Get Real! How Do I Bring Up My Sexual Limits and Boundaries?

Heather Corinna

Knowing your own boundaries and communicating about them early on in a relationship is healthy and good sexual communication is critical.  

Lishy asks:

I’m 15, and I have my first boyfriend (he’s 16, almost 17, with a one year five month age difference between us). I really love him, and he loves me. Yesterday, we were kissing and ended up with us making out and him on top of me. He touched my leg, and my stomach and hip some, but didn’t go anywhere near my privates. He’s really sweet and polite and would never pressure me into anything, but we haven’t talked about sex or anything. I haven’t even asked him about his last girlfriend. I’m a virgin, and would like to stay that way for the forseeable future. I have nothing against sex in high school or before marriage, I just don’t think I’d be able to handle it emotionally if I got pregnant or our parents found out or something. How can I bring up sex, and my boundaries, with him?

Heather Corinna replies:

I’m always so glad when I hear from someone clearly thinking ahead, who wants to establish sexual communication and boundaries early on, rather than after boundaries have been crossed or well after communication was needed. Well done! Kudos to you for planning to take the initiative yourself, rather than being passive about this. It also speaks well of your relationship that you feel you can make your boundaries clear. In healthy relationships, that’s something we’ll always feel and know is everyone’s right, and will expect our partners to be strongly supportive of.

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Ultimately, when it comes to bringing this stuff up, you just have to walk through that door, open your mouth, and take the plunge into the conversation. I know it can feel awkward at first, but the only way it gets less awkward is by doing it. It’s okay for things in life to be awkward, by the way. Our interpersonal relationships are places where we should always be able to be learners and know we can try things out without an expectation that we or others will be an expert at everything. Talks like these between partners, friends or lovers are personal, intimate exchanges, not professional speeches we’re giving to thousands of people who paid $500 a plate to hear us talk, after all.

Ideally, talks about sex and boundaries like this tend to go best when we have them outside an immediate sexual context. In other words, at times and places when you’re not being physical, when no one is half-dressed or there’s any expectation of physicality. We can tend to feel pretty vulnerable at those times, so can easily feel overexposed, and we’re also often more than a little distracted in those settings by strong sexual feelings, so it can be harder to pay complete attention, listen as well as we should or grok nuances and subtleties well.

While these kinds of talks could be had online or on the phone, I think it’s best to have them face-to-face. (I think texting is a terrible medium for serious or sensitive conversations like this, for the record.) Right now, the stakes aren’t that high for either of you. You seem to be treating each other with respect, it’s early in your relationship, and you’re not in the middle of any kind of conflict. That puts you in a great position to learn how to talk like this, and to establish a habit of sexual communication in-person now, rather than having to figure out how to do it if and when there is a conflict or when you have to talk about what’s going on right in the moment, when communicating is so important, but can be a lot harder to do well.

Ideally, I think it’s great if you can set the stage for this kind of talk by saying that you’d like to set aside some time for the two of you to talk about where your relationship has gone, is going, or might go physically. You can let your boyfriend know that there’s nothing the matter, or nothing he needs to feel worried about, just that you want to start this communication, and would like to be sure you have the kind of time and space you need to do it well.

If you want an idea of some openers for this kind of conversation, you might consider things like:
I know we’re nowhere near this yet, but before we get anywhere near, I wanted to talk with you about my limits and boundaries around sex, find out about yours, and get started on some agreements and understandings around them both.
OR
I’ve really liked being physical with you the way we have been, and appreciate the way you’ve gone about that with me so far. But I don’t want either of us to ever have to just guess about what is or isn’t okay with the other, or make assumptions that aren’t right, so I want to sit down and talk some of that out in advance.
OR
A lot of people wind up making a real mess out of their relationships around sex or physical intimacy, and I don’t want that to happen to us. Can we start talking about all of this together so that we can do a good job staying on the same page, and keep our relationship as awesome as it’s been so far?
OR
I don’t really know how to get started with this, but I want us to start talking about sex and our boundaries. Can you do that with me?
OR
I want to fill you in on what I want and don’t want when it comes to any kind of sex, okay?
OR
Sex and other touchy-feely stuff. Ground rules: yours, mine. Let’s lay’em down!

