Forward to next post: Open thread 205
A lot of the conversations we’ve been having in recent Dysfunctional Families threads have been around a closely-linked set of very important concepts: boundaries, consent, and bodily autonomy.
In popular (internet) culture, we discuss these mostly in the context of sexual contact, and that does make sense. Sex and sexual relationships are where most adults are really vulnerable, and are the means of the most harm when things go wrong. But the issue is more widespread than that. There’s a huge subculture of touching pregnant women’s bellies without their consent, and almost all of the people of color I’ve asked about it have hair-touching stories (quite creepy ones, too).
I tend to picture boundaries and consent as two balanced concepts, in that my consent should be required before someone crosses my boundaries. And these are not just physical boundaries (the extent of my skin, my personal space), but social and emotional ones too (questions I need not answer or even be asked, opinions and feelings that I can describe and be believed to truly have, the act of being heard out and not interrupted or talked over, being believed when I state facts).
(In this context, bodily autonomy is a subset of boundaries. But I do think it’s also wider than that, in that it encompasses the ability to actively choose for one’s own body as well as the right to tell other people to respect one’s boundaries with regard to it.)
We as a society are talking about this more and more, and it’s increasingly clear that some people feel that boundaries are a privilege rather than a right. More powerful people should, in their view, be able to override the consent of less powerful people. That’s the argument behind much authoritarian parenting, but it’s also the foundation of the defense of street heckling and the shaming of the poor. It’s the unstated reason that boys are taught that it’s OK to talk over girls, and that women are assumed to lie more often than men.
The complexity of family life is that small children do not have the judgment to effectively manage boundaries. This occurs both in the negative (holding hands while we’re crossing the road is not optional) and the positive (it’s a nice puppy, but let’s not have it lick your face just now). As a parent, I find it a perpetual challenge to figure out when each child’s judgment has grown enough to allow them consent and control over another aspect of their lives. More than any other transition, this is the difficult one: giving my children power, acknowledging that they will become my equals.
Unfortunately, many families don’t get this balance right. And that not only hurts the children at the time, but it sets them up for more trouble later. Potential rapists and abusers look for people with weak boundary control, people who are unused to having their consent or lack of it respected. And worse, unless we retrain ourselves, the relationships we learn as “normal” when we are children are the ones we seek to reproduce as adults.
We can learn to do better when we’re grown, but oh, is it hard work.
This is part of the sequence of Dysfunctional Families discussions. We have a few special rules, specific to the needs and nature of the conversations we have here.
Previous posts (note that comments are closed on them to keep the conversation in one place):