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My boyfriend keeps violating my boundaries.
When the sex is good, it’s really good. But when the sex is bad, it leaves me crying and having flashbacks to my first relationship when I was emotionally and sexually abused.
I’ve been dating a guy for about five months now. We started out as friends, but when lockdown started we got closer as we video chatted almost every day, and once we were allowed to meet we started dating. Almost everything is great: we get along really well, we’re super comfortable with each other, we have a lot of the same interests and hobbies, and when the sex is good, it’s really good. But when the sex is bad, it leaves me crying and having flashbacks to my first relationship when I was emotionally and sexually abused.
It just seems like we have a lot of misunderstandings during sex. Starting even the first time he stayed at my house, we had gone for a really long hike that day and we were both exhausted after, we watched a movie and then got ready for bed. He said something about sex and I said “Nah I’m just too tired” and kept getting ready for bed. When I got into bed, he kissed me good night, then started making out with me, then touched my breasts. I stopped him and said “I told you I didn’t want to have sex”. And he seemed genuinely surprised and said “Oh ok, sorry I just figured that meant “I don’t feel like it but I can be convinced”.” I was really upset about this because to me that shows that he doesn’t understand no means no, but for him it seems totally natural because if he feels too tired for sex and a girl starts kissing him, he sometimes realises actually he’s not that tired and is quite happy to have sex. For him it’s not a big deal even if he still doesn’t want to have sex, because he doesn’t feel pressured or coerced. For him, saying no isn’t complicated; for me, it is.
Then there’s the feeling I have that he doesn’t pay attention to how I’m feeling during sex. My last ex was great at this - he just naturally cared how I was feeling and if I froze up or got quiet or something he would immediately notice and stop to ask me if I was ok, etc. But my current boyfriend never notices. The thing is it’s hard to put my finger on - I’ve tried to explain to him that it feels like he’s not paying attention to me, but when he asks what he should do differently I can’t explain it. It just seems to me like he should notice if I stop enjoying something even if I don’t say it out loud, but to him this feels like I’m telling him to read my mind. I want to stress that he is not a douche when we talk about this - he genuinely just doesn’t know what he can do differently and I can’t explain it. He does care that I finish and everything, but it almost just seems like he gets carried away when he’s enjoying sex and stops noticing me? I don’t know.
Until now, there’s always been a reason the misunderstanding happened - English isn’t his first language, so sometimes he doesn’t know what I mean, or I misinterpreted what he meant, or he didn’t understand my body language, etc. But the other day, I was giving him head and gestured that he should grab onto my hair. We have discussed in the past how I’m ok with him grabbing my hair, but never pulling on it, and never EVER moving any part of my body for me - hips, hands, head, whatever - because this puts me into flashbacks of my abusive relationship. So when I told him to grab my hair, I just thought he’d do like always and grab it. But this time he also started moving my head for me. I was shocked but also didn’t immediately stop him because, due to my abusive ex, I find it extremely difficult to assert myself and stop in the middle of sex. After a few seconds he pushed my head too deep and I gagged, and he said “oh sorry was that too deep?” and I said “I told you to never do that” and he was genuinely confused. He asked what I meant, and I said “I told you never to move my head for me.” And he said “oh… I guess I thought since you said I could grab your hair that it meant I could do that too.” I told him to fuck off and stormed out because I just didn’t know what to do anymore.
Later when we talked about it, he was really upset and crying and saying how sorry he was because he knows I don’t want him to do that but in the moment he didn’t think of it, he just acted on instinct. He says that a lot, that during sex he just acts on instinct. He also said if he thinks too much about whether he can do something during sex - like if he were to have the thought “I wonder if it’s ok to move her head?” - then he will lose his erection because he gets upset and stressed by worrying if he’s doing things right. In fact, the reason I was giving him head at that point is because he had gone a bit soft during penetrative sex, supposedly because he had thought about whether he was doing things right. This sounded manipulative to me because he’s almost victim-blaming - like it’s my fault he goes soft sometimes because I get so upset if he does something I’m not ok with. I told him that and he said he’s sorry and he’s not trying to blame me, he’s just trying to come up with an explanation because he doesn’t understand himself why he did that.
