MEG-JOHN BARKER - Author of "Life Isn't Binary: On Being Both, Beyond, and In-Between"
I recently got included in this great piece for Allure magazine about making and maintaining sexual boundaries. Boundaries are a vital element of consent, but I haven’t written about boundaries specifically in depth before. The interview that Erin Taylor did with me for Allure was a really good chance for me to think more about what boundaries are, why they’re important, and how we can develop and maintain them – in all areas of life not just around sex. Here is the full interview…
How would you define boundaries?
I’d define them as the limits that we set around how it’s acceptable for another person to behave with us. We set them in order that we can feel free-enough and safe-enough to have a relationship, interaction or encounter with that person. Boundaries vary from person to person because they’re often rooted in our particular lived experiences and values. For example a vegetarian might have a boundary about people not eating meat in front of them. Somebody who has a particular trigger, phobia, allergy, or disability might have boundaries around people being mindful of those, and acting accordingly.
There are some boundaries which might be more generally applicable to everyone, for example those around what is, and is not, consensual behaviour. The Consent Checklist lists some of these.
We can usefully think about our boundaries with ourselves as well as with other people. People often overstep their own boundaries, for example by spending time with somebody who doesn’t feel good to be around because they feel an obligation to do so, or by making themselves work when they’re tired or sick.
What informs the way we approach boundaries?
Probably the biggest one is the non-consensual culture we live in. Very few of us have families, friendship groups, communities, or workplaces which encourage us to tune into – and assert – our boundaries. In fact many do the opposite.
Most everyday relationships involve at least a certain amount of trying to get people to be what we want them to be for us, or to do things that they may not want to do. Examples include getting our friends to do a social activity we want to do, making family get together for the holiday, or pressuring a person to eat the food we’ve prepared.
Most institutions encourage people to work in ways that aren’t good for them, to push themselves further than feels safe or comfortable. Most constrain people to certain forms of labour rather than finding out what would be the best fit for them, in order to feel most free and fulfilled.
Most of us were brought up in families where we were made to eat food we didn’t like, to receive hugs and kisses we didn’t want, to pretend to enjoy presents or entertainments that didn’t feel good to us. Most of us went to schools where the expectation was that we would learn what we were taught was important rather than what we enjoyed, where we were bullied by other kids and told that this was normal, and where we had little choice over the kinds of food we ate or physical activity we engaged in. We were also probably taught to mistrust and/or hide certain important emotional responses like anger, sadness and fear: that we shouldn’t feel those things or that we should pretend we didn’t.
All of this means that most of us find it difficult to tune into where our boundaries actually are, and feel guilt, shame, or fear about communicating them to others.
Can people learn how to assert boundaries as an adult? How do they?
Love Uncommon’s suggestions for self-consent are a good starting place. We need to recognise that we’ve probably been taught to treat ourselves – and others – pretty non-consensually. We might need emotional support in facing the painful implications of that: The places where we are a survivor and the places where we’ve behaved non-consensually ourselves.
Then it’s about learning about boundaries and consent: which is a long – probably lifelong – journey. Books, websites, and workshops can help with this, several of which I mention in the consent zine. It’s important to have at least some people in your life who’re on the same page with this stuff who you can practice asserting your boundaries with, and having them respected. At first you might find that you swing from having no – or poor – boundaries to being all about the boundaries that keep you safe. Love Uncommon calls this going from the broken house to the fortress of solitude! Over time you can get to a more balanced place, but a certain amount of swinging is to be expected.
It can be great to practise respecting your own boundaries, by tuning into what is a ‘yes’, ‘no’, and ‘maybe’ for you in more straightforward areas of life: for example around what you eat (if you have a fairly good relationship to food) or what physical activities you do and don’t want to do,
How do boundaries with yourself differ from boundaries with other people?
It’s a pretty similar idea but in this case it is us who set – and overstep – our own boundaries. Again we’re generally brought up both to allow others to overstep our boundaries, and to do so ourselves. For example, most of us have been taught to crave the love, respect and approval of others, and have had painful experiences where we have lost those things. So we may well overstep our boundaries in the hope of getting love, respect or approval. That might include having sex we don’t want to have, working beyond our comfort levels to do well at work, or giving more of ourselves than we can really offer in order to help a friend or partner.
Other ways of overstepping our own boundaries might be about the boundaries we have which keep us safe and healthy. We might know that it’s not good for us to drink a lot or watch TV all night, but we might overstep those boundaries when we’re feeling low or anxious or overwhelmed.
Our own boundaries are linked to our boundaries with other people because we’re relational beings. In order to keep boundaries with others we need to know what our boundaries are and recognise when they have been overstepped, as well as articulating them to others, letting them know when they have overstepped them, and withdrawing from that person if they keep doing so – or if they aren’t accountable for their behaviour.
