How to Set Boundaries In the Bedroom That'll Vastly Improve Your Sex Life

·9 min read
How to Set Boundaries In the Bedroom That'll Vastly Improve Your Sex Life , Happy affectionate lesbian couple lying in bed
How to Set Boundaries In the Bedroom That'll Vastly Improve Your Sex Life , Happy affectionate lesbian couple lying in bed

Getty Images - Design: Alex Sandoval

Within the realms of family, friends, and foes coworkers, "boundaries" has become quite the buzzword. One place boundaries often aren't talking about is in the bedroom — but they should be.

According to sexuality professionals, making and respecting sexual boundaries can be the difference between toe-curling (good) sex and gut-gurgling (bad) sex. That's why we put together this guide on sexual boundaries, which breaks down what sexual boundaries are and how they differ from sexual consent as well as tips for learning your own sexual boundaries.

Trust, after reading the below, you'll believe that vibrators aren't the only ~buzzy thing~ that can improve your sex life.

Remind Me: What Is a Boundary?

Put simply, boundaries delineate what is allowed from what is not allowed. "They are something you can design — and when applicable, communicate with others — to protect your time, energy, or emotions," says explains Jesse Kahn, L.C.S.W., C.S.T., director and sex therapist at The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in NYC.

There are many different types of boundaries: Physical, emotional, time, sexual, intellectual, and material, to name just a few. But regardless of the type of boundary, the goal of boundaries is ultimately to make your life as full, safe, comfortable, and empowered as possible. (See: An Overview of How to Set Boundaries, According to a Therapist)

Let's consider some examples: If you only answer work emails between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., that's a boundary designed to protect your home life and create some semblance of work-life balance. If you refuse to see your relative after they've been drinking, that's a boundary designed to protect you from an emotional trigger.

"Anything that determines how you're okay with others interacting with your body and space, what you choose to share with others, how you're available to others, how you prioritize your time, your communication expectations, and more could be classified as a boundary," they say.

So… What Is a Sexual Boundary?

Glad you asked! A sexual boundary marks your own personal limits around anything connected to sex. That could include anything from with whom and under what contexts you have phone sex, to with whom and under what circumstances you have IRL sex, to how much you share about your sex life online or with your friends.

"Sexual boundaries can also name things you're definitely not interested in, things you're probably not interested in, things that don't bring you pleasure, things that cause you discomfort or distress that you want to avoid, things you're unsure about, not interested in, and more," says Kahn.

Sexual boundary examples:

  • I get STI tested after every new partner.

  • I will not send nudes through any insecure platform.

  • I will only go down on someone whose STI status I don't know with a dental dam.

  • I will not explore kink with someone who thinks 'aftercare' is overrated.

  • I won't have threesomes.

Sexual Boundary vs. Sexual Consent

It's true that at face value, these two things seem synonymous — but dig deeper, and you'll learn that while there is some overlap, a sexual boundary is indeed different from sexual consent.

At its most distilled, sexual consent is an agreement to have sex with someone(s). More specifically, it's an informed, specific, and ongoing negotiation of enthusiastic desire, Kai Werder, trauma-informed certified sex educator and author of the zine Beyond Yes & No: The Intimacy of Consent previously told Shape. As such, it can be withdrawn at any time and is only given in the absence of pressure or coercion. (Related: What Is Consent, Really? And How and Why to Ask for It)

Someone's personal sexual boundaries will likely inform what kind of sexual scenarios a person will or won't say yes to. For example, if someone has a boundary against anal penetration they would not consent to being anally fingered. Likewise, if someone has a personal boundary around only foregoing safer-sex barriers (such as condoms and dental dams) with people they're in a committed monogamous relationship with, they might consent to having condom-free P-in-V with their partner.

Knowing your own boundaries can help you decide what you enthusiastically want to participate in, and knowing your partner(s) boundaries can help you better understand their desires, says Kahn; however, "discussing boundaries isn't a substitute for getting consent within each sexual interaction." (Related: Yes, Stealthing Is Most Definitely Sexual Assault)

After all, just because making out is within your sexual boundaries doesn't mean you want to makeout at your work holiday party or during The Bachelorette season premiere. As Dr. Laura Berman, Ph.D., host of the Language of Love Podcast and Promescent brand ambassador puts it: "Just because something is within your sexual boundaries, doesn't give your partner carte blanche to try it whenever they desire without FIRST getting consent from you."

