Get Real! I Don’t Know How to Deal with My Boyfriend’s Boundaries and Responses to Sex


cookie127 asks:

My boyfriend has a problem with sex, I know him very well and I know he’s not just being a guy. He likes to play around a lot but he’s very iffy about me touching him. I don’t know how to help this or what to do. He did have a really terrible experience when he was younger but he’s had long term relationships and he has slept with other women but only 2. He wants to have sex we’ve tried it once but he got too nervous about it and pulled away I don’t know how to handle this situation?

Heather Corinna replies:

I don’t know what “just being a guy” means. I’m not messing with you; it’s just that boys and men, like girls, women, and everyone else, vary so much. There’s just no one way guys behave. Who a guy is and how he behaves have more to do with the person he is, and the whole of his life, than they likely do with his gender or his gonads.

Unfortunately, a lot of people have the idea that men are more innately or biologically comfortable with sex than are women. But that’s a gender stereotype that often doesn’t hold water, one that many men feel they have to live up to. Like all stereotypes, it  doesn’t necessarily reflect real behavior, feelings, and experiences. The idea that men are more comfortable with sex puts pressure on them to behave in ways that might not feel right to them, and don’t benefit anyone.

The idea that there is a set of “rules” for one group of people and a radically different set for another group usually implies a double standard. Let’s understand right out of the gate that the dynamics in a situation like this aren’t different for guys than for girls. I’m also assuming that you care about this person, and that you not only want to have a sex life you enjoy, but also one that’s positive and safe for both of you.

Sometimes we want to do things for which we may not be ready. Sometimes we don’t know yet what we need, or don’t feel able to voice those needs, especially in a high-stakes situation. Having any kind of sex with a partner is a high-stakes situation for most people.

Sex is almost always an experiment, even with a long-term partner. If it becomes routine, people can become unsatisfied or uninterested mighty quickly. In our sexual experiences, we’re often going to be surprised by ourselves or others. We can’t always anticipate how something is going to feel, especially before we try it. When I say “before we try it,” I don’t mean just once. I mean every time. Too often, people frame sexual “first times” as the only time sex is experimental, dismissing the fact that sex never really stops being experimental.

People in a sexual partnership should know that it’s always okay and no big whoop to pull back from anything at any time. They should let their partners know that they’ll do their best to avoid making snap judgments. For instance, you’re not going to figure that if your boyfriend pulls back, he’s less of a man. This is an oppressive cultural message that few men have been able to avoid. And you’re not going to assume that he doesn’t love you or find you attractive, or anything else like that, right? I hope you just said yes to that question. Does he know that? If not, reassure him, and he should reassure you of the same kinds of things.

I’m not sure what his terrible experience was, or if it played a part in the situation you describe. His nervousness could have been about birth control or STIs. It could have been about having a particular kind of sex with you at this point in your relationship. It could be performance anxiety, or realizing he had to pee, or becoming suddenly distracted by an inexplicable need to remember the words to “Baby Got Back.” Who knows? The only way to know is to ask.

If his issue around sex, or any other issues in your relationship, is about that bad experience, did that experience involve abuse, assault, or shaming around his body or sex? If so, has he sought counselling to help him deal with that? If not, that’d be a great thing for you to gently suggest. In doing so, it’s good to make clear you’re not saying he is broken or in need of fixing. Rather, he may need to learn skills to help him process the experience and manage its impact. You might add that you, too, could benefit from knowing what he learns.

You can ask him, aside from counseling, what he needs right now and what he feels ready for, which may be two different things. Were you able to ask what he felt nervous about? If not, I’d ask him about that, ideally not at a time when you’re being sexual together. It’s often harder to talk about sex when you’re naked and in the throes of something sexual than when you’re in a non-sexual situation. You say he’s iffy about your touching him. Have you two talked about that in depth, so that you don’t cross any boundaries?