My words probably sound more like me — especially that last one, which may have you now wondering why you asked me about this in the first place — than like you, but hopefully they give you some ideas for a starting point you can come up with in your own voice.

After you open that conversation, you can fill him in on some of what you have said here, talking about what you do and don’t feel able to handle, and about what you do and don’t want to risk with your life or your body, and what you do and don’t want, period. Even if pregnancy wasn’t or isn’t a risk, or even if you could handle it emotionally doesn’t automatically mean you’re going to have interest in any or all kinds of sex at this point of your relationship or any other, after all. As well, what we do and don’t want is often about more than just those things. I’d make sure that in your conversation with him, you don’t make any assumptions about what he wants, either, or why he may or may not want it. He also may not feel ready or interested, and probably has his own sexual ethics and values, even if they’re not exactly the same as yours. You also can’t know what kind of pacing feels right for him, so it’s always good to leave a lot of room for that, including acknowledging that if things feel too fast for him so far, he can let you know that and that’s okay.

I would be sure to be more clear with him than “I want to stay a virgin.” Virgin, as a term, means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, so what it means to you may not be the same thing it means to him. Some people define virgin as someone who has no kind of intimate contact with anyone at all, others as someone who has had no kind of genital sex, others as people who have had every other kind of sex under the sun, with the lone exception of vaginal intercourse. If there are kinds of sex that are off the table for you now and in the near future, let him know what those kinds of sex are clearly, rather than using a term like virgin that’s vague, unclear, and may result in him walking away from what could have been a great conversation with no clue as to what your boundaries actually are.

It’s also helpful to talk about what you DO want, rather than just what you don’t. For example, with what happened yesterday: are those all things you do want, do feel ready for and do feel comfortable with? If so, let him know. Was there anything yesterday that you didn’t feel comfortable with, either a way you were touched, a way you were or were not asked, or even a way you reacted yourself, that you want to bring up for you both to know or think about moving forward? If so, go ahead and do that. Talking about both what we do and don’t want, especially in initial conversation, can set up the start of a great dynamic in sexual communication where we can talk about our no’s and our yesses, about what we don’t want, but also about what we desire. To have good sexual communication, we all need to be able to talk about both ends of that spectrum, not just one, and all the gray areas or maybes in between.

Obviously, when it comes to talking about sex and other physical intimacy, there’s an awful lot to talk about. Don’t stress yourselves out thinking you have to somehow cover it all in this one, initial talk. You don’t, and really, you couldn’t possibly, Figure, and communicate to him, that this is just an opening for many talks to come, and that what you’re doing this first time is just opening the door and getting a start, not having the only conversation you’ll ever have about this. For both of you, your feelings about all of this may not always stay the same, either, so it’s a good idea to always acknowledge that when you’re talking this way, both people always have the right to change their minds in any way, and revisit the conversation with any new or different feelings, thoughts, ideas, boundaries or limits. On the whole, agreements you two make should also be understood to not be written in stone, but to be things that either of you can always ask to talk about, renegotiate or revise.

In the case that you or he feels that you need some things that you just do not want to be up for discussion at all, then you’re talking about hard limits. For instance, some folks feel very strongly that they do not even want to consider a given kind of sex until they are at a certain point in a relationship or a certain age. Some people have sexual things they know they just absolutely are not up to considering doing, or things that they are 100% not cool with a partner doing. It’s always okay to have those kinds of limits, you just want to communicate them, make clear when those limits are hard limits, and let a partner know that whatever those things are, if you have them, they’re non-negotiable unless you bring them up for negotiation yourself. This is another area where you want to make clear that if the other person has any of those, they get to have them, too, and you intend to respect them the same way.

I like setting a precedent after a first conversation like this for open, good communication ever after. You can do that by closing this kind of talk by thanking the person you’re having it with for having it with you, and by saying that you’d always like to be able to talk about these issues together, and he can always bring these things up with you, too, whether they’re about your concerns, wants and boundaries or his own. Since communication about something as loaded and sensitive as sex and our feelings can be so intimidating and challenging, making sure everyone involved knows their efforts to communicate well are valued can be a really big deal. That means you should give yourself a big pat on the back for your own efforts, too!

