How to Set Clear Sexual Boundaries Without Guilt

Placing sexual—or even non-sexual—boundaries with a partner can be daunting for some, but they are undeniably important to set—and be met! Learn how to draw clear lines between safe and scary.

By | May 25, 2021

Here’s a question: Have you ever been in a relationship with someone who has more experience than you in the bedroom? Do you get insecure with that thought, so much so that you don’t really speak out fearing that you’ll be seen as being incompetent or worse, frigid?

Sexual boundaries are there to protect us. Photograph: Michael Dziedzic/Unsplash

You know that’s not true though. Heck, you want to explore! You’re open to try new things, they’re fun and exciting, but you also know that you have certain boundaries for yourself. The ideas that are brought up, well, some don’t interest you at all. In fact, a few go against your comfort level and beliefs, but how do you tell your partner without hurting his or her feelings or being perceived as the vanilla in the relationship?

So instead, you suppress and give in to the things suggested though you know it’s pushing into your boundaries. Maybe you did voice your discomfort, but it fell on deaf ears or maybe, you yourself brushed it off in the end too, because it just sounded like a silly idea.

In the end, you give in and tell yourself, “Maybe I will like it in the end. Who knows? Maybe I’m just overthinking this”, but you and I know you’re not going to like this and you may just beat yourself up even more for not saying something. The big question is, how do you go about raising such a sensitive and vulnerable topic without hurting your partner’s feelings while still honouring yours?

Sexual boundaries aren’t common sense. Your partner can’t read your mind, so it’s important to speak up. Photograph: Yohann Libot/Unsplash

What are sexual boundaries and why are they important?

Boundaries are like a raincoat. They’re uncomfortable to wear and can be quite sticky if you’re feeling sweaty, but are necessary to protect yourself on rainy days. Personal boundaries can be challenging to navigate, set and communicate on, but in an article which featured psychotherapist and author of How to be Happy Partners: Working it out Together, Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D. (aka “Dr. Romance”), she mentioned that if boundaries are “not discussed in advance, resentment builds up, and that can cause arguments and fighting”.

A sexual boundary in particular is a specific boundary that we set for our romantic and/or sexual partners. This includes navigating likes and dislikes when it comes to sex, kinks, fetishes, safe words, dirty talking, pain and pleasure tolerance, aftercare needs etc.

Learn to navigate your way through your personal preferences and your partner’s desires. Photograph: Ian Dooley/Unsplash

One may think it’s common sense but it’s not, so communicating each other’s needs is important in order to ensure that both parties are comfortable and content. On top of that, sexual boundaries allow you to step in your power and be emotionally safe, allowing you to explore and enjoy potentially hotter and more satisfying sexual experiences as we are “understanding ourselves, desires and arousal patterns,” Jor-El Caraballo, relationship expert and co-creator at Viva Wellness, shared.

How do we assert and set clear sexual boundaries with partners?

Now that you know what boundaries are and why they’re important, let’s talk about how to set and assert them.

Acknowledge and respect your rights, so you don’t aim to please those who do not. Photograph: Alexander Krivitskiy/Unsplash

Understand your own boundaries first

Before having the boundary talk with your partner, you must first know what your boundaries are. Use your past experiences as a benchmark to create new boundaries in your current relationship.

Perhaps you had a selfish ex who only thought of their own pleasure and not yours. When having that boundary talk with your current partner, you can highlight to them that pleasure for all parties is important for you. If you get stuck thinking about what boundary to set, then ask yourself, what needs do you want to be fulfilled that weren’t fulfilled in the past? 

Understanding your basic human rights is also essential in setting boundaries, according to mental health author and licensed psychotherapist, Judith Belmont. She listed some affirming sentences which includes:

  • I have a right to say no without feeling guilty.
  • I have a right to be treated with respect.
  • I have a right to be accepting of my mistakes and failures.
  • I have a right not to meet others’ unreasonable expectations of me.

Once you acknowledge and accept that these are your rights, you are more likely to honour them, instead of aiming to please others who do not.

Understanding your own limitations and liberations help in setting personal boundaries. Photograph: Averie Woodard/Unsplash

Communicate your boundaries (and check in with theirs)

How does one communicate, exactly? Especially with a sensitive topic such as sexual boundaries. First of all,  we need to remove this idea that boundary talk is something sensitive, shameful or selfish. It’s not. In fact, it’s necessary for both (or more) parties.

