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Thursday, Nov. 11, 2010

When a Partner Doesn't Take Your Boundaries Seriously

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Last weekend, I spent three days with college students at a national peer education conference. While there, I served as a panelist for a session called "Ask the Sexperts," where students could anonymously submit any and all questions about sex-related topics. Since I do these kinds of workshops on college campuses fairly frequently, it's interesting to note trends in the types of questions received. This time, as usual, the largest number of questions on any single topic concerned orgasm, especially from women who hadn't experienced one yet. Think of the anxiety that could be relieved if we taught about the clitoris and basic human sexual response cycle in every high-school health class! We also received the typical smattering of inquiries about the G-spot, HPV, herpes and HIV, subjects about which our knowledge is continually evolving and about which there exists a lot of misinformation. I was surprised at the lack of questions about anal sex, which is usually a pretty hot topic.

I was most struck, however, by questions about sexual communication. We are still doing a poor job of getting people to talk openly about sex and not make assumptions about other people based on their identity or past behavior. The hardest questions to answer are the ones about relationships and negotiating sexual boundaries, because there are no quick-and-easy solutions that apply universally. Several students chose to follow up with me after the Q&A was over to clarify their questions or get more specific information, because it's almost impossible to confine a sexual communication question to the simple 3-by-5 index cards that we used to collect them.

One student I talked to had followed all the "rules" that are typically suggested about clearly defining her own sexual values and boundaries before getting into a relationship and then communicating those boundaries to a potential partner before getting involved in a relationship. Love it! Her partner appeared to understand those boundaries and they had a mutual agreement about what they would and wouldn't do sexually.

However, over time, some "boundary creep" appeared. I've heard about this from other people as well. Either your partner assumed that you would change your mind about a particular type of sex ("Oh, wait—you meant 'never' when you said ‘never’?") or, in the flush of a new relationship, underestimated the importance of a particular type of sex to them. Perspectives can change when a person hasn't had a kind of sex they like in a year or more. And then, subtle, passive-aggressive pressure can appear, perhaps in the form of offhand comments or questions or even through trying to take things in a new direction during sex without discussing it first.

This can be frustrating to both partners, especially the one who thought that she or he had been upfront and clear about boundaries at the beginning. To me, this emphasizes the fact that sexual negotiation is an ongoing dialogue, not a one-time conversation. People change, and relationships are all about knowing when to compromise so that both people's needs are reasonably taken care of, and knowing when a compromise would require you to abandon too much of yourself.

I suggested to this student that she bring up the passive-aggressive behavior she was seeing in a direct but nonconfrontational way, simply stating what she was witnessing and asking her partner what was going on. It seemed time to reopen the discussion, acknowledge that relationships can be difficult, and see how both people felt about the original agreement. Perhaps talking alone can resolve the feelings of frustration, perhaps a new compromise agreement can be reached, or perhaps the two will realize that their values are not compatible and move on. I would consider any of these outcomes a success as long as both people feel that they have maintained their integrity as sexual beings.

Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXpress? Send them to
laura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.

Laura Anne Stuart has a master’s degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. She owns the
Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee’s East Side.