Sex-Positivity, Setting Boundaries, Hearing Boundaries
One of the biggest sticking points in sex-positive communities is that there’s a pattern of not don’t openly acknowledge the ways in which sexual intrusion, assault and trauma shape sexuality. Discussions of sex-positivity rarely include what it means to live in a world in which effectively every woman (both cis- and transgender) and many of the men (again, both cis- and transgender) you meet have some sort of experience, challenge, trigger, trauma or story about sexual intrusion and/or assault, even though that clearly has a huge impact on sex. Given that sexual assault has been one of the central topics of discussion and political activism within feminism, this seems like an area where these two bodies of thought could come together, if sex-positive communities can take some steps forward. There are ways in which I think feminism (in general) could also take some steps forward, and since I don’t identify as a feminist, I’m not going to address those directly.
Sure, there are workshops on sexual healing and there are resources like Staci Haines’ amazing book Healing Sex and DVD Healing Sex: The Complete Guide to Sexual Wholeness. And that’s not enough. Every single sexual relationship is influenced by sexual assault, whether directly or indirectly. Yet, that rarely gets mentioned unless the focus is specifically on that topic.
One place to start: for all of the talk within sex-positive circles about how to ask for what you want and how to say “no” (both of which are essential tools), there’s very little discussion about how to hear it when someone else says no, sets a boundary, or tells you that they want something that’s in tension or conflict with your desires. This dynamic mirrors the overwhelming pattern of teaching girls and women how to avoid rape without holding men accountable for their actions and, more generally, blaming the victim instead of the perpetrator.
Note: sexual assault takes many forms and happens in every gender combination. I highly recommend reading Sexually Aggressive Women: Current Perspectives and Controversies and Male on Male Rape: The Hidden Toll of Stigma and Shame for a look at the issues that emerge in some of the gender combinations other than men assaulting women.
It may seem surprising to hear that the ability to hear “no” is something that people need to learn, but when we look at it more closely, it makes a lot of sense. Being told no, in any context, can bring up feelings of shame, rejection, fear, anger, or sadness and most people want to avoid those difficult emotions. These feelings tend to be especially strong or easily triggered when it comes to sex. When the intensity is higher, such as during excitement or sexual arousal, the shift in energy that sometimes happens when we hit an interruption or a boundary can trigger a steeper and sharper drop. Hitting the brakes at 90 mph is more intense than hitting the brakes at 20. So the difficult feelings that can emerge when we come up against a boundary are often bigger when they happen during sex.
Also, sex and sexual expectations are strongly linked to judgments of self-worth, socio-cultural expectations of gender roles, unexplored assumptions, and shame. These emotions and judgments can run really deeply and many people lack the language to identify them, figure them out, and respond to them. This is especially true for men, since boys are rarely taught how to develop their emotional skills. In a society that stunts boys’ emotional intelligence, can we really be surprised that many men don’t know how to cope with the feelings that arise when someone tells them “no”? Or that they get angry and blame the person who “made them feel that way,” rather than owning their feelings?
Between having bigger reactions during sexual excitement and not having the tools to deal with them, it’s not surprising that it can be more challenging to honor our partner’s boundaries in the moment or even recognize that they’ve expressed them.
I want to be very clear that I’m not making excuses for anyone’s behavior around this. It’d be really easy for this to start sounding like a rape apology and I don’t want to do that. I also don’t want to sound like I’m saying that the only reason that people commit sexual assault is that they don’t know how to hear boundaries. A lot of people don’t care about other people’s boundaries. A lot of men don’t respect women. Some people get off on crossing or violating someone else’s boundaries. I think that those are different situations, even if the ways they manifest look similar, and they need different analyses and responses.
