Violation of [small, “insignificant”] boundaries

Coyote wrote recently about the violation of nonphysical boundaries, and on unwanted physical touch that doesn’t seem to fall into the category of sexual assault. This post doesn’t have a lot to do with the second topic, but the idea of unwanted touch is still relevant because what this post is about is boundaries, physical and nonphysical, spoken and unspoken, and how little respect people sometimes have for them.

I’ve written before about receiving unwanted (nonsexual) touch from my family. And, as I said in that post, it’s not really a big deal… or maybe I’ve just been taught not to view it as a big deal. If a family member, say, puts a hand on my shoulder, and I pull away, or express my unhappiness with a “Don’t”, I’m the one who’s seen (by the rest of my family) as at fault. The other person wasn’t doing anything to hurt me, they didn’t know I didn’t want to be touched, so I should lighten up and not make it into an issue. Respect for my boundaries and the importance of consent for nonsexual touch aren’t talked about; those ideas aren’t valued. A lot of kids grow up with this idea that they don’t have a right to object to touch from others (as well as other boundary violations), and that can be harmful when, having internalized that idea, they feel like they can’t speak up against abuse or sexual assault, like they can’t tell anyone, because it’s not really a big deal; they don’t have a right to be upset.

But even when this idea doesn’t lead down that path, it’s still a damaging one. I don’t want to have to accept touch that feels like a small violation of my boundaries, of my personal space; I want to feel free to say something when someone puts an unwanted hand on my shoulder. And I want other people to agree that I have a right to object. And more than that, I want them to think or ask before they assume that they can touch me; I want them to be aware that I may have boundaries in place, even when I don’t spell them out.

And I want this with nonphysical boundaries too. When I was with my family for Christmas, there was a plate of cookies on the table, and I took one. And one of my immediate family members said, “No, take a bigger cookie! You need to gain some weight!” and actually picked up my cookie and replaced it with a bigger one. And having someone trying to physically control what I ate, because they’d decided I was too thin, was disturbing to me. If they had actually been concerned, and had approached me in private to ask about my weight, that would have been weird but okay; I wouldn’t have been bothered by that. But obviously this person wasn’t really worried or they wouldn’t have been kind of joking about it… but they still felt the need to try to make me eat more than I wanted to.

I didn’t really say anything but just switched the cookies back when the person wasn’t paying attention anymore. It wasn’t worth an argument, but I also wasn’t going to give in and let someone else decide what I ate.* This person was policing me, saying that my own choice of how much to eat was wrong, so they were going to step in and fix it, make it right. And sometimes, interventions like that are needed (I don’t have personal experience with eating disorders but I imagine that some of what I’m saying here doesn’t apply in those situations). But you should never try to change someone’s mind or behavior through force, through making them feel powerless. Listen to them, give your opinion if you must but don’t insist that they’re wrong about their own body and that you know what’s best—and this applies not just to food but to touch, to unwanted photos like Coyote wrote about, to everything. Everyone gets to set their own boundaries, and everyone else has to respect those boundaries, even when they think they don’t make sense or are too extreme.

As Coyote writes, “I think there’s connections to be made in the way we think about ‘acceptable’ and ‘reasonable’ boundaries and the doubts we have about enforcing them. I want to confront the fact that writing about this feels whiny in light of more serious matters. And I want to provide the world with more examples of boundaries that feel petty and arbitrary that I’m demanding respect for anyway, to encourage everyone to be as petty and arbitrary with their boundaries as they want.”

People make decisions for other people all the time, assuming they know what’s best for someone else or just doing whatever they want and not caring what it’s like for the other person, not caring that what to them is a comforting hug is to the person they’re hugging a violation. And it’s the people who object—the ones who say, “I don’t want a hug, I don’t like hugs”; the ones who say, “I’m eating enough, thank you”—who are seen as in the wrong, in need of correction. Can we please start changing that?

