Julie Pagano

Ally Smells: Boundaries

This post frankly discusses issues related to boundary violations. It may be difficult to read. I recommend reviewing the content warnings below before deciding to proceed.

Content warnings: boundary violations, predatory behavior, ableism, *ist language, sexual assault, and possibly others

I recently covered a bunch of “bad ally” behaviors. Some of the items on that list are downright awful, and some of them are more akin to the ally equivalent of a “code smell”. They’re not that awful in isolation, but they are often a sign of deeper problems. The more they occur, the worse those problems probably are. I am working on exploring some of these “ally smells” in more detail.

Today I am digging into a pretty sensitive topic: boundaries. This can range from a tiny mistake to an ally smell all the way up to a horrifying predatory situation. In this post, I am going to focus on boundary violations from people who want to be or claim to be allies. Additional discussions of boundary issues are important, but that’s another post for another day.

Do you push or disrespect their boundaries (e.g. continuing a conversation when asked to stop, touching someone without permission)?

Some of the content of this post may make you upset or angry. I strongly recommend giving yourself some time to sit and think on it. If you want to be a good ally, learning to respect boundaries is critical.

Boundaries

Personal boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify for themselves what are reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave around them and how they will respond when someone steps outside those limits.

Boundaries can be small or huge. Seemingly inconsequential or horrifyingly important. They all matter to the people who set them. They all should be respected, when possible**.

It does not matter if a boundary makes sense to you. It does not matter if it seems inconsequential to you. Boundaries are the prerogative of the person who sets them. You do not know that person’s story, and they are not obligated to justify their boundaries to you. That touch that seems insignificant to you may be uncomfortably intimate for someone else. That interaction that is fine with others may trigger someone’s PTSD. You do not know more about someone than they know about themselves. Trust that they know what they are doing when they set a boundary with you, even if you do not understand why.

When someone sets a boundary with you they are saying “no.” No means no. Do not push people on their boundaries or ask for explanations that are not readily given. Doing these things indicates that you do not respect their boundaries. For many people, saying “no” once, setting a boundary, is difficult enough. Do not put them in a position where they must repeatedly do so. No means no the first time. Pushing them on it suggests a hope that you can wear them down, which is problematic at best and predatory at worst. No means no.

** I say “when possible” here because there will be situations where you cannot avoid violating a boundary (e.g. you trip and accidentally touch someone without permission). However this should be the exception, not the rule. Do not use this language to try to rules lawyer your way around respecting boundaries.

Below are some examples of boundaries. All of the items below have happened to myself or people I know (often repeatedly) from people who claimed to be or wanted to be allies. They are not theoreticals. This is not an exhaustive list and should not be treated as such.

Examples: Physical

Examples: Language (verbal or in text format)

Examples: Third Parties

Examples: Potentially Subtle Boundaries

Power Dynamics

Power dynamics are a huge part of pushing boundaries. Boundaries are often different when power imbalances are involved. When you have a position of power over someone, it is more difficult for them to set clear boundaries with you or reassert those boundaries when they are crossed for fear of repercussions. If you care about respecting the boundaries of others, it is critical for you to pay attention to and be aware of power dynamics. This is especially critical for you to be sensitive to when you are more likely to be in a position of power. As an ally, there is very likely to be a power differential because you are in a privileged position.

Below are some examples of power dynamics. Some power dynamics are obvious and explicit. Others are less clear. They all are important and matter. Predators often prey on more subtle power dynamics because they are easier to get away with. Take the steps to draw a clear distinction between yourself and them by paying closer attention to these dynamics. This is not an exhaustive list and should not be treated as such.

Note: many of the examples below mention the potential for harm. The power dynamic exists because you could do those things, even if you think it is clear that you would not.

Examples: Work & School

Do you have an explicit position of power over them codified in your work/school relationship?

Do you have a position of power over them related to your work/school relationship?

Do you have an implicit position of power over them related to your work/school relationship?

Examples: Community

Do you have an explicit position of power?

Do you have an implicit position of power?

