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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!).
- 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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