This piece is part of Allure's Drawing Lines series. Read the rest of the series here.
Picture this. You’ve arrived to a lover’s house for the first time after a date. It gets hot and heavy, but soon you find yourself overwhelmed by sheer panic at their touch, a comment they made about your body, or perhaps something you can’t even put your finger on. Maybe you’re having a flashback to a previous boundary misstep or traumatic situation. Whatever the reason, feeling triggered can heighten the experience of vulnerability and shame. But there’s nothing embarrassing about having an emotional response during sex. In fact, intimacy is a common flashback trigger for many people.
Hopefully, this new partner will have a high emotional literacy, be understanding in the moment, and support you by listening and being present to your needs. Maybe they’ve even had their own experiences with trauma in the past, or have been with partners who’ve dealt with similar things. Sometimes, however, this isn’t the case, and you might find yourself not only navigating being triggered but also facing a partner that isn’t capable of handling the heightened environment — and the fact is, even if you’re not dealing with prior trauma, communicating boundaries in bed can often be a minefield.
Let’s explore what boundaries are, why they’re necessary for both our everyday lives as well as our sex lives, and how to bring up these delicate topics with sexual partners. Once we have a better understanding of our own boundaries and the trauma that has informed them, it becomes easier to communicate with our romantic partners how to assist us during a flashback — and maybe how to avoid them altogether.
What are boundaries, and why are they important?
Dulcinea Pitagora, a NYC-based psychotherapist and sex therapist, says that healthy boundaries are a collection of a person’s wants and needs as well as “hard and soft limits that combine to support optimal physical and mental health and strong relationships.” But just because they’re necessary doesn’t mean everyone knows how to assert them. Ideally, we should be able to say no to anything that makes us feel unsafe, used, unstable, or goes against our grit. And unfortunately, boundaries around sex are often only discussed once they’ve already been crossed. Meg-John Barker, a psychologist and the author of Rewriting the Rules, tells Allure that we live in a non-consensual culture. “Very few of us have families, friendship groups, communities, or workplaces which encourage us to tune into — and assert — our boundaries,” they say.
“Much like we can pick up a new instrument, sport, or language later in life, we can retrain our muscles, nervous system, and minds to set and keep boundaries."
The goal should always be a sexual experience where everyone feels safe and taken care of. Think of each other’s boundaries as a road map for sexual pleasure and emotional wellbeing within a relationship, and remember: Boundaries around sex differ from person to person. For example, I have a hard limit on spankings. I never want to be spanked and I communicate that with any person I have sex with. How people react to the expression of boundaries can also be telling and reveal possible red flags. If someone communicates their yeses, nos, and maybes and the person they’re having sex with doesn’t respect their boundaries, that may be a sign that the relationship should not continue in such an intimate way, at all.
In the #MeToo era, it’s become very clear that many people don’t have a proper understanding of consent. It’s important to reflect on our own sexual boundaries and needs, as well as how we can communicate with our partners effectively. There should be mutual respect when it comes to each other’s needs, from understanding the desire for space, to asking for consent to send nudes, to knowing which sexual acts a person is down to engage in.
What happens when our boundaries aren't respected?
“If we are discouraged from saying ‘no’ or having a sense of self in general, or if our ‘no’ is violated repeatedly, we learn that we are not allowed to have boundaries,” says Deesha Narichania, an NYC-based mental health professional. “And in turn, boundaries equal rejection, abandonment, violence, or helplessness.” When a child is unable to form a healthy sense of themselves as a result of childhood trauma, they may approach future relationships from a place of hurt and replicate similar dynamics.
The good news is that boundaries can be learned into adulthood. It’s important to remember that implementing them is a skill, albeit one that takes practice. “Much like we can pick up a new instrument, sport, or language later in life, we can retrain our muscles, nervous system, and minds to set and keep boundaries,” explains Narichania. It’s important to assess how you think about boundaries in the first place — if you have been raised to think of them as either a punishment against you or something you didn’t deserve, you may not even realize that you have poor boundary skills to begin with.
It wasn’t until I hit my early 20s that I realized I didn’t have a full grasp on what I needed. There were many times in my early sexual experiences where I’d leave an experience feeling gross and wrong even though I technically didn’t say “no” to what was happening. This feeling was the result of not understanding I could say no while also being unaware of what my emotional, physical, or sexual needs were at the time.
Now as an adult, I’m increasingly aware of the moments I assert boundaries that I probably wouldn’t have in the past. That’s because I’ve taken the time to get to know what my boundaries are and then practice small boundary setting (such as saying no to a kiss at the end of a date), so I’ve become more capable of bigger boundary setting (such as stopping in the middle of sex because I felt unsafe). If you need to create and strengthen your boundaries, Pitagora suggests taking inventory of your wants, needs, and hard and soft limits. Writing out what you need and desire in your relationships may lead to realizing that your boundaries have been crossed in the past, often repeatedly, without you seeing it in that moment.
