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.