I don’t know if this is the case with you, but sometimes our users have voiced concern that if they are the ones to bring up any kind of conversation about sex when they don’t want to have sex — yet or period — they’ll be sending a mixed-message. In other words, some feel that if what you want to talk about is what you do NOT want to do sexually, talking about it at all suggests that you DO want to be sexual in the ways that you do not. While I understand that worry, I also disagree. Talking about sex is not having sex, and talking about sex is not “asking for” sex unless in the talk you’re having you are asking for sex with your words. Saying otherwise is nonsense, like saying that if I say “I’m not hungry,” I must REALLY be saying I want to eat would be nonsense. So, in the case this was a concern you also had, I’d encourage you to let it go. If you are ever with someone who suggests that you wanting to talk about sex must mean you want to have sex, know that’d be a signal that person was without the kind of maturity for intimate relationships, not a signal that communicating was a bad move on your part.

I also want to make sure you know it’s okay to ask people about their sexual and/or relationship history. Mind, asking someone we just met on the bus, or the person who delivers our mail is often invasive and not so cool. Asking for all of that history the first time we start hanging out with someone romantically is also often a bit much, unless we’re getting sexual with that person at that time. But once we’ve started to get involved with someone, especially to the point that we’re being at all physical with them, it’s always okay to ask and to share that kind of history yourself. Our pace in wanting to know isn’t always the same as someone else’s pace in wanting to disclose, so they may not always want to share when we ask, but asking should still be okay. You also get to have your own limits around how involved you want to get with someone who doesn’t want to or doesn’t feel ready to share that kind of history.

You sound clear and confident in knowing what is and isn’t right for you right now. It also sounds like this is a relationship you feel safe and cared for in and you obviously have some strong self-esteem in your pocket since you’re planning to bring this up. I’ll leave you with a few extra links that might give you some more information, just in case, but I’m sure you’re going to do just fine bringing this up and having these conversations together. Go forth and get gabbing! I’m willing to bet this is all going to go beautifully and be something you both feel great about.

Commentary Human Rights

When It Comes to Zika and Abortion, Disabled People Are Too Often Used as a Rhetorical Device

s.e. smith

Anti-choicers shame parents facing a prenatal diagnosis and considering abortion, even though they don't back up their advocacy up with support. The pro-choice movement, on the other hand, often finds itself caught between defending abortion as an absolute personal right and suggesting that some lived potentials are worth more than others.

There’s only one reason anyone should ever get an abortion: Because that person is pregnant and does not want to be. As soon as anyone—whether they are pro- or anti-choice—starts bringing up qualifiers, exceptions, and scary monsters under the bed, things get problematic. They establish the seeds of a good abortion/bad abortion dichotomy, in which some abortions are deemed “worthier” than others.

And with the Zika virus reaching the United States and the stakes getting more tangible for many Americans, that arbitrary designation is on a lot of minds—especially where the possibility of developmentally impaired fetuses is concerned. As a result, people with disabilities are more often being used as a rhetorical device for or against abortion rights rather than viewed as actualized human beings.

Here’s what we know about Zika and pregnancy: The virus has been linked to microcephaly, hearing loss, impaired growth, vision problems, and some anomalies of brain development when a fetus is exposed during pregnancy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sometimes these anomalies are fatal, and patients miscarry their pregnancies. Sometimes they are not. Being infected with Zika is not a guarantee that a fetus will develop developmental impairments.

We need to know much, much more about Zika and pregnancy. At this stage, commonsense precautions when necessary like sleeping under a mosquito net, using insect repellant, and having protected sex to prevent Zika infection in pregnancy are reasonable, given the established link between Zika and developmental anomalies. But the panicked tenor of the conversation about Zika and pregnancy has become troubling.