What I am suggesting, however, is that there needs to be more to it than saying “no means no.” Even without all of the cultural messages that claim that women say no when they don’t mean it, hearing a “no” can be hard. And I’m willing to bet that almost every person reading this has, at one point or another, tried to convince a friend to go out for an evening by asking them repeatedly. Or perhaps you’ve tried to persuade someone to do something by getting angry, or pouting, or telling them that they’d do it if they were cool, or whining, or sulking. Although these are very different than the institutionalized and hegemonic messages that tell us that it’s ok for men to pressure or force women to have sex, there are some commonalities. And as long as we refuse to acknowledge that we might have something in common with “those men,” as long as we render them Other and pretend that we are worlds apart from them, we limit our ability to find real solutions. The more we deny the Shadow, the stronger it becomes.
Learning to set boundaries takes a set of skills and tools, including self-esteem, communication, the ability to recognize when something is happening that you don’t want, the willingness to speak up, among others. Learning to hear boundaries also takes a set of skills and I’ve heard much less discussion about what those might be and how to teach them. Some of the tools that I can think of include being able to let go of attachment to the answer, being able to not take it personally when someone says no, being able to explore the potential for a middle ground that’ll work for both people, having an expansive definition of sex (so that you have more options that don’t seem like consolation prizes), the ability to be honest about your desires and not feel shame if someone doesn’t share them in that moment, the willingness to non-defensively ask questions, and believing that the other person’s pleasure, well-being, and health are just as important as your own. I’m sure that there are others and I’d love to hear what you think could be added to this list. Feel free to comment below. What other skills can help us hear someone’s “no”?
I’ve always said that if you can’t say no, then you can’t really say yes. After all, consent is only valid if you have the freedom and capacity to make the choice either way. The more I think about it, the more I wonder whether you can honor someone’s “yes” if you can’t also honor their “no.”
Safewords are a great tool for this because you can make your needs clear without the hindrances often associated with saying or hearing “no.” Sure, you can use them to role play being forced, à la pirate & cabin boy, but that’s not their only use. Saying “time out” or “red” or “mercy” or even “safeword” gets the message across and sidesteps any barriers to hearing “no” that many people have. Even if you’re not doing a role play that includes playing with consent, a safeword is a great way to communicate and I strongly recommend trying it in any sexual relationship.
We also need to acknowledge the effects of inhibition-lowering substances, both the legal kind and the not-so-legal kind. These are quite popular and their influence over people’s abilities to both set boundaries AND hear them is often left out of conversation around these issues. One notable exception is the awareness of the effects of alcohol use on college campuses, but it often seems like we forget that plenty of folks keep on drinking or using other drugs once they get the diploma.
Another facet to this puzzle is that there’s a big difference between being sex-positive and being sexually active. Unfortunately, there’s often a lot of confusion about that, which makes it easier for some people to pressure partners into doing things that they don’t want to do. Sex-positive folks need to stand up and call people out when they cross the line of consent, rather than gossiping about it, or allowing their silence to tacitly allow such things to continue. We also need to stand up for the entire range of sexual diversity, including the desire to be monogamous, non-kinky, heterosexual, etc., not just because it’s the sex-positive thing to do, but also because it makes our work more accessible to a wider audience.
My hope is that sex-positive writers, educators, and communities can explore some of these ideas and start making changes in how we include these issues in our work. If we can identify the range of skills we need to be able to hear someone’s boundaries without taking it personally and getting triggered, we can start to find ways to help ourselves and other people learn them. I believe that this is an important part of moving towards a world without sexual assault. And perhaps when sex-positive folks are publicly and actively engaging in this work, as well as other efforts that are aligned with that goal, we can start to bridge some of the gaps between two valuable perspectives that, when it comes down to it, have a lot to offer each other. I certainly don’t think that these suggestions offer a complete list of the ways that we can explore and develop sex-positivity, but they seem like some good places to start.
Having said all that, I don’t think that this would be enough. After all, plenty feminists are really judgmental and sex-negative, for many of the reasons that anyone else is. Even if sex-positive folks did everything possible to build a bridge with feminism, there will still be lots of folks who just won’t want to join the conversation. And yet, I still think that there are a lot of ways that these two bodies of knowledge, experience, and wisdom can learn from each other, if we can find them.