Why is important to have clear boundaries around sex?
Sex is one area where we can be badly hurt by having our boundaries overstepped, as we know from the literature about the physical and psychological toll of sexual assault and abuse. So it’s really important to know where our boundaries are and to respect other peoples’ around sex. Of course this isn’t easy because most of us have also received a bunch of cultural messages that we should want sex, that we should have it in a very specific way, that a relationship or date is a failure if sex doesn’t happen, and that we owe sex to people in certain situations – like if we’ve gone on a date with them, gone home with them, or if they are our partner.
We need to do a great deal – as a culture – to shift these messages so that people know that it’s absolutely okay to never want sex and/or to only want certain kinds of sex under certain circumstances. Also we need to learn that the aim of any relationship or encounter should be for consent to happen – whether or not sex happens, rather than the aim being for sex to happen – whether or not consent happens.
How can sexual assault survivors navigate emotional and physical flashbacks during sex?
First of all it’s about knowing that this is extremely common and many survivors experience it. Definitely it’s worth getting ongoing support from a trauma specialist therapist or counsellor who can help you with the flashbacks. It’s vital to only be sexual if you’re sure you want to be, and with partners who will know how to tell if you’re having flashbacks and will stop the moment that happens. It’s useful to learn – yourself – about how trauma works and what you need when these triggers hit. Books like Trauma Is Really Strange and Healing Sex may well be helpful.
Justin and I did a whole podcast episode about how to handle getting triggered during a hook-up which may be helpful here.
How can survivors of child sexual abuse navigate discussing trauma and boundaries with new partners during sex?
I don’t think this is really specific to survivors of child sexual abuse because, as I’ve mentioned, very few of us have upbringings which encourage us to tune into, or articulate, our boundaries. Also sadly many of us – particularly people who are marginalised in terms of their gender, sexuality, class, race, or disability – reach adulthood with significant trauma. However those with experiences of CSA may find boundaries around sex with others particularly difficult given that those were violated at such a vulnerable age. Having adult experiences which are very careful and consensual can do a lot to shift our bodies and brains in ways which mean we are better able to have and hold our boundaries.
I’d suggest that everybody enters into any sexual encounter or relationship aware that the other person probably has some non-consensual experiences in their past. The boundaries conversation is a really essential one to be having with anybody you’re having sex with (or any other kind of relationship come to that).
Justin Hancock and I put together this zine – Make Your Own Sex Manual – to help people to tune into their own sexual needs, wants, limits and boundaries, and to communicate them to others. Again things like the yes, no, maybe list are helpful, as is communicating about what happens to you if you do go into a trauma response so that the other person can recognise this. It’s absolutely normal for people to dissociate, for example, or to go into fight, flight, freeze, or fawn responses.
How does navigating boundaries change in polyamorous dynamics compared to monogamous dynamics?
I don’t draw a clear distinction here because actually there’s a lot of overlap between monogamy and non-monogamy. Many people who say they are monogamous are actually secretly non-monogamous, and research has found that some monogamous relationships are actually more open than some polyamorous ones, and that people often mean very different things by monogamy, and end up realising that they had very different rules. There’s lots more about all this in my book Rewriting the Rules.
For anyone in any kind of relationship it can be useful to have upfront conversations about where their boundaries are. What do they need in a relationship in order to feel free-enough and safe-enough for that relationship to be a positive one for them? Again Justin and I have made a zine to help people figure this stuff out: Make Your Own Relationship User Guide.
Things you might think about include: What does being ‘in a relationship’ mean to me? What am I offering to the other person and what do I want from them? Where am I on a spectrum from being sexually monogamous to sexually open? What about from emotionally closest to one person to equally close with a number of people? What agreements would I want about privacy? How enmeshed or entwined do I like relationships to be? Do I have a sense of relationship escalator, and what does that involve for me?
How do you feel like asserting boundaries enriches our lives?
It enriches our lives more than it’s possible to put into words! As long as we’re unable to know and/or communicate our boundaries we’re treating ourselves – and often others – non-consensually. This is taking a deep physical and emotional toll on our lives. The author Gabor Mate suggests that a great deal of physical illness is a result of us not listening When The Body Says No, and there’s much evidence for the role of the trauma of non-consent in all forms of mental suffering.
When we assert our boundaries we can begin to be more open, authentic and vulnerable with others because we can trust ourselves to know and articulate where our boundaries are, and we can trust others in our lives to help us to hold them. This can lead to much deeper intimacy with others and a much kinder relationship with ourselves.
