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Have you hesitated to tell a romantic or sexual partner what you want? Maybe you’ve even hesitated to tell yourself. Many of us have had sexual experiences in which we’ve suppressed our gut instincts or felt that our boundaries weren’t respected. Finding our voice and autonomy in sexual encounters—and life—means identifying and learning to honor our own needs and desires, as well as other people’s.

This process can be transformative. “I had been a meek person and had trouble setting my own boundaries,” says Diana Adams, an attorney and sexual empowerment advocate on campuses. After being sexually assaulted in college, she embarked on her own journey of empowerment. “I went from being one of the last kids picked in gym class to a national champion at a martial art. That was a personal revelation to me about my own strengths and finding my own voice and agency, not only in relation to sexual boundaries but also professionally.”

Our experts

  • Diana Adams (DA) is an attorney based in New York, an advocate for sexual empowerment on campuses, and is nationally ranked in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
  • Dr. Melanie Boyd (MB) is assistant dean in student affairs at Yale University and lectures on women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. She runs a program to end campus sexual violence through fostering a sexual culture of mutuality, respect, and recognition.
  • Jaclyn Friedman (JF) is a survivor of sexual assault in college and a grassroots activist for sexual empowerment. She is the author of What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety (Seal Press, 2011).

3 vital steps to knowing your sexual self

By Jaclyn Friedman

Key concept
“As long as you’re not hurting anyone else or invading their autonomy, there are no right or wrong ways to go about your sex life. Sex should be about what brings you and your partner pleasure, and you get to decide that.”

Three out of four college students said they had 0 or 1 sexual partner in the last 12 months, according to the American College Health Association–National College Health Assessment survey (spring 2014).

#1 Ask yourself what influences your ideas about sexuality
Ask yourself how your ideas about sexuality have been shaped by your family and peers, your church, your school, the media and popular culture, and other influences. “What messages have you learned about sex, and what was the motive behind them? You can take control of your relationship with those influences.”

Good to know
“College students do a lot less hooking up than everyone thinks. You may be trying to aspire to a norm that’s not a norm at all. Do what works for you.”

#2 Check your judgments
“It’s liberating to stop judging other people because their sex life is different from yours. The insidious thing about those judgments, even if we don’t say them out loud, is that they reinforce to us that we deserve to be judged as well. It’s harming us too.”

#3 Value quality over quantity

Lose this idea
“Let go of the idea that sex is an accomplishment, something to collect, a commodity that we trade in, something one person gives up and the other person gets. The research shows so many young people are dissatisfied with their sex lives because they don’t understand it’s about quality not quantity.”

Get this idea
“Shift to the idea of sex as a collaborative, creative experience with another person. That’s transformative. Then we start taking responsibility for our partner having a good time. This is the backbone of enthusiastic consent.”

What this looks like
“When a friend says, ‘I just had sex with so-and-so,’ the response shouldn’t be, ‘That’s awesome!’ The response should be, ‘How was it?’ Sex is not an inherent good.”

Take the “nice person” test

“Imagine you’re at a party dancing with someone, and they’re getting right up to you and you’re feeling uncomfortable. Now switch places with that person and imagine you’re making them uncomfortable and they never told you. You’d feel terrible, because you’re a decent person. Telling someone you’re uncomfortable is showing them respect, assuming they would want to know.”
—Jaclyn Friedman

Respect your own needs and desires

Key concept
“The key to sexual pleasure is being allied with your own body and feelings. We’re often trained to look for warning signs, but it’s just as important to recognize when things are going well.”
—Dr. Melanie Boyd

#1. Be aware of your feelings and cues and how they’re being received

  • Are you feeling happy, comfortable, and rewarded?
  • Is your partner listening to you and respecting your signals?
  • Are your boundaries being violated?
  • Are you feeling conflicted? Why?
  • Are you pushing yourself to do something you don’t really want to do?

#2. Practice setting boundaries in the early stages of intimacy

  • “Sometimes when someone leans in to kiss me for the first time, I stop them just to see if they’re cool with me setting a boundary.” JF
  • “If you’re saying no, and you feel like the other person is responding with guilt or pressure, talk to them. If it’s someone who’s just asked you out, that’s a great sign that this is a person to avoid.”  DA

#3. Practice asking for what you want in non-coercive ways

“Part of the journey of empowerment is practicing being the initiator, not the gatekeeper. It’s ‘What do I want, what do I desire?’” DA

  • Create safe situations, e.g., ask someone out to lunch or request a mentoring meeting.
  • Give others permission to redirect you: “People around you are also learning how to set their own boundaries. ‘Would you like to?’ is gentler than ‘Can I?’”  DA

#4. Reflect before answering

What am I curious about? What would I like to try? What kind of interaction am I looking for?

To practice, mentally work through a checklist:

  • Do I feel safe right now?
  • Do I feel respected?
  • Would this person respect my right to change my mind in the middle?
  • Do I actually desire this? DA

#5. Take back sexual experimentation

  • “Create safe situations where you can change your mind in the middle and look to your partner to support that.” DA
  • “If you try something willingly and it turns out not to be your thing, you’ve learned something from it. Great.” JF

#6. Surround yourself with people who support your decisions

Good friends and romantic or sexual partners:

  • Ask you questions that don’t make you feel pressured.
  • Make it safe for you to change your mind.
  • Encourage you to assert yourself and communicate.

#7. Ask yourself: What role does alcohol play?

“There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a drink or two if you’re feeling nervous in a social or sexual situation. The problem is if you’re drinking to overcome your gut feelings, or if you or your partner is impaired by alcohol.” JF

  • Ask yourself: Am I sober enough to trust my own judgment? Is my partner sober enough to make decisions? If not, you might be risking an assault situation.
  • Do you feel you need to be very drunk in order to have sex? If so, that’s something to face and work through.

Support other people’s needs and desires

#8. Affirm other people’s “no”

“When someone says, ‘No, I’d rather not,’ respond in ways that support them. When your friend says she can’t come to dinner because she needs to study, try saying: “‘Thank you for taking care of yourself; I’m glad you said that.’” DA

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Lucy Berrington is a health writer, editor, and communications manager. Her work has been published in numerous publications in the US and UK. She has an MS in health communication from Tufts University School of Medicine, Massachusetts, and a BA from the University of Oxford, UK.