Why is it so awkward to set boundaries in the bedroom?

It's always easier to say, " I want you" than "Not like that." But for a healthy relationship, it's vital you know what you're both comfortable with.

Young couple lying on a bed Photo: Pxhere.com
If you're in Halifax, drop by the "Setting Healthy Boundaries" session, part of Healthy Relationships Awareness Week, on Tuesday, November 15, 2022, 5:30–6:30pm in the Rowe Management Building, Room 1020.

Over the past few years, I’ve noticed an increasing openness in the public sphere towards talking about our sexual health and experiences. Maybe I’m noticing it simply because I’m now an adult and begun post-secondary education and thus have entered into the realm in which sex is common and talked about. Or maybe it really is a recent development. Either way, it’s a positive: sex should be talked about!

I’ve also found that one of the more popular topics when it comes to sex is boundaries and that it often goes hand in hand with the topic of consent. Though they’re spoken about together, they vary a little from one another.

Consent is saying “yes” to sex verbally, under no influence other than yourself in a sober, coherent, and willing state. Consent is required before any sexual act, must be ongoing, and can be revoked at any time.

Boundaries are the limits and rules we each individually put in place in order to safely and enjoyably engage in sex (including kissing and touching).  And if you feel your boundaries aren’t being respected or have been crossed, consent can be revoked.

OK, so with that out of the way, I can finally get to what I’ve been wanting to talk about: the awkwardness of the sex talks. I don’t mean it’s awkward to talk as a society about consent and boundaries—I have no shame sitting in the Killam with my laptop at full brightness on a blog page about sex or talking about it on the bus with my friends. I mean I still find it awkward to talk about my boundaries with my partners.

I find it awkward to say “no—don’t do that.”

Why is that?

Spoiler alert: I’m not a psychologist and I don’t know why. I am, however, 21 and have my fair share of experiences so let's talk about it.

The idea to write this article came to me when I was scrolling Instagram. I saw a post titled, “What healthy boundaries in sex look like.” Some of the examples given were: “I don’t like how it feels when…,” “I would rather we try this instead,” or, plainly, “stop doing that.”

The post is right—these are healthy boundaries and straightforward ways of communicating. Still, when I read the examples and pretended it was me saying them, I cringed. I felt awkward, even though I know I shouldn’t. I don’t believe that I’m too bold in assuming that I’m the only one feeling like this either.

When it comes to speaking about consent and boundaries, I find that the consent discussion is easier to have. This is probably because it requires a lot less in terms of intimacy and can be more playful—if you’re doing it right (not that there’s a wrong way when both partners are consenting), then the consent talk fits right into the whole shebang.

I guess it’s easier to say “hell yes, I want you” than it is to look someone in the eyes and tell them what you don’t like. It shouldn’t be, though, because it’s my body and I don’t owe it to anybody to do anything I don’t want to do.

I think our generation cares a lot about what other people think about them. Hey, don’t worry—I’m not calling you out. That would be hypocritical of me when “people pleasing” is going to be written in my obituary under “cause of death.” I’m merely suggesting that in the age of social media, wherein we post ourselves for public scrutiny day in and day out, we’re hardwired to want others to think we’re perfect. What’s more perfect than a robot who never says no? You’re not a robot, though, and so you shouldn’t have to worry that you’ll be turned off or rebooted if you stand your ground.

I don’t have any tips to make setting boundaries any less awkward or nerve-wracking, other than stating the obvious: If you’re trusting someone enough to do it (sheesh, fifth grade much, Hasana?) then surely a few little words about what you do and, even more, what you definitely do not like shouldn’t ruin the connection. You’ve made it this far without fumbling, right?

What I can give you, however, are some examples for setting healthy boundaries, starting with the ones I mentioned earlier. 

  1. “I don’t like how this feels.” (substitute this with whatever you need to.)
  2. “I’m uncomfortable; can we try something else?”
  3. “I would rather we try this instead.”
  4. “That hurts.”
  5. “I like this.”
  6. “Don’t do that.”
  7. “No.”
  8. “Stop.”
  9. “I’m done now—I don’t want to keep going.”
  10. “Can we just cuddle instead?”

On the flipside, to get the conversation rolling without being the first one to open up, why not ask about them?

  1. “Before we get too far into this, can we lay some limits?”
  2. “Is there anything you want me to avoid?”
  3. “If you’re uncomfortable, how will I know? What signs should I be aware of?”
  4. “What feels good for you?”
  5. “Are there words I shouldn’t use?”

At the end of the day, you might still feel some awkwardness, guilt, or embarrassment. Trust me, writing this article had me cringing at some parts still and I’m all but screaming from the rooftops about how important boundaries are.

We can’t change who we are overnight, that’s just how it is. All we can do is keep talking about sex and, in those conversations, remind ourselves that it’s normal and healthy to do so. You’re not being weird, you’re being safe, and the right person will like you more for it.