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How To Set Boundaries Around Sex

by | Abuse Literacy

How To Set Boundaries Around Sex

Victims of betrayal and abuse can set boundaries around sex to protect their emotional health. But how to set boundaries around sex can feel overwhelming and confusing.

Sheila Gregoire is back on the BTR podcast with Anne, discussing healthy sexuality, boundaries, and more. Listen to the podcast and read the full transcript below for more.

Setting Boundaries Around Sex Can Be Uncomfortable

Many victims are afraid to set boundaries around sex:

“I think women are worried. My listeners. So, my listeners are married to abusive men who use pornography. I think their main concern is setting boundaries and being afraid of things getting worse. And it’s true. It is true. When you have an abuser and you start setting boundaries, things will get worse. And that’s really scary, and they get worse before they get better. And I understand that concern, but I always say if you make health and peace and safety your priority, you will get there eventually. You will make your way through the fog. You’ll make your way through all the hard things that happen, and you will be able to find it. It is a long road, and it is a scary road, and it is pretty miserable because you’ve got clergy and people all around you accusing you. Like, ‘What, you didn’t have sex with your husband?’ As if that’s a mortal sin and you might get accused of being abusive.”

Anne Blythe, founder of Betrayal Trauma Recovery

Setting boundaries around sex begins with understanding that while it may feel foreign, uncomfortable, and even frightening, your emotional, sexual, and physical safety takes priority over the abuser’s feelings.

What Kinds of Boundaries Can I Set Around Sex?

When victims know that they feel unsafe in their marriages, they may have the desire or drive to set sexual boundaries, but no real direction as to what boundaries to set.

In our BTR group sessions, members have shared that the following boundaries have been helpful for them:

  • Not initiating sex with the abuser
  • Giving themselves permission to say no when they do not feel completely safe
  • Refusal to engage physically and sexually with anyone who does not treat them with consistent love and respect
  • Refusal to sleep in the same bed or under the same roof as another person who is currently abusive or has been abusive in the past
  • Refusal to engage with a partner who is an active pornography user
  • Refusal to engage with a partner who is sexually coercive

BTR Is Here For You

Setting and maintaining sexual boundaries is something many women in the BTR group sessions have to process and work through. Abusers condition victims to feel selfish for having boundaries and it takes work to reframe damaging beliefs into healthy truths about sexual autonomy and safety.

You deserve safety. We are here for you. Join our BTR group sessions today and begin your journey to healing.

Full Transcript:

Anne: Welcome to Betrayal Trauma Recovery, this is Anne.

Sheila Gregoire is back on today’s episode. If you didn’t hear the beginning of our conversation last week, listen to that first and then join us here.

Anne: We’re just going jump right into it. 

Anne: What would you say for women who are just terrified to set boundaries around this because they don’t want to see their marriages fall apart?

Sheila: Well, I’ve got two thoughts on that. The first is, again, what is the goal? Because if the goal is to keep your marriage together, then yeah, you should probably keep having sex. But is that really the goal you want? Because if you keep doing what you’ve been doing, you’re going to keep getting the same results. Things aren’t magically going to get better because you keep having sex and you keep trying to be nicer. And if your goal instead is emotional health, then doing things that protect your emotional health are going to be helpful in the long run, even if it doesn’t get you what you think you want right now. And, you know, by refusing to initiate or by saying, I’m not going to initiate anymore, what you really did was allow light to be shone in an area where it needed to be shone because by having sex with him, you were essentially telling him we’re okay. Right? Like when you have sex with someone, you’re kind of saying to them, our relationship is okay because we’re still connecting. But when you stop having sex, then all of a sudden, it lays bare all of these other things. 

Taking a Break From Sex & Your Emotional Health

And so, I don’t think anyone should do that lightly. But there are times when if having sex is causing me emotional unhealth that does need to be dealt with and that does need to be addressed. And that doesn’t always mean he’s abusing you. It could just simply be that you know, you’re a trauma survivor and you need to work out some of your trauma or whatever it might be, but you need to protect your emotional health. And when you do that, then the health of every other part of your relationship is more likely to be evident. 

