Sexual Boundaries and Saying “No:” What You Need to Know
In a culture that applauds people for being as easy-going as possible, it can feel hard to speak up and state our boundaries.
Even in the wake of the “Me Too” movement and a shifting dialogue about what consent actually is, putting that boundary talk into practice is a whole other issue that many folks don’t have practice with.
After all, it’s one thing to watch TikTok and say, “oh, hell yeah,” alongside the person laying out how to tell someone off. It’s something else entirely to speak up on the fly with little-to-no opportunity to plan for it.
But the truth is that you have authority over your own body at all times – you’re its royal leader. And because of that, you have the freedom to say “no” to anything you damn well please. By becoming your own best advocate, you’ll find the right words just waiting for you whenever you need them. That being said, getting to self-advocacy takes work, especially when you’re surrounded by folks who don’t value that “no.”
It’s not always easy
We can talk about speaking up and fist pump in solidarity all day long, but vocalizing our boundaries – especially in the bedroom – can be tricky.
Women in particular – and everyone either raised as or seen as one – are taught that being agreeable is one of the most desirable personality traits a girl could have in their arsenal. Autonomy and boundaries generally lead to them getting called a bitch (or worse).
When we’re taught at all angles to just put up with unwanted advances, it’s hard to flip the script and accept all the negative things folks would think about us once we change.
On top of that, people who are given boundaries – especially sexually – aren’t above using tactics to try and get their way. They’ll pout or coerce, trying to guilt you into changing your mind. Think about all the times you’ve been guilt-tripped into a dance or a kiss or sex. Staying firm with that “no” can feel hard.
But that “no” is so important. Not only because our bodies deserve honored limits, but because giving that “no” makes the moments where you say “yes, yes, yes” a million times more satiating.
And despite all the negativity barreling at us when we start to advocate for boundaries, there is a path out, where we can turn someone down and keep our sense of self intact. It starts with addressing the little things.
The small stuff matters
When folks talk about saying that big old “no,” they often talk about it only when it comes to sex – and usually then, only penetrative sex.
While it’s obviously vital to our growth and happiness and safety to say no if we don’t want penetrative sex, it’s also important to recognize that “no” is a complete sentence for things outside of penetration, too.
The second you feel even a smidge of discomfort, pumping the brakes is your right as someone taking part in a physical exchange.
Speaking up and telling someone to not touch you like that without your consent sets a precedent both in your life and theirs. While it’s not our job to teach boundary crossers a lesson, making them think twice before doing it again can help out the next person who might cross paths with them.
When you speak up even about those small things, you’ll find yourself surprised by how good it feels to claim agency over your own body and the bubble you’re inhabiting. Vocalizing these hard lines makes it more clear who’s in charge of your bodily intimacy – you!
Practice makes perfect
It’s all well and good to talk a big game about saying “no,” but sometimes, putting it into practice for the big stuff is hard. Although we can sit back and tell ourselves that we’ll finally dish out the “no” we’ve been waiting our entire lives to deliver the next time some dude ogles us while we’re just waiting at the crosswalk, when the moment finally comes, we’re all frozen up.
If there’s one way to get better at a difficult thing, it’s practice. If you’re the kind of person (like me!) who’s struggled to establish boundaries in the past, start small. Addressing the little things can help, the lower the stakes, the lower the pressure.
As nice as it would be to suddenly wake up with Xena levels of strength, turning years of engrained learning on its head and saying “no” whenever you feel like it isn’t likely to happen. If that were the case, we’d all be establishing boundaries left and right every dang day.
That’s why, silly as it sounds, getting practice under your belt for turning folks down can go a long way when you find yourself in more intimate settings. One way to begin is by advocating for yourself in your day-to-day life, especially in non-sexual settings, like when someone asks you to hang out and you’d rather spend the night flying solo. Instead of giving up your plans with that bottle of wine and a puzzle, just say “no.”
And if you find yourself in a public setting and someone takes up the space you’d tried to carve out for yourself – a coffee shop table or a library seat or a corner of the bar – be direct about saving that space. As you practice, you’ll find it gets easier to say “no” to even the touchier things like making out or having sex.
