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Testing the limits

Sexual boundaries keep us safe, but also imprison us

Copyright 1995 by Lynna Landstreet. This column originally appeared in Xtra magazine. Published by Pink Triangle Press, 491 Church Street, 2nd Floor, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4Y 2C6.

ast month, I wrote about victim politics in the context of current events, particularly the ongoing Bernardo/Homolka epic. This time I'd like to take a closer look at how our concepts of victimization, of sexual power and powerlessness, affect our own sexual lives.

Part of the reason that sexuality is such a charged topic is that it is inextricably tied up with issues of power. This isn't all bad. We've probably all experienced times when positive sexual experiences -- great sex, a new relationship, a taboo shattered, or simply the knowledge of being desired -- fill us with a sense of our own erotic power.

On the other hand, the association of sex with the abuse of power, while perhaps an overworked notion in today's political climate, is a reality nonetheless. And again most of us -- particularly women -- have experienced our sexuality being used against us, to disempower or control us. This can range from the extremes of rape and outright sexual abuse to the more subtle use of the image of the "bad," sexual woman to keep us in line.

The dual edge of sexual power is most apparent when it comes to our individual sexual boundaries -- and the violation thereof. All of us, no matter how sexually liberated we imagine ourselves to be, have certain boundaries, certain rules about our own sexual conduct, certain lines that, under ordinary circumstances, we will not cross. To an extent, this is a natural and inevitable thing. As well as power, sex is inextricably linked with intimacy and trust, which are in their own way even more loaded and threatening ideas. Trusting someone means opening yourself up to possible hurt and betrayal. Intimacy involves a dissolution of ego boundaries, a blurring of the edges of the self. Combine that with the element of power and it's easy to see why sex can be such an emotional minefield.

Our boundaries are a way of controlling the dangers of sexuality, of corralling the beast in such a way that it wreaks a minimal amount of havoc upon our emotions. Seen in that light, they're necessary and healthy. But they can also constrict and calcify our sexual selves, cutting us off from our own erotic power and capacity for challenge and adventure. Breaking them, crossing the lines we've drawn around the sexual freedom we allow ourselves, can be an intensely liberating and empowering experience -- or it can be terrifying and traumatic.

So where do we draw the line? When is sexual rule-breaking a good thing and when is it not? This isn't a purely academic question -- this column was inspired by a recent incident in which I managed to blast through three of my usual sexual boundaries in a single night (no, I'm not going to give you all the details), and I'm still trying to figure out what I think of that. I've been alternating since then between feeling insanely proud of myself, hideously guilty and depressed, and just kind of numb with shock. For most of my adult life I've publicly espoused sexually libertarian views while privately being nowhere near as adventurous. Having my practice suddenly brought into line with my theory is a shock I'm still trying to get used to.

Particularly for women, who are conditioned more than men to see sexuality as something sinister and disturbing, there are so many questions that can go through one's mind after a boundary-breaking experience. What possessed me to do that? Did I really want to? Did the other person or people involved? Will they still like me? Respect me? Trust me? What's this going to do to our friendship or relationship? Worse yet, what's this going to do to my relationship with me?

But as time passes, I find I'm feeling better and better about it. The rules and regulations we establish for ourselves may keep us safe when we're feeling vulnerable, but when they've outlived their usefulness, then they become a straitjacket which deserves to be broken. It's scary to step off the accustomed path, but there are sights we'll never see if we don't.

However, that doesn't mean we should minimize the emotional risks involved. Some boundaries are there for a reason. While I may have abandoned a few, I can think of several others I have no intention of giving up any time soon. Sometimes that safety zone can be crucial to our emotional health, and while it's all very well to encourage sexual exploration and experimentation, we also have to recognize the need for safe space.

It's when safe space becomes a prison that we need to be concerned.

This column provoked a lot of discussion and controversy, mainly over everyone's theories as to what it was I actually did! It's been especially interesting to see, over the years since it was printed, how a few people have become so attached to their pet theories on the subject that they firmly believe that I said I did whatever it is they think it was. I've actually had people say to me "You know, that column you wrote about SM/sleeping with a man/whatever," and had to wonder what on earth they were talking about until I eventually clued in that they meant this one!

But for the record, both the guesses mentioned above were wrong. Feel free to e-mail me your best guess on the subject, and if I'm in an especially good mood, I might even tell you whether or not you guessed right!


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