Upholding Boundaries Feels Good

Photo by Erik Mayes.

The title of this blog post is super, super obvious. At least that’s how I felt when I was writing it – but then I don’t think this concept is as prominent in our culture as it should be. Hence this post.

One time, I was about to be intimate with a partner. We did the STI/safety check-in talk before anyone’s clothes came off, which is the generally recommended way to do it (since sexual arousal can lower your inhibitions). If you’re not sure how to have this kind of talk, I highly recommend Reid Mihalko’s safer sex elevator speech.

After disclosing my STI status (when I was last tested, what for, the results, and if I’d engaged in any particularly risky behavior like unprotected sex outside a committed relationship since), it occurred to me to mention something else: that I might have a UTI or other vaginal infection coming on.

When I refer to this interaction as upholding a boundary, I mean that I have made a commitment to uphold this particular behavior or practice in all circumstances. It is extremely important to me that any sexual partners I have be able to give informed consent to being with me. This means I give them the relevant information to be able to make that decision, even if the conversation is uncomfortable. Different people have different ideas about what “relevant information” is, so I try to hold myself to a high ethical standard. Because this stuff is so relative, I err on the side of over-disclosing, or at least that’s my intention.

Now, I was on the fence about mentioning this at all. Every so often I wake up in the middle of the night with bladder pressure – no pain, just pressure – and the discomfort is pretty annoying. Usually I make it a point to get checked out as soon as possible, because one time it was a bladder infection, and another time it turned out to be bacterial vaginosis (BV). Those two conditions are pretty different in terms of symptoms for most folks but apparently not me, so I clearly can’t self-diagnose with these kinds of issues.

But it felt a little weird to say, “Hey, I don’t know for sure, but I think I might have a UTI or a yeast infection or BV… so, um, is that an issue for you?”

Luckily my partner was cool, and knew that using barriers for any kind of genital contact (such as oral sex or penetrative sex) was an easy way to prevent transmission. All of these conditions are easily cured with antibiotics, too, so it was mostly me wanting him to be able to give informed consent in case of the worst case scenario (because men can carry a yeast infection, and potentially transmit it to a female partner if it hasn’t cleared up by then).

I also felt weird saying something about this, because I wasn’t 100% sure that I had anything wrong with me. Like I wrote above, I can’t really self-diagnose uro-genital conditions with any degree of accuracy. There’ve been countless times when what I thought was a yeast infection turned out to be bacterial vaginosis, and vice versa. And other times, I thought I had something that turned out to be nothing. I felt anxious about sounding overly paranoid, maybe even like a hypochondriac, to my partner. That didn’t feel good.

However, in this moment, my partner made a decision about barrier use that he was comfortable with, and knowing that he’d made an informed decision made me feel comfortable too.

And in the end, I got myself to the gynecologist, had some tests run, and discovered that I did, in fact, have a yeast infection (despite not having typical symptoms, go figure). Once I’d had some time to think about it, I realized that I felt really really good about upholding my personal boundaries in this situation. It felt weird saying something about maybe having an infection, but it was clearly the right thing for me to do.

If I’d felt too embarrassed to bring it up with this partner, or if I’d felt ashamed of maybe having something “wrong” with me, or if I were too hesitant to speak up about the very possibility of having a health condition, I would’ve felt terrible when I got the diagnosis after we’d been sexually active. I would’ve felt like I hadn’t given my partner the chance to truly give informed consent. And yeah, it’s not like a yeast infection is gonna cause major complications for men… but I feel pretty strongly that people need to be able to give informed consent for sexual activity. Besides, if you can’t talk about it (“it” being sex and its various facets and consequences), then why are you doing it?

Thinking back on this experience, I feel very positively about my decision to commit to my personal boundaries about transparently sharing sexual health information with a potential partner. I love that this experience reinforced the importance of talking frankly about sex and sexual health. I’m thrilled that my open communication was met with compassion and that we were able to make some decisions about safer sex and go on to have a fun time.

In short, I think there’s a lot of negative talk around boundaries. There’s this implication that you “have” to talk about and enforce your personal boundaries like it’s a chore or a drag or a bummer. Even worse, it’s made out to be a mood killer. You know what? I think clearly-articulated boundaries in line with a person’s boundaries are hot. I love being with people who uphold their own boundaries, and support me in upholding mine. And I wish more of the world thought this way!

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