Week 3, Session 1: Sexual boundaries and consent
Hello everyone! We’re back for the first session of Week 3.
If this is the first time you’re reading this, welcome! We’re so happy to have you here. However if you’re just starting out please do head back to the first session. We build on material throughout the weeks, and we don’t want you to miss anything!
The goals for this session are:
- To learn about our sexual boundaries
- To reflect on the importance of consent
- To demystify ideas around “saying no”
As always, we do grounding exercises at the start of every session to bring us to the “present”. So if you can, please join in.
Our grounding exercise is..
Think of a word that makes you calm. It could be “peaceful,” “safe” “relax”, “breathe”. Whatever works best for you. Now, take your index finger as you would a pen and softly trace the letters of your calming word, into the palm of your opposite hand.
Remember: every one of us is different. A grounding exercise that works for someone may not work for you. That’s totally fine. We’ll continue to do a different exercise each week, so we can find the ones that work best for us. Whatever connects you to one of your 5 senses and keeps you calm, safe, and relaxed is ideal!
Fun question: If an actor was to play you in the movie of your life, who would you want to play you?
We want to dedicate a full session to the discussion of our sexual boundaries. For many of us, we will have had personal experiences that make these boundaries a sensitive, more tender issue, so we will be mindful of this as we go through these important details, and outline the things we want to know. At the end, we will also focus on how consent plays an important role in our sexual limits, opportunities, and experiences.
So far, we’ve considered our physical, emotional, material, time-oriented, and intellectual boundaries. In addition, we also have our:
These boundaries refer to all aspects of our sexuality - our relationship to sex, our bodies, and desire - whether these relationships, interactions, or urges are emotional, physical or intellectual.
Having healthy sexual boundaries is about mutual understanding: a respect for each human being’s sexual desires and limits, in relation to each other, and within ourselves.
Healthy sexual boundaries involve consent (or an agreement), preference, and privacy. This means that these boundaries cover a wide spectrum of necessities - and the violation of these boundaries often impact and touch, both figuratively and literally, multiple layers of our wellbeing.
Potential violations include: unwanted touch, assault or rape, not asking for consent, unwanted sexual comments, getting angry when someone doesn’t want to engage in sexual activity, refusing to use contraception, lying about using contraception, criticising the other person’s sexual preferences, leering, and many others.
When we approach these sexual boundaries, we may be surprised to hear that they’re not something we learn or have to learn. Instead, they’re inherent to our nature: they’re with us from the start. Unimpeded, we often know what feels good and what does not.
But, sadly, we live in a patriarchal society that validates and justifies many of the violations mentioned above - in law, in culture, and in practice. Our world often pushes unhealthy views or expectations on our sexualities and sexual relationships - or our relationships with our own bodies: in what we are expected to give, how much we give, or what we receive.
We can throw the board away and start again. Let’s try first with the most important step, and the only thing you really have to take on when creating your sexual boundaries: recognising what we are okay with and what we are not. Individually. Genuinely.
These boundaries may vary when you are with different people and that’s okay, too. When thinking about sex, or memories of physical encounters, or in future experiences - just stay connected to yourself through that process - by grounding and breathing (as in our exercises!). In this, you can pick up if any discomfort may be arising, then try to voice it.
Remember that boundaries are set when we sense what we need, and then when act upon those needs. We can decide what we want, and we can mobilise.
We first feel, then we recognise those feelings, in our bodies or our minds - and we calm them as needed. Then, we observe the information those feelings are giving us. We pause. We communicate.
If we feel we can’t speak during the situation, then we remove ourselves without shame, and decide on our limits later.
Some ways of voicing your sexual boundaries and needs, as well as respecting the needs and boundaries of others, are saying things like: “I don’t like that. Can we try something different?”, “ Do you feel comfortable if we do xyz?”, “I don’t like it when you joke about our sex life in front of other people, I need you to stop that”.
As important as it is to acknowledge where our sexual boundaries are and to find ways to voice them, we want to reassure you that if anyone violates your sexual boundaries it is not your fault. People who overstep our boundaries don’t do it because we’re not good at setting them. It is a choice that they make. And, regardless, it’s their problem and not ours if they do not know how to read our cues - as adults with their own agency, autonomy, and responsibility of care. They are responsible, too, for intentionally bulldozing or overstepping our conditions.
Think of it this way: we know that we’re going onto someone else’s property if we climb over a fence. But there doesn’t NEED to be a fence for us to see a house and know that someone lives there.
Abusers, for example, will have no sense of boundaries. It is a product of both ego and entitlement: the belief they are owed another person. Or they may seek that push of their space into yours, that domination, as the point and the purpose of their power and control.
