It’s time to talk about consent, and by extension, boundaries. By this point, you may have seen the posters around campus, and heard about the UFV initiative “In This Together,” which focuses on bringing awareness to and educating the UFV community on intervention, disclosure, healthy relationships, and consent.
I’m also sure, over the last couple of years, you’ve heard about the scandals surrounding Harvey Weinstein, and Brock Turner, and Bill Cosby, and the countless issues of campus sexual assaults, and… you get the picture. Clearly, consent is something that we need to talk about, because violations of boundaries keep happening.
Though all of the above-mentioned problems are important for us to consider, campus sexual assault is extremely prevalent on Canadian campuses. According to a Stats Canada document from 2014, “261,000 incidents of sexual assault — 41% of all incidents — were reported by students,” of which the majority were committed against women, at 90 per cent. These numbers are startling. These are only the ones that were reported; imagine the number of victims who were afraid to come forward, due to the stigma that surrounds those who report sexual assault.
Due to this glaring issue, In This Together was formed by UFV staff, faculty, students, and community collaborators. According to Lauren Dallow, a student who helped construct the program, “In This Together was created in response to the Prevention, Education, and Response to sexualized violence policy passed by UFV in May 2017. The policy adopts a four pillar approach that includes education, prevention, response, and support.” She also said, “In This Together aims to educate UFV students and staff on what sexualized violence is, and to dispel some of the myths surrounding sexualized violence. Additionally, the program aims to equip UFV students and staff with the tools to help prevent sexualized violence in our community, as well as to help support students who disclose an experience of sexualized violence. In This Together offers three 90 minute workshops that cover the topics of healthy relationships and consent, active bystander intervention, and responding to disclosures of sexualized violence.”
The stigma, of course, is another widespread issue linked to sexual assault. I, and many friends I’ve spoken with on the issue, stay quiet because they’re worried about the backlash they’ll face. A lot of the time, victims are afraid that people won’t believe them when they tell their story. Worse, they’re worried about the shame and guilt that comes along with it; they should have said no more firmly, they should have stated clear boundaries, they should have been more careful. Even more disheartening, many feel that their situation wasn’t “bad enough,” that it could have turned out a lot worse than it did. I have one friend who went through what I consider a horrific experience, and she still thinks that what happened to her wasn’t all that terrible when compared with other people’s situations.
Now, let’s get technical. Merriam-Webster defines consent as “to give assent or approval,” and a boundary as “something that indicates or fixes a limit or extent.” In a social context, this means defining what you are and are not comfortable with, and respecting the limits that others set for themselves. Of course, the dialogue we create around boundaries and consent is not limited to sexual assault. It can range anywhere from inappropriate comments, to touching someone non-sexually without them being okay with it. If someone states that they aren’t comfortable with something you’re doing, even if it’s as innocent as texting them non-stop, you stop. End of story. Someone else’s boundaries are not up for debate.
One woman, Renee, told me about a time her boundaries were crossed. “I remember being 18 — still very much a kid — and taking a trip to the grocery store alone. As I was walking back to my car, a man who looked to be in his 30s approached me,” she said. “He licked his lips, rubbed his hands together in a creepy, predatory way, and said ‘Mmmm look at you, all thick and stuff.’ I’m no stranger to comments about my fat body. I felt violated and ashamed. My brain shut off and I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I just shot him a dirty look, and quickly stepped away as my face burned.”
Another woman, Alison, had her boundaries crossed at UFV recently. “I’d been talking with this guy in my chem class for a few weeks. He seemed like a cool guy, so when he asked for my number, I said yes. He texted me within five minutes of me giving to him, which I thought ‘that’s kind of weird, but okay.’ Then he started texting me all the time, and if I didn’t answer, he’d just send me more texts. It was awkward, because if I didn’t reply to those either, I’d have to see him in class, and he would give me weird looks. I felt guilty, and like the situation was my responsibility. Was I supposed to be answering his texts all the time? Was it my responsibility to build up a relationship with a person I was starting to feel uncomfortable around?”
One UFV student, Janelle, tells us, “I was briefly separated from my friends while we were out at a club, when a man I’d never met approached me. Without even introducing himself, he asked if he could buy me a drink. I said, ‘No thanks,’ because I was trying to find my friends, and wasn’t interested in anyone buying a drink for me,” she said. “He then got closer to me and started to rub his hand up and down the side of my waist. I felt extremely uncomfortable, and immediately stepped away from him. Thankfully, my friends appeared and surrounded me, because they saw what was happening, and he left right away.”
Of the five men I spoke with, one admitted to being sexually assaulted, and of the 14 women I spoke with, 11 admitted to having been sexually assaulted at some point in their life, and only two had brought it to the attention of parents, school officials, or the police. The ones who didn’t report their assaults stated that “they weren’t sure if they’d given a clear no,” or they “knew the person, and didn’t want them getting in trouble… they’re a good person otherwise.”
One of the most common excuses I hear in defending the overstepping of boundaries is “they didn’t tell me to stop,” but a lack of a firm “no” is not a yes by any stretch. The person may not be saying anything due to past traumatic experiences. They may have learned that not fighting back or causing a scene is a better, safer alternative — one that will get them through the situation with minimal physical harm.