I know if my friend were telling me this story, I would be super mad on her behalf and probably see it as sexual abuse - he violated my clearly set boundaries, then when I got upset he tried to blame it on me. But the thing is I genuinely don’t think he’s trying to be abusive. Like he wants me to enjoy sex, he wants to do the things I want and not do the things I don’t want, but he gets carried away, and he’s just trying to come up with an explanation of why he did such a stupid thing without thinking. I genuinely think he’s a really nice person who is just as baffled at his own actions as I am. But at the same time, he is hurting me, even if it is accidental, and it is A LOT for me to deal with when I have all this baggage from my past.
I don’t know how to move forward. We get along so well in general, and we have all the same friends, and we work together, so I don’t want to break up with him. But I also can’t imagine trusting him during sex ever again. I don’t know what I can do to make him pay more attention during sex and respect my boundaries, without making him go soft out of stress/worry. I don’t know what he can do to convince me he will respect my boundaries. I feel at a total loss. What can I do to fix this?
When someone violates our boundaries sexually in a way that is somewhere near The Line (maybe not quite past it, maybe on it, maybe just past it), it’s incredibly incredibly incredibly hard to know how to respond, and even how to feel about what happened. There’s a lot of pressure, often from ourselves, to label the interaction a certain way—either it was assault or it was not—and then to never change our minds about how we feel about that. We often have the idea that we would of course know if something is Wrong And Unforgivable or A Bad Mistake With Big Consequences. The truth of being human is that a lot of situations exist in personal gray areas.
[I want to be so so so so so clear to anyone reading this—including the letter writer—that if you are in this situation or a situation similar and you do feel like you know what the answer is, that you do feel like you have a label for the experience, that’s fair, too. I’m not saying that the above scenario or scenarios like this are always murky or in a gray area; maybe for you it is not. That’s reasonable, too.]
I’m going to write the rest of this letter from my own experience with sex that existed in gray areas of consent/harm. Please keep in mind that what matters ultimately is not what I write or think or feel on the topic; what matters is keeping yourself safe and happy.
Because you have a history of sexual abuse, keeping yourself away from harm might require more than it would for another person. Someone who had not been abused might feel differently about the above scenario and be able to recover quite quickly emotionally from this type of bad sex. They may have a lot of bandwidth to correct and re-correct a partner who gets caught up in the moment. It is perfectly normal that you do not have that bandwidth. Please give yourself the care you need.
Ok, onto this situation.
Do I think it’s a good sign that you two end up in these gray areas a lot? No. Do I think that it’s malicious on his part? I’m not sure, but I don’t think so. Do I think it matters if it’s not malicious? Somewhat but not entirely.
My big conclusion is that you two should not be having sex for a while until you figure out how to talk about it a whole lot more clearly. I do think that having a language barrier may not help the situation, although if you feel confident that he understands what you’re saying and is just not being a good listener, that’s certainly very concerning. The reality is that you need a partner who is above average when it comes to picking up emotional cues, especially during sex and your partner seems to be below average. That’s not a good fit.
You can do other things besides sex, though! You can make out and then masturbate next to each other for example. You can watch porn/horny things together. You can sext. There are many things that are sexual without involving actual sex and that may be where you need to be with this guy.
While you’re on your sex hiatus—if you should choose this path—keep having conversations about your boundaries and what you require. Make sure you’re being super clear on what feels bad and what triggers you. While your needs are COMPLETELY reasonable and your boundaries are healthy and good, I do think that the difference between holding your hair and pulling your hair is very slight, and I’m not sure that your partner can handle nuance like that.
