Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


9 Essential Habits of Sexual Assertiveness

Expert advice that can keep you safe and make you happy.

Source: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

How easy—or difficult—is it for you to talk about sex? Could you start a conversation about your willingness to have sex (or not), or about birth control? And could you initiate that conversation in the heat of passion? “Um, what I mean is, um, I wish you would, er... never mind.”

Having an honest conversation about sex is a skill with a high degree of difficulty. As Elizabeth Powell writes in her book, Talking Back to Sexual Pressure, “Sex is one of the few subjects that can reduce even the most sophisticated among us to speechlessness.” (Full disclosure: Powell is a friend and former colleague.)

Powell’s mission is to help you become more comfortable with those difficult and courageous sexual conversations. You might think that in our anything-goes society, so saturated with sexual imagery and innuendo, it would be easy to talk about sex directly and honestly. And indeed, there are some books and articles available for couples who want to spice up their sex life. But what help is available for a person concerned about unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)? How can someone who wants to protect his or her emotional vulnerability find the words to explain that? What role models give us examples of healthy sex?

As Powell says, “Examples of healthy sex are harder to get than an X-rated film.” Here’s where Powell’s book is so valuable: For someone who wants to set sexual limits in an assertive way, she provides mental strengtheners and practical techniques, along with ample doses of humor and wisdom. You might think that Talking Back would be helpful only for young people. But anyone who is sexually active can benefit from the information and advice in this book, including those in the 50-90 age range among whom STDs have doubled in the last decade.

Following are nine habits of sexual assertiveness from Powell’s classic work. Like other habits, you may need to repeat them and practice them over and over until they become second nature—or at least easier.

  1. Understand your sexual rights. Powell lists 15 sexual rights. The first is: "To refuse any type of sexual contact, regardless of how aroused the partners might be." When I used Powell’s book as a text for a class on “Assertiveness in Dating and Sexuality Situations” some years ago, one student said wistfully, “I wish I’d known I’d had rights last year.”
  2. Take charge of your thoughts. Identify the beliefs that keep you from speaking up—for example, "He [or she] will think I’m a spontaneity-killer if I insist on a condom.” Once you are aware of this thought, replace it with one like, “If she [or he] rejects me, I can cope with it; I’ll find someone who will respect me more.”
  3. Understand the difference between assertiveness, aggressiveness, and non-assertiveness. Assertive actions are direct, honest, and appropriate ways of verbally expressing your beliefs and rights without disrespecting the other person. In an ideal situation, you would acknowledge the other person’s situation (“I know you want to go on”); clearly refuse the unreasonable demand (“But I don’t want to have sex without a condom”); and explain your reason (“I don’t want to risk pregnancy or disease.”).
  4. Say what you want. "I" statements are the gold standard of assertive communication—“I don’t want to get sexually involved right now," as opposed to, "You are pressuring me." But Powell urges that you speak up however you can, using your own words. A simple "no" works just fine!
  5. Give yourself an inner compliment when you can speak up. Tell yourself, “I handled that well.” Remember that imperfect talk deserves an inner compliment, too: “This was hard and I somehow managed to do it.”
  6. Recognize pressure lines. I relished Powell’s grouping of pressure lines into categories like: lines that stress the beautiful experience being missed; lines that attempt to gain sympathy; lines that attempt to insult the person who is refusing, and so on. (Her dialogues that feature possible replies to these lines are hysterically funny as well as helpful.)
  7. Create a sexual policy statement. What are your sexual values? Do you favor abstinence? Do you see sex as a recreational activity? Do you desire it only when you’ve gotten to know someone? As the CEO of your sex life, create a policy statement that you would be comfortable sharing with a prospective partner.
  8. As much as possible, discuss your sexual values ahead of time, in non-sexual situations. “In that film, I felt upset when she cheated on him.” Then listen for your prospective partner’s response. Does he or she sound like the kind of person you want to get to know better?
  9. Know your own risk triggers. If you know you don't want to have sex, avoid situations that could put you in danger. For example, alcohol is a risk trigger for many.

This list applies to the ordinary situations that can get you into sexual trouble. However, some people face more serious problems—sexual harassment, rape or acquaintance rape, sexual abuse, intrusion, and coercion. Powell offers compassion, information, perspective, and practical responses to all of these situations. To help readers parry the barrage of confusing sexual messages from the media, she offers entertaining and useful ways to analyze what you see and hear—you will never watch TV the same way again.

I intend to read Talking Back every few years to refresh my memory, strengthen my skills, and renew my values.

(c) Meg Selig, 2013

If you enjoyed this blog, you might also like "The Assertiveness Habit" and "Speak Up! 18 All-Purpose Assertive Phrases." I also love this blog by Dr. Susan Newman, "13 Ways to Make Saying No Easier."


Powell, E. (2013) Talking Back to Sexual Pressure. Available here and here. Originally published as: Talking Back to Sexual Pressure (1991). CompCare: Minneapolis. Jameson, Marni (2011). Seniors' Sex Lives Are Up — and So Are STD Cases Around the Country.
More from Meg Selig
More from Psychology Today
More from Meg Selig
More from Psychology Today