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Trigger warning: This blog talks about sexual boundaries, consent, sexual assault, and trauma responses.

It can be tough to know your boundaries in a sexual situation, especially when you’re hanging out with someone you really like. Picture this: Someone’s flirting with you and you’re into them. They want to get sexual, but you’re not sure you want to go there. Or you’re hooking up and you like it so far, but then they want to do something you’re not super comfortable with (like oral sex). What do you do? 

Knowing your own boundaries, especially when you’re in the moment, can be harder than it seems.

In sexual situations, your body and emotions are just as much in play as the analytical part of your brain that learned about consent online, or from sex educators. Paying attention to your whole self — head, heart, and body — can help you understand what your sexual boundaries are. And that awareness can help you make decisions about sex that you feel good about, both in the moment and afterward.

Don’t know where to start? Here’s how to stay connected to all the emotions you’re feeling and everything you’re physically experiencing in sexual situations.

Understanding the Factors That Can Affect Boundaries

When there’s an opportunity — or an expectation — to get sexual, people can have conflicting feelings. And different factors affect how you think about, communicate, set, and enforce your boundaries:

  • You can have mixed feelings. Desire isn’t always a clear-cut “enthusiastic yes” or “absolutely no.” You might be totally attracted to someone and feel turned on, but still not feel 100% right about getting physical. You might want sex, pleasure, or intimacy in your life, but also feel pressured, disrespected, or unsafe in the moment.

  • Other people’s desires can overpower your decisions, especially if you’ve been taught to put other people’s needs first. You might consider going along with it because you want them to like you, or because you don’t want to hurt their feelings, cause conflict, or end the relationship.

  • Alcohol, drugs, partying, and staying up late can make it harder to recognize or speak up about your boundaries. Being intoxicated can also make it harder to recognize other peoples’ boundaries.

  • The way you were raised and traumatic experiences can affect how you respond in situations when you have mixed feelings, are being pressured, or face conflict for setting a boundary. If your boundaries were crossed repeatedly in childhood or if you’re a sexual assault survivor, then sexual activity itself — like when you’re getting naked, touching, or being touched — may trigger you. In particular, unwanted touch may be a trigger that causes you to freeze and have a harder time speaking up.

Listening to Yourself: The Key to Authentic Consent

Recognizing the signals your mind and body are sending you are key to understanding your needs, wants, and boundaries around sex and intimacy. Follow these tips for finding authentic consent.

  • Track trauma responses and take a break if you need to. If you can, try to remove yourself from the situation for a few minutes (such as going to the bathroom or getting a breath of fresh air). Signs you’re having a survival response to trauma include: 

    • Having tunnel vision 

    • Watching yourself or hearing yourself talk like you’re outside your own body 

    • Feeling like you’re on autopilot or in a trance 

    • Feeling numb 

    • Being unable to speak or move 

  • Note your habits and go slow. It’s normal to deal with situations in a certain way out of habit. Sometimes you may lean on default responses, like going along with what someone else wants and putting your own boundaries to the side. If that sounds familiar, it’s OK to pause and take some time to make decisions. Expressing your feelings and speaking up when you’re feeling discomfort are ways to recenter your boundaries.

  • Check in with your body. Take a moment to think about whether you’re turned on AND physically comfortable. Tightness in your body, like clenching your jaw or holding your breath, may be signs that you aren’t feeling relaxed or safe. It’s your body’s way of telling you to slow down or step away.

  • Acknowledge all of your emotions. If you’re enjoying someone’s company and feel excited, great! Just make sure you’re also focusing on what your gut is telling you. Don’t push away negative emotions like anxiety or annoyance. Allow yourself to feel all of your feelings, even the uncomfortable ones.

It’s OK if this all feels a little overwhelming. Most people don’t naturally know how to do all of these things — it takes practice, which includes making mistakes. Talking to a friend or counselor may also help you process your feelings.

Staying in tune with all the things you’re feeling and experiencing can help you have consensual, sexy experiences that are pleasurable and safe. But remember: If someone touches you without your consent, or forces or pressures you to to do something sexual, that’s sexual assault or abuse — and it’s not your fault. Don’t blame yourself for anything you did or didn’t do. Read more about consent and sexual assault.

Tags: consent, sexual assault, sex education

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