Another thing about whether or not you should stop having sex. One of the analogies we used in The Good Guys Guide is like a wedding ring, or getting married, is kind of like getting a driver’s license. Okay, so a driver’s license gives you the right to drive, it gives you legal permission to drive. Okay, I am now sanctioned to drive a car. It does not give you a car that you can drive whenever you want. It just simply says, I am now sanctioned to drive a car. And when you get married, you’re now in this relationship where sex is sanctioned, but it doesn’t give anybody the right to sex whenever they want. And we need to think about that differently. You still need to put gas in the car, you still need to buy the car, and you still do need to do some things in order to drive. And in the same way, sex should be the culmination of a healthy relationship. It isn’t something to which anybody has the right to. And so, we just need to start thinking about this differently, and when we do I think we’re going to get a lot healthier relationships. 

“Make Health & Peace & Safety Your Priority”

Anne: Yeah, I agree. And I think women are worried. My listeners. So, my listeners are married to abusive men who use pornography. So, when we’re talking about my particular set of skills, or when I’m talking about these listeners, in particular, I think their main concern is setting boundaries and being afraid of things getting worse. And it’s true. It is true. When you have an abuser and you start setting boundaries, things will get worse. And that’s really scary, and they get worse before they get better. And I understand that concern, but I always say if you make health and peace and safety your priority, you will get there eventually. You will make your way through the fog. You’ll make your way through all the hard things that happen, and you will be able to find it. It is a long road, and it is a scary road, and it is pretty miserable because you’ve got clergy and people all around you accusing you. Like what, you didn’t have sex with your husband? Like that’s a mortal sin and you might get accused of being abusive.

All The Pressure Is On Women – Why Not Men?

 In fact, I’d say most of our listeners have been accused of being abusers themselves by withholding love, you know, all that sort of thing. So, it is really scary. But the thing to consider is, do I want a life of peace? Do I want a healthy relationship? Do I want, you know, these things? And you’re never going to know what’s possible until you start making your way toward that. And it might mean that you end up divorced and it might mean that you’re able to have a healthy relationship with your husband that you’ve never been able to have before because you’re actually saying this is what I want, this is what I deserve. Maybe he’ll step up to the plate. You know, we don’t know these things until we start making our way down that road, but it’s a really scary road to start walking down. I’d say the general Christian population is really, really scared of it. They do not want you to do that. And I think it’s really interesting that all of the pressure is on the woman to not start down that road. It’s on her to be like don’t step down that road rather than being on the man to say, hey man, become healthy. Hey man, you need to step up. There’s really very little pressure on him to do anything. It’s just all on the woman to say don’t, don’t step there. Don’t, no, don’t do that. And so, I think that’s why also why it’s so scary.

Sheila: And I think there’s a reason for that. There’s a reason why the pressure is on the woman and that’s because she’s the one that’s actually invested in saving the marriage. He doesn’t want to save the marriage. He just wants someone to control. An abuser just wants to keep their victim. The wife is often the one who really wants to save the marriage, and so she’s the one who can be convinced to change. They can’t convince him to change. 

When Christian Marriage Books Harm Women

I think about all of the marriage books that especially Christian women read, desperate to find the formula to change their husbands. You know, they read The Power of a Praying Wife, and they pray so hard. That book, I really had a problem with that one because it said even early in the book, it had a whole list of husbands that can be changed through prayer, and abusiveness was one of the things that you could pray against. And it’s like, no honey, if he’s abusive you don’t just pray against it, you get help. And there’s so much lip service given to abuse, but there’s so little honest attention paid to it in a lot of Christian marriage books.

I would just say to women who are really desperate, I know you want to save your marriage. I know you want things to be better, but please don’t think that prayer is the answer. Prayer is the answer to helping you find peace and health. Yes. But God doesn’t force someone else to change. He gives us all free will. You cannot pray your husband to help. You can’t. You don’t have that kind of power. God doesn’t even have that kind of power. He gives us free will, and I’m not saying don’t pray for your husband. But remember that God is not going to force your husband to change. What God can do, I think, is give you strength and fortitude and wisdom and insight and friends and support, and all kinds of stuff to navigate these roads that are ahead of you. 

But I think so often we’re searching for that magic formula, that magic prayer, that magic way to behave that’s going to change everything, and it just isn’t there. You can’t make someone else change. And so ultimately, we have to decide what does emotional health look like for me? And where am I most likely going to find it? That’s a scary thing. I know it’s scary, but I just hope that we don’t add guilt to the mix where you feel like it’s a failure if you start saying no, I’m not going to initiate sex anymore. You know, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad wife.

