I work on boundaries, and I study shame… can and do they intersect? Sure. But that doesn’t mean they automatically do, or must.
Okay, first, what do I mean by boundaries? I follow polyamorous author Franklin Veaux in defining boundaries as limitations that we put on ourselves, whereas rules are limitations that we put on others. As Veaux notes in a non-monogamous context, an example of the former could be “I choose not to have sex with anyone who has unprotected sex” whereas an example of the latter would be “I forbid my partner to have unprotected sex with others.”
Veaux asserts that we all have the right to set boundaries on our own time, space, bodies, and level of emotional engagement. I also like this Sex Etc post on relationship boundaries, which includes setting sexual and romantic limits as well as privacy boundaries.
It’s become pretty well accepted in sexuality circles that boundaries are very important when it comes to disclosing things like STIs, multiple partners, and so on. I wrote about an experience I had along these lines in Upholding Boundaries Feels Good.
Still, there’s more to boundaries than sexytimes. That’s why I like this guest post at Veaux’s blog, On consent in romantic relationships. In it, guest blogger Shelly writes:
Consent is about me: my body, my mind, and my choices. My consent is required to access the things that I own. You do not need my consent to act, because I do not own your body, your mind, or your choices. However, if your behavior crosses into my personal space, then you need my consent. […]
You cannot understand consent without understanding boundaries
My boundaries are the edges of me. What is my personal space? What is it that I alone own, and you must always have permission to access?
This is somewhat personal, and we often don’t know where our boundaries are until they have been crossed. But I think you can roughly divide personal boundaries into three categories: My body, my mind, and my choices.
The body, or physical arena, includes everything from touch and personal space to the physical spaces we inhabit (and often share). The mental arena includes emotions and memories, and hence gaslighting is an egregious mental boundary violation.
I’m dwelling on the various facets of boundaries so much here because I want to establish what they are before talking about what they are not.
I maintain that setting boundaries is not the same as shaming someone, though one can set and enforce boundaries in such a manner that is shaming. It’s the difference between “Please don’t touch me” and “Get your hands off me, you freak!” Telling someone “These are the edges of me” does not inherently append “…because you’re bad/icky/not worthy of me.” Shelly’s guest blog post reminds us that anyone can withdraw consent (to touch or be touched; to engage emotionally; to share space) at any point even in a long-term relationship. The person withdrawing consent, hence setting a boundary, could do so for any variety of reasons. And even if one of those reasons includes a thought like “…because you’re icky and I don’t want you touching me,” it doesn’t matter what the why of the boundary is, just that it’s communicated and respected.
I feel as though I’m approaching that overly-wordy point of a blog post where I’ve probably already communicated my point… but given that I’ve been accused of shaming someone for enforcing a boundary around my own body/self, I think it’s good to be quite clear about this point: boundaries are about the person setting them, and don’t necessarily reflect on the person hearing/receiving them. I think part of the misunderstanding around this point has to do with lack of sex-positive sex and relationship education.
It’d be nice if we could all agree to not take boundary-setting personally, but I think there’s a whole host of other cultural issues to get into there (people socialized with a hefty sense of entitlement; people conditioned to hear shame at every turn who thus begin to project it onto everything else; the folks who can’t hear rejection without turning violent… so, basically thanks patriarchy and hegemonic masculinity and rape culture). On the flip side, of course, of course, people setting boundaries should strive to be polite and not use shamey language… but I think there are also problems with folks feeling cornered and/or triggered, because trauma is a thing, and goodbye prefrontal cortex (in charge of language and logic) when someone’s in a trauma flashback.
I’ll end this post with something valuable I learned at Sex Geek Summer Camp in 2014: when someone sets a boundary, whatever they’re telling you “no” to, try responding with “Thank you for taking care of yourself.” Their boundary may or may not be about you specifically, but by respecting it and responding compassionately, you encourage the setting of boundaries in general and decrease the shame and sex negativity in the world.