It won’t always be easy
Finally uncovering the magic of boundaries doesn’t mean other folks will see it the same way. If anything, telling someone “no” when you’re getting frisky often leads to pushback or guilt.
As much as I would love to live in a sexy utopia full of consent and respected boundaries, many folks are so hesitant to believe that they’ve crossed a boundary that they’re unable to hear others’ needs.
In a public setting – like that creep who touches your back – you may be met with confusion or outright hostility in response to your “no.” It doesn’t feel good to be told you disrespected someone’s space. But maintaining your own boundaries and safety is more important than soothing someone’s wounded ego.
To make matters worse, many folks think that “no” means you’ve opened the floor for negotiation. Eager to get what they want, people try to squeeze their way past your boundaries and will use all kinds of tactics – from guilt-tripping to pouting to downright throwing a fit – to get their way. But hold steady; you’re in charge of your body. The second someone coerces you into saying “yes,” consent isn’t really on the table.
Far too often, folks are taught to avoid making others feel bad for transgressions – no matter how egregious. It’s seen as worse form to be the one establishing a boundary than to be the one who crossed it in the first place.
But stay firm and concise and remember: your “no” is a complete sentence. We don’t need to cushion rejections in gentle phrasing or something else to make them feel better about the situation. Turning someone or something down doesn’t need a lot of gentle exposition or room for negotiation.
If someone starts pushing you, remind them that there’s no consent if it’s coerced. Don’t be afraid to call a Lyft or Uber to leave if you find yourself in a situation where someone isn’t listening – and to be safe, always have a friend who knows where you are and can keep tabs on your safety or pick you up if needed.
Although we can never control what others do, raising hell and staying firm to our boundaries can help keep us from the more subtle ways that people take advantage of our lines in the sand.
“No” weighs more than “yes.”
I’ll keep this short and sweet.
When one person says “yes” and the other says “no,” it can sometimes feel like there’s room for debate. I’ll say it again for the folks in the back: “no” is a complete sentence. There’s nothing else to add on, no cushion or gentle phrasing or space for discussion.
In all things relating to our bodies – especially sex – your “no” means more than any “yes” a partner might give. From having another drink to getting naked, the person whose boundary line crops us first needs to be honored.
Nobody has the right to dictate what another person does; we only have that kind of authority over our own time and bodies.
Boundaries open you up to more juicy goodness
At first it may sound counterintuitive, but a funny thing happens the more you state your “no” in the bedroom: you find room for more joy. When you’re not someone who’s historically voiced your boundaries, you may not have a clear idea of what you’re actually into during sex.
The more you say “no,” the more clarity you’ll gain around what you want in your sex life and the more open you’ll become to who you are sexually.
As you explore your boundaries, don’t be surprised if you uncover more things you want ground rules around. The more clearly you know yourself intimately, the better you can see a transgression.
But there’s another side to the coin. Although it may seem like finding more things you don’t want or establishing more guidelines in your sex life might make things angsty, the truth is the opposite.
When you know your boundaries are explicit and honored, it’s so easy to sink into pleasure and experiment with new things; safety has a funny way of opening us up to fresh experiences. After all, it’s only through finding what doesn’t work that we can more clearly see what does.
Saying no to certain interactions – from that creepy hand on the small of your back to having sex – will help you discover what it is that makes your toes curl or your belly do the good kind of flip-flops. And because you’ve practiced saying “no,” you’ll know how to advocate for those things that set your loins a-blazin’.
Maybe you’ll discover you’re into feet, or that you actually feel safer in a threesome than in sex for two, or that you just need to take a few months delving into solo sex with a good toy to reacquaint yourself with your desires.
Whatever happens, saying “no” when you don’t want to do something will only open you up to the kinds of opportunities that nourish you and have your best interests in mind – and who doesn’t want that?
A “no” is a beautiful thing – and you deserve to explore it! So start saying “no” more often – especially in the bedroom. It’ll make your “yes” moments so much sweeter.
What’s your biggest advice for advocating for your “no?”
A PDX-based creator, Nikita applies a queer, sex-positive lens to everything she touches, from articles on foot fetishes to new song lyrics. When not delving into the juicy world of sex writing, she can be found working on her novel, making music, busying herself in community theater, or otherwise being a total ham.