If someone has had traumatic experiences in the past, they may have problems identifying personal boundaries, both for themselves, and when interacting with others. According to the Heal for Life Foundation, this is because physical, sexual, and emotional abuse all violate boundaries, which then causes the abused individual to form abnormal boundaries, or to not form them at all. From a young age, they learned that their personal space or rights didn’t matter, and because of this, they don’t assert themselves later in life.
But how do you tell if someone is uncomfortable in a situation if they don’t clearly state it? Well, you have to work on focusing your attention outward, and learn to better read body language of others. According to “A Field Guide for Comfort,” if the person you’re interacting with is physically distancing themselves from you, avoiding eye contact, rubbing their face or neck, or facing away from you, they’re probably uncomfortable. When you notice these signals, it’s time to back off and re-evaluate what you’re saying or doing to that person.
But what if you witness this behaviour in an interaction you’re not involved in? According to Dallow, “Often, people tend to think that the only way to prevent sexualized violence, or a situation that they fear might lead to sexualized violence, is to address the individuals directly, but not everyone is comfortable doing so.” She also said, “Other options are to delegate the situation to someone with more power than you; if you are witnessing a case of sexualized violence on campus, you can call security; if you’re at club, let the bartender or bouncer know; if you’re just out in the community, you can call the police. Another option is to distract the individuals involved; if you notice that your friend is in a situation that might lead to sexualized violence, you could tell them that you have something to show them, and attempt to pull them away.”
When asked how they react when they witness two people in an interaction where boundaries are clearly being crossed, several stated that they ignore it, saying that it’s “not their business.” Several female UFV students stated safety concerns; they’re worried that making themselves part of the situation would cause them physical harm. Although this is a valid fear, this is the exact behaviour that we as a society need to change.
However, the majority stated that they insert themselves into the situation; if they see that someone is noticeably uncomfortable when speaking with another person, they kindly, but firmly, step in. Some are subtle in their efforts, opting to draw the uncomfortable individual away from the other. Others are blatant in their efforts, electing to make their intents clear; they ask the uncomfortable individual if they are okay, and whether they can be of any assistance.
One UFV student, Megan, shared a story of when she stepped in to stop what was clearly an overstepping of boundaries. “I was walking through the halls one evening, and I noticed a man and a woman having what looked like a heated discussion. The man was leaning on the wall in front of the woman in a way that looked like he was trying to block the woman, so I walked up to them and asked if everything was alright. The woman only gave a slight shake of her head, but I asked the man to leave, and he did, then walked the woman to her car.”
When questioned on what she does when she sees boundaries being crossed, Janelle said “I’d do exactly what my friends did for me, by casually inserting myself into the situation to try and create somewhat of a barrier to block anything further from happening.”
Renee had a different answer. “This depends so much on the situation, and the power dynamics of those involved. I wish I could say I speak up every time I catch someone saying or doing anything that makes another person uncomfortable, but I’d be kidding myself. For instance, I have an older, white, female co-worker who sometimes makes racist and transphobic comments out of ignorance,” she said. “One of my direct teammates is black, and up until recently we had a non-binary coworker who uses they/them pronouns. I know that my older coworker’s comments cross their boundaries, and are extremely hurtful, but I find it too difficult to challenge her directly. In this case, I voiced my concerns to our executive director, and had conversations with those affected. (“That was not okay, I am sorry she said that.”) I’m definitely tuned in to others’ comfort levels, but my responses are often inadequate.”
When asked what a person should do if they’re currently experiencing harassment or abuse, Dallow said, “I would tell them that they don’t deserve to be subjected to sexualized violence, and if they would like help, or to talk to someone, there are a number of resources available to them both at UFV, and in the community. There is UFV counselling, the Peer Resource Learning Centre, APD Victim Services, and VictimLinkBC, to name a few. Everyone has the right to choose what their path to healing looks like, but if you feel like you need help, please do not hesitate to reach out.”
One thing of significance to note is that creating and maintaining healthy boundaries is normal, and in fact, it’s expected. Everyone is entitled to declare what makes them comfortable and uncomfortable, and everyone else should adhere to another person’s boundaries as best they can. Alternately, if someone is crossing one of your boundaries, don’t worry about hurting their feelings; be assertive, and tell them that you aren’t comfortable with what they’re doing. Most people will be respectful and apologize, but if they don’t, it’s not your responsibility to apologize for causing conflict. You should never feel guilty or shamed for asserting your boundaries.
The best chance we have of putting an end to the problem of overstepping boundaries and disregarding consent is to talk about it. We need to end the stigma surrounding it, and we need more people to be aware that harassment and abuse are happening, so appropriate action can be taken to put an end to the problem. Consent and boundaries are important; we need to develop healthy boundaries of our own, and respect the boundaries of others, and if someone doesn’t consent to something, back off. No questions asked. If you take one thing away from this article, let it be this: do not ignore or tolerate harassment, either towards yourself or others. And know that you aren’t alone: there are people out there to support you.