*Side note that’s relevant to me and my perceptions of certain situations but not really to the point of this post: I could perhaps be called a control freak; I feel a strong need to be in control of my life and circumstances, and can have trouble coping when I’m not. And I think part of that comes from being physically small; practically every other adult or even teenager I come into contact with is larger and stronger than me. And the fact that I could be physically overpowered by everyone I meet freaks me out a little, even though I haven’t consciously thought about it like that before. I feel small, I feel weak, and so to cope with the feelings of vulnerability that go along with that, I try to maintain as much control as I can—whether that’s by objecting to small cases of unwanted touch or not letting someone else dictate my food intake. It’s like… I have to grab onto every little way I can find of keeping control of my situation, because I go into every situation knowing I don’t have physical control.

Making assumptions about different-gender interactions

I read a blog post in which a woman described meeting a man on a plane and getting a glimpse into his fascinating life. She also spoke well of his looks, not in an “I was attracted to him” way, but in a way you might talk about admiring anything beautiful. This was a very small part of the post, which was mainly concerned with her anxiety about talking to a stranger and her gratefulness that she overcame that anxiety and was able to briefly connect with him. But what was the first comment on the post? “Sounds like you found him attractive ;)”. The author had replied to that comment saying that was her husband’s response as well, but not at all what she had felt or meant. And it made me sad that this was both the commenter’s and the husband’s focus, and that they took the author’s words in an entirely different way than she intended them.

People tend to do this to each other a lot, at least in spaces where heteronormativity reigns unquestioned—if someone shows any sort of interest in a person who is perceived to be of the opposite gender, it’s assumed to be romantic interest and treated accordingly, because of course everyone is both straight and interested in romantic relationships, and that’s the only reason they would ever interact with anyone of a different gender than their own. This often means that the person showing the interest gets teased; my teenage sister mentions a male friend, and my whole family starts asking, “Ooh, do you like him?” and making jokes about the two of them as a couple. Reacting to kids especially this way sends the message that the only relationships there can be between people of different genders are romantic ones, which is severely limiting. It’s quite possible to be friends with, be intrigued by, have a good conversation with, or desire to get to know better someone of a different gender without any romantic attraction being present. But heteronormative circles don’t acknowledge this, and some perhaps don’t even believe it.

The typical nature of the responses—“Oooh, you like her”; “You must think he’s attractive”—makes people (again, probably kids in particular) feel like they need to defend these instances of non-romantic interest in those of a different gender, or else causes them to feel that they can’t talk about them to others at all—because other people won’t understand and will turn the occurrences into something they’re not. The FedEx guy who used to pick up my office’s packages every day was really nice, and my brief conversations with him were always pleasant. But I avoided talking about him to certain people, stopping myself from mentioning a fun place he’d recommended I go or a story he’d told, because I didn’t want to get asked, “Ooh, what’s his name? Is he hot?”. I didn’t want anyone insisting I felt something that I didn’t, and I didn’t want the point of my story—“This is a cool guy, and I enjoy talking to him”—to be completely missed.

Even worse, these typical reactions can cause the person expressing interest to be embarrassed, which could lead them to avoid non-romantic encounters with or interest in people of different genders in the future. Several times I have tried to minimize my interactions with a certain man after being teased about him, because the only way I saw to escape getting teased again was to not talk to the man I was being teased about. But how awful is that? At worst, the person I’m suddenly ignoring will be bothered by my apparent rudeness, and even if he doesn’t actually notice or care, I’m still missing out on interaction and possibly a relationship with a fun or interesting or good person, just because he happens to not share my gender.

I think making assumptions of romantic interest is especially harmful when it’s done to kids, because they don’t know to be heteronormative or amatornormative or assume that they can’t be friends with people of different genders until they’re taught to do so (which is done by popular culture as well as interpersonal interactions). Once they learn that they should only be having certain feelings and relating to other people in certain ways, anything that doesn’t fit into this mold becomes something to be ashamed of—something to then defend, or repress, or excise altogether.

Dividing children by gender

Note: Since non-binary genders aren’t recognized in the situations I discuss in this post and I’m not sure how these institutions would handle trans* people, these groups aren’t mentioned, but their lack of recognition and inclusion by and in society is yet another reason why systems that divide children based on their being one of two sexes/genders are problematic.

