Boundaries, consent, and communication: what we want you to know
We want to be clear that if you deliberately violate someone’s boundaries or ignore their consent, it can be considered sexual violence, sexual assault, or rape. It’s never, ever okay to perform a sexual action towards someone who hasn’t consented to it. For more information, or for help, we encourage you to reach out to an organisation like 1800 RESPECT.
Boundaries are like a set of rules or guidelines that set out how we want to be treated by other people, and how we’ll treat other people in return. Boundaries create healthy space between us and the people close to us, and allow us to take responsibility for our own actions while also allowing other people to take responsibility for theirs.
It can feel easier to set boundaries in some parts of our lives than in others. At work, many of us have probably said, “I’m sorry, but that’s not a part of my job” or, “Unfortunately I can’t stay back after my shift tonight”. And most of us are probably used to dealing with that one dramatic friend or family member: we love them, but when they call us up for the third time in a week to rant about how their neighbour keeps stealing their favourite parking spot, we’re good at getting them off the phone quickly.
These are all examples of boundaries: situations in which we have to decide how we want to be treated, and show another person how to treat us that way. We don’t want to work late, so we tell our boss we’re not available. We don’t want to listen to Aunt Marge complain about Bob down the street again, so we end the conversation after a few minutes.
But boundaries in an intimate relationship, and in the bedroom, can feel much trickier and more awkward to set.
What are relationship boundaries?
Relationship boundaries are different for everyone, depending on the relationship they’re in. As an example, your friend might be comfortable with her partner having the passcode to her phone, but you might prefer to maintain your privacy. Boundaries can also look really different at the start of a relationship compared to a few years in: it would be really weird if a first date borrowed our credit card, but we might be very happy for our partner of five years to take it. Boundaries can be small or big, but their goal should always be to encourage each partner to take responsibility for themselves, while still reaching out for help if they need it.
Boundaries in the bedroom should allow each partner to decide when they’re in the mood for intimacy, how they like to be touched, and what’s off the table for them. Boundaries are closely connected with consent, which is a person’s right to say yes or no to any sexual act.
Enthusiastic and informed consent
It’s really important to understand that consent can never be given if someone is forced, tricked, or pressured into saying yes. It also can’t be given if someone is unconscious or unable to give consent, or if they’re someone who you have a position of power or authority over. In these situations, the responsibility isn’t on the person to set boundaries about how they wanted to be treated, it’s on those around them not to take advantage of them—they have a right not to be forced into doing something they don’t want to do.
For this reason, all consent should be informed and enthusiastic. Informed consent means the person totally understands what they’re consenting to, and enthusiastic means the person isn’t uncertain when they’re offering consent. Enthusiastic, informed consent is, “Sure, I’d love to come over tonight and use that new toy we bought!”, not, “I guess I’ll have to come over now that you’ve gotten upset—what did you want to do?”.
How to ask for consent
Some people worry that asking for consent before performing a sexual act can make things awkward and ‘ruin the moment’. We want to assure you that your partner will definitely appreciate you asking their consent more than they’ll worry about the moment being ‘ruined’, but here are some ways you can ask for consent that you’ll be able to fit smoothly into any intimate moment:
- Talk about it beforehand. You don’t need to act like it’s a contract negotiation, just get comfy with your partner and share with them what you’d like to do. “I’ve been thinking about that toy we bought—do you want to try it tonight?”
- Simply ask. “Can I kiss you?” or, “Can I touch you there?”
- Make it part of your sex talk, if that’s your thing. “It turns me on so much when I go down on you, would you like me to do that?”
- Let them tell you what they’d like. “Where would you like me to touch you?” or, “What would feel good right now?”
- Ask them to show you what they’d like or how they want you to touch them. This can be really sexy if your partner is comfortable with it.
How to set boundaries
Everyone has the right to set boundaries in a relationship. It’s not rude, aggressive, or cold to set boundaries—it’s something you can do that will benefit you, and benefit your partner as well by giving them a clear understanding of how you like to be treated.
When you set boundaries for yourself, you also give other people the opportunity to set boundaries for themselves. And when two—or more—people in a romantic, social, or familial relationship understand how the people around them want to be treated, it helps develop an environment of respect.
Conversations about boundaries don’t have to be intimidating or argumentative. Here are some examples of how you can set boundaries in your relationships:
Bring it up in the moment
It’s difficult to enter into a relationship with all your boundaries pre-set—in fact, doing so can make us feel more rigid and less likely to be vulnerable with our partner. If you have a moment where you feel uncomfortable or like you’re being pulled in a direction you don’t want to go, say something. “Hey, I appreciate that you want to see your parents this weekend, but we know that your dad and I don’t get along. I’m going to sit these regular visits out.” In bed, it can look like: “Please don’t touch me there—I’m not in the mood for that.”
Mention it in advance
If there’s something you know you don’t like and don’t want to do with any partner, don’t be afraid to mention it early on. Setting a boundary early will help your partner to understand your limits, and might allow them to set some of their own as well:
“Just so you know, I really don’t like anal and it’s not something I’m comfortable trying.”
“I’m glad you mentioned it, I actually don’t like doing it either!”
Say something afterwards
If you realise after a situation is over that it’s something you don’t want to do again, it’s not too late to mention it so your partner knows, going forward, that it’s something you don’t enjoy. “I’m glad we tried that toy the other night, but I don’t think I liked it enough to do it again,” or, “When you left me talking with your boss at your work dinner the other night, it made me feel awkward—let’s stick together at events from now on”.
It takes time to get used to setting boundaries. When we first start trying to set limits on how we’re treated it can feel strange and even rude, especially if we’ve never done it before. But boundaries are a crucial part of a healthy, respectful relationship—and we want you to have a relationship that’s as healthy and respectful as possible.