This is the third and final part of my focus on consent and boundaries. In the first part I encouraged active discussion of boundaries. In part 2, I looked at how our boundaries develop and how to be more aware of them. And in this conclusion I offer suggestions on how to deal with broken boundaries in a variety of roles.
Before I get started about strategies for dealing with broken boundaries, I want to talk about safety. In this article I present scenarios with the assumption people can have reasonable discussions. However, the reality is that some situations can become hostile or dangerous. Do what is needed to stay safe and protect yourself if you are at risk. If someone is breaching your boundaries or if you see someone breaching other people’s boundaries, intervene if it is safe to do so, or get help if it is not. Maybe add something about doing what is needed rather than saying to get help as there are more options.
Ideally, the first thing you do if you are feeling your boundaries are being broken is to assess if that is actually what is going on. Stop to think about if you are being triggered or if it is indeed a boundary being breached.
The two might be very close. For example, due to past actions you may be very uncomfortable with people touching you in any way. As a result, if someone touches your shoulder or taps you to indicate they are passing by, you may be triggered. In this case, while you may feel someone is breaking your boundaries, the other person may have no ill intent other than letting you know of their presence.
By stopping to think about what happened, you are able to choose your reaction and base it on what you think the person’s intent was. Simplicity is best. Firmly (and calmly, if possible) articulate your boundaries and state that the person crossed a line.
“I don’t know you and don’t want to hug you.”
“You do NOT have permission to grab my ass.”
“Stop – you are not allowed to kiss me.”
Depending on the response you get, you can tailor make your next comment. And of course these responses will vary from person to person and comfort levels. Your goal may be to get away from the situation, or you may feel comfortable enough to make your point very clear to the person. If someone gets it and apologizes, you might clarify that just because it is a sexed-up event not everything is up for grabs. If someone doesn’t get it or gets defensive or aggressive, let a friend, bouncer or event producer know about the inappropriate behaviour. Any sex event worth its salt will take complaints seriously and educate or even remove the offender.
What to do if you break boundaries – and what NOT to do.
Let’s switch focus and move from the person breaking boundaries to the person who feels boundaries have been crossed.
Now, let’s say you do you best to be Jedi-like in figuring out boundaries and getting consent. You read the body language and chat enough to feel you have a good grasp of the situation. Despite your best intentions, things may still go wrong.
Perhaps you go out and try to keep boundaries and consent in mind but you screw up and touch someone inappropriately or inadvertently creep on someone. Maybe you realize it as it is happening and stop yourself, or perhaps you are called on it by the other person. Or maybe you were called out by a third person. You didn’t ask, you breached boundaries and you got called out on it. What do you do?
You need to own it and, if possible, make it right.
You may feel defensive, awkward, embarrassed, and want to retreat. These are All legitimate feelings. But the right thing to do here is to apologize. And apologize sincerely, knowing that the person calling you out for breaching boundaries has a right to be reasonably upset. The person may accept that apology, or ask you to get away from them, or ask their friends near them for help. I am not saying apologies will fix everything 100%, but a sincere apology can help make the person feel safer. Don’t make the apology longer than it needs to be, don’t linger, and don’t have an expected outcome when you say you are sorry. Just let the person know you recognize the mistake.
The next thing to do is learn from that mistake by ASKING FOR CONSENT next time you are in a similar situation.
While you are learning from this experience, don’t minimize the person’s response or get upset at them. If you touched someone without their consent or disrespected their personal space, they have every right to be upset. The only body you have ongoing permission to touch is your own! So if you get a little hands-on without checking in, you may very well find yourself being called on it.
What if you see boundaries being broken?
Even if you are never involved in a direct boundary-breaking situation, you might see one next time you are out partying. The question is, how can you help if you see a situation like this?
Step in and talk to those involved. This can help in a few ways. First, it may help de-escalate things if a third party is now present. Second, it may help create a sense of safety if someone was having a “fight or flight” response. Third, having others be present helps create a community that is looking out for boundaries.
Of course, you should step in calmly, though firmly if needed. If you come in with an angry or hostile vibe, you can very well make things worse. Just ask if everything is okay. Help those concerned talk it out if necessary, or separate them if that is needed. And since you may not know the full story of what is happening, avoid assuming or taking sides. Simply help to keep the peace and calm things down.
Ultimately, the underlying reason for this three-part series on consent and boundaries is because not everyone understands boundaries or sets out to intentionally breach them. In sharing each part of the series I’ve seen interesting dialogue and differing opinions shared.
An early comment I received stated that someone asking for consent would be a mood-killer and that the answer would therefore be no. This person – and others, I am sure – preferred the spontaneity and chemistry and felt that asking created awkwardness.
In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need to ask. We would know people’s comfort levels and motivations. Instead we have the unfortunate stereotype of guy as aggressor and pursuer and woman as pursued. Sadly, these stereotypes lead to disfunction, miscommunication and, well, breached boundaries. Putting the onus on a guy to constantly try to take what he wants and discouraging him from asking contributes to the patriarchal stereotype of entitlement and contributes to rape culture. Everyone has a right to ask, everyone has a right to say yes or no.
I also received feedback indicating that boundaries aren’t an issue within particular venues, events or communities. I’ve seen boundaries breached within the kink, poly, burner and other communities as well as in a variety of events held within each. I’ve also had my own boundaries broken, and spoken to numerous people outlining their experiences having boundaries disrespected. This is a very real issue and not limited to a type of person, place or event.
I’ll conclude things by reminding everyone again that not everyone has thought out their boundaries or the importance of consent. Not everyone “gets” personal boundaries, or they assume incorrectly that their boundaries are the same as everyone else’s. And finally, not everyone breaches boundaries because they do not respect boundaries – they do so because they don’t consider them. Broken boundaries often occur because people haven’t thought things through or discussed them. Communication is the remedy to this, and while initial efforts to talk about these things may feel awkward, it gets easier. And every conversation helps build that culture of consent.