If you have had encounters with abusive people, you might be thinking: “but I allowed this and that to happen, so they may have thought I was ok with xyz”. No. You are allowed to be okay with this and that and not with the rest. You don’t have to be screaming NO for someone to understand you don’t want to keep going. You don't have to have a sign all over your body that says “no touching please” for people to know they shouldn't put their hands on you on public transport, the office, or under the dinner table.
Many times, we hear that boundaries are all about learning to “say no”. We have been careful in this course to not fall into that assumption too quickly. Yes, it is important to learn to say “no” when you don’t want to do something - to communicate simply, clearly, and without making an excuse. But, we also believe in our global and human capacity to understand other’s boundaries without a worded “no”. After all, language is for communicating with others, to share our thoughts and ideas - but we are not totally unable to understand each other without any words.
Reading social cues and learning to respect others is a natural duty, and a part of our design. Some people may struggle more than others with unspoken cues, but they still have the choice to work on their attentions, listen, and to step back when something seems off - rather than “push” past that fence we mentioned earlier. Even without a “no entry sign”, there are indicators when something is or is not okay.
This is to say, silence does not excuse abusive sexual behaviour.
What we want to do in Bloom is for you to identify which “no’s” you have first. Communicating your “NO’s” to others comes second.
And consent isn’t just about protection from our “no”s, it’s about pleasure, too! Boundaries are there to make room for us to have more mutually pleasurable experiences.
With that in mind, a feminist definition of consent can be… one that is given freely and enthusiastically.
This model of “enthusiastic consent” was popularised by the feminist and activist Jacklyn Friedman, who has written a whole book titled, “Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power & A World Without Rape”.
Healthy sexual relationships cannot be treated like a check-box exercise.
- Consent can be given and withdrawn at any time by all involved.
- Consent may be withdrawn and then given, or the other way around.
- Consent may be given for one interaction and not for the other.
- People are allowed to change their minds.
If someone betrays the boundaries you’ve set without any remorse or understanding of why that is problematic; if they refuse to acknowledge your sexual agency (your right to have and enjoy sexual interactions), then you know that this is not someone who respects you. You deserve respect. You deserve to enjoy your sexual interactions - that is quite literally the point of it!
If you’re interested in learning more about female pleasure and boundaries, there are a few podcasts, books and platforms that get into it.
This is not to say that if only rapists knew the feminist definition of consent, they wouldn’t perpetrate sexual abuse. We’re discussing this because, as we go on with our lives, we may look out for red flags with greater awareness and root out our own and others’ internalised acceptance of non-consensual sex. And given that some of us may nurture children into adulthood, we teach this new model of consent which can stop rape culture in its tracks.
So how do we set healthy sexual boundaries to make room for pleasure? Whether your relationship is new or has seen a few weathers, take time to think about whether your relationship is on track for enjoying intimacy and experiencing feminist consent. Boundaries can help us enjoy the life we share with our intimate partners, as well as the life we live outside of that relationship.
In the “Where to draw the line: how to set healthy boundaries every day”, therapist and psychologist Anne Katherine describes the following boundaries that promote intimacy. Consider practicing this list with your partners or potential partners to build towards “healthy boundaries” and exchanges:
- Express issues in a timely fashion
- Speak honestly - not in cruelty but in compassion
- Make time for communication
- Express your feelings non-reactively
- Appreciate or recognise when the other person makes efforts on your behalf
- Soak up the other person’s expressions of love
- Make regular time to enjoy leisure together
- Share physical closeness that doesn’t always lead to sex
- Chat about the thoughts and events of your day - listen and notice when your partner does the same
- Maintain sexual fidelity (depending on your agreement)
- Talk about unexpected changes proactively with your partner
- Make important decisions together. Negotiate as necessary.
Make amends when your partner has suffered a negative consequence as a result of something you’ve done.
- When your partner does something for you, respond with something that gives them joy, too.
The homework for this session is…
Time to apply our knowledge!
We want you to think about the following scenario. Feel free to write it down as needed!
“Macarena works in a Marketing company. This is her first job after graduating and she is very excited about it. Macarena has been working in the company for 2 months and she is the Director’s right hand. Recently, Macarena has started to notice her boss stands very close to her when he speaks. He often leans over her when she is working on her desk and puts his hand on her shoulder.”
Which things will you consider there?
- What types of boundaries are being violated? How so?
- How would you encourage Macarena to set boundaries in her workplace? What is something she could say?
Remember, this is an investment in your own journey to recovery. Give yourself the best chance to build resilience. You can do this.