Trauma Mama Husband Drama

Anne: I am going to take a break here for just a second to talk about my book, Trauma Mama Husband Drama. You can find it on our books page which also has a curated list of all of the books that we recommend. My book, Trauma Mama Husband Drama, is a picture book for adults. So, it is the easiest way for you to explain what’s going on to someone who might not understand it, it’s also just a good reference for yourself because it shows what’s happening with very telling and emotional illustrations, as well as infographics at the back.

And now back to our conversation. 

Anne: If you’re a really good wife, what you really want is the best marriage. A really good wife sets the bar high for an emotionally healthy, happy marriage. That’s what a really good wife would do. She would say, let’s have the best marriage in the world, and in order to have that we really need to be connected. We need to be healthy. I am going to make my way toward that, and if you want to do that, fine. If not, I’m on my way to health regardless of what you’re going to do. That is what the world’s best wife would do. And the world’s best husband would be like yep, me too. Alright, we’re both on our way to a healthy marriage. 

Yeah, this whole thing is really tricky and scary. And when it does fall apart, the victim always gets the blame too. And so that’s another reason why it’s really scary for women, but I think that if you have that as your goal, you’ll be able to make it. 

“I Always Recommend That Women Pray For Deliverance”

When it comes to praying, I always recommend that women pray for deliverance. I think that’s the best thing to pray for because then God can open things for you, he can part the Red Sea metaphorically, and if you have the faith and the confidence you can walk through that. It’s going to be hard. It’s not going to be fun. You’re going to have a lot of opposition, but God can deliver you and you can make your way out. And in some women’s cases, the deliverance from the abuse may come in the form of their husband changing. It might, but we don’t know what the deliverance is going to look like. I do think deliverance is a prayer that God can answer. 

Sheila: Exactly. I love that. That is so good. 

And you know, one of my big things as someone who talks to the other side of this whole issue is how do we get other religious leaders, Christian leaders, society leaders, whatever to listen? Because I think your audience, the people that you talk to, they’ve all been crying out for years and people aren’t listening. I just want people to know I’m really trying to listen, and I want a healthy message to get out there. But also, as a little bit of encouragement, like your voices are really strong. Your voices are strong, and I know it feels like everybody is against you and if things fall apart, you’re going to be blamed, and that often is the case. But in the broader scheme of things, in the broader world, we are seeing people start to wake up to this stuff. And so, I just want to tell people who maybe are on the other side of abuse or maybe you have escaped an abusive relationship or whatever, keep speaking up. And when someone says something really dumb, don’t just let it go. Like speak up, leave book reviews, and leave comments on social media. Like, let’s be loud because I think our voices are making a difference. I really do.

“Our Voices Are Becoming Louder and Louder and Louder”

Anne: Yeah, I agree. There have been so many things lately where there’s a post that’s really misogynistic, for example, or saying hey, wives make sure you’re meeting your husband’s sexual needs are something, and 50 to 100 Sheros, women who have been through this, are commenting on that. That is making a huge difference. When you share this podcast or the other podcast I’ve done with Sheila, or you purchase one of her books or make a comment, you know, those things are making a difference. And I agree our voices are becoming louder and louder and louder and it’s really actually an exciting time. It’s a super exciting time to be able to have our voices heard. So even if it feels like no one’s listening to you, if you just do a little bit, you know, share one article or something, it does make a big difference. 

Sheila: And I think it might be that in your personal circle, no one’s listening, but in the wider circle they are. People often have an easier time listening to strangers than to their sister, which is terrible. It shouldn’t be that way but it’s true. And so, there’s probably an abused woman out there praying for someone to get through to their pastor or their best friend, just in the same way that you are praying for someone to get through to your sister and your best friend. And you may not be able to get through to your sister, but you might be able to get through to someone else’s sister and they might be able to get through to your sister. So, the more we speak up to strangers, the more we help ourselves in a way too. 