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In Latin America, where Zika has rampantly spread in the last few years, extremely tough abortion restrictions often deprive patients of reproductive autonomy, to the point where many face the possibility of criminal charges for seeking abortion. Currently, requests for abortions are spiking. Some patients have turned to services like Women on Web, which provides assistance with accessing medical abortion services in nations where they are difficult or impossible to find.

For pro-choice advocates in the United States, the situation in Latin America is further evidence of the need to protect abortion access in our own country. Many have specifically using Zika to advocate against 20-week limits on abortion—which are already unconstitutional, and should be condemned as such. Less than 2 percent of abortions take place after 20 weeks, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The pro-choice community is often quick to defend these abortions, arguing that the vast majority take place in cases where the life of the patient is threatened, the fetus has anomalies incompatible with life, or the fetus has severe developmental impairments. Microcephaly, though rare, is an example of an impairment that isn’t diagnosable until late in the second trimester or early in the third, so when patients opt for termination, they run smack up against 20-week bans.

Thanks to the high profile of Zika in the news, fetal anomalies are becoming a talking point on both sides of the abortion divide: Hence the dire headlines sensationalizing the idea that politicians want to force patients to give birth to disabled children. The implication of leaning on these emotional angles, rather than ones based on the law or on human rights, is that Zika causes disabilities, and no one would want to have a disabled child. Some of this rhetoric is likely entirely subconscious, but it reflects internalized attitudes about disabled people, and it’s a dogwhistle to many in the disability community.

Anti-choicers, meanwhile, are leveraging that argument in the other direction, suggesting that patients with Zika will want to kill their precious babies because they aren’t perfect, and that therefore it’s necessary to clamp down on abortion restrictions to protect the “unborn.” Last weekend, for instance, failed presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) announced that he doesn’t support access to abortion for pregnant patients with the Zika virus who might, as a consequence, run the risk of having babies with microcephaly. Hardline anti-choicers, unsurprisingly, applauded him for taking a stand to protect life.

Both sides are using the wrong leverage in their arguments. An uptick in unmet abortion need is disturbing, yes—because it means that patients are not getting necessary health care. While it may be Zika exposing the issue of late, it’s a symptom, not the problem. Patients should be able to choose to get an abortion for whatever reason and at whatever time, and that right shouldn’t be defended with disingenuous arguments that use disability for cover. The issue with not being able to access abortions after 20 weeks, for example, isn’t that patients cannot access therapeutic abortions for fetuses with anomalies, but that patients cannot access abortions after 20 weeks.

The insistence from pro-choice advocates on justifying abortions after 20 weeks around specific, seemingly involuntary instances, suggests that so-called “late term abortions” need to be circumstantially defended, which retrenches abortion stigma. Few advocates seem to be willing to venture into the troubled waters of fighting for the right to abortions for any reason after 20 weeks. In part, that reflects an incremental approach to securing rights, but it may also betray some squeamishness. Patients don’t need to excuse their abortions, and the continual haste to do so by many pro-choice advocates makes it seem like a 20-week or later abortion is something wrong, something that might make patients feel ashamed depending on their reasons. There’s nothing shameful about needing abortion care after 20 weeks.

And, as it follows, nor is there ever a “bad” reason for termination. Conservatives are fond of using gruesome language targeted at patients who choose to abort for apparent fetal disability diagnoses in an attempt to shame them into believing that they are bad people for choosing to terminate their pregnancies. They use the specter of murdering disabled babies to advance not just social attitudes, but actual policy. Republican Gov. Mike Pence, for example, signed an Indiana law banning abortion on the basis of disability into law, though it was just blocked by a judge. Ohio considered a similar bill, while North Dakota tried to ban disability-related abortions only to be stymied in court. Other states require mandatory counseling when patients are diagnosed with fetal anomalies, with information about “perinatal hospice,” implying that patients have a moral responsibility to carry a pregnancy to term even if the fetus has impairments so significant that survival is questionable and that measures must be taken to “protect” fetuses against “hasty” abortions.