As we learn to feel our boundaries we may well move away from situations and relationships which are harmful for us and into ones which nourish us better. It’s not an easy path because it can call upon us to make changes, and often to move away from the path that wider culture has set out for people like us. But we may well find ourselves feeling more engaged and fulfilled in what we do – and with the people around us – long term.
We may also engage more politically as we see that non-consensual ways of relating are intrinsically interwoven with how we’ve historically treated marginalised and oppressed groups, animals, and the planet.
Do you think boundaries can assist survivors in taking agency over their lives?
Absolutely. I think that freedom and safety come together here. If we can help people to have and hold their boundaries in order to keep themselves safe enough, then they will also begin to feel more free in their lives – more of a sense of agency – so they can begin to live in more authentic and fulfilling ways.
As I’ve said though, for survivors of developmental trauma and non-consensual behaviour as adults – that is most of us – this can be a long journey and it requires support. Survivor networks can be very helpful in addition to trauma-informed therapy and cultivating your own support networks.
What are good ways people can practice asserting boundaries?
It’s great to start with everyday things, which can be easier to practise than something as emotionally intense and culturally loaded as sex. Ideally it’s great to practise with people who are on the same page about this stuff and who are also passionate about creating more consensual cultures in their families, friendship groups, or communities. Justin and I suggest that everyday greetings are a good place to start. We created this video to help people try different ways of approaching a handshake, including finding and articulating their boundaries.
Of course other people in our lives won’t always be up for joining us in this approach. Harriet Lerner has written a number of brilliant books about how we can assert our boundaries with others who don’t necessarily respect them. Please remember though that you don’t have to be in a relationship with somebody who doesn’t respect your boundaries.
How can one assert their boundaries actively during sex?
Personally I’d suggest only having sex with people who are in the same place regarding the importance of boundaries and consent. It’s an equally important up-front chat to have as the one about STIs and contraception.
Importantly it’s not really about the emphasis being on one person to assert their boundaries and the other to respect them. Rather ideally it should be a relational conversation. How can both/all of those involved in the sex maximise the potential of others to be able to have and hold their boundaries. This might involved reflecting on the power dynamics in play. It might be useful to articulate boundaries up front in the form of exchanging fantasies, or yes, no, maybe lists, or having online forms of sex first. There’s more on all of this in The Consent Checklist.
How should sexual partners react when their partner is having a flashback brought on during sex?
Stop as soon as you realise it’s happening and focus on helping them to look after themselves in whatever way works for them. Ideally it’d be great to talk before sex about how each of you responds if you do go into a trauma response (e.g. going still and quiet, going along with things in a dissociated way, pushing away) and also about what helps if it happens (e.g. grounding in the body and/or the environment by naming things in the room or going through what you pick up with the different senses).
Sometimes the person who is going into trauma won’t realise it for a while so it’s great if everyone involved can be mindful of this. If in any doubt, pause and check-in. Reassure everyone that success means that consent has happened – whether or not sex happens. There are so many other things you can do together than sex, and supporting somebody through a tough time into feeling safer can be way more intimate and wonderful than sex.
How can approaching boundaries in relationships be more difficult for survivors?
The more our boundaries have been violated, the more difficult it can be to know where they are, or to feel safe-enough to articulate them. We may just expect people to overstep our boundaries, or we may find it really hard to know when that has happened. The important thing is not to give yourself a hard time about this. It’s just normal for brains and bodies to respond in these ways when they have been traumatised, and it is totally possible to slowly shift our bodies and brains so that they can know where the boundaries are and articulate these.
Again getting support from professionals and/or other survivors is a great place to start, as is realising that you never have to do anything you don’t want to again. Your Resonant Self is a great book for helping you to become more compassionate with yourself around this kind of thing.
Thoughts on survivorhood?
One final thing that I would emphasise is that survivorhood is not just about sexual assault. Physical and emotional forms of non-consent can take just as heavy a toll, and emotional non-consent is often less easy to spot, take seriously, and get help for.
It’s good that people are becoming more aware of coercive control in relationships. If you’ve been in controlling or bullying relationships, or dynamics where you’ve given up too much of your power or been treated non-consensually in areas other than sex, it’s equally important to get support. Many of the issues discussed here about finding boundaries difficult may well apply if you’ve had those experiences.
To end on a positive note I would say that – like many marginalised groups – survivors actually have the most to teach everyone about consent, and about sex and relationships more broadly. Post #MeToo everyone should be listening to the vast and rich literature which is coming from survivors about how we could all be doing all kinds of sex and relationships more consensually and pleasurably, as well as how this links to many other forms of activism. Books like Ask, Pleasure Activism, and The Revolution Starts at Home, are great places to start.