“Take Heart and Take Courage”

And I agree. People publish these misogynistic posts that would have never raised a red flag even a year and a half ago, and now you can’t get away with that anymore. And so, I think things are changing. So just be encouraged. I think God does see you and God’s doing an amazing thing, and he’s shaking everything. And I think he’s going to war for his daughters who have been very mistreated. And so, take heart and take courage, because I think we’re going to see some big changes happening soon.

Anne: I do too, and one of the ways that you can help with this is, first of all, get Sheila’s books, The Good Girls Guide to Great Sex and The Good Guys Guide to Great Sex, in addition to The Great Sex Rescue. The Great Sex Rescue really goes through these Christian books and says this is why this doesn’t work, this is why this isn’t good, and it’s all based on Sheila’s research. You can find these books on our website at btr.org/books, and you can also find them on Amazon. Another thing is to just to start talking about it with people, right. Have you read The Great Sex Rescue? Have you read The Good Girls Guide to Great Sex? Have you read these books? Just in a general population, even if you don’t want to talk about the fact that you’re being abused, even if you don’t want to talk about the fact that you’ve stopped having sex with your husband or something. Even if you don’t want to go there, it’s a way to get the word out about these issues and just start these conversations. That really helps to get the word out.

“We Just Want Emotional Health and Safety For People”

Sheila: And I’m still discouraged that a lot of people aren’t listening who should. But I think what’s happening is that the gatekeepers are losing power. You know, the people that used to be able to set the agenda, because we are all so loud, they’re not able to set the agenda anymore. And so, I think that should take some comfort, at least I hope it gives people some comfort. There are so many people who have been hurt, and even if the big names don’t listen, there’s an ever-increasing throng that is listening. And we just want emotional health and safety for people. And if you’re not in that kind of a community then I hope you can find one because they are out there even if they are hard to find, but they are out there.

Anne: Well, BTR is one of those communities where you are safe here and we listen. And I also think for women of faith, so many of these abusive situations have also robbed women of their faith, right. Because they’ve had faith in their leaders, they’ve read these Christian books, and then they realize wait a minute, this led me astray, right. I was put in further danger because of the advice that you gave me. So, they feel betrayed. And so, then what happens sometimes is then they also lose their faith, which always breaks my heart. 

“You Don’t Have To Lose Sex”

So, I want women once they get to safety, once they feel like they have a place of peace, which that takes a long time to get to that point in whatever form that takes, is maybe revisit some of that. Sarah McDougal does some deconstruction and reconstruction of faith, helping women so that they can keep those parts that are theirs, that really can help them and it’s the same thing with sex. A lot of women have lost sex. They have lost their interest in sex. They’ve lost their identity maybe as a sexual being or something. And once they’re to safety, and once they have emotional health, you can start considering that again, right. You don’t have to lose your faith. You don’t have to lose sex. You don’t have to lose baking if baking is something that you lost as part of this abusive situation that you were in. You can start baking again, for example, right. I just want women to know that this was a period of your life that you’re gaining health from, and you will be able to be healthier in the future. It’s not that you have to give these things up forever or that they’re not going to be part of your life. Then when they become part of your life again, because of what you learned along the way, it will be much more beautiful and real and healthy and actually maybe enjoyable this time rather than being so miserable.

Spiritual Sexual Coercion

Sheila: Yeah. And I just think the saddest part to me, is that again, we’ve stolen God from people. Because when we tell women, God wants you to give your husband sex when he wants it or God wants you to perform sexually so he doesn’t watch porn, we make God into our abuser, and we make God into the one who has coercing us into sex. And so, I just hope that as women go through the process of deconstructing all of these messages, they will realize that was never God’s voice and that that message hurt God too because he never ever wanted you to feel that.

Anne: Thank you so much, Sheila. 

Sheila’s website is baremarriage.com. I highly, highly recommend The Great Sex Rescue, and her new books coming out are The Good Girls Guide to Great Sex and The Good Guys Guide to Great Sex. So again, throw all your other sex books in the garage and pick these up. Sheila is an amazing advocate, not just for women all over the globe, but for great sex for everyone. I appreciate all of her hard work and also her willingness to stand for the truth in order to enable everyone to have great sex. So, thank you so much, Sheila, for your hard work.

Sheila: Well, thanks for having me. It’s always a pleasure.

Anne: If this podcast is helpful to you, please support it. Until next week, stay safe out there.

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