Conservative rhetoric tends to exceptionalize disability, with terms like “special needs child” and implications that disabled people are angelic, inspirational, and sometimes educational by nature of being disabled. A child with Down syndrome isn’t just a disabled child under this framework, for example, but a valuable lesson to the people around her. Terminating a pregnancy for disability is sometimes treated as even worse than terminating an apparently healthy pregnancy by those attempting to demonize abortion. This approach to abortion for disability uses disabled people as pawns to advance abortion restrictions, playing upon base emotions in the ultimate quest to make it functionally impossible to access abortion services. And conservatives can tar opponents of such laws with claims that they hate disabled people—even though many disabled people themselves oppose these patronizing policies, created to address a false epidemic of abortions for disability.

When those on either side of the abortion debate suggest that the default response to a given diagnosis is abortion, people living with that diagnosis hear that their lives are not valued. This argument implies that life with a disability is not worth living, and that it is a natural response for many to wish to terminate in cases of fetal anomalies. This rhetoric often collapses radically different diagnoses under the same roof; some impairments are lethal, others can pose significant challenges, and in other cases, people can enjoy excellent quality of life if they are provided with access to the services they need.

Many parents facing a prenatal diagnosis have never interacted with disabled people, don’t know very much about the disability in question, and are feeling overwhelmed. Anti-choicers want to force them to listen to lectures at the least and claim this is for everyone’s good, which is a gross violation of personal privacy, especially since they don’t back their advocacy up with support for disability programs that would make a comfortable, happy life with a complex impairment possible. The pro-choice movement, on the other hand, often finds itself caught between the imperative to defend abortion as an absolute personal right and suggesting that some lived potentials are worth more than others. It’s a disturbing line of argument to take, alienating people who might otherwise be very supportive of abortion rights.

It’s clearly tempting to use Zika as a political football in the abortion debate, and for conservatives, doing so is taking advantage of a well-established playbook. Pro-choicers, however, would do better to walk off the field, because defending abortion access on the sole grounds that a fetus might have a disability rings very familiar and uncomfortable alarm bells for many in the disability community.

Commentary Violence

When It Comes to Threats, Online or on the Campaign Trail, It’s Not Up to Women to ‘Suck It Up’

Lauren Rankin

Threats of violence toward women are commonplace on the internet for the same reason that they are increasingly common at Donald Trump rallies: They are effective at perpetuating violence against women as the norm.

Bizarre and inflammatory rhetoric is nothing new for this election. In fact, the Republican presidential candidate has made an entire campaign out of it. But during a rally last Tuesday, Donald Trump sunk to a new level. He lamented that if Hillary Clinton is elected president in November, there will be no way to stop her from making judicial nominations.

He said, “By the way, and if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”

For a candidate marred by offensive comment after offensive comment, this language represents a new low, because, as many immediately explained, Trump appears to be making a veiled threat against Clinton, whether he had intended to or not.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) called it a “death threat” and Dan Rather, former CBS Evening News host, called it a “direct threat of violence against a political rival.” Former President Ronald Reagan’s daughter Patti Davis said it was “horrifying,” and even the author of an NRA-linked blog initially tweeted, “That was a threat of violence. As a real supporter of the #2A it’s appalling to me,” before deleting the tweet as the NRA expressed support for Trump.

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This kind of language is violent in nature on its face, but it is also gendered, following in a long line of misogynistic rhetoric this election season. Chants of “kill the bitch” and “hang the bitch” have become common at Trump rallies. These aren’t solely examples of bitter political sniping; these are overt calls for violence.

When women speak out or assert ourselves, we are challenging long-held cultural norms about women’s place and role in society. Offensively gendered language represents an attempt to maintain the status quo. We’ve seen this violent rhetoric online as well. That isn’t an accident. When individuals throw pejorative terms at those of who refuse to be silenced, they are attempting to render public spaces, online or on the campaign trail, unsafe for us.

There is no shortage of examples demonstrating how individuals who feel threatened by subtle power shifts happening in our society have pushed back against those changes. The interactions happening online, on various social media platforms, offer the most vivid examples of the ways in which people are doing their best to try to make public spaces as uncomfortable as possible for marginalized populations.

