Just like air, food, and water, sex is a natural part of life. So why are we afraid to talk about it? Most people not only feel super awkward but also incredibly intimidated when it comes to talking about their own desires and deal-breakers. So they choose to avoid these conversations at all costs, rather than articulating how they feel. The result: we fail to set sexual boundaries in our relationships, which often leaves us vulnerable and unprotected.
We spoke to our in-house sex expert Dr. Kate Balestrieri — the founder of Modern Intimacy, a licensed psychologist, and a certified sex and sex addiction therapist — for her advice on how to get past that awkward phase and set boundaries in any type of sexual encounter.
Why Setting Boundaries Is Essential
"Boundaries are an essential part of all relationships," says Dr. Balestrieri. "They not only keep us safe but create a container for a relationship to thrive. When we know what each other's limits are, then we are free to play, be spontaneous, and get creative within those limits."
Boundaries let people know how a particular individual likes to be loved and how they like to be pleased. "This way, you can really ensure that you are walking away with the most potential for pleasure and connection," Dr. Balestrieri continues. "And that you are feeling really good about the experience in general."
How to Understand Your Sexual Needs
In order to set sexual boundaries, you first need to know what yours are, which can be daunting. When we are talking about our sexual needs, we also need to consider our physical, emotional, and pleasure needs.
"When we are talking about pleasure, it's not just about our physical touch needs," says Dr. Balestrieri. "It's also about emotional safety needs."
The easiest way to understand your sexual needs is to really listen to your body when being intimate with yourself or with a partner, because in the moment, our body tells us if we feel OK about something or not. In sexual situations, learning how to discern the cues of our bodies and what emotions we are feeling is a very important skill to have.
"When we experience pain that isn't desired or uneasiness or some other kind of internal cue that something feels off, that's a really great beacon to pay attention to, to let us know that maybe there's something going on that we are not OK with, and we can dig a little bit deeper to understand why," says Dr. Balestrieri.
Tips For Setting Sexual Boundaries
There’s no one "right" way of setting boundaries. You can set them proactively with new partners, or in the moment. You can also reevaluate as time goes on.
According to Dr. Balestrieri, the first question to ask ourselves is: what are my values around sex? Then we should explore that answer. It’s important to know how our values around sex were developed and whether they were passed down to us. And if they were passed down, do we actually agree with them? Or, says Dr. Balestrieri, are we being loyal to a set of values because we "don’t want to rock the boat with our family, culture or religious group"?
If there is a discrepancy between the values that are taught to us and the values that we actually hold, there can be a disconnect followed by a confusion. So instead of avoiding the whole conversation, it’s important to ask: What do I like? What do I want? Am I okay with this? Am I not?
"Then be communicative and transparent with whomever it is that you are being sexual with," says Dr. Balestrieri. This way you won’t find yourself in a situation where you are choosing between addressing your own needs and potentially shifting the mood or (in more extreme cases) being subject to violence for saying no. If your sexual boundaries have been violated before, it is even more important for you to "think proactively about how you want to curate sexual experiences for yourself that feel safe and protected."
Check For Red Flags
"A part of what I always encourage people to do and would do myself when I was sexual with a new partner is to talk with them about what is it that they like about sex," says Dr. Balestrieri.
Ask your partner or partners how they handle the situation when someone is not interested in doing a certain thing that they themselves enjoy, and pay attention to their reaction.
"If they are saying things like 'that’s stupid,' 'you should do it anyway,' or anything that feels not empathic and respectful in general, then I'm not sleeping with that person," says Dr. Balestrieri.
"I also like to ask questions like, 'Are you bringing a condom or shall I?'" she continues. "The appropriate answer in my book is an enthusiastic 'oh if you want to grab it, cool, or I will of course.' But if I see any type of resistance, then to me that speaks to a nonalignment."
According to Dr. Balestrieri, it’s also crucial to see how your partner chooses to engage with power when they are being sexual. Are they empowered (have power over themselves) or are they in power (looking to get power over others)?
"If someone is dismissing your choices, requests, and showing a lack of concern for your questions or fears, that’s a nonalignment," she says. "However, if they are honoring your feelings and choices, they are empowered and not trying to get power."
Make Time to Have a Conversation With Your Partner
Dr. Balestrieri thinks it's always a great idea to have a conversation with your partner(s) about sex that includes the following:
- What do you like?
- What do you not like?
- What are the things that are your must haves for arousal and what are your deal-breakers for arousal?
- What turns you on what shuts you down?
This way, you can get a good sense of whether you have alignment. "Let’s say, for example, someone’s really into consensual pain exchange (or BDSM) and the other person isn’t," she continues. "One person needs that for arousal, and but it’s a deal-breaker for the other. Then no harm no foul, but you are probably not going to be very sexually compatible or interested in each other."
There are still ways for couples with different sexual needs to stay together and have healthy sexual lives.
"Couples can get really creative together to find ways to integrate each other's sexual needs," Dr. Balestrieri says. "They can negotiate together so they both feel like they are walking away with a win."
However, if it causes harm to the other person to engage in their partner’s sexual play, she might not advise it. In the same way that we are taking up space at work, with our friends, and in the world in general, we need to be taking up space in our sexual interactions and have a seat at the table.
"Everyone’s needs are important," Dr. Balestrieri says. "Sometimes they don't align, but they are always important, and you never have to apologize for prioritizing your own needs and your sexual health."