You say he’s had sexual relationships before. Did he do okay with those? If so, were there any dynamics, situations, behaviors, or ways of communicating during sex that made those experiences work for him? Was there anything in those relationships that did not work for him? Don’t assume that because he’s had sexual partners before, that sex always went well for him. Enjoyable sex isn’t just about—or even mostly about—being able to perform the physical basics. It’s also about feeling good about it physically and emotionally, having your needs met, and, by all means, feeling safe.

We don’t always have the same experiences in our relationships because people are different, relationship dynamics differ, and we change over time. In other words, even if things went okay for him with all kinds of sex in those previous relationships, it doesn’t mean it always will. Your relationship may affect him differently, including in ways you might not even think about, and not because you’re “better” or “worse” than his other partners. For example, as a survivor of abuse myself, I am more easily triggered by the partners I know the best than by others because I let my guard down around them much more. (Triggers are words, smells, actions, situations, or dynamics that can cause an emotional or physical response.) Your boyfriend may be in a different stage of healing now than he was previously, so he might be experiencing some aspects of sex differently. Those are just two possibilities of many.

For male-identified people, sexual abuse and trauma can be particularly challenging. It’s not easy for any of us, and support for female-identified survivors is still way less available than it should be. However, men, trans gender people, and gender-noncomforming people tend to be even less supported when it comes to sexual abuse. With men, there’s also a lot of strong, negative messaging around masculinity and sexual abuse or assault. The same holds true for what people view as sexual “failures.”

If your boyfriend’s experience involved abuse or assault, I’d encourage you to educate yourself on how to partner with an abuse or assault survivor, particularly a male survivor, so that you can have an idea of what you can do to approach sex in ways that work. It may be that something triggered him, like a smell, words, or the situation itself. If he experiences a trigger, it is not because you’re being hurtful or unsafe. But if you don’t know what his triggers are, you can’t watch out for them, help manage them, or see a triggered response coming.

I’d hardly consider one unsatisfying sexual interaction a “problem.” Instead, I’d think of it as something you tried once that didn’t go as planned. But I get the impression you’re talking about more than just one experience.

Sexual partners, of any gender, without trauma, tend to have some body boundaries. That’s healthy. It’s also common for people to want to try something sexually and then find they don’t, or to start having sex and then change their minds. This can happen even with partners you like, love, and trust. If you haven’t yet had these kinds of experiences, rest assured, you probably will.

It feels safe to guess that you didn’t expect to have to deal with these kinds of issues in sexual partnerships, even though they’re very common. Many people have been or will be assaulted or abused in their lifetimes, and I hope you are able to talk about this without taking it personally.

That may sound like a stupid thing to even suggest about sex because it is so personal. But it is, and it isn’t. When we have sex with a partner, we bring all our life experiences and our own sexuality to it. If his responses with touching or sex are about your relationship, or things you are or are not doing, I hope he’s filled you in on that in a kind way. If anything in your relationship is really loaded for him, or if the sexual pacing is too fast, I hope he’s felt able to say that, and you can both make adjustments. But if he’s said this isn’t about you, I also hope you can take his word for it. Even when we’re really into someone, we can’t usually just magic away previous trauma, radically change our boundaries, or make everything we want to do okay all the time.

A sexual dynamic in which everyone accepts that things can change at any time is a sound foundation for a good sexual life. If your boyfriend finds that he’s not comfortable with intercourse for awhile, that doesn’t have to be a problem, because it’s only one of many, many ways to be sexual. It would be smart for both of you to keep that in mind.

What happened to you is an eye-opener and a great opportunity for you to learn more about how flexible we need to be when it comes to sex. In partnered sex, we need to be prepared to have things go differently than we expected.

Situations like this can also open doors to deeper intimacy. We’re all vulnerable when we have sex. Having an accepting partner, who offers comfort and affirmation, makes us feel safe and close to that person. Same goes for not making this stuff into a big deal. A “Hey, whatever, what do you want to do instead?” is a great reminder that no one expects us to be machines or performers in sex. Our partners just want us to be ourselves, wherever we’re at, and to be real and open.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Follow Heather Corinna on twitter: @Scarleteen