It’s also important to note that it’s highly possible that you might have crossed somebody else’s boundaries before (which can happen without malicious intent). Holding ourselves accountable for the ways we have harmed others is important, not just for their healing but ours as well. During my own process of grappling with the ways in which my own boundaries had been disrespected, I had to face the ways in which my own lack of understanding of boundaries impacted some of my relationships.
How do we assert boundaries in romantic and sexual relationships?
After understanding our wants and needs, Pitagora says the next step is then learning how to communicate them to others. This applies to all sorts of dynamics, from the people you casually sleep with to those who you’ve had long-term relationships with. It’s not only healthy but necessary in all sexual relationships to be able to say no comfortably and feel as though you’re heard. A well-known example of boundaries in action are safe words, traditionally used in BDSM dynamics, about when people have reached a point where they would like the scene to be stopped. The same idea could easily be applied to vanilla sex as well.
A nice trick I like is the Yellow/Red System, where Yellow means “let’s do something else” and Red means “stop entirely.” These can be helpful both in vanilla and kink scenarios because everyone, irrelevant of what kind of sexual experience they are having, should be able to revoke consent at any point. It’s also important to remember to check in on the other person or people you’re engaging in sex with. Reconfirming consent throughout, as well as asking before beginning a new sexual act at every stage of sex, can be helpful in ensuring that every person feels safe and is having fun.
All sexual experiences should be approached as an act of care between those involved, and the boundaries and needs of all participants should be at the forefront of the experience. When a friend told me about the time a date choked her without asking if it was okay, it became apparent how often people don’t realize how crucial asking for consent is to having fun and safe sex. “It might be useful to articulate boundaries upfront in the form of exchanging fantasies, or yes, no, maybe lists, or having online forms of sex first,” says Barker. While my friend told me that she hadn’t communicated that choking wasn’t okay with her because it was a “very casual relationship,” even in the most casual relationships, affirmation of consent is necessary. He should have directly asked if she was into choking, and what happened is not her fault. In sex, consent should never be assumed.
Okay, so how do I create an emergency plan with a partner?
If you’ve recently entered into a new sexual relationship, you may not want to talk about your experience with sexual trauma just yet. It can be scary — many worry that it will scare someone off to show that side of yourself or create anxiety for a new partner during sex. It’s also a different level of intimacy, and you don’t owe it to anyone to share that part of you. In fact, I recently had an emotional flashback during sex that caused me to stop what we were doing. I started sobbing immediately, and felt I owed my sexual partner an explanation to justify my reaction.
But in hindsight, I realize that I owed them nothing of the sort. No one is entitled to information about your past trauma, and no one should require that of you in order to respect your boundaries. Period. However, stating boundaries and triggers clearly can make it easier (though not fool-proof) for you and your partners to avoid triggers, and help them prepare for what could happen if a flashback does occur. In any healthy partnership, even a new one, there should be space for feeling pain and being supported through it.
It’s important to recognize that everyone enters into a sexual experience with their own past experiences informing them.
That said, talking ahead of time and being upfront about these experiences can create an environment where your boundaries, needs, and desires are heard and, hopefully, respected. The goal is to work toward a dynamic where you are allowed to communicate, feel pleasure and intimacy without fear. Barker suggests discussing ahead of time what a possible trauma response can look like for you, since everyone reacts differently to triggers, as well as talking about what each partner may need in that moment. “Sometimes the person who is going into trauma won't realize it for a while so it's great if everyone involved can be mindful of this. If in any doubt, pause and check-in. Reassure everyone that success means that consent has happened — whether or not sex happens,” they say.
After all, sex gets emotional, and feelings may come up — this is an inevitability of intimacy, and it’s okay. It’s important to recognize that everyone enters into a sexual experience with their own past experiences informing them. Be aware of this when thinking about your partner’s sexual needs, both as related to pleasure and in boundaries.
When triggers do happen, if you and your partner have already had this conversation, they’ll be better prepared to take care of you. Narichania recommends slowing down and pausing sex when someone experiences a flashback. First and foremost, it’s important to remain calm and attentive to that person’s needs. “Anything that directly connects to the five senses can be helpful, such as giving them something with their favorite scent or favorite food,” they advise, also suggesting making sure that water is available. In the event that being triggered created a space where the person no longer feels safe, give them space to call a friend or go home if they need to. It’s both a responsibility and a privilege to care for someone in these moments, so treat it as such.
Early moments of intimacy often go on to define a relationship, and if you become someone a traumatized person no longer feels safe to be vulnerable with, it may become hard to have a healthy sexual relationship. Forming a healthy relationship requires communication and a clear expression of boundaries, which traumatized people are capable of learning. They can learn proper boundaries, experience intimacy and pleasure, and communicate what they need. It just takes practice and partners who come from a place of love, patience, and understanding.
Read more stories about sex:
- How Do I Best Support a Partner With Sexual Trauma?
- Bad Sexual Encounters Don't Need to Be Rape to Be Unacceptable
- What to Expect When Reporting a Sexual Assault to Law Enforcement
Now, watch Zendaya try nine things she's never done before:
Originally Appeared on Allure