Late Night Thoughts on Boundaries & Consent


There was a fabulous talk at Madison+ Ruby today about boundaries and consent by Haleigh Sheehan entitled "Y/N?: Binary for Humans." It really hit on some topics I have been thinking on for some time. I can't sleep because the college students across the street are playing shitty music at great volume, so I am using this time to get down some of my thoughts. They are late night thoughts, so my apologies for the rambling. I am mostly getting this down for me, but figured it couldn't hurt to share.

It matters at every level

When topics like boundaries and consent come up, people often think of very serious triggering topics. Some people seem to think that boundaries and consent are only important when it comes to sexuality. Haleigh's talk did a great job of pointing out that boundaries and consent also matter elsewhere.

Boundaries and consent matter at every level. You need to train yourself to understand them in a variety of interactions and relationships. We need a culture that respects boundaries and consent. In technology, this can apply to things like how we present information to our users or what we do with their information. In our day to day lives, this can apply to things like physical touch and discussion of triggering topics.


In her talk, Haleigh said something along the lines of "you are not entitled to anyone's time or energy." This is so critical. I know I have shouted many variations of this in person and online over the past year or so. I am going to repeat this for emphasis.


People who think they are entitled to someone's time or energy often push boundaries and ignore consent. A "no" is often ignored when someone believes they are entitled to a "yes." The behavior associated with that sense of entitlement often creates a situation where it is hard to say "no" in the first place. The sense of entitlement can push someone right past the boundaries of the person they feel entitled to.

People who behave this way often become angry or sullen when they do not get what they believe they are entitled to. It reminds me a bit of a child who has been denied a toy or candy. Human beings are not a thing you should feel entitled to. You are not a child. Act accordingly.

The Five Geek Social Fallacies

The Five Geek Social Fallacies have been on my mind and are relevant to this topic. If you are not familiar with them, you should go read the whole writeup. If you are famililar, but need a refresher, they are:

  1. ostracizers are evil
  2. friends accept me as I am
  3. friendship before all
  4. friendship is transitive
  5. friends do everything together

Below are some scattershot notes on how these items intersect with the issues of boundaries and consent. The notes assume you read the original source material for context.

#1: Ostracizers are evil

Ostracizing people for shitty reasons is not cool -- we're not in high school any more. However, this social fallacy gets applied across the board, and that is a problem.

Setting good boundaries is a healthy thing. Choosing not to interact with someone who does not respect your boundaries does not make you evil. Painting healthy boundaries as evil makes it hard for people to enforce them. This can create an environment where consent is difficult because a "yes" is not particularly meaningful when a "no" will get you labeled as evil.

#2: Friends accept me as I am

Acceptance is an important part of friendship, but it should not be unconditional.

Inability to take criticism from friends is antithetical to having a relationship with healthy boundaries. Inability to take criticism is an unwillingness to take responsibility for one's behavior and strive to improve. We are all flawed individuals who make mistakes and need to be accountable for that behavior.

#4: Friendship is transitive

Friendships (or at least my definition of friendship) are not things that someone can demand you have. Some people just do not get along, and that is ok. When you try to force people that do not get along to be friends, you are pushing their boundaries. If they have made it clear they are not interested in this, it is also a violation of consent.

#5: Friends do everything together

I think it is fairly straightforward why this one can sometimes lead to boundary issues. It creates a culture where it is really difficult to decline a social event or have smaller gatherings with some of your friends when you aren't in the mood for everyone.

I don't want to be nice

Trying to be a person who maintains their boundaries in a culture that does not respect this can be quite difficult. A "no" or other boundary setting is often seen as being mean or a bad person. If you're a woman, you might be called a bitch or some other choice words for doing it. On some particularly nasty occasions, I have seen ableist language used to accuse the person of being mentally unstable.

When you set boundaries you are seen as not being nice. For some reason, in our culture "nice" is seen as a virtue. "Nice" is defined as things like "pleasing" and "agreeable." How is this a virtue? It is not possible to be nice on all occasions without putting the wants and needs of others above oneself. Saying "no" and enforcing one's boundaries is not pleasing or agreeable. Being honest about someone doing something inappropriate or hurtful is not pleasing or agreeable.

Being nice is incredibly overrated. I have no desire to be nice, and I think a culture of "nice" is counter to a culture of consent and boundaries. I prefer to be kind and empathetic -- these are things to aspire to.

Why this has been on my mind

I think about these things a lot because they often impact me. I am finally in a place where I feel like I have a reasonably good understanding of what sort of boundaries I need in my life and my relationships. Saying "no" is still often hard for me, but I have improved a lot.

Setting boundaries and saying "no" are both difficult things to do in a culture that respects neither. Being a programmer and having some geeky interests means I frequently run in circles where the geek social fallacies are present, making it even harder. Being an organizer of several groups and active on twitter has led to some misunderstandings of my boundaries or invalid assumptions about relationships. It is exhausting.

I don't frequently talk about this, but I used to suffer from quite bad social anxiety. I have done a lot of hard work to improve this over the past decade. These days, I mostly hide it well. I can handle social situations most of the time. I can give a talk on stage in front of hundreds of people. I can organize groups. I can go to conferences. However, no matter how much I do, social interactions will always be expensive for me.

Spoon theory may help you understand what I mean when I say that social anxiety makes socializing "expensive" for me. Public speaking is expensive. Large social events are expensive. Interacting with people with poor personal boundaries, poor respect for the boundaries of others, and/or issues with consent is incredibly expensive. People like this often become ongoing expenses that I cannot afford.

Part of the reason I handle socializing better now is that I improved at maintaining boundaries and saying "no." I recognize I have limited spoons, and I try to budget accordingly. When I identify people or situations where the value is not worth the cost, I tend to cut my losses. To keep people like that in my life means being unable to do other things because of the energy they consume. I am unwilling to diminish my life in that way. To "cut my losses" is usually to decline spending time with someone or giving them my energy. I don't tend to walk up to people and say, "I'm cutting my losses because you have poor boundaries." People don't tend to respond well to that, particularly people with poor boundaries.

I tend to keep my social circle to people who share my values. People who have a healthy understanding and respect for boundaries and consent. People who are not nice, but are often kind and empathetic. People who are willing to call me out on my bad behavior. People who will respond well when I call them out on theirs. People who are willing to be responsible for themselves and accountable for their actions. People who understand triggers and try to be careful around them. People who I can trust. These are not things one can determine instantly, so I tend to develop friendships slowly and carefully. My relationships are the better for it. Those relationships are worth the expense.

I violate geek social fallacies because the cost of not doing so is too high. I am selective about the company I keep and the friendships I maintain because that is what is healthy for me. You are not entitled to my time, attention, or friendship. If that makes me a "bad person" in some people's eyes, so be it. I do not aspire to your definition of nice.