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April 17, 2024

An empathetic "no": Why and how to set boundaries

By YINUO WANG | February 22, 2023



Drawing on observations of people around her, Wang considers the importance of boundaries and how to set them.

As college students, we don’t always think a lot before having sex. We are so excited to explore all the possibilities in life that we forget about the consequences of our actions. We go with the flow and do what feels right. 

However, when the heat of the moment is over, we sometimes regret our decisions or are confused about our feelings. This uneasy feeling intensifies when our partner wants to get physical sooner than our ideal pace. Consider the following scenarios:

1. Your date leans in and kisses you. You don’t want to say no to ruin the moment.

2. Your partner thinks it’s time to have sex because you have been together for so long. You want to say no, but your partner becomes upset. 

3. The guy you just met at a frat party nudges you to go upstairs with him. You comply because you don’t want to look uptight and are scared that he will gossip behind your back.

These are all scenarios that I’ve heard about from others or witnessed in public. In these scenarios, we want our partner to be happy, but we feel like the only way to make them happy is to go at their pace. When we try to say no, they immediately look upset, frustrated or disappointed, which makes us feel obligated to comply. 

We eventually agree to have sex with them, and, although we might enjoy what happened, something feels off. We can’t articulate our feelings but there is a part of us that doesn’t feel right. 

We all know that pinning someone down to force sex is assault and that asking someone explicitly if they want to have sex is respectful. But how do we define gently nudging and begging for sex?

The grey area between respect and assault encompasses a wide range of behaviors. Just because a behavior is legal doesn’t mean it is acceptable and respectful. Humans are social creatures, and we rarely go into a relationship thinking that we might need to push our partner away. Unfortunately, when we do find ourselves in a situation with a disrespectful partner who makes it difficult to say no in the heat of the moment, we freeze and don’t know how to respond. 

The ambiguity between assault and respect is why setting boundaries is so important. In the context of relationships, “boundary” means a limit or extent that one is comfortable with, independent of what the other person wants. “Setting a boundary” means making your boundary known to the other person, explicitly or implicitly. 

How do we set boundaries? This is a tough question that I personally struggled a lot with. Growing up in a traditional Chinese household, I was taught to be agreeable and pleasant. Saying no and asserting my needs were considered rude and would make me undesirable. 

Because I always associated setting boundaries with starting conflicts, I often found myself in situations where I was disrespected but didn’t have the courage to speak up. This is a common phenomenon I see among women. 

Here are some useful tips for going into any romantic or sexual relationship:

1. Know more about someone before taking things to the next level, and prepare an escape plan. While trust is important, it is earned and not freely given.

2. Always think about what you want beforehand to minimize the chance of being worn down for sex. If you change your mind when you are with them, give yourself a moment to think if this is what you genuinely want. 

3. Practice rejection. While it is difficult to reject people, it is more important that we stay true to ourselves. Know that rejecting someone doesn’t mean you don’t love them. Be prepared to give them an empathetic “no.” 

4. Clearly convey your boundaries to your partner, explicitly or implicitly. Being explicit avoids ambiguity, but I understand this may feel awkward. You can also use your body language (i.e. giving implied consent) to show them your preference. 

5. Be consistent and align your action with your intention. It is okay to change your mind, but you need to communicate it. Inconsistent behaviors confuse your partner and make you susceptible to manipulation.

6. See what they do, not what they say. Some people know what you like and lie to you. It is very difficult to know what people think, so the fastest way to figure out someone’s intention is to slow down and observe what they do.

7. If you find it difficult to say no or feel uncomfortable at any moment, then something is wrong. Try to remove yourself from the situation in the safest way possible. 

Throughout my life, I’ve witnessed and experienced many uncomfortable and intrusive situations. It took a while for me to learn how to set firm boundaries and, more importantly, to feel like I have a right to set those boundaries. Now, I hope my voice breaks the silence on the reluctance and stigma regarding setting boundaries, impacting more people going out and bringing change to the world.

For crisis support and resource connections, call SARU’s confidential 24/7 peer-run hotline at (410) 516-7887.

Yinuo (Roma) Wang is a Hopkins alum from Beijing, China who majored in Economics, Mathematics and Applied Mathematics and Statistics. 

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