At some point during (Christian) summer camp orientation, an adult would always announce to the other teens/pre-teens and I, “Girls are red, guys are blue. No purpling.” I never knew exactly what this meant, and I’m sure it wasn’t completely clear to lots of the other kids either. Did it just mean no physical interaction with the opposite gender, or was it meant to discourage us from even hanging out with them? I remember gossiping with my cabin mates one year about Lauren, a girl with purple eye shadow and pretty hair, because she spent lots of time talking to the guys—”Lauren’s purpling,” we said with condemnation and self-righteousness. We would never engage in such illicit behavior.

After a few years of attending that camp I went to a different one, which had somewhat of a different format. Instead of having boys and girls there at the same time, they had three weeks of boys’ camp followed by three weeks of girls’ camp. Their reasoning, if I remember correctly, was both that boys and girls have different interests and that it was better for them to enjoy camp without being distracted by the opposite gender. This is similar, I’m guessing, to the philosophy behind having separate girl and boy scouts (which I’ll go into more in a minute).

I have two problems with these attitudes. “No purpling”—at least when left up to the kids’ interpretation, who may decide it means all interaction with the opposite gender is prohibited—says that you shouldn’t pursue friendships with people who don’t share your gender. If you’re looking for human interaction, socialization, friends, you should stick with people who have the same body parts (because of course everyone is cis!). Besides restricting potential relationships (perhaps romantic, which I assume is what the leaders were trying to discourage, but platonic as well) that could form, this attitude says that it’s dangerous for you to be around the opposite gender. There will be too much temptation for you to do things that the adults would disapprove of, so they’re going to mandate your separation to keep that from happening. But that grossly overemphasizes kids’ sexuality, as if the only possible relationship a girl and a boy could have is a romantic/sexual one. If kids think the opposite sex has cooties, if they think it’s impossible for boys and girls to be friends, if they only think of the opposite gender as potential romantic partners to either reject or pursue, they end up denying the humanity of the other gender. Boys become males first, humans second, and the same with girls, and that becomes awfully limiting because the potential for engaging with someone simply as another human being whom you might enjoy talking to or being friends with is removed. And I don’t think kids would hold this view—that you should avoid the opposite gender unless you’re looking for romance or sex—if it wasn’t for adults cultivating the attitude through their fear. Yes, surely these prohibitions have kept plenty of immature summer camp romances from happening. But how many friendships and moments of connection have they also prevented?

By limiting children in these settings to friendships with those of the same gender, we’re also sending another message—that all boys, and all girls, are the same. The attitude of the second camp that I mentioned especially cultivates the idea that girls and boys will get along best with people of their own gender. Anyone who’s found that they connect more with other genders than with those who share theirs, or who likes and forms relationships with others regardless of whether they’re male or female, is out of luck. And beyond the relational aspect, this camp format, as well as organizations that divide kids by gender like girl/boy scouts, declares that girls are interested in X, and boys in Y. When my brother was in boy scouts, I always thought it sounded like fun—wilderness safety, camping, knot-tying (and my sisters and I always enjoyed Boy’s Life magazine, much more than my brother did). I didn’t know what girl scouts did, but I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be as appealing to me as boy scouts, because I knew that their activities would be different from those the guys got to do. And in fact when I was talking to my aunt and uncle once, who have one boy and one girl who are both involved in scouts, my aunt, who helps with her daughter’s troop, told me that all the outdoor/adventure aspects have been excised from the girl scouts. Nothing has changed for the boys, who still go on camporees and learn how to treat snake bites, but girl scouts are apparently expected to have no interest in such activities. My aunt was unhappy—it was a frustrating process for her to convince the higher-ups to let her scouts go canoeing—and rightly so. Just like all boys won’t enjoy camping, all girls won’t be happy sitting inside earning computer merit badges (which is what my aunt told me when I asked what activities were available to the girls. I guess it’s good at least that computers aren’t considered to be boys-only?).

Couldn’t we just have scouts, instead of dividing the organization into boys and girls? Let everyone choose the activities they’re interested in, instead of only making certain ones available based on the participant’s body parts. And if you’re worried about kids’ hormones running away with them, distracting them or causing them to engage in inappropriate behavior, can you give kids a little more credit and see that you’re keeping them from the chance to have friends who are different from them, friends that some of them might get along with better than those of their own gender? If we stopped keeping boys and girls apart and promoting the idea that they’re innately different, maybe we’d see a difference in their interactions when they grow up to be men and women.