Social media offers the opportunity for those whose voices are routinely ignored to hold power in a new way. It is a slow but real shift from old, more traditional structures of privileging certain voices to a more egalitarian megaphone, of sorts.

For marginalized populations, particularly women of color and transgender women, social media can provide an opportunity to be seen and heard in ways that didn’t exist before. But it also means coming up against a wall of opposition, often represented in a mundane but omnipresent flow of hatred, abuse, and violent threats from misogynist trolls.

The internet has proven to be a hostile place for women. According to a report from the United Nations, almost three quarters of women online have been exposed to some form of cyber violence. As someone who has received threats of violence myself, I know what it feels like to have sharing your voice met with rage. There are women who experience this kind of violent rhetoric to an even greater degree than I could ever dream.

The list of women who have been inundated with threats of violence could go on for days. Women like Zerlina Maxwell, who was showered with rape threats after saying that we should teach men not to rape; Lindy West received hundreds upon hundreds of violent and threatening messages after she said that she didn’t think rape jokes were funny; Leslie Jones, star of Ghostbusters and Saturday Night Live, was driven off of Twitter after a coordinated attack of racist, sexist, and violent language against her.

And yet, rarely are such threats taken seriously by the broader community, including by those able to do something about it.

Many people remain woefully unaware of how cruel and outright scary it can be for women online, particularly women with prolific digital profiles. Some simply refuse to see it as a real issue, declaring that “It’s just the internet!” and therefore not indicative of potential physical violence. Law enforcement doesn’t even have a solution, often unwilling to take these threats seriously, as Amanda Hess found out.

This kind of response is reflected in those who are trying to defend Donald Trump after the seemingly indefensible. Despite the overwhelming criticism from many, including some renowned Republicans, we have also seen some Trump supporters try to diminish or outright erase the violent aspect of this clearly threatening rhetoric. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) and former mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani have both said that they assumed Trump meant get rid of her “by voting.” Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) said that it “sounds like just a joke gone bad.”

The violent nature of Donald Trump’s comments seem apparent to almost everyone who heard him. To try to dismiss it as a “joke” or insist that it is those who are offended that are wrong is itself harmful. This is textbook gaslighting, a form of psychological abuse in which a victim’s reality is eroded by telling them that what they experienced isn’t true.

But gaslighting has played a major role in Donald Trump’s campaign, with some of his supporters insisting that it is his critics who are overreacting—that it is a culture of political correctness, rather than his inflammatory and oppressive rhetoric, that is the real problem.

This is exactly what women experience online nearly every day, and we are essentially told to just suck it up, that it’s just the internet, that it’s not real. But tell that to Jessica Valenti, who received a death and rape threat against her 5-year-old daughter. Tell that to Anita Sarkeesian, who had to cancel a speech at Utah State after receiving a death threat against her and the entire school. Tell that to Brianna Wu, a game developer who had to flee her home after death threats. Tell that to Hillary Clinton, who is trying to make history as the first woman president, only to have her life threatened by citizens, campaign advisers, and now through a dog whistle spoken by the Republican presidential candidate himself.

Threats of violence toward women are commonplace on the internet for the same reason that they are increasingly common at Donald Trump’s rallies: They are effective at perpetuating violence against women as the norm.

Language matters. When that language is cruel, aggressive, or outright violent, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it doesn’t come without consequences. There is a reason that it is culturally unacceptable to say certain words like “cunt” and other derogatory terms; they have a history of harm and oppression, and they are often directly tied to acts of violence. When someone tweets a woman “I hope your boyfriend beats you,” it isn’t just a trolling comment; it reflects the fact that in the United States, more women are killed by intimate partners than by any other perpetrator, that three or more women die every day from intimate partner violence. When Donald Trump not only refuses to decry calls of violence and hate speech at his rallies but in fact comes across as threatening his female opponent, it isn’t just an inflammatory gaffe; it reflects the fact that one in three women have experienced physical or sexual violence.

Threats of violence have no place in presidential campaigns, but they also have no place online, either. Until we commit ourselves to rooting out violent language against women and to making public spaces safer and more accommodating for women and all marginalized people, Trump’s comments are just par for the course.

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