You’re at a get-together – mostly people you know, but some you haven’t officially met. The environment is positive, and you feel glad that you came out despite the snowfall and your already amped stress level.
As you’re sitting and catching up with a friend, someone comes up behind you and begins to massage your shoulders, informing you that you’re tense.
How do you respond?
How should you?
I was about 25 when I decided to practise using my voice. My serious voice, my brook-no-dissent, speak from the diaphragm, no apology and no softening giggle, kind of voice. Not only was I shocked at how effective it was, I also reeled from the reactions it got.
I’d been reading up on women and the qualifiers we use when we speak. Women’s strength, our voices, have been silenced, punished, monitored, interrupted, and dismissed for longer than any of us has been alive. We grow up in a culture littered with remnants of our non-personhood. It’s not usually as blatant as a man shouting at a woman to shut her mouth, though I’ve heard and overheard that as well.
It’s people thinking women mayyyyy be as competent as men but not as decisive or ambitious.
It’s people taking hurricanes named after men more seriously, for goodness sake!
And all of the above is just one layer of a society still rampant with violence against women. Only four per cent of sexual assaults are committed by someone not known to the victim – which means 96 per cent of rapes are committed by someone the victim knew, trusted, liked, or was related to. Mostly the later, I regret to inform you, with ‘stepfather’ being the worst perpetrator, paralleling my own story.
And you’ve been taught your entire life that your voice, your comfort, your safety isn’t as important as the person next to you, across from you, behind you…
What do you do when the person behind you begins rubbing your shoulders without asking you, without making sure you know who it is, choosing not to see the context that women live in every single day?
When I was 25 and this happened. I turned around, out of the man’s grasp, and said, “Do not touch me.” The man didn’t even meet my eyes, but he threw his hands up and walked away to stand with a friend of his, both of them talking in raised voices about me. Some really unfriendly words were sent my way.
Most women who I share this with have plenty of stories of their own about the ‘creeper’; the guy who’s just a ‘little too friendly’. Someone who is known to be a boundary violator. But instead of making sure this guy is never invited anywhere or accepted into a friendship group, we just accept the warnings and put up our guard around him, informing new people in our circle to just ‘keep an eye out’.
And he goes on, doing what he loves to do, and eventually women leave the circle, leave the group, lose their voice.
When I tell people what I said to the guy who got handsy with me, most are surprised. Many say they would never be so blunt/so rude/so brave. I didn’t say, “Sorry, do you mind not doing that?” (apologize, frame as a question, his choice). I didn’t say, “Oh, I have an injury, please don’t” (defend, using a true or untrue excuse). I didn’t make a joke or make it light, though there’ are times for that. The reason I said what I did, how I did, is because I have every right to. It’s my boundary.
A boundary is a line you draw on behaviour, yours and others. It represents what you may enjoy, accept, tolerate, consider, or decline. The most vital skill that acts as a prerequisite for good boundaries is great communication. You can have boundaries without communicating them, but people will inadvertently approach and overstep them, and when they do, you won’t be able to explain to them why that wasn’t okay.
Communicating well means believing that your truth and your desires are important. It means understanding that your perspective is only one and may not be shared, and that all others have perspectives informed by their own life experiences. It means listening to understand, not just waiting to speak. It means clarifying miscommunications or misunderstandings head-on, which gets so much easier the more you do it. Investing in your communication abilities means you will deal with confrontation less, not more – because when you are clear, don’t make assumptions, and have expressed your lines in the sand and the consequences for crossing them, situations rarely escalate to a confrontation. It takes a lot of little, sometimes awkward conversations to avoid a fight, but the payoff is endless.
You can have boundaries around anything. Maybe you don’t like hugs. Instead of saying you have a cold, or swinging your hand out to be shaken, we can say, “I’m not a hugger. Thanks for understanding.” Saying ‘thank-you’ instead of the dreaded apology makes it seem like a positive instead of a negative and lets the other person consider what you’ve said. Hmm, do I understand? Why or why not?
