting method for high conflict ex-partners.)

Withholding of information has been my ex-husband’s dominant strategy of control over the past 8 years – I often found out about injuries and illnesses after the fact, on discharge from the hospital or when messaged by the school.

The children have told me that when they began going to my ex-husband’s house, he would continually remind them of his primary rule: “What happens at my house stays at my house and what happens at your mother’s house stays at her house. You’re not to tell her what happens here and I don’t want to hear about what happens at her house.” So when the twins went to their father’s house, although they were allowed to speak to me by phone, they were confused about what they were allowed to say and often said very little.

Things are so much easier now that the twins are teenagers and they can message or phone me with any important updates. We have also moved from email to a parenting app called “Talking Parents” which has facilitated much better communication when it’s required. https://talkingparents.com/home

My ex-husband remarried several years after our divorce and now has another child – He enjoys great success professionally and I find that I am still immensely proud of him and all that he’s achieved. I truly hope that he is happy and that he doesn’t repeat the pattern of abuse in his new relationship.

I have now written a new story – one based on love, kindness, generosity, joy and the simplicity of being. I give thanks every day for my two beautiful children, an amazing family, wonderful friends and work that I love. In just over two years, my children will turn 18 and there will be no longer be any need for regular communication with my abuser.

I know that I am one of the lucky ones and that for many other victims, there can be no such happy ending. Many will tragically die; many will be irreparably damaged and as Gloria Stein points out, in many societies, “most women are one man away from welfare.”

My greatest wish is that our children will not have to continue the fight against domestic abuse – That with this war fought and won, they themselves will never have to go in to battle.

Notice: The names in this story are fictitious to protect the request for anonymity.

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