Examples: Characteristics

Do you have any characteristics that may give you a position of power?

Why Is It Important?

You may be asking yourself why are boundaries so critical? Why am I making such a big deal about this? In the opening of this post, I mentioned that boundary violations can range from a tiny mistake to an ally smell all the way up to a horrifying predatory situation. Boundary violations are a big deal, even when they are small, because they are often a sign of things to come. A symptom of something more sinister than an accident. A red flag.

Am I saying that everyone who violates a boundary is a dangerous predator? No, I am not. Definitely not. Plenty of good people I know and trust have made mistakes with boundaries. I have made mistakes with boundaries. Not all people who violate boundaries are predators, but all predators violate boundaries. It is often impossible for the person on the receiving end of the violation to tell the difference and guessing wrong can have dire consequences.

Predators often start with small boundary violations that might seem inconsequential in isolation. Seeing what they can get away with. Slowly escalating. Others have referred to this as The Boiling Frog Principle Of Boundary Violation. This is why even small mistakes can be seen as a red flag, particularly if they happen repeatedly.

There’s a popular post titled Schrödinger’s Rapist that explores some of these interactions.

When you approach me in public, you are Schrödinger’s Rapist. You may or may not be a man who would commit rape. I won’t know for sure unless you start sexually assaulting me. I can’t see inside your head, and I don’t know your intentions. If you expect me to trust you—to accept you at face value as a nice sort of guy—you are not only failing to respect my reasonable caution, you are being cavalier about my personal safety.

Boundary violations are exhausting, especially for people at an increased risk of being targeted by predators. Dealing with these issues regularly means having to be on guard and evaluate safety most of the time. A constant white noise of evaluating risk and hoping your assessment is correct. Mental energy that could be spent elsewhere if boundaries were not regularly being violated. Allies can take on some of that load by being mindful and avoiding boundary violations.

Boundary violations can reduce comfort and access to certain resources and spaces for people. For example, someone may no longer feel comfortable attending events with someone who has violated their boundaries because they are concerned it will continue or escalate. Someone may lose a mentor who can help them professionally because they push boundaries, and it makes them uncomfortable. There can be very real personal and professional consequences of boundary violations.

Steps to Improve

Remember how I said at the beginning that this post may upset you? Your first step here is to sit with this. Give yourself some time to think on it. Maybe read it a few times. Push past the potential upset you have about this information. If you want to be a good ally, you need to work on respecting boundaries. It is ongoing work that is not necessarily easy, but is very important. This is something I try to work on regularly.

First off, recognize that you are going to fuck up. We all do. Take responsibility for your mistakes. See my post about making mistakes for suggestions on how to respond when called out on pushing or violating boundaries.

Be thoughtful. Be empathetic. If a little part of your brain says “this might be inappropriate” or “this might make someone uncomfortable,” err on the side of not doing that thing. Erring on the side of asking explicit permission is usually going to be better than erring on the side of violating someone’s boundaries. It can be awkward to ask if you’re not used to it, but practice makes perfect and people will appreciate the effort.

Be ok with hearing a “no.” Make it easy for people to tell you “no.” When you are told “no,” respect it. If possible, learn to pay attention to more subtle boundary setting from people who may have difficulty explicitly saying a clear “no.” If not possible to pick up on these cues, be clear with people that you need more explicit feedback. If someone’s boundaries are in conflict with your own boundaries, state your boundaries and, if possible, work with them to find a compromise that is amenable to both of you. If it’s not possible for you to respect someone’s stated boundaries, avoid them.

Lastly, if you have a problem with violating boundaries, decrease your access to situations where you are likely to violate them. It is your responsibility to decrease the problem, not of those on the receiving end to try to avoid it. If you find yourself regularly violating boundaries, get help. Consider getting help from a friend with a better understanding of boundaries. If you think it is a serious problem related to mental health concerns (e.g. addiction, social anxiety, being non-neurotypical), consider getting help from a mental health professional. They are trained to assist with these sorts of things and help you work on it. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness or failure. It is committing yourself to improvement, so you do not harm others.