How to Figure Out Your Own Sexual Boundaries

1. Reflect on your past sexual experiences.

"When your sexual boundaries get crossed, it can feel like a hard 'no' coming from within your body, which is your body's way of sending you a red flag," says Berman. "A boundary cross will leave you with an uncomfortable, icky feeling inside of you."

That's why she recommends reflecting back on some of your past sexual experiences and asking yourself some of the following questions:

  1. Which of my past sexual experiences were the most pleasurable? How about least pleasurable?

  2. What did the ones that were least pleasurable have in common?

  3. What warning signs did my body give me before or during these instances? What did they feel like?

Your answers to these questions can help you understand where and when you'd benefit from drawing up a boundary. (Related: How to Talk to Your Partner About Your Sexual Past)

2. Fantasize!

"Just sit down and think about some of your fantasies," suggests Berman. Specifically: The fantasies you're actually interested in exploring IRL! (FYI, here's the difference between a fantasy, kink, and fetish — and how to explore each.)

"You might like to explore foreplay in public by making out and cuddling on a picnic blanket in a secluded place in the park," she says. "Or maybe you want to try light BDSM, such as spanking or handcuffs."

Whatever the fantasy be, once you discern which things turn you on, think through where, when, and with whom, and under what circumstances you'd be interested in trying it.

3. Make a yes/no/maybe list.

A yes/no/maybe list is an exercise that involves putting a variety of sex acts, positions, toys, aids, etc. into buckets based on whether or not you'd ever try them. "You write 'yes,' 'no,' or 'maybe,' next to each item, indicating if it's something you know you're interested in, something you know you're not interested in, or something you're unsure of," says Kahn. The act of making this kind of list can help you better understand your personal sexual comfort zones. Get started by printing out or downloading this inventory list from Scarleteen and this worksheet from BexTalksSex. (Consider putting in a sex journal, which can help improve your sex life in other ways as well.)

4. Remember: Your boundaries can evolve.

As you begin to outline your own sexual boundaries, remember that boundaries can change. "Something you're not comfortable with or unsure about now might be something you're interested in later on–or the other way around," says Kahn. "Taking time to check in with yourself and your partner(s) about your/their boundaries every now and then is good practice to ensure everyone feels comfortable communicating changes as they feel them." Keeping this top of mind will help relieve some of the pressure of drawing up your own sexual boundaries.

How to Talk to Your Partner(s) About Your Sexual Boundaries

No need to overcomplicate it. "Just talk to them," says Berman. "You might start by asking them if they have any 'hard nos' when it comes to sex, or you might ask them which fantasies they want to explore in real life," she says. You could also start by sharing your personal sexual boundaries.

Another option is to make a game out of it. For example, you might spend date night making a yes/no/maybe list together, says Kahn. Or "you could take turns sharing things you've tried in the past that you didn't like," says Berman. (Related: How to Build Intimacy with Your Partner)

Here are some ways you might bring up sexual boundaries:

  • Before we have sex, I just wanted to let you know that I don't like the doggy style position. Are there any positions you'd like to avoid, too?

  • I'd love to send you a sexy photo. But I'm going to send it over Snapchat instead of text because that feels safer to me.

  • I'd love to feel one of your fingers inside me. But can you wait for me to ask you for more before adding a second or third finger?

  • I'm not interested in trying anal intercourse. But I think it could be sexy to try butt plugs. Have you had any experience with anal sex toys in the past?

In this conversation, Kahn says it can be helpful co-create a plan for what to do, how to communicate, and what you need when a boundary has been crossed. "This can include specific words to say, ways to comfort, and ways to respond," they say.

What to Do If Your Sexual Boundaries Are Crossed

"It's important to communicate when your boundaries are crossed," says Kahn. "If you feel safe, naming that your boundary has been crossed and addressing it at that very moment can be very beneficial," they say. (See: Why Everyone Should Have a Safe Word In Bed)

To stop or pause the encounter, you can say:

  • Stop.

  • No, I didn't consent to that.

  • That's too deep.

  • Pause!

  • Can we take a break for a bit?

Once the sex act has ended, you want to learn if it was an innocent mistake, or if they knowingly crossed your boundary. If it was the former, Kahn recommends reminding your partner of the boundary, then asking for the aftercare you need. You also want to make a game plan on how you can both feel safe moving forward, he says.

"If they knowingly crossed your boundary that's a huge red flag — you should be very wary about anyone who doesn't respect your boundaries, or keeps trying to coerce you or pressure you into going past a boundary," says Berman. "That person is not a safe sexual partner and doesn't have your true interests at heart."

In other words: Buh-bye, Boundary Crosser!