Secondly, be assertive and communicate your needs effectively. You can do this by using “I statements”. For example, “I feel ___ when _____ because _____. What I need is _____.” Being assertive feels firm but kind to others, whilst being forceful or hesitant may translate to a boundary being a punishment or a joke.

Here are examples of effective and ineffective communication:

Ineffective communication: “I don’t like it when you call me dirty names. It doesn’t turn me on. So, stop.”

Effective communication: “I feel very triggered when you call me those names because it reminds me of an uncomfortable experience I had in the past. What I need is for us to explore other names instead that both of us like and feel comfortable in.

Another way to communicate effectively is by adopting the Yellow/Red System, where yellow means “let’s do something else”, and red means “stop entirely”. It’s perfect for kinky and vanilla couples regardless of what sexual experience you’re having. You are allowed to take back your consent at any time if you’re not feeling 100% comfortable or your boundary was crossed.

If only the sheets could talk … Photograph: Charles Deluvio/ Unsplash

Make it sexy

When we think about sexual boundaries, we see it as a limitation instead of an opportunity to enhance the experience. Well, it doesn’t have to be! If you’re starting your first boundary talk with a partner, keep it simple and casual. Start off by asking what their likes and dislikes in bed (and out) before sharing what yours are. You could even watch a film (or porn) or reminisce about a steamy session in bed, and share what you like about them.

Explore your boundaries and fantasies with your own “Yes, No, Maybe” list. Photograph: Michele Eckert/ Unsplash

If you’d like to start exploring with your partner and want to start a conversation on turn-ons, fetishes and boundaries, try creating a “yes/no/maybe” list. It’s basically a list of various different sexual explorations where both parties will fill up their own individual lists before swapping it with each other.

If you see a yes on their list, ask why. If it’s a maybe, ask why and who knows, this could be a conversation where both of you get to explore what their fears and hesitations are. If it’s a no, respect it and don’t ask any further questions—unless they are willing to share.

Honouring Your Partner’s Boundary

To strengthen and make sexual boundaries work between you and your partner(s), it’s very important that you too do your due diligence by honouring their boundaries. Here are some ways you can do that:

To strengthen our own sexual boundaries, we should also honour our partner’s. Photograph: Gaelle Marcel/ Unsplash

1. Create boundaries together

What better way to bond, communicate and create a healthy relationship than by creating your boundaries together! By opening up to each other on what your likes and dislikes are, you will not only get to know them better, but you also create a safe space for both of you to share and be vulnerable together.

Don’t know where to start? A great way is for you to ask them what they like first and encourage them to slowly open up. Studies have shown that people like being heard, and if your reply or follow-up questions demonstrate that you understand and respect what they’re saying, they will like you more and form a trusting bond with you.

2. Don’t assume your partner’s boundary

Something normal for you may be uncomfortable or triggering for your partner(s), so never assume. It’s always best to check in with them whether they feel comfortable about a certain action or words used. Sometimes, they might not even realize that they are feeling uncomfortable until asked—or perhaps they don’t have the words for it. So, it’s good to continuously check in with them before, during and after a session.

Be sensitive to any sexual tension. Photograph: Karina Tes/ Unsplash

3. Watch for cues

Body language is a powerful tool to monitor what someone is feeling. Someone who may not be comfortable or had their sexual boundaries crossed would display some cues such as:

  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Consent given unenthusiastically
  • A change in body language
  • Nervous gestures (such as laughing, talking fast or talking with hands)

If your partner displays any of the above, check in with them on where they’re at and ask what they need.

The Final word

When it comes to sexual boundaries (or any boundaries really!), continuous communication is key. Keep the conversation open and revisit them when you see the need to because new things will always come up as you gain more experience. Life’s too short to think about other people, so quit feeling guilty for putting yourself first and be “100% that bitch” for once—thanks Lizzo for the reminder.

Jasmine King

Jasmine King

Jasmine King is a sex positive advocate. She runs a safe and sex positive space online called Ohheymissking where she makes sex talk relatable and less awkward. She also hosts a sex podcast called I Wish Someone Told Me.