Outside of him violating your boundaries, I do think that it sounds like he gets caught up in sex and has a hard time staying hard, which is it’s own thing. HOWEVER, IT IS NOT YOUR JOB TO ADJUST YOUR BOUNDARIES TO KEEP SOMEONE’S DICK HARD!!!!!! NO!!! There are all kinds of things you both can do to address his issues with staying hard that do not violate your boundaries! That’s like someone saying, “I’m having trouble learning French, could I light your house on fire? I think it would help.” WHAT. NO.
I empathize with him because bodies are hard, but I do not think it’s fair to conflate the two issues—one his body not cooperating and two him violating you. A lot of people have difficulty staying hard or have “performance anxiety,” and they do not violate their partner’s boundaries. It seems like he has a lot to work on when it comes to sex. He seems incredibly nervous and anxious about it, which may be related to him not knowing how to affirm your boundaries—if I’m being VERY generous towards him—but he needs to work on that. He needs to do work to figure out how to deal with his own sex anxiety. That might be therapy or going to a doctor about his ED. I don’t know the answer for him specifically, but I do know the answer is not him bulldozing through sex hoping to stay hard while triggering you.
ALTERNATIVELY, I think there are lots of good reasons to break up with him. Sexual incompatibly is a perfectly good reason to end a relationship, especially if it’s an exclusive one. There is not some magical threshold where if someone only does a certain number of harmful things you can’t break up with them yet! Relationships don’t work like that!
As I said before, I truly do not think the two of you can handle sex together right now. I do not know if you’ll ever get to a point where you can. He seems very clueless at this point, which is HARMFUL. Cluelessness often gets dismissed as an excuse for hurting other people and it is not. He is an adult and he’s responsible for both his intent (not wanting to hurt you) and his impact (hurting you). If you crash your car into another car because you didn’t see them, that doesn’t mean you didn’t crash your car. Cluelessness is not a viable excuse. That said, from what you have said, he doesn’t seem to be intent on being cruel or abusive, he just seems to have very very different ideas about sex. Incompatible ideas.
Additionally, I think what happened during your last few sexual encounters has really hurt you and it’s beyond reasonable—healthy even!—to not want to keep exposing yourself to that hurt.
Frankly, he seems to not take your trauma all that seriously otherwise he would not be doing what he’s doing. I do think that a lot of what you described is about misunderstandings; I’m sure there are many instances where he was shocked that you got hurt by his actions. (NOTE: THAT DOESN’T MAKE IT OK JUST BECAUSE HE DIDN’T KNOW IT WOULD HURT YOU!) If I had to guess—and this is a guess based on your words about him, so a very third-hand guess—I would think that he has little knowledge about or experience with sexual assault and trauma. I assume he isn’t aware of/doesn’t care about how serious it is and therefore it’s difficult for him to want to change his actions. Personally, I find that a deal breaker, but you may not.
You are, of course, welcome to keep dating him and sleeping with him, but I do not think the sex will get better without A LOT of very vulnerable communication from both of you. It’s gonna take a lot of work to get this guy to understand how you need sex to go to feel safe. If you want to do the work because you think he is a) worth it and b) has the capacity to change, wonderful. I wish you both the best!
I cannot tell you the right way forward. I will tell you it’s perfectly normal to have a lot of trauma kick up again when your boundaries are crossed. It’s wonderful that you’re so aware of what your boundaries are and that you’ve talked to him as much as you have about them. It’s also ok to not want to have to try this hard to have good, safe sex.
There is no one good option for what to do; I’m sorry. There isn’t a clear cut answer, as much as you might feel like there would be one for a hypothetical friend of yours. There is a possibility of growth for him, but no guarantee. And it’s also fair to not want to be with someone who needs so much growth in this area when you have a bad history with sexual abuse. It’s ok to stay and it’s ok to walk away. Please take care of yourself first and foremost. Please take a break from sex with him until you can both figure out, articulate, and then stick with sex that won’t harm you. And if you feel like you can’t trust him with sex again, that’s fair.
You’ve got this. I’m so sorry that you’ve had to go through this; you never should have had to. You’ve got this, though.
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