This is not rude. This type of sincere, good faith clarity is absolutely imperative to our wellbeing and indeed for many women, our survival. A predator will push beyond “I’m not sure I like that”, but when confronted with “You absolutely do not touch me like that” will often back off because you’ve made yourself a more difficult target, and predators are looking for easy targets.
If we insist on a culture of consent – “Can I hug you?” “Do you like that?” “Can you help me?” “Can you explain to me what you meant by that?” “Can we talk about why this keeps happening?” – then when things go awry, like a stranger trying to rub your shoulders or someone harming you, taking advantage, etc, we see it for what it is. People who want to cause harm rely on a culture that keeps certain things shrouded in secret and shame. They count on victims not having the emotional vocabulary to say No – and maintain and enforce it.
I’ve heard the arguments against this – the idea that it will make all our interactions, especially sexual, stilted and awkward. Here’s how I handle this – I communicate. “So, I believe in consent culture, good communication and boundaries. When I have sex, I like to check in and make sure my partner is enjoying this. If you aren’t, please tell me, and I will do the same.” Must be the millennial in me, but I think that’s awesome, not awkward.
Communication is best practised when things are going well because it will save you when things get messed up. In the middle of a divorce or illness or loss is a really difficult time to try to learn to ask for what you want and needed. But it’s still better than never learning at all. A lot of people barely analyze their own thoughts – very few are out there analyzing yours. No mind readers here; we have to do the work.
To make this topical for the holidays, please remember:
You do not have to tolerate hateful rhetoric at the dinner table, not even during the holidays, not even when it’s your mom’s favourite (racist) sister. “I’m uncomfortable with this conversation. I’ll be in the other room. Anyone is welcome to join me.”
Children are allowed to have boundaries. Please don’t tell them to hug people. Let them make that choice. “It’s very sweet that you want to hug little Matilda, but we encourage her to choose who she hugs. We are teaching her boundaries.” You have to MODEL this. Don’t allow your own boundaries to be violated.
You are not obligated to offer explanations or defenses for who you are, who you love, what you do for work, your mental health, or anything you aren’t comfortable discussing. “I’m not up for talking about that, but I hear your concern.” Switching the subject is super effective, or you can just move on.
I have no problem being a buzz-kill when the buzz harms me or others. I am important and so are my values, and I will prioritize them because that’s the person I want to be. And I want kids to see an assertive, unapologetic woman saying No to what she doesn’t want and Yes to what she does, and know they can do the same. And believe me, I do get teased for this by my friends and family. I often hear, ‘no one talks like that’ (I do!). I have heard every reason and every scenario wherein these skills just don’t apply. Yet, I’ve never been in one myself, where I couldn’t make the decision to express myself clearly and state my hope that the other does the same, with the intention of having a positive experience.
I will take the teasing from my friends because they know, beyond a doubt, that I will be honest and kind with them, that nothing I do with or for them is out of a sense of obligation or guilt. Because I know how to say no, my yes is all in.
Listen, we live in a community where our MP sent dick pics to someone he thought was a woman, a town councillor is in shit for making a homophobic joke about a community member, the president of our closest neighbouring country admits to and brags about sexually assaulting women, and the OPP in Bracebridge and Huntsville had deemed more than half the rape accusations they received as Unfounded. This is our world. We have to live here. I want to change it – and ALL of these examples are about boundaries.
And hey, if someone rubs your shoulders and you are cool with that, ‘yes’ is a brilliant word. But the issue still needs to be addressed. “I’m definitely enjoying this, but next time you need to ask the person before you touch them.”
Their response to your words will tell you everything you need to know.
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Kathleen May is a writer, speaker, and activist. Her work in our community includes co-founding the long-running Huntsville Women’s Group, being a Survivor Mentor in the pilot survivor-to-survivor program through MPSSAS, co-facilitating instinct-unlocking workshops for women through I Got This, working as a host and community producer of Herstories on YourTV, volunteering with Women’s March Muskoka, and her role as a front-line counsellor at a women’s shelter. Kathleen is a 2018 Woman of Distinction for Social Activism and Community Development and also received the Best Author award for her 2018 submission at the Muskoka Novel Marathon, a fundraiser for literacy services. Her dream is a sustainable women’s land co-operative in Muskoka.