September 28, 2012 § 3 Comments
When my best friend Emily recently got involved with a feminist guy who had great respect and consent skills for physical boundaries and crazy disregard and coercive skills for emotional boundaries, we ended up trying to articulate what boundaries were, since they were using the same language while having a conflict of values. I think the story really serves as an example of how confused people are about boundaries, and how feminists can still behave in coercive, entitled ways when we don’t know where one person’s rights end and another’s begin.
Throughout their relationship, this guy showed incredible respect for Emily’s physical boundaries. He made sure she wanted to hold hands, kiss, have some spontaneous moves put on her. If and when she said no, he wasn’t reactionary. He even made sure she knew he wasn’t secretly freaking out or angry, that it was okay not to consent. In short, he considered her claiming autonomy of her own body to be her right and no harm to himself regardless of his desires and feelings. He had good physical boundaries. Their hookups were, as a result, great.
Simultaneously, he showed a complete lack of comprehension of mental and emotional boundaries. He called her a lot. He wanted to hang out everyday from the first day they met. He texted her at all hours, and when she asked for a week of space, he sent a text that started by saying she didn’t have to respond because he was giving her space. At one point, when she said how she would feel about a certain situation, he said that no, that was not how she would feel. When she said she needed emotional and mental space – more time between interactions and less emotional intensity – he freaked out. He said he tried to give people space in past relationships when they asked for it, but that giving them space conflicted with his need to interact. The boundary of having someone available to him at all times was his concept of boundaries.
Those two needs and attempts at boundary setting are not parallel. Boundaries are each person’s inherent right to their body, mind, and spirit. Emily owns herself. If she sets a boundary around her time, attention, or availability, that is her right. Setting a boundary that you need to have someone available to you is not a boundary. You cannot set your boundary in someone else’s space. He can feel anything and it will be appropriate. He can make his decisions based on the reality of what he’s feeling. But to push at that boundary as a violation of your rights is just not okay. And this same guy would never do the same thing physically. He’s a feminist in that regard.
It is certainly true that the need to be heard, respected, cared for, and supported is a genuine human need. Like touch, affection, and sex are needs. But needs that involve another person have to met consensually. And like physical boundaries, there is no giving up one’s right to consent. Each moment, each decision is a choice. The other person always has the right to reclaim themselves, to not consent. Most people, even if they do understand physical boundaries, do not understand emotional boundaries. As an example, I’ve never understood the phenomenon of people who, when told they are being broken up with, try to negotiate. That to me evidences the very issue at the heart of what’s wrong.
Emily’s failed love interest is not uncommon, and he is not a bad person. He was a very cool person in a lot of regards. But he was a pretty abusive guy. And his behaviors were counterintuitive to getting his needs met (especially consensually, though I personally do not think you can actually get your inherent need for love met non-consensually). When you try to set your boundaries in someone else’s space, your behavior is entitled, and you are trying to violate someone’s rights. Most people who do this do not think they are doing anything wrong. They think that are getting what is owing to them, sticking up for themselves, or at best, sly. If they don’t get what they want, they usually think they are being harmed and tell the person they’re trying to invade that they are being abusive. If that person is also confused about boundaries, this is a recipe for scary dysfunction.
Tagged: boundaries, boundaries in relationships, boundary setting, break ups, breaking up, coercion, consent, dating, feminism, feminist ethics, feminist relationship, feminist sexual ethics, interpersonal boundaries, men, negotiating boundaries, radical feminism, relational ethics, relationships, sex, sexual relationships, women